Ecological Crisis, Global Capital and the Reinvention of Nature: A Perspective from the Global South

This article is a part of the dossier entitled "Capitalism and Ecological Destruction: Paths of Strugle and Alternatives" that preapared in collaboration with Polen Ecology Collective and Abstrakt Journal. Archana Prasad, in her article Ecological Crisis, Global Capital and the Reinvention of Nature: A Perspective from the Global South, explains the commodification of nature which occurs through international agreements sponsored by the United Nations, especially in terms of emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation, revealing the deepening colonial quality of North-South relations.

eko sosyalist

Türkçesi için tıklayın. 

The main aim of the study is to show how capitalism resolves its own crisis through the reinvention of nature as capital. Such a process has given rise to a discourse on ‘natural capital’, which directly pits nature against labour, as discussed in James O’Connor’s proposition on the second contradiction of capitalism (O’Connor 1991). However, this view is limited in its understanding because it fails to account for the expropriation of people from their habitat as central to the accumulation process. Under different phases and stages of capitalist development, such alienation assumes diverse forms. In other words, the reinvention of capitalism to stabilize itself after a period of crisis creates its own form of alienation and expropriation (Foster and Clark 2018). This study focuses on the changing form of expropriation of forest resources through multilateral agreements like the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation)-Plus. It is argued that such arrangements represent the latest method of land grab and the cartelization of markets for natural commodities via carbon stocks.

Forest laws have been some of the most oppressive legislations since colonial times and have proved to be the foundation of the control of all non-private resources by the capitalist state. In the case of the global North, E.P. Thompson’s study of the English forest laws shows that the forest conflict was, in fact, a conflict between users and exploiters, where ‘wealth could be extracted from the territories of the poor, during the phase of capitalist accumulation, provided the number of predatory elites were limited and the state and the law smoothed the way of exploitation’ (Thompson 1978: 24). In much of the twentieth century, the forested regions could be described in a similar manner – with one important caveat. The annexation of forested areas in the global South cannot be understood without considering the role of imperialism. This aspect has been missing from even the work of some Marxist ecologists and historians.

For example, historians from the world ecology perspective use Karl Polanyi’s approach to argue for the embeddedness of human society within nature, ostensibly countering the so-called dualistic understanding of nature and society which explained the contradictions that arose out of capitalist relations. Thus, Jason Moore argues against the idea that the structures of European imperialism were crucial in the transformation of nature. Instead, he argues for new ways of thinking about capitalism as embedded in the web of life; in other words, capitalism should be seen as a way of organizing nature, and at the same time abstracting both nature and humans as part of a larger ontological process. This view is based on an understanding that both nature and capital are relational and interlocked with each other; and that, therefore, capitalism cannot be seen as having a dominant ‘external relationship’ with nature. Moore writes:

Human organizations cannot be reduced to the mythical domain of the society whose arbitrary boundaries obscure the constitutive geo-biological relations of human sociality. In this light, human organizations are at once producers and products of the web of life, understood in its evolving mosaic of diversity. From this perspective capitalism becomes something more than human. It becomes the world ecology of power, capital and nature. (Moore 2018: 239)

Such a perspective obscures the processes of accumulation and tends to represent all history as a history of ecological change (Moore 2003). The accent is on the adaptation of capitalism through reordering of nature and human society, where the unpaid work of nature is appropriated by capital. This perspective decentres labour from the discourse by reducing its work as being a part of the ‘unpaid work of nature’, rather than a source of value creation. Here, nature has more value than labour and, therefore, the role of labour is obscured (Foster and Burkett 2018).

Moreover, Moore does not take into account the problem of ‘uneven geographical development’, as elucidated, for example, by David Harvey. For Harvey, the problem of uneven development has to be contextualized in the circulation of capital, where the main emphasis is on the way it embeds itself in existing social relations. This process of adaptation results in both dispossession and uneven geographical development (Harvey 2006). The argument that there is ‘accumulation by dispossession’ is the basis of the survival of capitalism (Harvey 2011). Yet, even here, the analysis is singularly oblivious to the role of the state as a player which acts in the interests of its own bourgeoisie through a regime of control over natural resource use. The character of such a regime is determined by the stage of national and global capitalist development. The debates on climate change also have to be analysed in this larger picture.

A study of the multilateral REDD-Plus regime, which has formed the basis of accumulation from forest-rich regions in the global South, will allow us to relate the emergence of the carbon markets and REDD regimes to the crisis within capitalism, and also reveal the implications of this for nature-dependent people, especially in terms of undervaluation of their work. The first section below historicizes the control of nature in the global North since the process of colonization. The second section provides a contemporary history of the emergence of REDD and REDD-Plus, and shows that the concept of green capitalism emerged after the 1990s in order to resolve the accumulation crisis within world capitalism. The third section carries out a detailed discussion of the REDD-Plus architecture and shows how nature is commodified into a notion of ‘natural capital’ through a process of financialization. It discusses the emergence and working of carbon markets, especially with respect to the emerging new international division of labour. The fourth section offers some concluding remarks.

The Mastery of Nature

The domination of humans over nature is a long process whose unintended consequences are evident throughout the long period of history. As Engels wrote:

The mastery over nature, which began with the development of the hand, with labour, widened man’s horizon at every new advance. He was continually discovering new, hitherto unknown, properties of natural objects. . . . Let us not, however, flatter ourselves over much on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory it takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. (Engels [1876] 1950: 10, 18)

Engels states that the main source of the intensification of short term use is capitalism itself, and, as such, bourgeois social science is preoccupied with the methods of harnessing nature for short-term gains. This insight is not lost on present-day scholars and policy makers and lies at the root of the emerging ecological crisis, which has manifested itself in the rise in the temperature of the earth as well as a discourse on climate change since colonial times (Grove 1998).

There is, first of all, a need to account for the uneven patterns of deforestation from the early days of the empire. As shown in Table 1, even though the world lost 828 million hectares of forests in the last century-and-a-half, about half the forested areas were in Latin America, Asia and Africa despite deforestation in the above-mentioned period. If former USSR and China are included, then more than three-fourths of the forests were outside the global North.

Table 1: Long-term Changes in Forest Cover by Region, 1850–2015

Region 1850 2015 Change (absolute number, mha) Change (per cent)
Forest (mha) Forest (mha)
Tropical Africa 792 614 –178 –22
Latin America 1248 932 –316 –25
South and Southeast Asia 533 326 –207 –39
Tropics sub-total  2573  1872  701  27
North America 768 657 –111 –14
Europe 130 174 44 34
Former USSR 879 857 –22 –3
China 159 208 49 31
North Africa and the Middle East 40 37 –3 –8
East Asia 64 49 –15 –23
Oceania 210 140 –70 –33
Temperate sub-total  2249  2123  126  6
Global  4823  3995  828  17

Source: Data adapted from Houghton et al. (2017): 464.

This implies that throughout different phases of colonization, the global South continued to consist of forest-rich regions and to provide raw materials for countries of the North. As the data compiled from the Forest Statistics of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) show, by 1961, the countries of Europe and the United States were the largest importing countries of forest products, constituting 77.4 per cent of total imports, and this proportion rose to 83.6 per cent in 2010.1 This was accompanied by massive displacement of livelihoods and dispossession of people from their habitats, resulting in a growing reserve army of labour. These patterns clearly indicate that accumulation from trade in forest products and other aspects of forest management in the colonies was largely concentrated in the imperialist countries of the global North, and this aspect of the ecological change under capitalism has often been ignored by important scholars such as Moore and Harvey, mentioned above.

A second aspect that is of importance is the role of forests within the colonies themselves. The first wave of colonization after the voyage of Christopher Columbus showed a sharp increase in deforestation and the extension of croplands from 1750 to 1930, with the largest expanse coming westward between the 1860s and 1900. Most of this occurred at the expense of forest and woodlands (Ramankutty and Foley 1999). It could be argued that this expansion proved to be the marginalization of Native Americans and laid the foundations of settler colonialism in the Americas. However, in South America, which was largely a hub of plantation-based exploitation, no significant croplands are detected in the land-use data till the beginning of the twentieth century. This is significant because a major proportion of forestlands remained intact since the ruling classes were largely focused on urban centres. However, regions without settler colonialism faced a different form of deforestation. This largely happened in the form of use of timber wood for setting up infrastructure that could establish colonial domination. A good example of this was the deforestation for railway sleepers in India. Hence, a minimum level of forests had to be maintained in order to make the colony fit for accumulation. This was done through the introduction of the system of ‘scientific management’, which resulted in multiple forms of expropriation in the colonies (Grove 1998).

Interestingly, this is also the origin of the global climate change discourse, since desiccation was an important part of the forestry discourse since the mid-nineteenth century in French and British colonies (Grove 1995). One explanation for this discourse attributes it to the human and environmental destruction that occurred after the Great Wars in Africa as well as the conflicts in Central Asia (Grove 1998: 35). Hence, it is possible to surmise that crisis situations have often led to climate change discourse. This is evident in several parts of the world, such as South Asia, Southern Africa and parts of the Caribbean; but these discourses were always led by the imperialist European and American states. The United States played an important part in providing markets and investments for tropical timber products, and this led to a fundamental change in forest markets (Tucker 2000). In such a situation, the incorporation of scientists in relations of accumulation was guided by the production of a certain type of science which had some material basis, that is, the increasing contradiction between the depletion of nature and the rising rate of accumulation (Foster 1994). It should be noted that in 1981, Africa, South and Central America, and Asia continued to be the largest exporters of forest products. It is therefore not surprising that the countries of the North showed particular keenness in stressing the importance of arresting deforestation in the global South.

Applying this logic to the global South, one may argue that the climate change discourse was an imperialist strategy to control common lands; but this conclusion would oversimplify the complexity of the processes that go into the reinvention of nature, which is, in turn, essential for the stability of capital and higher rates of accumulation. Though several scholars have pointed to this process from the 1970s onwards, they have rarely linked the phenomenon to a newly emerging international division of labour in the period after the independence of successive states. The Brundtland Commission highlighted the growing inequality between nations and stressed the need to attain sustainability by bridging the inequities between the North and the South. The Commission noted that:

[t]hrough the ages, people have reached beyond their own borders to obtain essential, valued, or exotic materials. Today’s surer communications and larger trade and capital movements have greatly enlarged this process, quickened its pace, and endowed it with far-reaching ecological implications. Thus the pursuit of sustainability requires major changes in international economic relations. (World Commission of Environment and Development 1987 : 60)

In particular, it noted with regard to tropical forests that trade patterns encourage unsustainable practices, and, therefore, international arrangements were needed to ensure trade on the basis of sustainable development in the light of the economic crisis of the 1980s. From this period onwards, that is, after the enactment of the Montreal Protocol of 1987, international arrangements focused on reducing pollution levels and emissions, and the forests were to play an important part in this project.

The Emergence of REDD and REDD-Plus

As is well known, the 1990s saw a surge of finance capitalism in developing countries, with international arrangements being guided by transnational investors. In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) explicitly recognized that developed countries were historically responsible for rising global emissions leading to climate change, but placed the responsibility of the future of the planet on the developing countries, since they housed the maximum proportion of natural resources that would maintain the ecological security of the world. Hence, the developing countries should curtail their emissions by adopting ‘sustainable development patterns’. In return, the UNFCCC asked the developed countries to ‘provide new and additional financial resources to meet the agreed full costs incurred by developing country Parties… They shall also provide such financial resources, including for the transfer of technology, needed by the developing country Parties’ (United Nations 1992, Article 4 [3]). The mechanism to negotiate this transfer of money and technology would be treaties between ‘sovereign states’ who would work within the framework of the Montreal Protocol and the UNFCCC.

It should be noted that the UNFCCC was quite clear about its definition of the ‘climate system’ as encompassing ‘the totality of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere and their interactions’ (ibid., Article 1 [3]). This implied that every part of nature became a commodity which was assessed in terms of monetary value, thus signalling the big entry of finance capital in natural resource markets, especially with regard to carbon emissions. An important step in this direction was the Kyoto Protocol of 1998 which specifically acknowledged land-use change and deforestation as drivers of increases in greenhouse emissions. In particular, the Kyoto agreement set up monitoring mechanisms to document the removal of carbon sinks through deforestation, and mandated signatory countries to take up afforestation and reforestation programmes (UNFCCC 1998). In return, the Protocol assured the developing countries that they would get the benefit of clean technology to follow a sustainable development path and would also be compensated by the developed countries. Thus, green aid and clean technologies became buzz-words that structured both compliance and incentives for preserving forests in order to decrease the rising temperature of the earth. However, as is evident from the available data, these measures did not yield significant results.

Estimates of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) show that the net forest area lost in the world between 1990 and 2000 was about 8,868,000 hectares. It is significant that more than 7,000 hectares out of this were in Africa and Latin America, with carbon stocks significantly declining in the period between 1990 and 2005. Despite this, Africa, Asia and Latin America continued to have the largest carbon stock, even though their combined proportion declined from 68.3 per cent of total carbon stock in 1990 to 65.3 per cent in 2005 (that is, the year REDD+ was initiated).2 This declining trend, however, did not lead to introspection over the lack of capability of finance to solve the problem of deforestation. Rather, the analysis of policy makers focused more on lack of investments due to ‘market failures’ and the need to extend inter-governmental efforts. The solution was seen in boosting more private investment in the preservation and creation of carbon stocks so that people would have a stake in the preservation of forests.

In 2005, the Montreal Action Plan formally laid down the REDD guidelines under the agreement negotiated at the 11th Conference of Parties, and thereby defined a forest as ‘a minimum area of land of 0.05–1.0 hectare with tree crown cover (or equivalent stocking level) of more than 10–30 per cent with trees with the potential to reach a minimum height of 2–5 metres at maturity in situ’ (UNFCCC 2005: 5). It laid out measures to emphasize the mandate of the Kyoto Protocol: ‘protection and enhancement of sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol, taking into account its commitments under relevant international environmental agreements; promotion of sustainable forest management practices, afforestation and reforestation’ (UNFCCC 1998, Article 2 [a] ii). In this way, the Action Plan once again refined the meaning of nature, and also specified the difference between nature created through ‘afforestation’, or human interventions on lands that did not have forests for the last five decades, and ‘natural forests’ which provided ecosystem services. The main aim of the Protocol was to set up accounting systems in order to ensure that the natural forests providing ecosystem services could be managed in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol. The REDD secretariat was set up with its main mission being to identify the technical needs of countries of the South for assistance in developing reporting mechanisms on anthropogenic pressures and strategies to alleviate them (The Global Canopy Programme 2008).The Montreal Decisions not only defined forests as a resource in a very specific way, but also created the conditions for its valuation and trade in an open market system.

The instruments of implementation remained almost the same with bilateral arrangements as a major source to assist the countries of the South. Between 2005 and 2008, there was not much headway in reduction of emissions. The net emissions because of deforestation came down by a meagre 0.02 per cent, but a major portion of the global South saw increased emissions.3 Emissions also increased in Northern Europe, and the negotiations were hit by a roadblock over the lack of compensation to countries and their ‘right to development’. In addition, high-income developed countries faced the challenge of creating a discourse that challenges the ‘catch up’ strategy and the highly Americanized version of ‘development’. The concept of ‘green capitalism’ was therefore used to marry the contradictory objectives of finding a way to enhance accumulation even while preserving the planetary stability which provided the foundations of capitalism itself. The transition from REDD to REDD-Plus took place in this context.

The Bali Action Plan of 2007 first mooted the idea that REDDPlus could become a good investment option for the developed nations. It noted that since more than half the world’s forests were in the developing countries, the developed countries should make it worthwhile for them to enhance their carbon sinks (UNFCCC 2008: 8–10). The Conference of Parties reached an informal understanding that there was a need to evolve strategies to increase carbon stocks through the preservation of natural forests, rather than having a narrow focus on the mitigation of emissions, thus increasing the scope of international interventions. However, it was only in 2013 that there was a formal agreement on the expansion of REDD under the Warsaw Framework. The Framework agreed that financing REDD-Plus initiatives would include private parties and corporations which would treat the forests as capital and invest through national entities in REDD-Plus projects. This core element was based on the assumption that private finance would pay forest-dependent communities for ecosystem services so that they would not destroy natural forests (UNFCCC 2013). Such an understanding came close on the heels of a UN document titled Towards a Green Economy, which held that

REDD+ mechanisms can provide an important vehicle to drive the green economy transition. Donor pledges to REDD+, including the UNREDD Programme, REDD+ Partnership, Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, the GEF and the Forest Investment Programme among others, currently amount to US$ 5 billion through 2012. As part of ongoing pilots for REDD+, there is mounting evidence that such ‘payment for environmental services’ holds wider promise not only for climate regulation and biodiversity conservation services, but also to scale up significant resources to communities who are stewards at the landscape level. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is another important financing vehicle for the green economy that needs to be scaled up and strengthened. (UNEP 2013: 44)

Hence, REDD-Plus became a vehicle for promoting green capitalism in the wake of a severe capitalist crisis and the need to address concerns regarding dipping profits of corporations. One may ask, even if this were the case, why did the countries of the global South accept these arrangements? The answer probably lies in the way the nation-states of the global South were integrated into the larger world economy through increasing debts. Furthermore, with the downward slide in commodity prices in world markets, export-oriented economies faced severe challenges. The adoption of neoliberalism also led to demands for smaller governments and overseas infrastructural investments. The drying up of such investments was one of the main factors for the ruling classes of the global South to accept ‘green aid’ under REDD-Plus.

The Commodification of Nature

It was not only the case that the concept of ‘nature as capital’ was incorporated through a process of reinvention, but adjustments in the capitalist structure also necessitated that the corporations and nation-states restructure themselves through complex market and investment processes. This fundamentally changed the relationship between ‘finance’ and nature that mediated the human–nature–state relationship. Such a change was effected by setting up a completely new institutional arrangement. Though REDD readiness funds had existed ever since the Montreal Action Plan, they were expanded with private participation. The World Bank emerged as one of the key players when the developing and the developed countries requested the Bank to organize the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) as a follow-up to UNFCCC and the Bali Action Plan. The Facility was formed as a partnership between thirty-seven REDD countries with tropical forests, donor countries from developed economies and other observers (including private players to attract investments). This partnership forms the basic structural feature of the REDD-Plus institutional architecture, which consists of the Readiness Fund and the Carbon Fund. The Readiness Fund is for national governments to build up their capabilities to formulate and implement REDD-Plus projects. These were to be made by national governments, who were also to set up their own funding facilities or the national REDD fund. The World Bank provided initial assistance and funding for this activity. The Carbon Fund provides incentives for per ton carbon dioxide reduced by REDD countries through reduction in deforestation and forest degradation under verifiable programmes and standards. These two facilities were meant to attract funds from the developed countries as well as private agencies. The annual report of the FCPF for the year 2016 shows the funds provided by the developed countries.

As can be seen from Table 2, Norway and Germany are the biggest donors for the REDD-Plus project, constituting about 30.6 per cent and 20.8 per cent, respectively, of total donations. This implies that about 51 per cent of the donations came from just two countries. If we take the top six donors, they constitute 80.9 per cent of the total donations, and the Northern European countries constitute about 42.4 per cent of all readiness funds achieved. What is significant is that the money put up by the United States and the United Kingdom is only 4 per cent of the total committed funding. This is also true of the REDD-Plus fund, where maximum donations come from the Northern European countries and Japan. These countries were larger donors than the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and FAO, which were to get contributions from all the signatories of the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. Between 2008 and 2019, a total of US$ 6.15 billion were made available to the United Nations’ REDD fund, and only 50 per cent of it was through multilateral organizations.

Table 2: FCPF Readiness Fund Donor Contributions as of end-FY 2016 (USDM)

Country Total Outstanding FY16 FY15 FY14 FY13 FY12 FY11 FY10 FY09
Australia 23.92 6.33 8.06 9.61
Canada 41.36 4.19
Denmark 58.00 5.8
European Commission 51.62 1.11 1.36 26.76
Finland 23.20 3.23 5.27 57.85 9.06
France 110.34 5.19 0.60 4.61
Germany 76.67 23.78 13.91 13.11 26.11
Italy 5.00 5.00
Japan 14.00 4.00 5.00 5.00
Netherlands 20.27 7.68 7.68 5.00
Norway 113.06 44.19 38.73 8.80 16.47 5.00
Spain 7.04 7.12
Switzerland 8.21 8.21
United Kingdom 5.76 5.82
United States of America 9.00 4.00 4.50 0.5
Commited funding 368.88 45.30 27.01 54.00 30.01 31.61 94.88 32.29 53.94

Note: Figures rounded off to two decimal points. Source: Forest Carbon Parntership Facility (2016): 60.

The second important aspect of the architecture is the setting up of carbon exchanges and markets. There are two types of carbon markets: compliance offset and voluntary offset. Compliance markets are those where the regulated companies have to offset emissions through purchase of companies as per the law of the land. The biggest carbon exchanges for such entities are in Australia and New Zealand, where companies are forced to retire their carbon credits by law. Voluntary carbon markets are open carbon exchanges where companies undertake verifiable carbon audits and retire credits in the open, unregulated market. Some of the biggest carbon exchanges are run by the European Commission and in Tokyo. The state of carbon markets can be seen in Table 3.

Table 3 shows that, between 2011 and 2016, only 31 per cent of the investment for carbon markets came from voluntary markets and 0.6 per cent of the investment came from multilateral REDD-Plus funds. The rest of the investment came from compliance markets, pointing to the fact that regulation is essential for proper reduction of emissions. These figures show that the assumptions of the REDD initiative, which was based on the ‘polluter pays’ principle, were entirely based on an investment plan whose foundation was laid by the neoliberal economic regime.

Table 3: Forest Carbon Markets, 2008–16

Type of finance Name of finance 2016


All years


Market Voluntary markets 74.2 996.4
Compliance markets 551.4 1573.9
Non-market REDD-Plus payments 36.5 218.07
Total 662.1 2788.5

Source: Hamrick et al. (2017): 2.

The third aspect of the REDD-Plus architecture is the integration of academics and NGOs into the carbon credit system, especially as monitors of sovereign governments. The carbon exchange markets are dependent on systems of verification of the quality and quantity of carbon stocks. These verifications are part of an international system of climate change regulation, and, therefore, the academics and agencies are either directly engaged by the donors or are certified by exchanges, as shown in Table 4.

Table 4 illustrates the complex web of global relationships within which national governments, corporations and academia are integrated into a larger framework of capitalist accumulation, thereby making the financialization of nature a reality.

Table 4: Elaboration of Select Carbon Standards and Investment Relationships

Standard Organizations Corporations/Members Clientele
WBCSD/WRI standard for GHG accounting World Business Council for Sustainable Development/World Resources Institute 200 big multinational corporations WRI is a research organization funded by academic and scientific institutions, funded by private foundations of Intel, Chevron, Walmart, apart from others Represents investors worth USD 41 trillion in 2017
Verified Carbon Standard VERRA, best verification company in environmental finance 2018 Partnership between business leaders largely of the North An organizations set up by World Economic Forum and WBCSD
ISO 14064 International Standards organizations National Standards Organizations from 161 countries It is just a standard-setting organization. Premier carbon trading companies like South Pole which is considered the best project developer in the world.
Gold Standard Standard developed by World Wide Fund, HEILO, South-South, North-North and clean development mechanism A consortium of energy and environmental experts supported by World Bank, UNDP, South Pole, Goldman Sachs, and governments of Germany and the US After VCS this is the biggest and most popular carbon registry. Trading companies like South Pole register their projects here.
The Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standards Rainforest Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society and are registered with VCS database. These are international NGOs funded by Hyundai, Kraft Foundation, Blue Moon Foundation and others Many energy companies like Biofilica and other national carbon trading companies set up by national governments.
Plan Vivo Standard University of Edinburgh UKDFID and other European foundations Largely works through national governments and companies

Source: Information gathered from web pages of different Standards and organizations.

Another important rung of the architecture is the project developer, who not only sets up a carbon sink project but also owns the carbon credits generated from them. The project developer is linked to one of the above-mentioned carbon registries, since the project has to be certified by one of the registries before it gets under way. Most nations signing on to REDD-Plus projects create their own registries, which can also be used by the international mechanism to monitor and assess the state of the carbon market. As the FCPF report states, ‘[r]egistries are neutral quantitative tools responsive to the informational and infrastructural needs of participants based on laws, rules, practices or guidance. Therefore, it is not the role of the registry provider to make subjective assessments of matters that are better addressed in law, policy or standards’ (FCPF 2011: 13). The registry itself becomes the basis for payment for ecosystem services which have been defined in multiple ways. As a report of the World Bank’s Global Environmental Facility (2014: 3) states:

[t]he definition of payment for ecosystem services (PES) varies widely, from narrow market-based definitions with direct transactions between providers and beneficiaries (including schemes where private buyers and sellers arrange voluntary and conditional transactions for the delivery of ecosystem services), to broader schemes in which those who benefit from the ecosystem services pay (usually indirectly) those who provide the services.

However, one basic underlying commonality in all perspectives is that ‘payments for any services’ need to be ‘performance-based’ and should increase the efficiency of the production of carbon stock (Bond et al. 2009: 33). Both the registry and the monitoring mechanisms were considered essential to determining the transfer of funds. Hence, the PES system is a system that regulates REDD+ finance from top to bottom: if the forest-dependent people do not deliver to the project developer, they do not get paid for the ‘services generated’. This also impacts on the assessment of the national jurisdiction which, in turn, is a signatory to multilateral agreements. Hence, the system of monitoring, registry and assessment of performance is key to the networking of various levels of actors under REDD-Plus.

The thirteen countries monitored in Table 5 show that only two countries transferred payments to the last rung of the REDD-Plus architecture, thus revealing the limited role of forest-dependent people and their organizations in the forest finance system. In fact, if we analyse the data more closely, we find that a majority of the funds transferred were retained at the level of the national readiness mechanism, and that actual disbursements for reduction of emissions were relatively small. A recent study of the relationship between performance and funding shows that REDD-Plus finance was willing to bear the costs of restoration of forest cover in deforested regions, but the funding came down dramatically once the cover was restored. Table 6 reviews the REDD-Plus finance data per metric ton of emission reduction in ten countries.

Table 5: Different Flows of Payment for Thirteen REDD-Plus Countries

Country Total committed funds (USDM) Percentage of flows from one stage to the next
From funded to 1st recipient From 1st to 2nd recipient From 2nd to 3rd recipient
Brazil 1545.1 91 40.1 0
Colombia 33.34 47 86.4 0
Democratic Republic of Congo 264.3 57 4.8 0
Ecuador 22.2 76 12.5 0
Ethiopia 39.8 33 0.0 0
Ghana 98.2 30 5.6 0
Indonesia 756.6 49 0.0 0
Liberia 47.2 31 47.5 0
Mexico 451 5 More than received 0
Peru 147.6 46 0.4 0
PNG 45.3 56 8.3 0
Tanzania 93.6 81 82.6 0.96
Vietnam 84.3 60 83.2 20.1

Source: Reports produced of various countries by Forest Trends, available at, accessed 11 October 2019.

Table 6 is clear that the rate of funding decreases dramatically once the forest cover is restored and the emissions begin to be controlled through carbon stock production. This is seen in all cases, and is especially true of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Brazil and Columbia, which receive the highest amount of REDD-Plus funds. But the authors of the study also note, significantly, that differences in funding are linked to the size of the country and area of forest cover. This is largely due to the fact that most funding is one-time readiness support and therefore not available for payment for services. This is reflected in the virtual drying-up of funds when they are supposed to reach the local project developer. Hence, the fund squeeze at the bottom of the ladder is a logical result of the REDDPlus arrangements of performance-based payments which are rooted in the commodification of nature in a new form. Here, the production of nature is done through a conservation-based system, where the maintenance of natural forest is assessed only in terms of its output (that is, reduction of emissions) and the opportunity costs arising over non-use of forests. In other words, the labour that goes into the maintenance of the forest is not remunerated. This method is based on a very conventional view of conservation, where it is assumed the use of forests is against the interests of the planet as a whole. Such a conception has brought about enormous dispossession and deprivation, a discussion of which is beyond the scope of this paper. It will suffice to state here that the REDD-Plus design is meant to make conservation worthwhile for capitalists by altering the division of labour within the world capitalist system, even while it leads to greater dispossession and displacement of the forest-dependent people.

Table 6: Available REDD-Plus Finance in Ten REDDX Countries

Country Dollars per metric ton CO2 emissions, 2009–14 Dollars per hectare of forest cover loss, 2009–14 Dollars per hectare of forest cover
Brazil 0.57 143 3.65
Colombia 0.67 212 3.00
Democratic Republic  of Congo 0.31 114 2.58
Ethiopia 2.12 567 6.35
Ghana 1.70 376 11.15
Indonesia (excluding peat  emissions) 0.53 178 10.73
Indonesia (including peat  emissions) 0.26
Liberia 1.25 420 21.01
Mexico 2.02 421 7.90
Peru 0.98 377 5.33
Tanzania 0.36 67 1.44
Median  0.67  293.85  5.84

Source: Wolosin et al. (2016): 12.


This essay traces the history of the REDD-Plus initiative within a broader understanding of the changes within the international division of labour in world capitalism. It shows that the reconfiguration of nature is an important feature of resolving the crisis of accumulation within capitalism. Seen from this perspective, it is not surprising that political and economic domination is a driver of uneven development in the reordering of world capitalism itself. This theme is often ignored in the work of eminent theoreticians like David Harvey and Jason Moore, who see accumulation as a process of capital circulation and adaptation, rather than a process that is nurtured simultaneously through expropriation by restructuring North–South relations through the multilateral REDD-Plus system. By ignoring this extractive capacity, they make the crucial mistake of treating ‘nature’ as an entity which becomes commodified into capital merely through its embeddedness in society. I demonstrate the problems with this perspective through an analysis of the REDD-Plus architecture and its embeddedness within the ascendency of finance capital. In this sense, REDD-Plus represents the highpoint of green capitalism, which has altered the forms of primitive accumulation after the REDD-Plus regime has been institutionalized. Through a reconfiguration of the relationship between the global North and the global South, contemporary capitalism has tried to resolve its own latest crisis.


* This piece was first published in English in an edited volume. The full citation to the is:
Archana Prasad, ‘Ecological Crisis, Global Capital, and the Reinvention of Nature: A Perspective from the Global South’ is reprinted from Prvaeen Jha Paris Yeros and Walter Chambati, eds., Rethinking Social Sciences, Tulika Books Delhi, 2020, pp.180-197.

  1. These figures are calculated from the data downloaded from the FAOSTAT (Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Statistical Database) website accessed at different periods in time:
  2. These data have been compiled for different years from the FAOSTAT database.
  3. Calculated from FAOSTAT Emissions Data.



Bond, I., M. Grieg-Gran, S. Wertz-Kanounnikoff, P. Hazlewood, S. Wunder and A. Angelsen (2009), Incentives to Sustain Forest System Ecoservices: A Review and Lesson for REDD+, London: International Institute for Environment and Development.

Engels, F. ([1876] 1950), The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man, New York: International Publishers.

Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) (2011), National Registries for REDD+: An Overview of Issues and Designs, Washington DC: World Bank.

——— (2016), Annual Report, Washington DC: World Bank.

Foster, J.B. (1994), The Vulnerable Planet: A Short Economic History of the Environment, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Foster, J.B. and P. Burkett (2018), ‘Value Isn’t Everything’, International Socialism: A Quarterly Review of Socialist Theory: 160.

Foster, J.B. and B. Clark (2018), ‘The Expropriation of Nature’, Monthly Review, 69 (10): 1–27.

Global Environmental Facility (GEF) (2014), GEF Investments on Payment for Ecosystem Services Schemes, Washington DC: World Bank.

Grove, R.H. (1995), Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and Origins of Environmentalism, 1700–1860, London: Cambridge University Press.

——— (1998), Ecology, Climate and Empire: the Indian Legacy in Global Environmental History, 1400–1940, Calcutta: Oxford University Press.

Hamrick, K. and M. Gallant (2017), ‘Fertile Ground: State of forest finance’, Washington DC: Forest Trends.

Harvey, D. (2006), Spaces of Capital: A Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, London: Verso.

——— (2011), The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, London: Oxford University Press.

Houghton, R.A. and A.A. Nassikas (2017), ‘Global and Regional Fluxes in Carbon from Land Use and Land Cover Change, 1850–2015’, Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 31: 456–72.

Moore, J.W. (2003), ‘Capitalism as World Ecology: Braudel and Marx on environmental history’, Organization and Environment, 16 (4): 514–17.

——— (2018), ‘The Capitalocene Part II: Accumulation by Appropriation and the Centrality of Unpaid Work/Energy’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 45 (2): 237–79.

O’Connor, J. (1991), ‘On Two Contradictions of Capitalism’, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, 2 (3): 107–09.

Ramankutty, N. and J. Foley (1999), ‘Estimating Historical Changes in Global Land Cover: Croplands from 1790 to 1992’, Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 13 (4), 997–1027.

The Global Canopy Programme (2008), The Little REDD Book, United Kingdon: The Global Canopy Programme.

Thompson, E.P. (1978), Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act, New York: Pantheon Books.

Tucker, R. (2000), Insatiable Appetite: United States and the Degradation of the Tropical World, Berkley: University of California Press.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2013), Towards a Green Economy, Geneva: UNEP.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (1998), Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change, Geneva: United Nations.

——— (2005), ‘Report of the Conference of Parties Serving as a Meeting of Parties to Kyoto Protocol in Montreal’, Geneva: UNFCCC.

——— (2008), ‘Report of the Conference of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol held in Bali’, Geneva: UNFCCC.

——— (2013), ‘Warsaw Framework for REDD plus’, Geneva: UNFCCC.

United Nations (1992), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Geneva: United Nations.

Wolosin, M., J. Brietfeller and B. Schaap (2016), The Geography of REDD+ Finance: Deforestation, Emissions and Targeting of Forest Conservation Finance, Washington: Forest Trends.

World Commission of Environment and Development (1987), Our Common Future, Geneva: United Nations.