The United Nations Conference of the Parties’ 17th gathering (COP17) will soon be taking place in Durban, South Africa. As with previous events in Bali, Copenhagen and Cancún, the mainstream media (and even certain commentators in Resurgence) will bemoan the slow pace of progress in light of the severity of the crises we face. But this, to borrow George Bush’s immortal utterance, is to “misunderestimate” the task in hand. Policies that were conceived to be ‘climate positive’, such as carbon trading and carbon offsets, have been developed in such a way they exacerbate climate change, and much of the perceived delay is due to environmental NGOs and Indigenous peoples working hard to expose the injustices.

Take biofuels as an example: one can be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief on hearing that a series of massive new biofuel power stations are being planned for the UK. Many people think that because they are labelled ‘bio’ they are sustainable. But nothing could be further from the truth. These power stations will be fuelled by palm oil shipped to the UK from the tropics, and palm oil production has been proven to worsen climate change. Sadly, policy making that was supposed to address climate change has in fact provided massive subsidies to promote biofuels, resulting in the expansion of industrial monocultures, GM trees, destruction of natural forests to make way for palm oil plantations, and land grabs as investors cash in on these profitable new markets.

Unfortunately, the UK government now makes it even easier for corporations to get planning permission for major infrastructure such as biofuel power stations, and to further limit the ways in which local authorities and residents can refuse these developments. The UK’s largest proposed palm oil power station in Bristol was recently approved by the government, despite more than a thousand objections and strong opposition from 20 MPs, Bristol City Council and many NGOs.

These kinds of policy loophole are happening all over the world. In Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, Indigenous people are being relocated from their homelands into ‘Sustainable Rural Cities’ to make way for vast biofuel plantations, forest carbon offset projects and carbon trading. As it turns out, the Sustainable Rural Cities are nothing more than “insultingly diminutive” prefabricated houses erected on bare hillsides, with no access to land to grow corn for tortillas, showing a gross lack of cultural awareness – and this in a state that is committed to the implementation of UN Millennium Development Goals.

Jeff Conant of the Global Justice Ecology Project spoke with social psychologist Abraham Rivera Borrego about the Rural Sustainable Cities programme. In Rivera’s opinion, “It’s unbelievable, the capacity capitalism has to absorb everything, every discourse, every concept. Now we’re seeing that it’s absorbed even that concept of respect for Nature. ‘Green capitalism’ has been invented, with the idea that biofuels will stop the burning of fossil fuels. But we don’t seem to understand that as long as we don’t change the model, the exploitation of the Earth is the same. The sale of carbon credits is displacing communities from their homes, so that Japanese or American companies can buy these spaces and continue polluting. It’s a very serious contradiction.”

Rivera continued, “We spoke with the municipal representative of Jaltenango, Mexico, which is where they’re going to resettle the people from the jungle of El Triunfo, and he told us, ‘Look, I’m going to tell you the truth. What we want is to clear out the reserve of El Triunfo, for carbon credits.’ Just like that.”

So when we watch the news reports from COP17 in Durban, with the TV reporter saying that there’s little progress being made, we need to remember that behind the scenes are NGOs and Indigenous peoples actively fighting to uphold the rights of communities and Mother Earth in the face of the might of corporate lobbying, government inertia and an insidious form of Orwellian doublespeak where a term like REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) can and often does result in the opposite scenario.

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Lorna Howarth is Development Director at Artists Project Earth,