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Keywords:

  • neoliberal conservation;
  • green grabbing;
  • privatization;
  • deregulation;
  • neoliberalization of nature;
  • economic crisis

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Contradictory Character of Nature Conservation in the Era of Neoliberal Capitalism
  5. Nature Conservation in Greece and the UK
  6. Neoliberal Restructuring of Nature Conservation in the Post-crisis Era
  7. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in Greece
  8. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in the UK
  9. The Dialectics of Green and Un-green Grabbing Under Capitalism in Crisis
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

“Green-grabbing”, in which environmental arguments support expropriation of land and resources, is a recognized element in neoliberal conservation. However, capitalism's strategic interest in promoting the neoliberalization of conservation is accompanied by attempts to exploit hitherto protected natures without any pretence at “greenness”. In this paper we explore the dialectics between “green” and “un-green” grabbing as neoliberal strategies in the reconstruction of nature conservation policies after the 2008 financial “crash” in Greece and the UK. In both countries, accelerated neoliberalization is manifested in diverse ways, including initiatives to roll back conservation regulation, market-based approaches to “saving” nature and the privatization of public nature assets. The intensification of “green” and “un-green” grabbing reflects capitalism's strategic interest in both promoting and obstructing nature conservation, ultimately leaving for “protected natures” two choices: either to be further degraded to boost growth or to be “saved” through their deeper inclusion as commodities visible to the market.

The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: Now is the time of monsters (Antonio Gramsci, 1971, Selections from the Prison Notebooks).

Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Contradictory Character of Nature Conservation in the Era of Neoliberal Capitalism
  5. Nature Conservation in Greece and the UK
  6. Neoliberal Restructuring of Nature Conservation in the Post-crisis Era
  7. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in Greece
  8. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in the UK
  9. The Dialectics of Green and Un-green Grabbing Under Capitalism in Crisis
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

Since 2007 the world economy has been in a state of economic crisis, which has unfolded unevenly around the globe. Policy to confront the crisis has been profoundly neoliberal. It has involved austerity and retrenchment, coupled with liberalization in the form of deregulation and privatization of public property (Harvey 2011; Peck et al 2012). Neoliberalism has framed responses to the crisis in many countries (Cahill 2011), but has been particularly evident in the rescue or “bailout” packages from the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), for southern European economies. Non-human nature, including forms of “protected nature”, has not been immune from neoliberal measures. The intensification of the neoliberalization of nature, itself a crisis-inducing process form of market-disciplinary regulatory restructuring (Peck et al 2012), has been a significant element of the post-crisis era. Nature remains the main source of wealth along with labour power (Marx 2002 [1867]:523), and plays a key role in capital accumulation.

The framing of “wild nature” in terms of monetary value is rapidly becoming a hegemonic discourse (Roth and Dressler 2012) and the neoliberal mode of conservation is advancing across the globe. The latter has as a core axiom that “in order for natures to be ‘saved’ conservation should be brought to the markets and private investment to variously conserved natures” (Büscher et al 2012). Neoliberal conservation not only portrays capitalism as the key to future ecological sustainability (Igoe et al 2010), obscuring capitalism's environmental contradictions, but also uses ecosystem degradation as an opportunity for investment and further accumulation. The term “green grabbing” describes the new ways through which land or resources are appropriated for environmental purposes (or, in the case of “green-washing”, are justified by environmental arguments; Apostolopoulou and Pantis 2010) with the ultimate goal of gaining profit (Corson et al 2013; Fairhead et al 2012). Such appropriations may reflect market opportunities associated with environmental legislation (eg to promote biofuel crops), responses to environmentalist fears (eg global food shortfall, or the loss of critical biodiversity), or direct appropriation of land for conservation that is subsequently made available as the basis for capitalist exploitation (eg ecotourism, carbon derivative trading, biodiversity offsets or species banking; Pawliczek and Sullivan 2011). In “green grabbing”, eco-friendly motivations are used simultaneously to hide policies that are destructive to both ecosystems and people and as a strategy by which capitalism seeks to advance itself as the means to “save nature”. These two disparate inclinations are brought together as a self-contained package: capitalism is used to solve environmental problems it has generated, in turn creating more problems and opportunities for capitalism to “help”; meanwhile all non-market-based forms of conservation become illegible, progressively excluded from the dominant conservation discourse.

However, such “green grabbing” does not operate either without contradictions or evenly around the globe. Capitalism's strategic interest in promoting a neoliberal version of conservation, via its further inclusion into market function, goes hand in glove with parallel processes whereby capitalism seeks to obstruct the conservation of species and ecosystems, and to grab and exploit hitherto protected natures without any “green” or “eco-friendly” argumentation. In this paper we term this latter process “un-green” grabbing, and we suggest that attention needs to be paid to its importance in the engagement between capitalism and nature in the post-crisis era. We define “un-green” grabbing as a form of land or resource grabbing that involves the exploitation and appropriation of protected natures. Unlike “green grabbing”, it is not done in the name of the environment (Fairhead et al 2012). It is a distinct subset of general capitalist land or resources appropriation, and its dialectics with “green grabbing” highlight the dual outcome of a single exploitative engagement of capitalism with nature and its profound challenges for the feasibility of a radical environmentalist position.

Neoliberalism is a diverse and interlinked set of practices reflecting a heightened, evolved and more destructive form of capitalism (Heynen and Robbins 2005:6) designed to restore and consolidate capitalist class power (Harvey 2010:18). Under neoliberalism, even though the state's role as the central agent in the direction, legitimization and exercise of control over the use of nature is typically reduced (Castree 2008a, 2008b), the state retains a role in the creation and preservation of an institutional framework for capital accumulation (Harvey 2005), and indeed in the protection of nature. Conservation by the state [eg protected areas (PAs) and environmental legislation] constrains the freedom of capital to operate, and shapes its engagement with nature (eg protected landscapes and areas, regulation of development or pollution, incentives for eco-friendly behaviour; Adams et al 2014; Hodge and Adams 2012). We therefore believe that the state's role remains critical in the balance between processes of “green” and “un-green” grabbing and in its changing dialectics in the post-crisis era.

In this paper, we explore the dialectics between “green” and “un-green” grabbing as neoliberal strategies in the reconstruction of nature conservation policies in a post-crisis era. We consider the aftermath of the 2008 financial “crash”, using the example of Greece and the UK, two developed EU countries. We focus on the processes of deregulation, reregulation, commodification and privatization and pay particular attention to the ways in which these neoliberal policies can facilitate and promote both “green” and “un-green” grabbing. Given the intensification of “un-green” grabbing in both countries in the post-crisis era we also explore the opposition that it can awaken.

Greece and the UK share the formal structures of conservation common to all EU countries, but they have different state strategies, conservation histories and institutional regimes. These furnish interesting insights into the ways “actually-existing neoliberalisms” produce geographically distinct outcomes, offering insights towards understanding both the variegation and operational logic of neoliberalization (Büscher and Arsel 2012; Castree 2010; Neves and Igoe 2012).

The Contradictory Character of Nature Conservation in the Era of Neoliberal Capitalism

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Contradictory Character of Nature Conservation in the Era of Neoliberal Capitalism
  5. Nature Conservation in Greece and the UK
  6. Neoliberal Restructuring of Nature Conservation in the Post-crisis Era
  7. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in Greece
  8. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in the UK
  9. The Dialectics of Green and Un-green Grabbing Under Capitalism in Crisis
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

The contradictory relationship between capitalism and nature has been extensively investigated in the Marxist tradition. O'Connor (1998:165) has even referred to a “second contradiction of capitalism” associated with the undermining of capitalism's conditions of production. The demand for profit along with the pursuit of accumulation for accumulation's sake and the irreconcilable contradiction between use value and exchange value (Burkett 1999a) are not just characteristics of “greedy” capitalists; they rather lie at the heart of the capitalist mode of production. As Marx (2002 [1867]:199) wrote in Capital: the capitalist's aim is to “produce not only a use-value, but a commodity also; not only use-value, but value; not only value, but at the same time surplus value”. It is this obsession with capital accumulation that distinguishes capitalism from the simple system for satisfying human needs it is portrayed as in mainstream economic theory and thus the natural environment is perceived by capitalism as a means, a “free” gift as Burkett (1999a) puts it, to the ends of profit-making and capital accumulation (Sweezy 2004).

But what is the role of protected natures and nature conservation in the pursuit of capital accumulation context? PAs, and the totality of natures under conservation status, are land-controlling mechanisms (Kelly 2011) for specific purposes. The ostensible purpose is the protection of nature for the public good. A variety of often-contradictory driving forces have shaped the history of conservation and PAs. Their establishment by the state and non-governmental actors secured ecosystems (and sometimes public access to land) in the face of degradation caused by capitalism's expansion. Yet at the same time, their establishment often involved the displacement of local or indigenous people (Adams 2004). PAs enacted a radical separation of humans and nature, which as Marx (1973 [1857]) argued in the Grundrisse was essential to transforming the natural world into objects of exchange (see also Igoe et al 2010). Indeed, the way the protection of some areas implies the availability of nature elsewhere for exploitation seems to reinforce the argument that “conditions for production may be created through environmental protection” (O'Connor 1998:151).

Under capitalism, the state therefore has a complex double role, as “guardian” of both general capitalist class interests and nature. The clash between these roles has led to inadequate regulations to protect “the conditions of production” and ultimately to the degradation of ecosystems and the emergence of the “environmental crisis” (Foster 1992). The core contradiction of conservation in capitalism lies precisely here: in the need to combine the preservation of nature as a resource for future capital accumulation with the exploitation to support current accumulation. Smith (2006) argued that since the 1970s, capitalism has dealt with this contradiction through environmental legislation and regulation to limit environmental despoliation at the hands of capital. This has effectively created a new scarcity: namely “allowable natural destruction”. In the case of conservation, this is regulated by measures to protect specific habitats, species and ecosystems by constraining human activities.

The relationship between capitalism and conservation is contradictory, intense and diverse (Brockington and Duffy 2010; Büscher and Arsel 2012; Corson 2010; Igoe and Brockington 2007). Even though a non-exploitative relationship with nature cannot be achieved within capitalism, since it would require non-exploitative production relations, the particular ways through which this relationship is shaped as well as its material outcomes depend on the specifics of place and moment in history. Currently, capitalism attempts to gain profits from nature by its inclusion in the market not only through direct annexation and exploitation, but also through regulatory acts of conservation. These include attempts to legitimize itself as a socioeconomic system that supports the sustainable use of natural resources in the form of the “green economy” (Corson et al 2013; MacDonald and Corson 2012; McAfee 1999; Sullivan 2013b), and more broadly in supporting selected conservation activities. Neoliberal capitalism therefore promotes and frames mainstream conservation in order to render it open to capitalist expansion (Büscher et al 2012), proposing solutions to biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation that hinge on the production and consumption of “ecological commodities” (Brockington and Duffy 2010) and on the assignment of prices to ecological phenomena. The increasing financialisation of non-human nature gradually renders it as the basis of strategies of accumulation (see Katz 1998; Smith 2006).

The processes of privatization, deregulation and reregulation are key aspects of the neoliberalization of nature conservation and have been decisive in the facilitation and consolidation of both “green” and “un-green” grabbing processes. Deregulation and reregulation play a key role in “rolling-back” state “interference” in conservation so that state regulation is “light touch” and more actors become self-governing, and in “rolling-out” state policies that facilitate the further privatization and marketization of nature (Castree 2008a). The privatization of hitherto public assets has been a signal feature of the neoliberal project, aiming to open up new fields for capital accumulation (Harvey 2005) and it consists of the assignment of clear private property rights to social or environmental phenomena that were previously state owned, unowned, or communally owned (Castree 2008a).

In the current context, of a capitalism in crisis, we therefore witness not an end to nature's exploitation but rather an intensification (see Smith 2010:266). As Harvey (2010:11) argues, financial crises “typically lead to reconfigurations, new models of development, new spheres of investment and new forms of class power”: that is also true of conservation.

In the following section, we consider the similarities and differences between provisions for conservation in Greece and the UK. Then we explore the neoliberal restructuring of nature conservation in the post-crisis era by paying attention on the dialectics of green and un-green grabbing.

Nature Conservation in Greece and the UK

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Contradictory Character of Nature Conservation in the Era of Neoliberal Capitalism
  5. Nature Conservation in Greece and the UK
  6. Neoliberal Restructuring of Nature Conservation in the Post-crisis Era
  7. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in Greece
  8. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in the UK
  9. The Dialectics of Green and Un-green Grabbing Under Capitalism in Crisis
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

The history of conservation in the UK and Greece shows significant differences in institutional arrangements and political-economic background that illustrate the variegated character of nature conservation under capitalism.

In Greece, conservation has historically been state initiated and mostly done on public land. The first national parks were established in 1938 and 1971, in periods of rule by dictators. The relevant conservation laws reflected the conservative concept of “untouched wilderness” (Apostolopoulou et al 2012). Neoliberal elements were brought into conservation during the 1990s: an increase in the number of PAs was accompanied by the emergence of various partnerships between statal, parastatal, voluntary and market actors (Apostolopoulou and Paloniemi 2012). “Protected nature” was positioned as a potential source of profit through various EU-funded projects, green products and tourist investments, and several non-state actors began to sit on important state committees whereas market proxies were clearly introduced in conservation legislation (eg law 2742/1999).

Although payments began to be made to private environmental actors, the private sector remained reluctant to invest in conservation. Capital perceived environmental legislation as threatening its interests, and governments avoided strict environmental controls on the freedom of landowners and businesses, on the grounds these would hinder economic development or private property rights (Apostolopoulou et al 2012). Delays, limited implementation, compromises and exceptions have been typical of attempts to pass conservation legislation (Apostolopoulou and Pantis 2009, 2010).

In the UK, nature conservation was led by the state through the second half of the twentieth century. Until the end of the Second World War, PAs were almost all established on private land (Sheail 1976). Legislation passed by the Labour government in 1949 gave government a leading role in conservation, allowing creation of national parks and National Nature Reserves (Adams 2003).

Despite the engagement of the state, private landholders remained important to conservation: the majority of wildlife habitat, notified as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), existed on private land. In theory their value should have been taken into account in government decisions about planning and development, but business interests (and national economic arguments) often took precedence. Agriculture was exempt from planning, and intensification (backed by a strong private farming lobby) caused rapid ecological degradation. From the 1980s, agricultural support under the Common Agricultural Policy not only funded intensification, but also, under growing agri-environment schemes, enabled payments by the state to private landholders (including conservation trusts) for conservation management.

There are significant commonalities in the protection of nature in Greece and the UK, mainly due to the Europeanization of conservation since the 1990s. The heart of EU conservation policy is the Natura 2000 network of sites, containing the most valuable or endangered species and habitats, designated by national governments under the Birds and Habitats Directives. In the UK, Natura 2000 built directly on a pre-existing system of designated conservation zones of national importance (SSSIs). On accession to the EU in 1981, Greece had no such system of protected sites. Since the Habitats Directive was transposed into Greek law in 1998, 241 Sites of Community Importance and 202 Special Protection Areas have been designated, forming the core conservation policy instrument in the country.

There are also both differences and similarities in the environmental movements in Greece and the UK. In the UK, the protection of wildlife, natural beauty and access to the countryside were important issues throughout the twentieth century (Adams 2003; Lowe et al 1987; Sheail 1976). Countryside conservation became a mass movement after the Second World War: NGOs emerged and built large memberships, notably the National Trust (over a century old, with over three million members) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Wildlife Trusts (both with about a million members). Some NGOs became substantial landowners, enabling them to become both the owners and managers of private land for conservation purposes (Adams 2003; Dwyer and Hodge 1996; Sheail 1976). In Greece, the environmental and conservation movements were smaller, and despite significant conservation conflicts (Apostolopoulou and Pantis 2010) public environmental health was the key issue in environmental-social movements until struggles to protect conservation land from privatization and development projects developed in the twenty-first century.

Neoliberal Restructuring of Nature Conservation in the Post-crisis Era

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Contradictory Character of Nature Conservation in the Era of Neoliberal Capitalism
  5. Nature Conservation in Greece and the UK
  6. Neoliberal Restructuring of Nature Conservation in the Post-crisis Era
  7. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in Greece
  8. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in the UK
  9. The Dialectics of Green and Un-green Grabbing Under Capitalism in Crisis
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

Neoliberal Restructuring and Conservation in Greece

In the first year following election of the PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) government in 2009, the prime minister emphasized that Greece was shifting towards a “green economy” model; on many occasions big environmental NGOs clearly supported this agenda, as indicating a “positive step”.1 This green rhetoric soon faded and even though investments in areas such as renewable energy remained important, the governmental agenda ceased to be framed in terms of a “green economy” discourse. On the contrary, the government's “Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policy”, published in 2011 and 2012,2 announced the creation of a “business-friendly Greece” (IMF 2011:143), marking a shift to fiscal austerity. The IMF and the EU played a decisive role in defining debt repayment as Greece's priority: their reports regarding structural adjustment make no reference to terms like “biodiversity”, “nature”, “environment”, “sustainable development” or “green economy”, but instead to “growth” (ie IMF 2011, 2013; EC 2011); no room was made for even the rhetorical reference to capitalism's ability to “save” nature.

Between 2010 and 2012, a variety of laws were promoted by both the PASOK government and its successor (a coalition between the centre-right and the centre-left parties elected in 2012). These fundamentally changed provisions for conservation and were related, in classic neoliberal fashion, to criticism of the efficiency, effectiveness, and reliability of the state and civil servants. New regulations were accompanied by an increased role for the private sector and société anonymes, the downsizing of staff in environmental authorities, the merger of already understaffed environmental research institutes, and the dismantling of protected area administrations as well as a cut in funds for the Ministry of the Environment.3

In parallel to cuts in personnel and resources, an extensive deregulation began, aiming to boost investments by surpassing the obstacles of the legislation. Two laws (3853 and 3894 or the “fast-track” law) were passed in 2010 creating a “one stop shop” services for new businesses to attract investments and accelerate public–private partnerships. The “fast track” law defined a new category of “strategic investments” for which fundamental derogations from environmental law could be made to facilitate, inter alia, expropriations of public land. This opened up a route to “un-green grabbing”. The “fast track” law is applicable to all PA types, except Natura 2000 areas of absolute protection and responsibility for its implementation was given to a société anonyme, called “Επενδύστε στην Ελλάδα A.E.” (“Invest in Greece S.A.”).

The Greek state had a central role as market manager in facilitating “strategic” investment, and releasing capital from the restrictions of environmental protection. This involved mobilization and transformation of the whole institutional framework of the state, reflecting a close interplay of deregulation and re-regulation (see also Peck 2001). This had been a significant trend since the 2000s but in 2011 it was significantly extended by the “Aid for Private Investment” law (3908), which aimed at promoting economic growth by introducing state aid for the private sector to improve entrepreneurship, technological development, and enterprises competitiveness.

To facilitate “un-green grabbing” further, fundamental changes were made to environmental licensing, by simplifying and accelerating procedures to complete environmental impact assessments and approve environmental terms (IMF 2011; laws 3892/2011 and 4014/2011). Changes included exemption from environmental assessment of certain projects within Natura 2000 sites (eg housing development, shopping malls of up to 2000 m2) and were combined with the permission to establish “Areas of Integrated Tourism Development” (POTA4). Some forms of land acquisition combined elements of “green” and “un-green” grabbing, notably the construction of renewable energy projects within PAs. Huge public subsidies were given to renewable energy projects (creating a debt accumulation in the Renewable Energy Account; IMF 2013), and the government's commitment to privatizing the Public Power Company (IMF 2013:172) was accompanied by land acquisition and development on land of conservation status. This “un-green” grab of protected land for ostensibly “green” purposes highlights the complex interplay of “green” and “un-green” grabbing.

Again the deregulation of legislation was followed by new regulations to allow such developments. These were included in the biodiversity law (3937/2011) which was (surprisingly) welcomed by the biggest 10 environmental NGOs.5 New regulations not only opened PAs to further exploitation but also legitimized past derogations allowing, inter alia, the post-facto legalization of illegal buildings within PAs. The Government argued that legalization would require paying a fine which would be deposited in the “Green Fund” to offset adverse effects. In 2013, the Fund had 1.9 billion euros, 1.5 of which comes from arbitrary building.6 However, the “Green Fund” law (3889/2010) was amended twice, such that only 2.5% of funds could be used for environmental actions, while 97.5% would be transferred to the main state budget.

Over the same period, several laws (eg laws 4030/2011; 4042/2011) further reduced the scope of forest legislation by favouring exceptions to rules about the creation of mountain refuges, ski centres or tourist facilities in forest areas. In September 2013, the Ministry of Environment released a new draft law for consultation that proposed to declassify 15% of Greek territory, opening up real estate to lands that are mainly covered with sparse arboreal, maquis and phryganic vegetation.

Underlying these policy developments was a commitment to the privatization of public land under the Greek structural adjustment program. The Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund (HRADF) was established in 2011 under the medium-term fiscal strategy and launched “the largest declared divestment programme in the world”,7 to attract revenue to be used for debt repayment. HRADF is a “société anonyme” (a private company, of which in this case the Hellenic Republic is the sole shareholder) and a Board of Directors, including business executives and two observers from the Eurozone and the EC, has the absolute authority on privatization decisions.

Natural areas have a prominent position in HRADF's agenda, and claims about “pristine natural environment” and “great natural beauty” are used to attract investors.8 The “Invest in Greece S.A.” website is dominated by images of Greek “unique” and “diverse” protected ecosystems (for example Ramsar sites).9 Public conservation land was included in privatization proposals from the very beginning: the initial list of state properties to be privatized (ICARP 201010), included the area of Prasonisi (Isle of Rhodes), to be sold for mass tourism, including a Natura 2000 site (GR421003111). A few months later, HRADF's portfolio included a new property in the area of Kassiopi (on Corfu), for the development of an upscale residential complex, including vacation villas and hotel/leisure facilities. The Kassiopi area included three inland wetlands for the protection of which the Ministry of Environment has started specific initiatives during 2012.12 In September 2012, a new list was announced of 40 islands available for development, 24 of which were Natura 2000 sites and four were within national parks.13 In February 2013, the first 100% foreign direct investment in Greek public lands for the past 15 years was agreed: the board of HRADF granted a concession for 99 years14 over Kassiopi to NCH Capital, an American fund.15 In the same month, a law passed from the Parliament further facilitating the leasing of islands16 whereas a few months later a new island (Issos) was added to the HRADF's portfolio, again including a Natura 2000 site.

The government's willingness to sell and the private sector's willingness to buy protected land, both in line with IMF's requirements, faced the same obstacle: “strict” legislation. The former minister of the Environment and the Executive Director for housing at the HRADF argued in March17 and in September18 2012 respectively that environmental licensing legislation was one of the main barriers in the state's attempts to boost investment and allow development of public property by third parties. In April 2012, the EC also noted in its publication “Growth for Greece” that land-use planning and environmental licensing rules were often “obstacles to investment”.19 In September 2012, an interview with a consultant of “Private Islands Inc” was published in Greek blogs entitled “Change the laws and you will sell all your islands”. In this context, the Minister for the Environment in a meeting of EU Ministers of Environment (Vilnius, July 2013) characterized Greek PAs as “over-protected” and “hostile … to economic activity”.20

Neoliberal Restructuring and Conservation in the UK

In the UK, transformations in provision for conservation following the crash began with the change of government at the 2010 elections. The Labour government was defeated, and a collation was formed between the centre-right Conservative and the centre-left Liberal Democrat parties. Post-election policy showed this to be strongly liberal in ideology, with a budget focused on rapid reduction of the deficit in public accounts. The shift to fiscal austerity matched (or even exceeded) the budget of 1981 (Keegan 2010), introduced under the first conservative government of Margaret Thatcher (1979–1983), the UK's archetypal proponent of neoliberalism. Yet the new Prime Minister, the Conservative David Cameron, claimed in May 2010, during a visit to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, that he wanted the new administration to be the “greenest government ever” (Randerson 2010).

A key feature of this attempt at deficit reduction was cuts to government departments and quasi-autonomous government bodies (QUANGOs), alongside public services. A number of environmental organisations were targeted, such as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Sustainable Development Commission. By the autumn, the RSPB observed that the UK was entering “a period of deep and prolonged green austerity” (Comerford et al 2010). The October Spending Review spelled out the deep cuts faced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). These reached 30% (£700m by 2014–2015), compared with an average of 19% across government. Significant reductions in Natural England staff numbers were reported (The Guardian reported 5000–8000 out of 30,000; Jowitt 2010).

In the Coalition Agreement published on 20 May 2010, the incoming government committed itself to a range of actions aimed at reducing regulation of businesses. These included a commitment to cut “red tape”, introducing a “one-in, one-out” rule whereby no new regulation would be brought in without other regulation being cut by a greater amount. There was also a commitment to replace what was described as a culture of “tick-box” regulation with “targeted inspections of high-risk organizations” through “co-regulation and improved professional standards”.21

In July 2011, the government announced a drastic simplification of planning regulations controlling development (GOV.UK 2011). It proposed to cut over a thousand pages of planning advice to around 50 pages, to “encourage sustainable [economic] growth” (Vaughan 2012). Notwithstanding the rhetoric of “sustainable development”, the government's aims were clear: “growth at any environmental cost to jolt the nation's flatlining economy” (Vaughan 2012).

Perhaps the most significant way in which neoliberalization found purchase in public policy for conservation after 2008 is through the idea of nature providing “ecosystem services” (Norgaard 2010). This rhetorical and material strategy is a key feature of the neoliberal turn in conservation (Brockington and Duffy 2010; Büscher et al 2012; Hodge and Adams 2012), and a key determinant in strategies of “green grabbing”. The concept of ecosystem services provides a means by which nature can be made visible to capital (Robertson 2006). It makes ecological functions subject to exchange and sale (Kosoy and Corbera 2010), and provides a standard metric for nature allowing it to be commodified (Robertson 2004). The construction of nature as a “service provider” (Sullivan 2009) in this way is a fundamentally neoliberal strategy, the essential step to the financialisation of nature (Robertson 2004; Sullivan 2013a, 2013b).

The idea of nature as a source of wealth (The Secretary of State for the Environment referred to “Mother Nature's Bank” in launching the 2011 Environment White Paper)22 matched both the new government's conservative ideology and its views of the fiscal requirements of retrenchment in public finances following the bailout of the private banking sector. The UK government engaged strongly with the Convention on Biological Diversity's “ecosystem approach”, especially Principle 5, expressing the importance of conservation of ecosystem structure and functioning in terms of the need “to maintain ecosystem services” (CBD 2013). The concept of “ecosystem services” was placed at the core of government environmental policy-making and delivery (Hopkins 2013). The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA), published in 2011, sought to provide a complete account of the ecosystems that could be held to comprise natural value (UK NEA 2011). Ecosystem services were fundamental to the UK government White Paper on the natural environment, The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature (DEFRA 2011). The UK government also established a Natural Capital Committee to report to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and an Ecosystem Markets Task Force “to gain the maximum benefits for UK businesses from new market opportunities which protect and improve natural capital” (DEFRA 2013a).

A key element of UK government strategy to create economically efficient links between capital and nature was the concept of “biodiversity offsets”. These involve allowing losses to biodiversity in one place (and at one time) to be compensated by gains elsewhere. Thus valuable nature does not need to hold up development: habitats can simply be created (or the protection of existing habitats enhanced) elsewhere. The approach is controversial within conservation because of conceptual flaws and problems of compliance and monitoring (Bull et al 2013), and is widely critiqued in accounts of the neoliberalization of conservation (eg Pawliczek and Sullivan 2011; Sullivan 2013b). DEFRA tested the approach with the government conservation adviser Natural England, and local governments in six pilot areas in England, and published a discussion paper in September 2013.23 Further development involved DEFRA and a series of private organisations (including engineering consultants and contractors and the aggregates industry). In November 2013, the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee described the approach as simplistic and an admission of failure of the planning system: it suggested the approach should be put on hold.24 Newspapers described the approach as “a license to trash nature” (Carrington 2013).

The UK government's enthusiasm for the ecosystem service approach (backed by engagement from ecologists and conservationists, for example in the NEA) was accompanied by a specific attempt to promote un-green grabbing by privatising public nature assets by selling off state conservation and forestry land. In August 2010, the government proposed the sale of National Nature Reserves (NNRs; Jowitt et al 2010), and in October, it proposed the sale of the government Forestry Commission estate. One newspaper commented that the government seemed intent on “asset-stripping our national heritage” (Hickman 2010).

Debate over sale of government forests proved more protracted and if anything more controversial (Lucas 2011), particularly over the question of public access to forest land (Hodge and Adams 2013). The debate focused on England, since the Scottish Government and Welsh Assembly Government rapidly distanced themselves from the policy, although ongoing forest sales in Scotland were in fact extensive (Johnson 2011). Although, speaking to the House of Lords Environment Committee in November 2010, Jim Paice, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, acknowledged that the sale reflected the need to balance the government's books following the banking crash, saying “I am not going to avoid the issue here—there is a need for capital receipts”,25 the Environment Secretary claimed that “this is not a fire sale by a cash-strapped state” (Spelman 2010).

Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in Greece

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Contradictory Character of Nature Conservation in the Era of Neoliberal Capitalism
  5. Nature Conservation in Greece and the UK
  6. Neoliberal Restructuring of Nature Conservation in the Post-crisis Era
  7. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in Greece
  8. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in the UK
  9. The Dialectics of Green and Un-green Grabbing Under Capitalism in Crisis
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

In Greece, the government's neoliberal agenda has been mainly criticised by parties of the radical and communist Left.26 The biggest environmental NGOs have been trapped in highly contradictory positions. They have welcomed initiatives that they considered positive (such as the presidential decree for wetlands protection or the biodiversity law), while criticising others that they considered to be negative (such as laws regarding environmental licensing and forests or attempts to lease islands).27 NGOs have been in a particularly awkward position in relation to the EU. In previous decades it had been common for Greek NGOs to blame the government for not implementing EU conservation policy. However, now NGOs such as WWF International are seeking (in vain) to enlist EU support against the environmental impacts of rapid economic restructuring in Greece (Rehn and Potočnik 2012).

The most significant struggles against privatization and deregulation have been from local committees. From 2010, communities on Rhodes and Corfu expressed their objection to the privatization of Kassiopi and Prasonisi, and in the case of Kassiopi they treated the conservation status of Natura 2000 sites as official.28 The municipality of Corfu, the Region of Ionian Islands and island's residents appealed to the Council of the State against the decision to grant a concession to NCH Capital. Similar opposition is now being expressed for the case of Issos Island.

A prime example of local protest against the privatization of nature assets concerns a proposed gold mine in the primeval forest of Skouries (Halkidiki, NE Greece). Previous efforts to implement a mining investment plan were cancelled by the Council of the State in 2002 due to their severe environmental impacts. In 2011 and after several transfers of the assets between companies with the mediation of the state, the mines were transferred to the “Eldorado Gold Corporation”, a Canadian company, and the Environmental Impact Assessment was approved. The area of exploitation covered 26,400 ha with 90% forest cover, including Natura 2000 sites.27 Since 2011 mass demonstrations have been organized against the expansion of mining activities. In March 2012, the first 410 ha of public forest were conceded to begin the project's implementation. Several scientific bodies also expressed strong opposition, charactering the project as a violent intervention in a unique natural area with irreversible impacts. However, the government emphasized the scale of investment at Skouries, bringing jobs and local welfare and formed a coalition, including scientists and local authorities, to support the project's implementation29 while forcefully repressing environmental struggles.30

Despite the violent repression of demonstrations, key non-state actors and media have adopted the government's line of rhetoric, even where they have otherwise sought a “green” profile. Thus SKAI television (whose website often portrays staff engaged in volunteer environmental activities31), has systematically criticized the struggles against the exploitation of Skouries.32 Similarly, the newspaper Kathimerini equated them with the actions of neo-nazis (Golden Dawn) in East Attica.33 During October 2013, 27 anti-goldmine activists of Chalkidiki were charged with the same crime as the leaders of Golden Dawn: formation of a criminal organization.

The Skouries movement has gained international solidarity, with demonstrations around the world. The citizens of Chalkidiki have placed their opposition to the current development model at the core of their struggle and have criticized both the unprecedented criminalization of their struggle and the unequal distribution of costs and benefits of the project34: profits for Eldorado and Hellenic Gold corporations and costs to the community in the form of ecological impacts, public health (eg pollution of water resources, soil and air) and traditional economic activities (eg agriculture, livestock, apiculture, fishing, aquaculture, organic farming and beekeeping35).

Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in the UK

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Contradictory Character of Nature Conservation in the Era of Neoliberal Capitalism
  5. Nature Conservation in Greece and the UK
  6. Neoliberal Restructuring of Nature Conservation in the Post-crisis Era
  7. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in Greece
  8. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in the UK
  9. The Dialectics of Green and Un-green Grabbing Under Capitalism in Crisis
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

In the UK, when the government suggested privatising National Nature Reserves in 2010, conservation NGOs found themselves in an awkward position. Some held discussions with government about which NNRs they might accept and the terms under which they might do so. Most looked like unattractive acquisitions: isolated and expensive to manage. The government conservation adviser, Natural England, also explored the possibility of creating a new charity specifically to manage NNRs. Neither option was cheap and both would need considerable public subsidy. While the government might have hoped for the “Big Society” to take on the costs and managing public assets of high conservation value, the intention to reduce government expenditure precluded provision of the resources needed to make NGO management sustainable. The government retreated: on 4 February 2011, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman, announced the end of plans to remove NNRs from public ownership (Mendick 2011).

There was a similar sharp public backlash against the proposed forest sales. In January 2011, as the government began a public consultation on the proposal, a YouGov poll found that 84% of people agreed the woods and forests should be kept in public ownership for future generations (Carrington 2011). The protection of biodiversity on forest land, and public access, were important issues (Hodge and Adams 2013). By mid February, over half a million people had signed a petition on the web site 38 Degrees to “save our forests—don't sell them off to the highest bidder”,36 the strength of opposition surprising both government and NGOs. Conservation NGOs were vilified for their cautious approach, failing to back the public campaign and apparently willing to cherry pick forests of high conservation value (Porritt 2011). The national campaign was successful. On 16 February, the Prime Minister announced the end of plans to sell forests, and abandonment of the consultation that had been due to run for a further nine weeks (Watt and Vidal 2011). The government appointed an Independent Panel to review forestry policy. After widespread consultation, its final report in 2013 concluded that the public forest estate should be retained in public ownership, and held “in trust for the nation”, and they proposed the appointment of “guardians” or “trustees” directly accountable to Parliament to oversee forest management. They recommended an expansion in the area of woodland in England (from 10% to 15% of land area) by 2060. These recommendations were subsequently almost entirely accepted by government (DEFRA 2013b).

There has also been local opposition to the sale of public nature assets and developments proposed by commercial interests. In addition to the large national campaign against public forest privatization, here were local campaigns, for example HOOF (Hands Off Our Forest), to keep public ownership (and commoners’ rights) in the ancient Forest of Dean.37 There was also extensive local opposition to the proposal by the American Trump Organisation to build a golf resort complex on the Scottish coast North of Aberdeen (Arts and Maffey 2013). The Trump Organisations purchased the Menie Estate in 2006, including a large area of undeveloped sand dunes, part of which was a SSSI. The government conservation organisation, Scottish Natural Heritage, advised against the development, and Aberdeenshire Council turned the application down in 2007. The Scottish Government “called in” the application, claiming it was a decision of national (Scottish) significance because of the number of jobs it would create. In 2008 the decision was overturned and planning permission granted (Ford 2011). The Trump Organisation began to try to buy out local landowners. Local protests, about the development itself, the way the decisions were taken, and (increasingly) the way protests were policed, mushroomed. A movie about the protests was made in 2011, and shown by the BBC in 2012.38 The golf course complex was officially opened in March 2012.39 A petition with over 11,000 signatures was lodged with the Scottish Parliament in March 2013 asking for a public inquiry into the handling of the development by national and local governments (Arts and Maffey 2013).

The Dialectics of Green and Un-green Grabbing Under Capitalism in Crisis

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Contradictory Character of Nature Conservation in the Era of Neoliberal Capitalism
  5. Nature Conservation in Greece and the UK
  6. Neoliberal Restructuring of Nature Conservation in the Post-crisis Era
  7. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in Greece
  8. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in the UK
  9. The Dialectics of Green and Un-green Grabbing Under Capitalism in Crisis
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

Governments in both UK and Greece have used the economic crisis as a “Trojan horse” to enable the further neoliberalization of nature conservation. The intensification of “green” and “un-green” grabbing by showing in a sense the two sides of the capitalist coin can capture the deepening of the contradictory ways in which capitalism under crisis engages with “protected natures”. On the one hand capitalism actively promotes a neoliberal version of conservation, leading to conservation increasingly becoming “the friend of capitalism” (Büscher et al 2012). On the other hand, capitalism actively obstructs conservation to allow the exploitation of hitherto protected land perceiving conservation to be an “enemy” to unlimited capital accumulation.

Attention to the dialectics of “un-green” and “green” grabbing is of crucial importance for three main reasons. First, even though the appropriation and degradation of nature has been at the core of the capitalist enterprise, the current intensification of “un-green grabbing” marks a new era where governments are forcefully taking back environmental regulations that have been shaped by the competition among capitals but also won through environmental and social movements and hard class struggle (Harvey 2005; Vlachou 2005). The establishment of PAs resulted from such a conjunction of factors and, crucially, the rolling back of conservation frameworks designed to protect ecosystems from degradation along with the reversion of public conservation land into the private domain entails the loss of rights (see also Harvey 2005:161). In the post-crisis era, capital has sought to intensify the exploitation of protected natures through “un-green grabbing”, a process made possible because capital has been able, to a large extent, to make the state apparatus its own entrepreneurial entity, “a purer catalyst of capitalist expansion than ever before” (Smith 2010:260).

Second, it shows the radical transformation that neoliberal logics and practices pose to our theoretical and political understanding of the social relationship with nature while implying contradictory normative assumptions about nature itself. Neoliberal conservation accepts the capitalist framing of protected nature as underpinning value, and the absence of market pricing is blamed for limiting conservation success. Ecosystem services science is pivotal to such approaches, both quantifying ecosystem services as measured, transactable units across space and time (Robertson 2004), and attributing monetary values and rendering non-human nature conceptually “docile” (Sullivan 2013a). Meanwhile, in the context of “un-green grabbing”, protected nature is framed by capitalism (and the neoliberal state) as holding back the creation of value and potentially in conflict with development and growth. This contradictory representation of protected natures reflects specific material conditions and particularly the fact that the tensions within capitalist politics over ensuring that the free gifts of nature are both available to capital on an easy basis and also sustained for future use have become acute (see also Harvey 2010:76).

Indeed, the dialectics of “green” and “un-green” grabbing as played out in Greece and the UK shed light on the fact that there is no common, global, capitalist strategy consisting of a commitment to promote neoliberal conservation; the relationship between capitalism and conservation is contradictory and thus unstable and uncertain in its outcomes (see also Vlachou 2005). Currently, the ultimate result of the dialectics of “green” and “un-green” grabbing is the deepening of the production of nature both quantitatively, through the rapid intensification of exploitation, and qualitatively, through adding new elements in nature's exploitation. The why behind the simultaneous intensification of the “real” and “formal” (Smith 2006) subsumption of nature is strongly related to capitalism's environmental contradictions which neoliberalism makes manifest more than any other mode of environmental governance (McCarthy and Prudham 2004) and further deepens them during periods of economic crisis (Peck et al 2012). The crisis has been used by capital as an engine of capitalist restructuring, jockeying for a better position (Harvey 2011) by, inter alia, securing public assets and carving out new areas for capital accumulation. Biodiversity conservation, in as much as it is instrumental to capitalism's growth and reproduction (Brockington and Duffy 2010), has a particular role in this context: to create “new symbolic and material spaces for global capital expansion” (Corson 2010:579). However, this is just one side of the story. Even though mainstream nature conservation (Igoe et al 2010) has been reshaped by a significant penetration of capitalism into conservation discourse and practice, we argue that it has not yet achieved a complete transformation of conservation to a “win–win” scenario for capitalist interests: conservation legislation is still a barrier to the unlimited grabbing of public land, as the Greek case clearly shows.

Third, the fact that “green” and “un-green” grabbing processes unfold unevenly in Greece and the UK sheds light on different state strategies and governmental responses. In Greece, the primary strategy does not address the benefits for biodiversity conservation that could result from its inclusion into market function but rather its further exploitation through capitalist development. In the UK, perhaps because of the importance of private landowners and enterprises to the delivery of conservation, and a highly market-orientated public culture (three decades after Thatcherist privatisation), strategies pointing towards the argument that creating green markets is necessary for saving biodiversity appear much stronger.

As Marx (2002 [1867]:779) explained in the first volume of Capital “public debt becomes one of the most potent levers of primitive accumulation”. In Greece, the paroxysmal character of the crisis and the springing of the “debt trap” (Harvey 2005:162) are being systematically used to justify, inter alia, the deregulation of environmental legislation and the privatization of public nature (and other) assets, fulfilling longstanding demands from the private sector. Even before the crisis, Greek capital was in most cases fighting against environmental regulation. Given the limited success in establishing strategies to derive profit through the conservation of nature per se, the market-based conservation strategy attractive to state and capital in the UK held no appeal. The debt crisis was used as an argument to legitimize “un-green grabbing” through overturning the barriers of environmental legislation in order to further exploit “protected” natures and facilitate investment. The policy of massive privatization by offering capital cut-price opportunities for profitability establishes in an EU country an accumulation model previously tried out in the global South and the countries of Eastern Europe (Kouvelakis 2012).

However, in both countries there is a post-crisis intensification of “un-green grabbing”, which has been opposed by the public. Even though in both countries there are cases of governmental suppression of struggles, there are also differences in the political handling of opposition which raise important issues. In the UK, strong civil society organizations, and a less acute debt crisis, partly constrained neoliberal strategies such as the sale of state nature assets. In Greece, in the context of an increasing crisis of hegemony (in Gramscian terms), forced imposition of extreme neoliberal reforms became possible, not only under the threat of bankruptcy but also through upgrading the role of the EU and the IMF and delegating responsibilities to société anonymes. The parallel intensification of autocratic governance and “un-green grabbing” processes has contributed to the emergence of conservation struggles in Greece where mobilized social groups are fighting for the protection of conservation land—being “conservationists” without naming themselves as such.

Overall, the intensification of “green” and “un-green” grabbing reflects the inherent weaknesses of the capitalist system in formulating a positive response to the challenge of managing the biophysical world (Harvey 2011). Ecological decline can threaten capitalist production in the long term; however, individual capitalists, working in their own short-term interests and impelled by competition laws, are perpetually tempted to adopt the position “après moi le deluge” (Marx 2002 [1867]:282) with respect to both the labourer and the soil (Harvey 2010:71). The latter is obvious in the case of “un-green grabbing” but it can also be evident in the case of “green grabbing” which despite the hegemonic framing, as a successful strategy for nature conservation, is itself a growth industry (see also Burkett 1999b) through which “corporate capitalism manages to reframe a genuinely use-value concern”, such as halting the degradation of ecosystems, “into a question of economic value that is entirely inimical to the original concern” (Smith 2010:249), ultimately creating a version of conservation that is an image of itself. Overall, both the Greek and UK cases show that the current post-crisis production of nature does not signal just an expansion of capitalist economy toward the industrialisation of new resources, but the making of a new social world (Robertson 2012; Smith 2006), leaving for “protected” natures two choices: either to be further degraded to boost growth or to be “saved” through their deeper inclusion as commodities visible to the market.

In this context, radical conservation scholarship faces a potential deadlock: in opposing mainly neoliberal conservation and “green grabbing” and de-emphasizing “un-green grabbing”, it is at risk of positioning itself against any possible form of nature conservation. In response, we suggest that opposition to the capital appropriation of nature, either with or without “green” argumentation, needs to be balanced by recognition of the rights of citizens to seek to oppose the degradation of ecosystems. Opposition to land grabs by capital (or the state on behalf of capital) and to the deregulation of environmental legislation does not imply support for the neoliberal model of mainstream conservation. It means acknowledgement of the possibility of a positive relationship between human society and non-human nature through radical change. To address such dilemmas it is of critical importance to disentangle the genuine material concern about and opposition to ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss from the specific ways that capitalism responds to them, and thus to ask by whom conservation is promoted or obstructed in each case and for what purposes. Therefore, an important question is whether, in the era of capitalism in crisis, there are potential anticapitalistic elements in emerging conservation struggles.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Contradictory Character of Nature Conservation in the Era of Neoliberal Capitalism
  5. Nature Conservation in Greece and the UK
  6. Neoliberal Restructuring of Nature Conservation in the Post-crisis Era
  7. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in Greece
  8. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in the UK
  9. The Dialectics of Green and Un-green Grabbing Under Capitalism in Crisis
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References

A previous version of this paper was presented at the “Grabbing Green” Conference in Toronto in May 2013. We thank the organizers for their support, and Chris Sandbrook for his help with this presentation, and comments on the manuscript. This study was supported by a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship within the 7th European Community Framework Programme (PIEF-GA-2013-622631, Conservation and Ecosystem Services in the New biodiversity Economy—CESINE).

Endnotes
  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4

    POTA areas were institutionalized in 1997 and are strictly related to the construction of luxury hotels.

  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
  10. 10
  11. 11
  12. 12

    http://www.ypeka.gr/Default.aspx?tabid=362&sni[524] = 1538&locale = en-US&language = el-GR

  13. 13
  14. 14
  15. 15
  16. 16
  17. 17
  18. 18
  19. 19
  20. 20
  21. 21
  22. 22
  23. 23
  24. 24
  25. 25

    Answer to the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union, Agriculture, Fisheries and Environment Sub-Committee on 24 November 2010.

  26. 26
  27. 27

    The latter was followed by a press release from the Hellenic Ornithological Society entitled “our national heritage at a bargain price”. http://www.ornithologiki.gr/page_cn.php?aID=1461

  28. 28
  29. 29
  30. 30
  31. 31
  32. 32

    See, for example, In Search of the Greek Gold, http://folders.skai.gr/main/theme?locale=en&id=206

  33. 33
  34. 34
  35. 35

    For details see the first issue of the magazine Soshalkidiki, available in English at http://www.soshalkidiki.wordpress.com

  36. 36
  37. 37
  38. 38
  39. 39

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  4. The Contradictory Character of Nature Conservation in the Era of Neoliberal Capitalism
  5. Nature Conservation in Greece and the UK
  6. Neoliberal Restructuring of Nature Conservation in the Post-crisis Era
  7. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in Greece
  8. Opposition to Un-green Grabbing in the UK
  9. The Dialectics of Green and Un-green Grabbing Under Capitalism in Crisis
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References
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