We’re no stranger to the concept of Free-market Environmentalism – attach a price to the part of the environment we want more of (say, biodiversity) and buyers and sellers will scramble to make sure there said biodiversity is there for them to buy and sell. Like they say, the chicken we buy in supermarkets is never going to go extinct.
I love this idea. It’s the basis behind the Wetland Mitigation Banking and Endangered Species Conservation Banking systems in the USA, REDD+ under the UN, and carbon trading in places like Europe and Australia.
These are all based on creating a way to buy and sell somewhat credits – we’re not actually exchanging wetlands or species or forests or carbon. Through regulation and other somewhat fancy processes we’ve managed to set up systems where by you can ‘trade’ the things we’re conserving, and we’ve had some success in increasing the conservation of these commodities.
Despite it’s great potential and great results, this credit-based trading has always missed some of the more Adam Smith-type elements that keep the chickens in our supermarkets. Things like secondary markets (you can’t sell a credit to anyone once you’ve brought it), and fungibility to exchange an item for others of the same type. You can’t swap 4 Endangered Turtle Credits for 2 Endangered Wolf credits and 2 Hawk Credits – buyers only use the credits, they can’t trade credits. And some say that’s the root of the problems with our Environmental Credit Trading schemes. They’re useful for dealing with offsetting negative development impacts sure, but they aren’t saving the world yet.
So consider this: bee’s and honey.
I’ve stumbled upon this wonderful little project creating Amazonian nectar (honey) from rare bees, curated by the local people.
Paul McKay’s article – Biodiversity in a Bottle: The Peabiru Institute in Brazil is making Melipona nectar by helping rural-poor families set up bee boxes. It’s a simple idea but it’s a little bit of market magic.
“since 2006, Peabiru and global foundations have helped finance more than 2,000 bee box placements with 350 families in 16 remote communities. There, typical cash incomes average less than $3 per day. The recipients include indigenous tribes, Afro-Brazilian slave descendants called Quilombolas, and the rural poor.”
They nectar itself can be sold for a tidy profit with the help of the Peabiru Institute, but the bees themselves help increase pollination, and so production, of their local fruit and nut trees – again boosting the return to the local community.
What’s really going to make a difference in this ‘market’ is that too keep up these good returns, you have to keep the biodiversity up of the local forests. You need to local forests to keep the bees healthy and producing, and the Peabiru Institute is committed to keeping each of the hundreds of Melipona species localized to their endemic area and not inter-breeding, which means that local biodiversity has to stay too.
“As more poor communities join in wild nectar production, they will fight to protect and even begin restoring native tropical forests,” predicts Joao Meirelles, a noted Amazon scholar, author and founder of Peabiru. “The numbers are on our side. Every hectare saved can support 50 to 80 Melipona species, and up to 500 bee boxes with a foraging range of 600 hectares.”
They have plans to market the ‘Amazon Amber’ through Embassies, globally-famous chefs and through beauty and cosmetic lines. In a world where high-quality, source-known and reputably sustainable products are quickly gaining a foot-hold, this might just work.
OK, so I understand that bees and honey are unlikely to save the world either. And there are hundreds of other ‘biodiversity products’ around the world doing pretty similar things.
But what I’d like to point out to others from my Environmental Markets vantage point, is that the Peabiru Institute and their rural communities aren’t actually selling the biodiversity of their areas. They have created a biodiversity product that can support a Secondary Market, and Fungibilty of its products. It seems to me, a more sustainable way to use biodiversity without using it up. And it actively reinforces the economies and well-being of the local communities. Which seems to be such a key way to achieve an effective environmental market – equity issues can really bring a system down.
It’s small-scale and niche for sure. But there’s got be something for us to learn here in our credit trading world – what are the environmental markets we are creating? If we’re not just doing it for financial return, are they really the best they can be?
What if we had a combination of the elegant economic balance you see in this honey example, together with the scalability and sophistication of credit trading schemes?
Might go together like bees and honey….
Melipona Honey is part of the Slow Food Foundation’s Ark of Taste – created to: ” point out the existence of these products, draw attention to the risk of their extinction within a few generations, invite everyone to take action to help protect them.”
Bees against rainforest destruction – Nordesta Rainforest and Education. “In its continuous search to find ways of exploiting nature’s renewable resources, Nordesta has created the beekeeping program in harmony with both the sustainable development program”