The forests are saved, but campaigners must remain vigilant

Derek Wall puts the fight against forest privitisation in a global and historical perspective.

February 22, 2011
6 min read

Con Dem plans to privatise England’s 258,000 hectare forest estate, run by the Forestry Commission, have been defeated for the time being.   There have been big and rowdy demonstrations, Mark Harper the Tory MP for the Forest of Dean was egged by constituents, a flurry of newspaper articles opposed the sell off and back bench Tory and Lib Dem MPs have become restive, indeed the Daily Telegraph has suggested that 50 percent of Tory MPs opposed forest privatisation. A petition which gained over 500,000 signatures shows that cyber activism, while derided, can achieve results.

The coalition governments’ attempt and ultimate failure to privitise forests in Britain is an excellent, illustration of what the Hungarian radical Karl Polanyi described as the ‘double movement’.  Polanyi in his epic book ‘The Great Transformation’ published in 1944, a strident attack on liberal economics, noted,

‘To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment … would result in the demolition of society (Polanyi 1957:73).’

The double movement was a process whereby attempts to marketise society, the first movement, would result in widespread resistance, the counter movement.

Forests seem to strike at the soul of millions of people in Britain, the idea of selling them off to corporations for profit instead of using them for children to play and wildlife to inhabit sickens voters. Thatcher too tried to sell off forest commission land, and was also defeated. While arguably the major environmental NGOs have been slow to act in defence of the forests, grassroots campaigns have sprung up like mushrooms, inspiring people who are not usually politically engaged to anger and action.  Assaults on libraries and the NHS are also likely to provide iconic targets for anti-cuts campaigners and prove costly to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

The government may have executed an apparent u turn to this public pressure, but the supposed halt to sales is more likely to be a tactical move than a real change. Again this is in line with Cameron and Clegg’s adoration of Mrs Thatcher, who despite her image as an ‘iron lady’ was prepared to take a step back from policies in the short term to buy time for their success in the long term.

The influential free market think-tank the Adam Smith Institute has claimed that even before the perhaps temporary climb down, the privatisation policy did not go far enough.  They quote their supposed mentor, the 18th century economist who noted in his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations,

‘In every great monarchy of Europe the sale of the crown lands would produce a very large sum of money, which, if applied to the payment of the public debts, would deliver from mortgage a much greater revenue than any which those lands have ever afforded to the crown…When the crown lands had become private property, they would, in the course of a few years, become well-improved and well-cultivated…the revenue which the crown derives from the duties of customs and excise, would necessarily increase with the revenue and consumption of the people.’

They also argue much of the Foresty Commission land ‘comprises endless acres of identikit conifers. Dark, dense and unwelcoming, these plantations serve none of the interests that the campaigners champion.’ The reality is that most local communities lack the resources to buy forests, so privatisation would mean them going to the highest bidder.

There were fears that the forests could be bought by biofuel companies, who would reduce trees to chippings which would be burnt for electricity. The government claims that planning law makes this impossible but at the same time as trying to sell off the forests the government is also hoping to weaken planning law. The point from the Adam Smith Institute about fast growing conifer trees is also spurious, companies will seek to maximise profit; planting broad leaf forests and opening them up to the public will not generate short term profit, planting uniform monocultures of trees will.

A forestry commission programme to turn the conifer plantations into more diverse and ecologically rich woodland has just been closed down.  Thousands of forestry commission jobs are also still to be cut.

The moves to privatise the forests in the UK are part of a wider neo-liberal consensus. Indeed the last Labour government launched a programme of forest sales. Assaults on the forests by private corporations are global; South Africa, the USA and Australia have all seen battles, at least partially successful, against forest privatisation.  If protest is sustained, militant and imaginative it is possible to win. In the Peruvian Amazon, the indigenous coalition Aidesep, have used direct action to prevent the government selling the forests to corporations who would open them up for oil and gas exploitation.

In turn indigenous people and forest campaigners fear that climate change is being used to enclose forests and exclude local people via the REDDS system. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries essentially acts as a means of privatisation, taking woodland away from local people and putting it in corporate hands.  Last year Ethical Consumer magazine noted that, ‘Owen Espley from Friends of the Earth feared that REDDS will lead to a massive land-grab from the world’s 60 million indigenous rainforest people who depend upon the rainforests for their livelihoods.’

The campaign to protect the forests must continue. If we drop our guard, there is little doubt that the government will have another go.  Dave Bangs who co-ordinates Keep Our Forests Public wrote recently in the Morning Star, ‘State ownership’s major advantage is that it subtracts a resource, at least partially, from the irrationality and greed of the market.’ The answer for our public forests is the same as the answer for our economy – we need more democratic public ownership and economy-wide planning, enough to break the dominance of the market and not some porridge of private businesses and “social enterprises” struggling for their market share.’

Links

REDD Monitor  http://www.redd-monitor.org/

38 degrees forest campaign http://blog.38degrees.org.uk/tag/save-our-forests/

Aidesep http://www.aidesep.org.pe/

Keep Our Forests Public article on Sussex Socialist Resistance blog ttp://sussexsocialistresistance.blogspot.com/2011/02/keep-our-forests-public_14.html


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