Archive for the ‘indigenous’ Category

Avatar, tragedy of the socialized commons and crashing salmon stocks; how the dirty hands of government destroy wild resources

February 17th, 2010 No comments

It’s a sad, sad story, now being played out practically wherever wild salmon stocks once were abundant. (This version refers to the Pacific Northwest, particularly to events in British Columbia).

First, national governments wrest control over salmon fisheries from native peoples, and eliminate low-level, community-based management systems.

With new socialized ownership, it becomes eternal “open season” on salmon and newcomers (whites or whatnot) go hog wild, resulting in the classic “tragedy of the commons” race to catch salmon before others do, without regard to others or to future harvests.

The state steps in to regulate take, banning nets at river mouths — smart fishermen take their nets to sea. Governments find themselves compelled to further regulate seasons and fishing gear, as fishermen who have no ownership stake in the resource look for ways to beat restrictions and to beat out competitors for unowned fish. Natives who don’t join in the race are left with ever slimmer takes.

As no one owns the salmon and has no legal rights that can be enforced against upstream users, governments build dams to benefit farmers (and nuclear bomb production sites and industry), and developers and loggers begin to trash streams and rivers. Reacting to howls from interested citizens, states begin to pass laws limiting the rights of property owners to use and manage their properties.

Governments get into the salmon hatchery business as salmon stocks start to plummet, and endangered species protection laws get passed. Loggers, developers, farmers and industries with cheap hydropower vent anger over “capitalism-hating” enviros and legislators, even as governments eager to please favored constituencies (farmers over natives, naturally) divert water in summer from dams to farmers, leading to large fish kills in lower and warmer rivers.

As fish stocks continue to fall, enterprising businesses get licenses from regional governments to “farm” salmon by raising them in pens (using ocean water flows, and catching and grinding up five pounds of other fish to raise one pound of salmon). Farms begin to proliferate – and begin to be seen by fishermen as externality-generating machines: farmed salmon become plagued with sea lice, which spreads to migrating wild populations, concentrations of salmon pollute neighboring waters, wild salmon populations begin to fall drastically, and other “feed stocks” of salmon are adversely affected.

Alarmed local people and adversely affected fishermen and natives organize, try to get consumers to stop buying farmed salmon, and go, hat in hand, to petition (1) governments to stop licensing new “farms” and (2) farms to adopt much more expensive methods that would seal of the farms from the wild environment. Salmon farming companies assert that they have rights to pollute, and no legal responsibility for damages suffered by others – that licensing regimes eliminated common-law rights to sue for nuisance, etc. Farmers tell governments to be “fair” and that governments should “co-invest” to subsidize any new farming methods.

Predictably, as wild salmon dwindle and temperatures rise, no one seems to wonder what things would be like if governments stopped trying to “manage” the salmon and playing the middleman, but found some way to recognize property/harvesting rights and to enforce basic common law rights against nuisance, and stepped out of the way.

I made some of these points in an email I sent today to some parties at interest:

I sent the following note to when I joined their mailing list; some of you might be interested:
Yes, one of your chief enemies are the salmon farmers, but the
real reason for the problem is that the government – and not the First
Nation or any other fishermen – owns the wild salmon.
As a result, the First Nations, commercial and sports fisherment
and other supporters of wild slmon and natural ecosystems have NO
direct rights to protect the wild salmon and are largely relegated to
feebly petitioning government (and the farming companies, whose
managers are obliged to care first and foremost for profits generated
for owners), and have little or no ability to directly sue the
salmon-farming interlopers whose pollution is damaging your livelihood
and the greater Northwest ecosystem.
This is exactly the problem we see with many other
government-owned/managed resources – in Canada, the US, China, the
Amazon, developing countries – and it’s why Elinor Ostrom was given the
2009 Nobel Prize in Economics
. Solutions regarding common resources lie
in resource users having recognized rights and an ability to bargain
with others in the community. Where governments own resources, then
they deny to those whose livelihoods and ways of life are at stake a
voice in their own present and future. (In the case of salmon, this has
deep, “Avatar”-like roots in the historical pushing aside of native
and resource management practices in favor of new,
Western-dominated governments.)
So, to First Nations and fishermen, I say – sue the farmers
directly for nuisance pollution – assert your rights! Don’t leave them
simply as another interest group petitioning government.
But also start pushing for direct, recognized property rights
in the wild salmon, which would end the “tragedy of the
commons” resulting from a free-for-all ocean take. Ending ocean take
and replacing it with traditional river-mouth-based harvests will
better protect the wild resource and give you stronger rights to make
claims on those upstream who poison and damage habitat. And take a page
out of the book of Target US, and organize a CONSUMER BOYCOTT OF ALL
FARMED SALMON. And work to eliminate all legislative grants to insiders of immunity to lawsuits for activities that damage the economic interests of others (i.e., that produce “nuisances”).

Avatar’s theme of self-determination proves too subversive and successful in China and is abruptly yanked by censors

January 19th, 2010 No comments

I noted in my previous post – Avatar resonates in China – where standing up for property rights (and against “progress”) can be downright subversive – that Avatar had hit a surprising chord in China.

Perhaps not so surprisingly. China’s censors have said they have seen enough of the band-together-and-fend-your homes-by-standing-up-to-bullies movie – which has been playing since January 4 to record breaking audiences – and have ordered all theaters to stop showing it after January 22, weeks ahead of its scheduled February 11 closing.

Avatar will be replaced by a state-approved movie on Confucius. As a result, Avatar will not be shown nationwide. (Avatar can continue to be shown only at the very limited urban locations with a 3-D projector – there is no 3-D version of the Confucius movie).

Most reports are based on the following report from Hong Kong`s Apple Daily (I was unable to find the original) (emphasis added):

China Film instructed all locations to stop showing the ordinary version of Avatar and to show only the 3D version. The Central Publicity Department issued an order to the media prohibiting it from hyping up Avatar. Reportedly, the authorities have two reasons for this check on Avatar:
first, it has taken in too much money and has seized market share from
domestic films, and second, it may lead audiences to think about forced
removal, and may possibly incite violence.

A mainland source close to China Film confirmed that the company had
recently issued instructions ordering the 2D and film version of Avatar to be taken down this week, leaving only the 3D version still showing.

Because there are so few 3D cinemas on the mainland, the order effectively prevents the general distribution of Avatar. The source said that the order had come from SARFT [China’s State Administration of Radio Film and Television]: “It may be a political decision.” Reportedly, even the 3D version will only be able to screen for three to four weeks. Avatar premiered in China on the fourth of the month.

According to the source, the Central Publicity Department has
ordered propaganda departments to ensure that the media does not hype
up Avatar, and that they correctly guide public opinion. At the
same time, it instructed the entertainment news media to shift its
attention to the upcoming domestic blockbuster Confucius. Confucius, starring Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-fat, will premiere across the mainland on the 22nd.

More reports are here and here.

I imagine bootleg copies of Avatar, which were apparently on sale in China even before the movie opened, will soar.

Next up on the censors’ agendaLooks like Google.

Avatar resonates in China – where standing up for property rights (and against "progress") can be downright subversive

January 14th, 2010 No comments

It looks as if James Cameron`s Avatar movie –  which is seen by many in the West as predictibly shallow, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, pro-enviro and racially politically correct – has struck a home-owners` rights chord that is resonating in China, and may reinforce popular demands in China for the protection of private property rights against governments and politically well-connected developers.

These are “rebellious undertones“, claims the WSJ in January 11 editorial. This editorial, as well as coverage in WSJ`s China Real Time Report (January 8) and by Xinhua/ (January 13), are worth a look.

Here are a few excerpts (emphasis added):

WSJ in January 11 editorial

This is standard politically correct fare for a Western audience,
conveying a message of racial sensitivity and environmental awareness.
In China, however, it has more rebellious undertones.

That’s because Chinese local
governments in cahoots with developers have become infamous for
forcibly seeking to evict residents from their homes with little
compensation and often without their consent. The holdouts are known as
“nail households,” since their homes are sometimes left stranded in the
middle of busy construction sites. More often, however, they are driven
away by paid thugs. Private property is one of the most sensitive
issues in the country today, and “Avatar” has given the resisters a
shot in the arm.


WSJ`s China Real Time Report (January 8):

While the plot contains obvious allusions to colonialist
resource-grabbing, Li [Li Chengpeng, an apparently well-known blogger and sports reporter] instead sees “Avatar” as an allegory for the
exploitation of regular people by Chinese real estate companies.

In his post, titled “Avatar: An Epic Nail House Textbook,” Li draws
a comparison between the tree where the Na’vi live and the homes of
people who resist eviction—known in China as “nail houses” because of
the way they stick up out of would-be construction sites (see articles,
with video, on the subject here and here).

Like the Na’vi, China’s nail house residents are often asked to
abandon their homes for little or nothing in return. Chinese real
estate developers, like the company in the film, are typically
quasi-governmental organizations, backed by the rhetoric of progress
and armies of hired thugs that can be brought in when negotiations fall

“The developer sees the tree as an illegal building, its residents
as rabble rousers who don’t support municipal development and aren’t
willing to sacrifice for the greater good,” Li writes.

The post has been viewed more than 200,000 times and attracted
nearly 2500 comments, the vast majority supportive, since he put it up

Others have jumped on the idea, including The Beijing News, which called the film “a nail house parable,” and twenty-something literary star Han Han, who defended
the film against charges its plot is weak: “For audiences from other
places, barbaric eviction is something they simply can’t imagine–it’s
the sort of thing that could only happen in outer space and China.”

So what lessons does the film hold for people in China facing
eviction? “Communication is worthless,” Li writes. “You can only fight
fire with fire.”


Xinhua/ (January 13)

While most of the global audience are enjoying the dazzling 3-D experience of the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar, some Chinese see it from a very different angle: a successful battle against forced eviction. …

But in China, the story has aroused a
sympathetic response among many spectators, as they see in the film a
familiar social conflict — forced demolitions by real estate
developers and urban administrative inspectors.

“They are very much alike. For
instance, the conflict in the film also starts with land,” a posting by
“A Cup of Green Tea” said in an on-line forum operated by the

“When real estate developers want a
piece of land, the local residents must move away; if they decline to
leave, then real estate developers will resort to violent ways,” the
posting said.

Forced demolitions have always led to
opposition and resistance from local residents in China and have given
rise to the term “nail house” in China, in reference to a nail refusing
to be hammered down.

In southwest China’s city of
Chongqing, a couple battled for three years from 2004 to 2007 to stop
developers from razing their home. Their neighbors left one after
another, leaving their two-story brick building standing like a tower
surrounded by a 17-meter deep construction site. Their fight finally
came to an end in April 2007 with a negotiated agreement that
nevertheless saw the demolition of their house.

In June 2008, Pan Rong and her husband
stood on the roof of their house in Shanghai and threw Molotov
cocktails at the approaching bulldozer. Pan’s efforts to protect her
home failed at last when the bulldozer destroyed the walls, forcing the
couple out.

In November last year, a 47-year-old
woman, Tang Fuzhen, in the southwestern city of Chengdu, set herself on
fire to protest the forced demolition of her house and died later.

In both cases, the local governments insisted that the forced demolitions were lawful and accorded with regulations.

“I am wondering whether Cameron had secretly lived in China before coming up with such an idea of writing the story of Avatar, but with a promising ending in the film,” said renowned football reporter, Li Chengpeng, in a blog article on

“In a word, I think the film is a successful eulogy of the fight of ‘nail houses’ against forced demolitions,” he said.

The Chinese central government is increasingly aware of the negative impact of and public discontent toward forced demolitions.

China passed its landmark property law in 2007, highlighting the protection of private property.

On Dec. 7 last year, five professors
from Peking University claimed in an open letter to the National
People’s Congress, the country’s top legislature, the Regulation on
Urban Housing Demolition Administration was unconstitutional and
violated the property law.

The existing demolition regulation
took effect in 2001, allowing forced demolition. The government has
finished a draft revision to the regulation.

The draft revision, with its content
still unknown, put more restrictions on the government’s administrative
power in demolition procedures, and was aimed at easing growing
tensions caused by forced demolitions, legal experts said.

“To audiences of other countries,
forced demolitions are probably beyond their imagination,” said young
writer Han Han, well known for his always controversial remarks, in one
of his blog articles on

“So I think Avatar is a great movie. I give it a full mark of 10, also taking into consideration the 3-D and IMAX,” he said. …

However, “A Cup of Green Tea” voiced a
note of warning: “I strongly advise real estate developers and urban
administrative inspectors see the movie and learn from it.”


This relatively surprising reception of the Avatar movie in China is obviously something to be welcomed by all those who favor markets and freedom – as well by evil greenies (and Japanese and others downwind/downstream) who want cleaner air and water – since it is clear that  enforceable and transferrable property rights is one of the key mechanisms by which developing societies move along the “Kuznets environmental curve” from pollution to a cleaner environment.

Let`s also hope that the Chinese also start to recognize that their consumer demand is (like that of Western consumers) fuelling Avatar-like destruction elsewhere around the world, and choose to act as responsible consumers, by insisting that indigenous rights elsewhere by protected.

Third-World land theft & the tragedy of the commons: Mother Jones ponders, "Conservation: Indigenous peoples’ enemy No. 1?"

November 26th, 2009 No comments

[Post note: Anybody see the movie Avatar? Well that’s how native people perceive conservation efforts – as helping governing elites to steal their lands.]

The Mother Jones magazine has been running a series of on-line articles which exemplify how some progressives are exploring the ways in which various parts of the environmental/conservation agenda in developing countries have been counterproductive, adversely affected indigenous peoples, favored Western companies and played into the hands of local elites.

The articles are worth reviewing, as they reveal that enviros are starting to realize that protecting nature in the developing world requires protecting the property rights of indigenous communities.

One such article, by Mark Dowie, appeared in Mother Jones` on-line edition on November  2. The headline reads, “Conservation: Indigenous people’s enemy No. 1?”, the sub-header states, “For centuries we’ve displaced people to save nature. A huge project in Africa offers a chance to turn that around.” Dowie, an award-winning investigative journalist, is an author of several books published by the MIT Press, including his most recent, Conservation Refugees – The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples.

Dowie`s thesis is that, until recently, conservationists have typically taken the approach that the best way to preserve tropical forests and other wild ecosystems, the right approach was to establish pristine reserves from which people were excluded, and describes the change in strategy in the context of a new series of parks that the government in Gabon, central Africa. Dowie notes that the traditional approach – of establishing government-owned and -administered parks free of native residents – has a long, and long-forgotten history in the US (emphasis added):

But there was another, more historically significant opportunity
facing Gabon that day, one that Fay merely hinted at in his
presentation and Sanderson didn’t mention at all. It was the
opportunity their own industry, transnational conservation, had in
Gabon: to do right by the thousands of tribal people living inside
those emerald patches, by allowing them to remain in their homelands
and participate directly in the stewardship and management of the new
parks. They would then not be passive “stakeholders” relocated to the
margins of the park, the typical fate of indigenous peoples who find
themselves in conservation “hot spots,” but equal players in the
complex and challenging process of defending biological diversity.
goal of such a policy would be the concurrent preservation of nature
and culture; Gabon just might come to signify a happy ending of a
tense, century-long conflict between global environmentalism and native
people, millions of whom have been displaced from traditional homelands in the interest of conservation.

It’s a century-long story of violence and abuse that began in Yosemite Valley in the mid 19th century,
when the Ahwahneechee band of Miwoks were chased about, caught on, then
forcefully expelled from a landscape they had cultivated for about 200
Militias like the vicious Mariposa Battalion were sent
into Yosemite
to burn acorn caches and rout native people from remote reaches of the
Valley. After the militias came the nature romantics who mythologized
the vacated valley as the wilderness it never was, then lobbied state
and federal governments to create a national park. They got their wish
in 1890, and the remaining Indians were removed
from the area, with a
few allowed to remain temporarily, as menial laborers in a segregated
village of 20-by-20-foot shacks.

Yosemite’s Indian policy spread to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde,
Mount Ranier, Zion, Glacier, Everglades, and Olympic National Parks,
all of which expelled thousands of tribal people from their homes and
hunting grounds so the new parks could remain in an undisturbed “state
of nature.”
Three hundred Shoshone
Indians were killed in a single day during the expulsion from
Yellowstone. This was the birth of what would come to be known,
worldwide, as the Yosemite model of wildlife conservation. In Africa
it would be renamed “fortress conservation,” and like so many other
products from the North, the model would be exported with vigor to all
other continents. …

Teddy Roosevelt also proclaimed that “the rude, fierce settler who
drives the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt
to him… It is of incalculable importance that America,
Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red,
black, and yellow aboriginal owners and become the heritage of the
dominant world races.”

Our own history of theft from natives aside (which I have addressed tangentially in the context of the near-extirpation of the bison herds and the ongoing gross mismanagement and destruction of the salmon), what indigenous peoples in their right minds would not be opposed to the complicity of conservationists in continuing the process of the older colonial theft of their lands, even if the purpose was to “save” the land?  I won`t explore this now, but the record of “development” is replete with many examples – old and new – of such kinds of theft, with local ownership replaced by government ownership and a resulting “tragedy of the commons”-type of race to plunder “government” lands for valuable resources – oil and gas, minerals and timber.

Dowie notes the natural rise of indigenous opposition to “conservation” projects:

One consequence of creating a few million conservation refugees
around the world has been the emergence of a vast and surprisingly
powerful movement of communities that have proven themselves stewards
of nature (otherwise conservationists would have no interest in their
land), but were turned by circumstance into self-described “enemies of

In early 2004, a United Nations
meeting was convened for the ninth year in a row to push for passage of
a resolution protecting the territorial and human rights of indigenous
peoples. During the meeting, one indigenous delegate rose to state that
extractive industries, while still a serious threat to their welfare
and cultural integrity, were no longer the main antagonist of native
cultures. Their new and biggest enemy, she said, was “conservation.”
Later that spring, at a meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia,
of the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping, all 200 delegates
signed a declaration stating that “conservation has become the number
one threat to indigenous territories.”

Then in February 2008, representatives of the International
Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) walked out of a Convention on
Biological Diversity (CBD) annual meeting, condemning the convention
for ignoring their interests. “We found ourselves marginalized and
without opportunity to take the floor and express our views,” read
their statement. “None of our recommendations were included in [the
meeting’s report]. So we have decided to leave this process…”

These are all rhetorical jabs, of course, and perhaps not entirely
accurate or fair. But they are based on fact and driven by experience,
and have shaken the international conservation community. So have a
spate of critical studies and articles calling international
conservationists to task for their historical mistreatment of
indigenous peoples.

The Mother Jones article looks like an excerpt from Dowie`s new book, which MIT describes as follows:

Since 1900, more than 108,000 officially
protected conservation areas have been established worldwide, largely
at the urging of five international conservation organizations. About
half of these areas were occupied or regularly used by indigenous
peoples. Millions who had been living sustainably on their land for
generations were displaced in the interests of conservation. In Conservation Refugees, Mark Dowie tells this story.

This is a “good guy vs. good guy” story, Dowie writes; the indigenous
peoples’ movement and conservation organizations have a vital common
goal—to protect biological diversity—and could work effectively and
powerfully together to protect the planet and preserve species and
ecosystem diversity. Yet for more than a hundred years, these two
forces have been at odds. The result: thousands of unmanageable
protected areas and native peoples reduced to poaching and trespassing
on their ancestral lands or “assimilated” but permanently indentured on
the lowest rungs of the economy.

The punch line of the book summary?

When conservationists and native peoples
acknowledge the interdependence of biodiversity conservation and
cultural survival, Dowie writes, they can together create a new and
much more effective paradigm for conservation.

I am quite sympathetic with Dowie`s thinking, but it seems to me that he could make use of a little more intellectual framework, such as (i) the Austrian/libertarian awareness of the frequently negative role played by the state and of the usefulness of property rights (as I noted in this earlier post about the destruction of the Amazon), and (ii) Elinor Ostrom`s research into successful management of open-access, common-pool resources by communities, including natives.

I left the following comments for Dowie at Mother Jones:

Mark, great article. It`s good to hear
that the broader conservation community is waking up, but groups like
Survival International have always tried to protect indigenous
peoples`s rights.

I`m afraid the headline is a bit of a distraction, because of course
the broader development effort as a whole has been much more
destructive, by even more widely putting power into the hands on
central elites, who often behaved kleptocratically.

Regardless of the broader background, it`s surprising that you
didn’t see fit to link your topic to the whole problem of the “tragedy
of the commons”, which is often tied to the nationalization of
resources, which deprives users of any control over the resources they
depend on. Elinor Ostrom has extensively studied this problem in
developing countries and elsewhere, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in
economics precisely for pointing out how “government” is often the
problem and not the solution:

I commend this effort by Dowie, and note some other interesting articles at Mother Jones:

GM’s Rainforest Racket: People with some of the world’s smallest carbon footprints are being displaced—so their forests can become offsets(“There is another vexing question inherent in
preserving forests: What happens to the people who use the land?
Efforts to protect biodiversity in the dwindling wildlands of the world
have increasingly run into a discomfiting tension between the impulse
toward absolute preservation and the needs of people—many of them
indigenous—who have lived sustainably in forestlands for decades or
centuries. Such tensions are playing out in the new economics of carbon
Better REDD Than Dead: The byzantine politics of paying countries to save trees: (“Indigenous people around the world, many of whom have been displaced
through preservation efforts, are demanding “free, prior, and informed
consent” before new restrictions move forward. Some also want tribes,
like the Guarani in Brazil, to be compensated for preserving forests
for centuries.”)