Tropical forests, Brownfields, and the RI economy Greg Gerritt 9/11/14
Everyone agrees, The Rhode Island economy has been extremely slow to rebound from the Great Recession and was not all that great before that either. The ruling class has a plan to fix it. It is the same plan they have had for 40 years, give more money to the rich, pretend real estate speculation is economic development, talk about the fad of the week, and try to lure some of the faddists down from Boston. While it has made the rich richer, for the rest of us it has been not so good, we have gotten poorer and the services we rely upon have been underfunded. The updated traditional model does have a few good ideas. Not al the fads are horrible, None are panaceas, But most of us can agree that fix schools, go Green, provide lifelong learning for people so they can change with the changing world, and generally have an efficient system for administering the rules and regulations that protect the public and the environment are a good idea. But most of what comes out of Smith Hill, City Halls, and the Chamber of Commerce, not to mention the dark money foundations funded by billionaires, is exactly what has gotten us into this mess, and doubling down will only make it worse.
Every politician talks about the public private partnership of development and every real estate speculator has their hand out for government largesse, but at the same time we are told of the supremacy of the market. It is therefore extremely important to clarify what the role of government in the economic development process ought to be. While the market purists insist that the only thing government should do is get out of the way, the role of government is critical If nothing else, guaranteeing weights and measures and policing markets all require government. We could create money without the government, essentially that has already been turned over to the banks, but ultimately governments are responsible for a valued currency. What about basic infrastructure? How do we decide to fund airports that are losing more passengers every month when buses serve more people every year and lose their funding?
But there is more to it. First and foremost may be all the research we the taxpayers funded in basic science and new technologies, research that underpins all of the fads of the week such as biotech, software, and energy. Governments either contract out or do on their own the building of weapons, and constructing civilian infrastructure such as roads, water supplies and sewers. And even in the places that claim to be the home of market purists cities and states offer real estate tax breaks, targeted job training, business education, and all manner of relocation subsidies. Can we begin to speak honestly about the role of government in the economy?
Occasionally a government actually practices democracy, invites the people to participate, and looks out for the good of the people instead of just the rich, but that is rare. But one could well make the case that in a democracy, in a society looking for widespread prosperity, that instead of helping the wealthy, communities and states, as well as the Federal government and global institutions like the World Bank, should target all of their assistance to those in the community with the least since the rich by definition do not need the help of the government. Part of the reason for this last suggestion is that we are more and more aware that rising inequality hurts economies and its flip side, when those with the least are prosperous, the entire community is prosperous.
Based on the knowledge that prosperity is actually a bottom up enterprise, in RI the entire economic development activity by the government should be directed into the communities with the least, our old water powered riverine towns and old industrial neighborhoods. RI was built around waterpower and our towns grew up around the rivers and shores. And poverty is clustered in the oldest industrial neighborhoods as they are where immigrants have always headed because of the jobs available there that did not require much English or reading. Of course 100 years ago the industries that made RI a 19th century economic powerhouse started to head for cheap labor neighborhoods with authoritarian governments. Now we mostly have abandoned mills and run down housing.
A key feature of our riverine neighborhoods in the 21st century is abandoned lands, brownfields is the term, some just filled with debris, some seriously toxic. I believe that how RI uses resources to improve prosperity in our old riverine and industrial areas, our Environmental Justice neighborhoods, is much more important for creating community prosperity than any of the shenanigans like tax breaks for corporations that the 1% buys from the legislature and zoning boards. If we do justice to our EJ communities, prosperity will come back to Rhode Island in ways we have not seen in 50 years. But it may not be based on the traditional growth model as that leads to both inequality and ecological collapse.
Economic development in low income neighborhoods has always been difficult. But there are successful models out there if we look. While the World Bank is a global institution, and has numerous detractors, it does have a long history of economic development efforts in low income community, and it uses many of the same tools government in Rhode Island uses to spur development.
I want to draw your attention to a particular study Managing Forest Resources for Sustainable Development: An Evaluation of World Bank Group Experience, http://wwwwds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2012/02/13/000356161_20120213002609/Rendered/PDF/667510WP00PUBL05805B0Forest0AP02011.pdf . This is a study of World Bank economic development in tropical forests and what works or does not work there.
You might ask how what goes on in tropical forests relates to the problems of economic development in post industrial cities. The first part of the argument is that tropical rainforest communities are often the monetarily poorest communities in a country, even though the access to forest resources by the poor provides them better nutrition and food security than others in the country with a similar monetary income. . Often they are the most disempowered, disenfranchised, and marginalized people in a country. And often they are considered to be of a different ethnicity than the urbanites who run the government. Clearly that matches the profile of EJ communities.
”…….forests often have a combination of capturable wealth but poor, isolated, and powerless residents. Powerful interest groups can seize this wealth, depriving poor people of access to forest resources, and sometimes contributing to corruption and poor governance at the national level.
The reuse of brownfields in our current model has much in common with this situation. Brownfields are often the biggest chunk of land available for any economic activity (the most capturable resource) in EJ communities and their redevelopment by outsiders often leads to displacement for EJ communities . Often they are developed in a way that reduces government tax revenues due to sweetheart deals (very similar to the way warlords get forest removal concessions)Given all of the things that prevent equitable development in Rhode Island I offer here the quick and dirty summary of what the World Bank found to work best, improve the living standards of the community, increase the amount of tax revenue the government was able to collect from this economic activity, and maintain the health of the forest. You are more than welcome to read the original cited above.
1. Make sure the project has an ecological sustainability component based on real science and ecosystem health,
2. Include efforts to directly address poverty, especially addressing the needs of the poorest people and most disenfranchised in the community,
3. Put specific safeguards in place to make sure the capturable benefits stay in the community rather than end up in the hands of those who already have power and resources, This includes secure land tenure for forest dwelling communities.
4. Develop democratic processes and practices for directing investment, and
5. Specifically encourage and train communities to stand up for themselves, while setting up a structural framework of real democracy in the larger community.
I am not going to spend much verbiage here on the ecological component of economic development other than to use my favorite quote “You can not end poverty without healing ecosystems, you can not heal ecosystems without ending poverty.” In an age of climate change this becomes even more important. If you need more on this sources are available. Likewise, making sure resources do not leak out of the neighborhood and are specifically targeted to the poor and women is the only way to insure development actually does some good in the neighborhood and simple common sense.
We do need to talk about land tenure. It is only fair and right that people who have lived in a forest for generations, before such a thing as deeds came to the community, before national governments claiming ultimate ownership of land came into existence, should be secure in their tenure. It is their land. Yet the rich urbanites have always sought to displace them and steal the forest. But clearly right is on the side of the forest people. It is a bit different for the inhabitants of places like Olneyville. No one can say that the poor own the land. It has been bought and sold ever since it was stolen from the native people of RI, by both document and sword. After all,the Great Swamp Massacre is very similar to what Indonesia is doing to its forest people now.
The original developers of Olneyville and similar villages are long gone, and who is benefiting now from the reuse of brownfields is determined by who has lots of money. Not who lives in the neighborhood or what would do the community the most good. But allowing this kind of development based on gentrification and tax breaks for the rich has not lifted the people of Olneyville, nor has it done much for the overall level of prosperity in Providence or Rhode Island.. Mostly what it has done is displaced the poor and immigrants yet again. Whereas if the benefits and the investment stayed in the community directed towards the subsistence and economy of the poorest of the community, women, children, the displaced, then it would lift all boats instead of 1% of the boats as what is being offered to us now does.
The World Bank has figured out that forest communities need economic democracy, Communities do not choose to destroy their forest or their own livelihoods. They do not vote to exile themselves to shanty towns. It takes warlords and governments selling the land out from under the inhabitants to do that. They do not willingly allow the forest to be captured despite the violence the rich bring to the game Keeping the value generated in the community is anathema to the speculator class who assume they should be allowed to do anything they want with land and resources. But in Rhode Island time and again we find when the speculator class is not reined in, disaster strikes (Hello 38 Studios) The flip side of this is that when the community is very involved in the development process, not only with a voice, but a vote, Rhode Island ends up avoiding disasters (Goodbye Quonset Megaport) and we stop the sweetheart deals that undermine good governance. And sometimes when the community has its say we get good stuff like the new Providence zoning code.
The World Bank concluded that keeping the benefits and the land in the hands of the poor provides the biggest win, win, win, including ecological healing, community prosperity, and over the long term the overall health of the national economy, Rhode Island needs a new plan based on ecological healing and economic democracy, one based on making sure the benefits of redevelopment in our cities benefits the residents of the communities, not outsiders. More tax breaks to wealthy developers and corporations will never give us what we want. Undoing environmental regulations will undo economic progress and make dealing with climate change infinitely harder, as well as make flooding worse. Time for a new plan based on ecological healing and economic justice.