Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Growing Green 'Money' in the Green Belt

In keeping with my project to write to Nobel Peace Prize winners, below is a letter to Wangari Maathai, founder of the Greenbelt movement in Kenya that is simultaneously protecting and regenerating life nuturing forests while promoting the dignity and self determination of rural African women. I am using this project to frame the opportunity of Emissions Reduction Currency Systems in the most ambitious terms. For more down to Earth presentation and explanation see our website .

Dear Professor Maathai,

I have just finished your inspiring autobiography, Unbowed, and was many times brought to tears at the numerous great challenges you and your colleagues in the Greenbelt Movement have faced and surmounted. Your story is full of wonderful lessons in humility and determination that I will carry with me from now on in life. Thank you.

Besides thanking you, I would also like to share an idea that I feel may be of use to the Green Belt Movement in extending the role of tree planting as a cornerstone of the rural economy in Kenya. Our group in Western Australia, Maia Maia, has been developing a concept known as an Emissions Reduction Currency System (ERCS) in which a local currency system is backed by a reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Local currency systems are common in the world and are usually implemented to increase a sense of community, to keep money circulating within the local economy, and to make up for a lack of cash during economic downturns. They are typically based on hours of labour or a fixed exchange rate with the national currency. However, since they depend on local social capital their scope tends to be limited and they have historically played a minor role in the overall economy.

However, when the value of local currencies is based on activities that reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere we believe something very powerful can happen. This is because such activities have amazing and unprecedented qualities:

1. They universally benefit all other living beings on the planet without discrimination;
2. They are democratically accessible – anyone can plant a tree or conserve energy, many can share in developing alternative energy sources;
3. They have a real economic value since climate change will have a huge predicted negative impact on both global and local economies;
4. They are measurable in a standardised way. The United Nations and other bodies have developed generic formulas to estimate greenhouse gas emissions or sequestration of carbon dioxide by trees based on data that is easy to collect (in most cases). I believe your ‘foresters without diplomas’ already capture some of this data.

These qualities allow the value of a local currency to have an value outside of the immediate community in which it is traded. As more and more of these systems come into being this value should increase in an organic manner over time. More information on how we envision an ERCS could be implemented can be found on our website, although I imagine many details would be different in rural Kenya than in suburban Australia.

In Unbowed I was struck by the role the introduction of a cash economy played in cementing colonial control of the economy during your father’s generation. At that time money was based on the gold standard and the British controlled the supply of gold since only a large Empire could afford a reliable supply - the mining of gold being the most energy intensive of all the metals. Similar dynamics exist in the global financial system which continues to disadvantage developing nations such as those in sub-Saharan Africa. Could a gradual introduction of a new kind of money create a future where restoring the forests of Africa as the ‘Lungs of the Earth’ becomes a dominant source of sustainable wealth for the people who live there?

In my backyard, one the first things I did upon emigrating to Australia from Alaska, and moving into a new home with my wife Nadia, was to plant the back of our quarter acre with many Native trees. Thirteen years later these shade the house and are home to many singing birds. Whenever I am unsure whether I have made any concrete impact on the world I often take solace in those trees and the peace they emanate. On finishing Unbowed I have made a vow to plant more trees.

If you or any of your colleagues in the Green Belt Movement would like to follow up regarding emissions reduction currency systems, or if there is any other way you feel we may be able to assist in your inspiring mission, we would be honoured to discuss this with you.

Warm regards,

Sam Nelson

Co-founder of The Maia Maia Project