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Environment (Deep End)

One of the world’s most visible borders is between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Deforestation is so bad on the Haitian side that the difference can be seen from space – like two colours meeting on a map. This isn’t just a disaster for the environment, but for local people too – because, as in many other places, deforestation results in severe flooding and soil erosion.

Still, what do you expect from a basket-case like Haiti? Things would be very different in a properly governed country. For instance, in Britain we wouldn’t just let people mismanage the landscape in this way, would we?

Indeed not, because in Britain we actually pay them to do it. George Monbiot exposes this scandal in an extended report for the Guardian:

“Vast amounts of public money, running into billions, are spent every year on policies that make devastating floods inevitable…

“…the nub of the problem… is an unbreakable rule laid down by the common agricultural policy. If you want to receive your single farm payment – by far the biggest component of farm subsidies – that land has to be free from what it calls ‘unwanted vegetation’. Land covered by trees is not eligible. The subsidy rules have enforced the mass clearance of vegetation from the hills.”

It gets worse:

“One result of the latest round of subsidy negotiations – concluded in June last year – is that governments can now raise the special mountain payments, whose purpose is to encourage farming at the top of the watersheds, from €250 (£208) per hectare to €450. This money should be renamed the flooding subsidy: it pays for the wreckage of homes, the evacuation of entire settlements, the drowning of people who don’t get away in time, all over Europe. Pig-headed idiocy doesn’t begin to describe it.”

To cap it all, special grants designed to encourage farmers to plant trees on river catchment land have been stopped – despite strong evidence that such measures reduce downstream flooding peaks.

Monbiot directs his anger at Owen Paterson, the current Secretary of State for the Environment. In truth, the blame – like excess rainwater – should be spread around more evenly.

First of all, there is the Common Agricultural Policy – the rotten heart of the European Union. To pretend that the numerous perversities of the system are somehow atypical of the EU, is to ignore just how deeply embedded the CAP is in the federalist project.

Secondly, there’s the misbegotten notion that somehow the country owes a living to every last farmer. I’m afraid that the Conservative Party seems especially susceptible to the special pleading of the agriculture lobby. We shouldn’t forget that the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (which Margaret Thatcher despised) still lurks beneath Defra’s green facade.

Thirdly, while refraining from sentimentality about the countryside, we need to re-learn a bit of respect for nature. That doesn’t mean letting rural Britain revert to wilderness, but rather understanding that the land can’t be crudely engineered into serving our needs – not without some very unpleasant side-effects:

“Many years ago, river managers believed that the best way to prevent floods was to straighten, canalise and dredge rivers along much of their length, to enhance their capacity for carrying water…

“By building ever higher banks around the rivers, reducing their length through taking out the bends and scooping out the snags and obstructions along the way, engineers unintentionally did two things. They increased the rate of flow, meaning that flood waters poured down the rivers and into the nearest towns much faster. And, by separating the rivers from the rural land through which they passed, they greatly decreased the area of functional floodplains.”

Taming nature is one thing; brutalising it quite another. A serious re-think is in order. To the extent that public resources should be used to subsidise farming at all, it must be to work with the land, not against it; and, furthermore, to serve common, not vested, interests.

11 comments for: If you want better flood defences then hug a tree

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