‘Eco-enslavement’: peddling misperceptions?

Michael Buick of Climate Care responds to spiked editor Brendan O'Neill's recent critique of carbon-offsetting schemes in India.

Michael Buick

Topics Politics

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spiked’s portrayal of the promotion of the foot-powered water pump as somehow hoodwinking Indian farmers into hard labour (see ‘Is carbon-offsetting just eco-enslavement?’ by Brendan O’Neill) could not be further from the truth. The ‘treadle pump’ is one of a number of appropriate technologies recognised as crucial for improving the lives of millions around the world. The fact that carbon-offsets provide a new source of funding for this technology is not only exciting – it is progressive. It allows those of us who contribute the most to climate change to fund technologies that benefit those who will be worst affected. Climate Care’s funding of treadle pumps is an excellent example of this.

So, why was the portrayal so wide of the mark?

The treadle pump is not being promoted by Climate Care, but by International Development Enterprises India (IDEI), an organisation The Times has called a ‘respected poverty relief organisation’. IDEI’s mission is ‘To improve equitably the social, economic and environmental conditions of families in need, with special emphasis on the rural poor’.

IDEI developed the treadle pump over a decade ago to provide an affordable means of irrigation for the millions of small-scale farmers in Northern India – 70 per cent of whom own less than a hectare of land. The farmers are not forced or tricked into using the pump; they choose to buy it of their own free will.

Indian farmer My Pyari using
a treadle pump. (Photo courtesy of
Climate Care)

Named the ‘Farmers’ Friend’ in Hindi, the pump has been shown by a number of independent studies to bring huge benefits: farmers double their annual income, getting two or three harvests instead of just one. O’Neill’s charge of ‘eco-friendly child labour’ is particularly perverse given the findings of a recent study by the Acumen Fund (1). It concluded that while children are involved in the operation of the pumps for an average of 30 minutes a day, this ‘did not seem to represent an increase in the share of work done by the children’. What’s more it found ‘major benefits created by the treadle pumps for the children’, including: reduced need for fathers to migrate to the city to work, thus keeping families together; improved diet with more milk and green vegetables; and improved educational opportunities, with the extra family income often contributing to books and school fees. It concluded: ‘The significant welfare generated by the treadle pump seemed to extend to a very large extent to the children.’

The benefits are clear for anyone who cares to investigate – and many journalists have already visited the project and written positively about it. Not only this, but in 2006 IDEI won the prestigious Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy for their work promoting the pump (2).

But the best advocates of the treadle pump are the farmers themselves. For example, Bhikram Singh says: ‘In the old days [before the treadle pump], I was making around 300-400 rupees profit per crop and I just had one crop, the wheat. I used to use the diesel pump, but it was expensive, and I couldn’t always hire one when I needed it, and it washed all the topsoil over to one side of the field. I really wanted to get out of that mess… Now I’m making around 2,500 rupees per crop, and I get three or four crops a year. My family eats better now, and I can sell the surplus at the market, and buy new clothes for all the family.’ There are many more examples on IDEI’s website (3).

O’Neill’s basic assumption that ‘diesel equals better’ betrays a fundamental misconception of the reality of farming in rural India. As Suresh Subramanian of IDEI says: ‘It may be difficult for someone sat at their computer in the West to understand what a huge step forward getting a treadle pump is, but it should not be assumed that ‘diesel-powered’ equals ‘better’. What makes sense for a marginal Indian farmer may seem very unusual to those in a wealthy western country.’

The fact is that diesel pumps are expensive to hire, especially with diesel prices rising; they are not reliably available; they often damage the soil by washing away nutrient rich top-soil; and they damage water supply, by drawing more water from deeper in the aquifer than the steady, sustainable flow of the treadle pump.

So IDEI’s work is not anti-development, but quite the opposite. Would O’Neill find providing affordable bicycles instead of expensive taxis to be a similarly ‘patronising initiative’? And as for the very emotive charge of ‘child labour’, I wonder if O’Neill ever did a paper round as a child, or helped out with the household chores?

The treadle pump is not the only technology that O’Neill criticises – he trashes biogas digesters and solar powered lamps amongst others. But these are not new ‘wheezes’ dreamt up by carbon-offset companies. These are appropriate technologies – promoted by development organisations and widely recognised, by groups such as the World Health Organisation, as being essential for improving the livelihoods of billions of people around the world.

Carbon offsetting has the potential to make appropriate technologies available on a massive scale. It will provide far greater investment in the work of organisations like IDEI than donations and charities have so far provided. Climate Care’s funding is helping to promote treadle pumps on a wider scale. ‘Climate Care’s funding is allowing IDEI to expand this programme into new areas in seven states in Eastern India,’ says Suresh Subramanian, ‘allowing many thousands more farmers to hear about the benefits of the pump and have the opportunity to purchase one at an affordable price.’ If the cost of IDEI’s work to promote the pump was included in the price it would be over twice as expensive, and out of reach for most farmers. The carbon savings made will be accredited under the ‘gold standard’, a rigorous test of the development benefits of offset projects, which is supported by over 40 NGOs.

If O’Neill is fundamentally mistaken in his criticism of this project and the technology it promotes, what about his moral critique of wealthy Westerners buying up the carbon savings made by these as ‘offsets’? Is this not unjust?

One very simple but crucial point: the situation is already unjust. Per capita emissions of CO2 are 10 tonnes in the UK compared to 1 tonne in India. So on average the UK citizen is contributing ten times as much to a problem that will cause far more suffering in India than in our own country. Individuals like O’Neill and myself should reduce our carbon footprint as much as we can and then offset the rest. If the offset money is spent on projects that benefit those most at risk from climate change – and who have done least to cause it – how is this unjust? Is this not an improvement on the current situation?

Carbon offsetting should never be used as a ‘right to pollute’, to justify continuing as we are. We need to do everything we can in the developed world to move to a low-carbon future, as fast as possible. But offsetting allows us to take account of our unavoidable or ‘not yet avoidable’ carbon emissions. It is not about being ‘guilt-free’; it is about helping to direct money to wherever in the world it has the biggest impact in fighting climate change and poverty.

The treadle pump is an award-winning technology, supported by the development community, benefiting many thousands, with accredited carbon savings – this should be enough even for O’Neill. We look forward to him offsetting his own carbon footprint with Climate Care soon.

Michael Buick works for Climate Care. This article is a response to Is carbon offsetting just eco-enslavement?, by Brendan O’Neill. Join the discussion on carbon offsetting on the spiked letters page.

(1) Climate Care
(2) Ashden Awards
(3) IDEI
(4) WHO

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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