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Kemi Fuentes-George studies how environmental treaties are implemented at the local level.

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Professor Explains Risks of Conflicting Environmental Treaties

December 13, 2016

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – What happens when two international environmental treaties overlap? Which one takes precedence? Does the state have the final say about what actions to take? Does local government? Or do the citizens most affected by the terms of the treaties?

Assistant Professor Kemi Fuentes-George of the political science department explored this fascinating conundrum for the Carol Rifelj Faculty Lecture Series on December 7 at Middlebury’s Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest.

One of the most striking examples where treaty overlap led to uncertainty concerned the regulation of ozone-depleting substances in the 1980s and 1990s, Fuentes-George said. Conflicting interpretations of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change led to a reduction in the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and an increase in the production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

“It turned out that HFCs are sometimes tens of thousands of times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide,” Fuentes-George explained, “and this became a real source of tension between states trying to manage the atmosphere until fairly recently [when] the Kigali Agreement finally said, ‘Okay, we will phase out HFCs and find something else [less harmful to the environment.]’ The problem was that for many years you had states that were members of both treaties and they were getting different signals about what to do about this particular gas.”

Conflicting international environmental treaties “create a penumbra of uncertainty about what states are supposed to do in any given situation,” the assistant professor said. His new book, Between Preservation and Exploitation: Transnational Advocacy Networks and Conservation in Developing Countries (MIT Press, 2016), established the groundwork for his Rifelj Faculty Lecture on “Local Culture, International Treaties: The Effect of Norms on Global Environmental Governance.”  

In his book, Fuentes-George argues that “transnational advocacy networks” composed of researchers, academics, and activists are needed to influence the design and implementation of environmental policy. The networks generate a scientific consensus, create social relationships with local actors, and advocate for biodiversity in a way that promotes local environmental justice, he says.

Fuentes-George has interviewed numerous residents of Cockpit Country.

For his Middlebury audience of faculty and students, Fuentes-George shared findings from his latest research in a region of western Jamaica called Cockpit Country.

“As the rest of the island gets mined of its bauxite, there is tremendous pressure now on Cockpit Country as well. In order to counter it, a group of people mobilized to put pressure on the government to prevent bauxite mining under the authority of international environmental treaties,” he said. (Bauxite is the ore from which aluminum is extracted, and its mining results in the depletion of agricultural lands and forests.) Bauxite mining is a form of “ecologically disruptive open-cast mining that leaves vast red mud lakes behind where nothing can grow.” It also has been implicated in causing respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, Fuentes-George argued.

Key players in the developing struggle in Jamaica are the governmental agencies that regulate the environment, agriculture, forestry, and mining; the Jamaica Bauxite Institute; the transnational scientific network; foreign researchers from The Nature Conservancy and domestic researchers from the University of West Indies; ornithologists and botanists from Jamaica and elsewhere; and local residents of Cockpit Country.

Jamaica is a signatory to two treaties: the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage and the Convention on Biological Diversity, Fuentes-George explained, but years ago the British established laws in Jamaica that give bauxite mining priority over any other land use.

So the stage is set for a struggle over whether to allow bauxite mining in Cockpit Country, and the Middlebury professor thinks the future may be determined by which groups wield the most power. 

“Cooperation in environmental governance is not something you can understand purely by how states relate to one another, but also by how local people react with outsiders, with governments, and with international institutions.”

In the final analysis, the needs of “marginalized people” should be considered because “local culture matters most in how we think about international environmental governance,” he said.

– Reporting and photography by Robert Keren

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