Why has a commercial rewilding firm been accused of eco colonialism?

The launch of The Real Wild Estates Company (RWEC) at the end of October marks another step in the commercialisation of the concept of rewilding and further proof – if proof were needed – of the growing belief in the financial potential of Britain’s woodlands, peatlands and grasslands.

Some people take umbrage at outsiders talking about the Highlands as a devastated landscape. Photograph: Jon Douglas/Getty Images

In this case, RWEC proposes to act as a kind of estate agent for companies or individuals who want to buy land with a view to restoring biodiversity on it, which then rewards them with a financial return. RWEC also proposes to work as a nature conservation consultant to advise clients on how best to bring back wildlife on degraded land.

On Twitter, RWEC’s head of nature restoration Benedict Macdonald – the author of an acclaimed book about nature conservation, Rebirding – explained how the business model would work.

The idea, he said, was to help investors exploit new and predicted income streams such as carbon credits, the woodland carbon and peatland codes, money from new farming subsidies and biodiversity net gain to deliver a healthy return on their capital investment. 

RWEC has already been backed by a 50 million Euro investment fund set up by the French cosmetics and skin-care company L’Oreal, which it’s claimed will help to restore 50,000 hectares of land across the UK.

Many of the responses were positive. “Great to see this,” tweeted RSPB chief executive Rebecca Speight. “Look forward to working with you!” added Rewilding Britain’s Alastair Driver. 

Not everyone was happy though. Criticism at RWEC’s business model falls, broadly, into two distinct but related categories – the first that it has clearly identified large Highland estates in Scotland as ripe for purchase, aggravating people who see this as little more than eco-colonialism.

Others see the the whole concept of making money out of the restoration of biodiversity as deeply problematic – capitalism got us into our current ecological crisis, they argue, so is it really appropriate to expect capitalism to get us out of it?

RWEC founder and managing director Julian Matthews is adamant that making nature pay its way is the right way to go. “The capitalist system has been bent on destroying nature, let’s bend its ingenuity to do the exact opposite,” he said.

Matthews believes that a growing carbon credits market, especially, will help drive investment in rewilding, but only as long as they can put together sufficiently large tracts of land – anything over 400ha (1,000 acres) – to interest the corporate sector.

“Historically, in the UK, we haven’t been able to amass carbon tonnage into something that a banker will get out of bed for,” he said. “They say, ‘We can get a million tonnes of carbon by going to Africa or the Amazon.’” In the UK, by contrast, you can get at most 10,000 tonnes of carbon from a peatland restoration, according to Matthews.

But Magnus Davidson, a research associate with the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Environmental Research Institute, said that – while most people could get on board with the idea of restoring biodiversity – the RWEC has made a number of fundamental errors in the way it has pitched its business model for rewilding Scottish estates.

First, they should have made more effort to understand the social and cultural issues surrounding rewilding, particularly with regards to how it is seen as comparable to the Highland clearances of the mid-18th century. There are fears that rewilding will result in people employed in rural professions such as gamekeepers or ghillies losing their jobs and being booted off the land.

“Another aspect that is uncomfortable is where you have outsiders talking about the Highlands as a devastated landscape,” Davidson said. “I wouldn’t walk into Drumchapel, a very deprived part of Glasgow, and go, ‘You guys have really messed this up.’ We are fully aware of the ecological degradation we have here, and there’s many of us working very hard to rectify it, and the last thing we want is someone coming in and saying we’re here to save you.”

There are more fundamental issues too, Davidson added, because the business model allowed for external investors to buy up natural capital and extract profits that end up in shareholders’ bank accounts outside of Scotland. Setting up community benefit funds that take a certain percentage of any financial returns might go some way to alleviating this concern. 

Environmental campaigner and writer Miles King believes there are other reasons to be suspicious of RWEC. Macdonald tweeted how its business model was “to make nature pay by delivering sustainable business returns”, and posted a graph showing where these returns would come from. 

“If you look at the graph, you can see most of the income is coming from rent, and it’s going to be coming from rent in 30 years time,” King said. “Rewilding is a green icing on a rent cake. What they’re saying is, ‘We’ll help you buy an estate and we’ll help you maximise your rental income,’ and on top of that, we’re going to make all sorts of questionable claims about it delivering biodiversity.”

The monetising of biodiversity is a clear direction of travel in the UK, so debates over its pros and cons are a sign of things to come. RWEC founder Julian Matthews said the company would only win the argument once it has shown it can combine rewilding with job creation, but even then, one suspects, controversy will remain.