Date of Degree


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Marc Edelman

Committee Members

Jane Schneider

Cindi Katz

David Harvey

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Countries with greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change may invest in projects in developing countries that reduce or remove CO2 and take credit for the reductions. Since vegetation absorbs CO2 through photosynthesis, trees in one place could offset gases emitted elsewhere. For this purpose, trees are known as carbon sinks, and as such they entered the new market in emission reductions.

This dissertation analyzes this new commodity and how it works on the ground. It describes problems encountered by UN negotiators when they abstracted, isolated and quantified a process such as breathing, which takes place naturally everywhere, anyway. It details the UNFCCC negotiations, which created not only the commodity, but also the demand, the supply, and the rules governing its trade, and thus the scarcity conditions for the market to work.

Using the filieres or commodity chain approach, this dissertation follows the commodity from producers to consumers. Based mainly on field work in Costa Rica, the only country with a nationwide system to sell offset credits from sinks, it finds that small-scale producers are excluded from the market, even though it makes sense to include them given that they often live in environmentally vulnerable areas with limited agricultural potential. The most important commodity in a case of fictitious capital like this one is the production of credibility, provided here by certifying agencies. This case study contributes to filieres or commodity chains analysis by drawing attention to time and risk (alongside space) as critical elements in determining who has access to a market.

My main argument is that the creation of a carbon market for sinks is a case of capital involution, as used by Goldenweiser (1936), Geertz (1963) and Katz (1998) to refer to instances where a narrow pattern persistently repeated leads to ever increasing complexity but, instead of evolving into something new, it generates increased entrapment, making the pattern more pervasive in its domination. Insofar as the new market for sinks reproduces uneven development, it results in involution and is not socially transformative.


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