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Deal on forests best hope for Cancun

By Rehana Dada
Posted on Wednesday, 8 December 2010 13:33

The only hope for a concrete outcome from Cancun lies with REDD, a mechanism for protecting forests that threatens to spark a series of land grabs in developing countries.

Read more from Rehana Dada on why the UN is losing its climate credibility in negotiations.

The best prospect for a climate deal at the 29 November-10 December Cancun climate summit will fix some problems but also create new ones. The Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programme is riddled with many of the same controversies that characterise the Clean Development Mechanism (CMD): it is primarily intended as a mitigation measure rather than an offset mechanism but has a significantly sinister aura to it, not least because it threatens forest communities’ access to their land.

Real forests cover about one-third of the land surface of the planet and provide valuable services including water purification, food, medicinal plants and building products. Significantly for climate change, forests are also important carbon stores, holding about one-quarter of the world’s terrestrial carbon. Depending on the method of calculation, 12-18% of global carbon emissions are a result of deforestation and forest degradation.

The cost of climate change caused by deforestation, according to the UK-led 2008 Eliasch Review on financing global forests, could reach $1trn a year by 2100. Preventing deforestation, therefore, would be incredibly sensible as a contribution to mitigation. Climate negotiators and businesses have not neglected the obvious advantage in using forest protection as offsets for industrial emissions.

Reduced rates

The Eliasch Review recommends that the rate of deforestation be halved by 2020, showing that the cost of bringing forest destruction under control would be large, but the net benefits would amount to $3.7trn over the long term. In comparison to many other mitigation options, preventing forest destruction is not expensive and that is why REDD is getting a lot of attention. REDD could ultimately embrace all land-based carbon sequestration activities including industrial tree plantations – afforestation/reforestation – in the CDM.

The basic concept is simply to compensate countries for preventing deforestation and conserving or sustainably managing forests. The main financial backing seems set to come from carbon markets, which means that every tonne of carbon sequestered through protecting forests under REDD would generate a certified emissions reduction (CER). Business that must reduce their emissions could then purchase the CERs rather than reducing their own emissions.

The Eliasch Review optimistically declares that even if preventing deforestation was linked to carbon markets, there would not necessarily be a reduction in the incentive to pursue clean technology. However, a number of NGOs and indigenous peoples’ groups are less cheerful about this, pointing out that this logic, as exercised in the Kyoto Protocol, has not led to an overall reduction of emissions by the Annex 1 countries bound to do so.

Indigenous peoples opposition

The US-based Indigenous Environmental Network opposes the REDD agreement outright, and director Tom Goldtooth says that “REDD could criminalise the very peoples who protect and rely on forests for their livelihoods, with no guarantees for enforceable safeguards. REDD is promoting what could be the biggest land grab of all time.”

A key concern for him is that REDD would remove the autonomy of forest communities and indigenous peoples over forest management. Once a forest or part of a forest is designated a REDD project, all land use could become subject to the rules laid down by the project developer. “In effect,” says Wally Menne of Timberwatch, “corporate polluters can sit in their air-conditioned offices in commercial centres such as London, secure in the knowledge that without title deeds to land, they can exert control over the rules that govern the activities on project lands.” Public consultation would be compulsory but becomes a farce in remote communities whose understanding is limited – and often kept so through selective information sharing – of the long-term impacts and the inadequacy of short-term compensation.

Making money from keeping trees

Tanzania is one African country that has been identified as suitable for REDD projects, with Norway investing over $75m to support REDD-related activities, including a national strategy and seven pilot projects. The REDD programme has also invested $4.2m in ‘REDD readiness’ and capacity building in the country.

According to Tanzania’s draft National Framework for REDD, about 50% of the country’s roughly 35m hectares of forest is under state protection. The rest is under pressure for uses such as wood harvesting, agriculture and grazing, as well as some illegal activities such as illicit mining. The document makes a case for Tanzania’s involvement in REDD because of the limited financial and human resources available for forest management and protection.

According to Wally Menne and Blessing Karumbidza of Timberwatch, indigenous and marginal communities are sometimes unjustly targeted as being responsible for deforestation, and REDD projects could impact livelihoods, community rights and access to forest resources. This could mean evictions, land expropriation and biased contracts imposed on communities that may have limited understanding and experience of legal agreements and national laws.

Rights and responsibilities

In Timberwatch’s report CDM Carbon Sink Tree Plantations – A case study in Tanzania, the authors state: “Without guarantees that the human, customary and economic rights of indigenous and marginal communities will be protected and respected, forest conservation and restoration programmes will remain nothing but re-colonisation, and the final phase in the commodification of the spaces of Africa that were left in indigenous hands after the first round of formal colonialism.”

As a herald, REDD was used as justification for the forced eviction of the hunter-gatherer Ogiek peoples from the Mau Forest in Kenya in 2009. Indigenous people can be considered to have a symbiotic relationship with the forests they use and inhabit: they harvest products and in return offer protection to the forests. Forest degradation is usually instigated by outsider populations.

In their report, Menne and Karumbidza expose the flaws of a CDM industrial tree plantation linked to the Norwegian government. Aside from the impacts of alien tree monocultures on bio-diverse grasslands, the organisers did not properly consult communities, most of which did not understand the implications of giving up communal land and losing access to grazing, wild food, medicine and other materials in return for the short-term benefit of meagre compensation and a limited number of low-paying jobs. The authors recommend that project backers implement more stringent consultation processes.

Is it a plantation or is it a forest?

Because of the inadequate official definition of the term “forest”, REDD could in fact also include industrial tree plantations, a net source of carbon emissions. In their 2009 article in Conservation Letters, Nophea Sasaki and Francis Putz highlight the importance of differentiating between plantations and forests, which the CDM does not do. They argue that if the definition of forest was changed to set the minimum crown cover to 40% – the CDM’s ranges from 10-30% – and minimum tree height to 5m – the CDM’s ranges from 2-5m – this would help to reduce deforestation and resultant greenhouse gas emissions. Distinguishing between forests and plantations could also remove the risk of genetically engineered tree plantations and biofuel plantations such as oil palm being eligible for inclusion in REDD projects.

While the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change develops this complex and controversial mechanism for protecting forests with carbon financing, others suggest that this can be achieved through reallocating funds that currently support destructive activities, as the Global Forest Coalition points out in its December 2010 report, Getting to the Roots: Underlying Causes of Deforestation and Forest Degradation, and Drivers of Forest Restoration. Fiu Mata’ese Elisara-La’ulu, chair of the organisation writes, “deforestation and forest degradation can indeed be successfully tackled, and forest conservation and restoration enhanced, by tackling the real underlying causes of forest loss.”

Forests under pressure

These causes include demand for forested lands for agriculture, mining, urban expansion and industrial growth. Uncertainty over land ownership, corruption and the failure of governments to develop and enforce adequate forest policies are also important factors contributing to forest loss. The report shows that indigenous people and forest communities’ lives are intricately linked to the health of their land, and they show a deep sense of responsibility for forests. Involving such communities in forest conservation and restoration can be highly successful.

Forests and all other ecosystems deserve protection for their intrinsic value as well as for the services they provide. However, giving consideration to the projected impacts of climate change, it is evident that restoring and conserving natural areas is important to enhance ecosystem resilience and to some extent limit the damage.

It would be fair for the costs for ecosystem protection to be borne by those most responsible for climate change. It is therefore perverse that forest protection is funded in return for continued and possibly increased carbon emissions in the industrialised world.