2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference

The Pitfalls of ‘Saving’ the Rainforest

by |December 16, 2009

This is the twenty-third of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.

destructed_forestsFor years, activists have sought to “save the rainforest.” Now, it looks like there could be a mechanism to do just that. It was announced yesterday that negotiators have reached a nearly final agreement on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, or REDD, in which polluters in the north will pay rainforest countries to keep from cutting forests. Many forest-rich countries would like to benefit from carbon trading schemes, receiving carbon-offset dollars from industrialized countries in return for protecting forests. According to Yemi Katerere of UN-REDD, a United Nations program, “Implemented correctly, [REDD] holds promise for being a win-win-win solution, with climate, people and forests coming out as simultaneous winners.” The deal may be approved by the end of the week. So, what’s not to like?

While REDD is a worthy concept, in practice, it may have been oversold. It has often been repeated that land degradation—e.g., forest fires and clear-cutting–account for 20% of global carbon emissions. Yet, recent estimates suggest it may be closer to 15%, and the percentage of atmospheric carbon that is absorbed by natural sinks is declining over time. So, the benefits of forest conservation will not be as great as originally expected. Furthermore, most will need to come from just two countries: Indonesia and Brazil, which are responsible for more than 60% of land-based emissions. To work, such a scheme would have to protect a forest in perpetuity (or until society weans itself from fossil fuels) and avoid “leakage” – the displacement of deforestation from one area to another.

Leaving aside for the moment that humanity has not proven capable of managing anything in perpetuity, the more immediate danger of REDD is in two areas: rights abuses as lands once managed by local and indigenous forest communities are appropriated by governments or corporations to receive REDD credits; and the current understanding of what constitutes a forest in the Copenhagen negotiations.

Let’s take the first issue. History suggests that whenever land valuation rises, moneyed interests win and traditional inhabitants lose. The colonization of frontier lands – whether by ranchers in the Amazon or by settlers of the American Great Plains 150 years ago – changes land valuation, and history shows that the traditional stewards of these lands are expelled or confined to reservations. In the past five years, with the rise of biofuels, there have been numerous cases where traditional forest or pasture lands of rural communities were put under cultivation for biofuel crops such as jatropha or sugar cane, and declared off limits to their former inhabitants. This is on top of other land leasing arrangements by foreign governments in places like Africa that have abundant land, but lack other foreign investment.

In other regions, traditional land management practices such as swidden (also known as “slash and burn”) are coming under fire. According to Janice Alcorn of the nonprofit Rights and Resources, in Thailand indigenous farmers have been put in jail “because their swidden agriculture contributes to global warming–a new way to take rights and land.” However, two recent studies suggest that traditional peoples are often the best land stewards. A recent World Bank study found that when areas are designated for multiple uses, they are often better safeguarded than if they are “protected.” Areas designated for use by indigenous people are better yet. Another study, which recently appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that when communities own forest lands, they tend to defer using them, improving their livelihood and increasing carbon storage.

As for the definition of forest lands and sustainable management: Several countries have succeeded in including plantation forests in the definition of “forests” that would receive REDD credits. This opens the door to widespread conversion of native forests to palm or other plantations, all under the guise of “climate-friendly” development. The group Global Witness recently published a revealing report on the obvious problems this brings up.

Several groups —UN-REDD, the Climate, Community Biodiversity Alliance and Natural Justice–have developed social guidelines for REDD that seek to ensure equity and participation. While these are a step in the right direction, my concern is that institutional mechanisms for protecting local and indigenous communities in many forest-rich developing regions are weak, and the guidelines may be widely disregarded. Even the best safeguards cannot create good governance from scratch.

To ensure that the estimated $30 billion that could be generated for REDD on the carbon markets does not lead to abuses or denial of access to indigenous and local communities, I would recommend the creation of an independent non-UN body to allocate carbon credits to countries. This independent body would ensure that carbon credits go only to those governments that have a strong record of respect for human rights and that have participatory institutional mechanisms to ensure that communities are involved in REDD-related activities. This could be modeled on the criteria and indicator system used by the Millennium Challenge Corporation for setting up compacts between the United States and least developed countries.

This arrangement would include mechanisms for the protection of forest dwellers, and a forest monitoring system, using remote sensing and land-based measurements. To address the “leakage” issue, it would funnel carbon credits and development assistance to countries based on overall forest cover trends, rather than specific projects. While carbon credits could and should still be provided directly to community groups that manage forests well, the focus would be to reward countries that, on balance, preserve forest resources while respecting rights.

In an ideal world, the focus of Copenhagen would have remained on emissions reductions among industrialized countries. Yet REDD appears to be the one real agreement that will be made there. If it comes into being, all efforts should be made to channel these new resources in ways that help build appropriate governance structures and foster a respect for traditional land holders, while also protecting the forest and the trees.

Alex de Sherbinin is a senior research associate at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network.

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Jeanette NormanHarry JonasJavier M. ClaparolsJo AndersonUjala Qadir Recent comment authors
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Ujala Qadir
Ujala Qadir

With regard to the fact that the percentage of carbon uptake by sinks is decreasing, I was wondering how important that is when you consider the amount stored not only in trees, but in the soil that is kept in tact below them. In the SAR, it was stated that in addition to the 330 Gt C that is stored in trees (both dead and alive and below and above ground), double that amount is stored in the soil below.

Jo Anderson
Jo Anderson

The very idea of measuring the carbon released by trees as a problem in this “equation” seems disturbing.

The climate issue is not because of trees. Mentioning this as a likely culprit, and weighing it as a legitimate and troublesome contributor disturbs me.

Are we missing something here?

Javier M. Claparols

Too much attention is on REDD and not on reducing CO2 emissions is very troubling. Even worse is allowing Indigenous Forest to be felled and Palm Oil and other PLANTATIONS classified as Forest!

Harry Jonas

While Natural Justice supports the development of social and environmental guidelines, such as those recently developed by WRI among others, we agree with you, Alex, that communities cannot rely on these instruments alone. Guidelines can only provide generic advice about how communities should be consulted about any intended REDD projects on their lands. Communities also require information about REDD and legal empowerment to advocate for their rights, as guaranteed by national law and/or set out in international instruments such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We propose that any REDD project be subject to the free,… Read more »

Jeanette Norman

Dear Earth Institute, A solution to the rainforest problem might be found in the second paragraph below–of which perhaps you can urge your readers to write to their representatives: People who have made correct predictions in the past, and/or have good BBB ratings, predict that another Great Depression could arise from the popping of our national debt and money printing bubbles. The latter could eventually cause hyper-inflation such as was seen in the early 1920’s Weimar Republic. We must stop printing more money—or we risk starvation, social unrest, and threats to our democratic freedoms. As for the national debt, I… Read more »