Study Says Pacts Protecting Forests
Must Consider People

Deforestation amounts to a double blow to global climate stability, since vanished trees can neither take up atmospheric carbon dioxide nor store volumes of carbon aboveground and in their root systems. 

Recent estimates suggest that about 15 percent of the ongoing rise in greenhouse gas emissions is linked to world deforestation (when the extra carbon emitted from forests underlain by peat is included). And a slew of analyses—from U.S.-based McKinsey & Co.; The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, prepared for the government of the United Kingdom; and other reports—have suggested that avoiding future deforestation, particularly in the developing tropics, could be one of the least-expensive paths to reducing projected climate change.

At the most recent round of international climate change negotiations in Cancún, in December, one of the few successes negotiators could point to was an initial agreement on an outline to do just that.

Dubbed REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), the approach being contemplated can look like a harmonious marriage of environmental and economic blessings. The general idea: rich industrialized nations (or their emitting industries) somehow pay poorer nations (or entities within them) to protect and maintain their forests via direct payments as part of a credit-based carbon cap-and-trade system. Developing nations, particularly those in the tropical south, win a flood of new income. By picking what amounts to the low-hanging fruit, the richer industrialized nations of the developed north win a cheaper route to greenhouse gas mitigation. 

The Economist, in fact, has proclaimed REDD “Tropical forests’ best hope.”     

Nevertheless, a detailed new analysis by some 60 experts on forest governance suggests that “top-down” international agreements on saving forests have done little good in the past and that any REDD pact, unless greatly broadened, would likely suffer a similar fate. Presented at the 9th session of the United Nations Forum on Forests in late January and early February, the study, prepared by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), was titled “Embracing Complexity: Meeting the Challenges of Forest Governance.” It noted that past international pacts, such as the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, had largely failed to halt rampant deforestation because they ignored the needs of people living in and around the forests as well as the multiple layers of factors influencing deforestation, including demand for agricultural land in a hungry, increasingly populated world.

According to the chair of the Expert Panel on the International Forest Regime, University of Saskatchewan political scientist Jeremy Rayner, the nub of the 172-page IUFRO report is this: forests are more than sinks for carbon. REDD’s central flaw, he says, is that the proposed program “continues to explicitly value carbon storage above the improvement of forest conditions and livelihoods.”

Negotiators had already begun to acknowledge at least some of that. The preliminary framework agreed to at Cancún referred to a program called REDD+, with the “plus” including “sustainable forest management” and “enhancement of carbon stocks.”

“But it’s still too narrow. It doesn’t capture what we need to know about forest ecosystems and the people who live in and around them,” says Benjamin Cashore, professor of environmental governance and political science at F&ES and a co-author of the study.

Constance McDermott, James Martin Senior Research Fellow in Forest Governance at the University of Oxford and another co-author of the study, says that unless the process finds ways to address factors such as “global consumption, including the growing demand for food and biofuels, and the problems of land scarcity, REDD will fail to arrest environmental degradation and will heighten poverty.”

“If we decide to pay a large corporation not to cut a forest down to create an oil palm plantation, have we just enriched private capital in one spot at the expense of an indigenous community in another?”
Benjamin Cashore

Cashore says primary flaws include the large gaps in knowledge about how even to begin effectively implementing an international REDD program, since a transfer of funds for environmental protection on this scale is unprecedented.

“Here’s a metaphor,” he says. “If you’ve ever seen a bunch of five-year-olds trying to score in a soccer game, they’re all very eager, but they’re all clustered around the ball like a bunch of ants. Later they learn how to spread out and use strategies. By high school, they’re executing long passes and using better strategies. We’re at about the kindergarten level of understanding now. We need to figure out fast how to get to the high school level or beyond.”

He added: “We don’t even know what scale works best. Should the program be nation-focused? Will it work to say to a nation, here’s your baseline, don’t cut down forests beyond that? Or should money go to fund projects in a region? Should we just pay a company not to log? In that case, how do you know the exploitation doesn’t just pop up elsewhere, a kind of ‘waterbed effect’?” (Formally, that waterbed effect, where damage is avoided in one place but the chainsaws or torches just move to another, is known as “leakage.”)

And there are fundamental questions of justice: since money will always be limited, who gets it? “If we decide to pay a large corporation not to cut a forest down to create an oil palm plantation,” asks Cashore, “have we just enriched private capital in one spot at the expense of an indigenous community in another?”

The stakes could hardly be greater. Although there are some hopeful signs that deforestation has slowed in some nations, notably Brazil, the “Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010” by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization stated that the rate of worldwide deforestation remained “alarmingly high.” Just in the past decade, South America lost an average of 4 million hectares (about 10 million acres) each year, with Africa losing 3.4 million hectares (about 8.5 million acres) annually. Combined, the total loss of forests from those two continents alone over just a decade was about six times the area of Pennsylvania.

For industrial emitters, early estimates suggest that paying for avoided deforestation could be a bargain compared to technological fixes aimed at curbing emissions. Estimates of the cost of, say, capturing and storing carbon from a power plant run as high as $115 per metric ton. One U.N. working group has estimated that REDD projects in some areas could save the same amount of carbon for as little as $2 to $4 per metric ton. Estimates run higher in other cases; for example, it could cost as much as $30 per metric ton to prevent a forest from being converted to high-value oil palm plantations in Indonesia. But even that looks like a bargain. And it’s one that could bring a bonanza to nations on the receiving end: the United Nations has calculated that “financial flows … from reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation could reach up to $30 billion a year.”

The approach appeals to a broad spectrum of advocates with interests well beyond the economic. 

Speaking via a live video feed at the December Cancún meeting, primatologist Jane Goodall pointed to the benefits of an “integrated approach that combines poverty reduction; sustainable forest management, especially by local communities; conservation of species; and protection of carbon sequestration.”

It’s the “local communities” part about which last winter’s IUFRO report raised some of its highest red flags. Forests are inhabited, for the most part, by indigenous peoples. According to the Forest Peoples Programme, an advocacy group based in the United Kingdom, nearly 12 percent of the planet is covered by forests, much of it inhabited by communities that “have developed ways of life and traditional knowledge that are attuned to their forest environments.”

The group notes that forest inhabitants have already been harmed by governments and commercial interests that have treated the forests as “empty lands” for wide-scale development, including logging, agribusiness, mining, oil and gas drilling, flooding from dam construction and even, sometimes, “conservation schemes to establish wilderness reserves.”

Oxford’s McDermott notes that a program overly focused on the value of carbon could lead to “further exclusion of indigenous peoples from their forests and the criminalization of their traditional livelihood.”

One evident problem identified in the recent IUFRO report: how even to define who should own the right to any carbon credits? Indigenous communities often don’t hold any formal title to ancestral lands. The report cited evidence that “land grabs” for carbon rights “are already occurring in many countries without consultation with local forest users” and warned of the prospect for further injustice if “traditional, legal activities are curtailed by measures to maintain or enhance carbon stocks.”

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has made a similar argument about the risks to people that REDD could pose, noting that there has already been resistance by local people to leaving areas that are being proposed as carbon storage “sinks.”

The Indigenous Peoples’ Network of Malaysia, for example, has expressed worries that REDD-based programs, including a plantation forest proposal by the central government, will endow control of lands to timber companies with good political connections. 

“Since most of our land is not titled, it will be very easy for the government to designate areas within our territories for REDD schemes.”
Adrian Lasimbang

 “Since most of our land is not titled, it will be very easy for the government to designate areas within our territories for REDD schemes,” says Adrian Lasimbang, the network’s president. “We will lose and they will make lots of money from these deals.”  

The IUFRO study also pointed to the need to resolve questions about how to be certain of “free prior and informed consent.” Even if REDD claims to embrace such consent, said the study, it can’t be valid “without an explanation of REDD in terms that are meaningful to stakeholders.” Will buyers of carbon rights, for example, make completely clear that, in exchange for a one-time or limited-time payment, they may be buying the rights for decades, or centuries, if not in perpetuity? If there’s to be compensation, who gets compensated? Should all previous users of natural resources be compensated for any losses and, if so, by how much?

To add to the complications, the drivers of forest loss vary among regions and countries. According to a 2008 report by the World Resources Institute, fully half of deforestation on the planet is occurring in just two nations, Indonesia and Brazil, but for different reasons. In Indonesia, rampant deforestation continues to open up land for oil palm plantations. In Brazil, road construction into rainforest areas has provided access to players that include pirate loggers but also grileiros, or “land-grabbers,” who seize forestland and convert it to pasture for cattle grazing. 

Although voluntary versions of forest carbon offsets have been bought and sold since a market began to develop in the early 1990s, most of the early projects were focused on reforestation or afforestation (planting trees in areas that hadn’t been forested previously or, at least, recently). The notion of awarding credits for avoiding assumed future losses of existing forest was not, in fact, even included as part of the greenhouse gas reduction program under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Some environmental groups vehemently opposed the idea, concerned that an abundance of cheap credits granted for protection of existing forests would swamp any market for carbon reduction credits, allowing major emitting nations and their industries to weasel out of obligations to actually reduce emissions at little expense. 

These groups were concerned that the process could end up a sham, with emissions never being meaningfully reduced in the industrialized world, even while supposed protections for forests in developing nations failed due to corruption, illegal logging or political upheaval. How, in any case, to know with any rigor or accuracy that protected areas were actually being protected? The fears were hardly groundless. In Indonesia’s West Kalimantan, vast stretches of lowland forest that should have been completely off-limits because they were within the boundaries of national parks have been devastated by illegal logging.

The IUFRO authors were able to point to some successes that might serve as initial models for action at various levels of governance. For instance, at a regional level the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has established a multination program to track illegal logging and coordinate forest research. At the consumer level, programs designed to credibly certify wood products as coming from sustainable sources, such as the one developed by the Forest Stewardship Council, have begun to make inroads.

The United States in 2008 passed an amendment to the 110-year-old Lacey Act, which “prohibits trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold.” The amendment has established that illegally harvested lumber and wood products are covered as well. Wood products importers and other buyers in the United States now can face criminal charges if they cannot verify that “due care” was taken to ensure that the wood comes from legal sources in their country of origin. The European Union is making a similar effort to curb illegal imports of forest products.

Cashore points to the Lacey Act amendment as an example of how multiple stakeholders can help prevent deforestation in a more bottom-up fashion. Environmental groups and the American timber and paper industry (which loses profits to cheap, illegal imports) lobbied together for passage, even though the groups are otherwise often at loggerheads. With programs already in place to certify wood products as sustainably grown, “we think focusing on legality may produce broader certification and greater consumer certainty. If you make an effort to have your wood credibly certified as legal, that starts to look like due care,” says Cashore.        

The IUFRO authors note that they aren’t rejecting REDD+ as a concept. They call, however, for a more comprehensive “forests-plus” framework that would focus international efforts more on stimulating forest protection action on multiple levels, ranging from forest communities to national and regional efforts to consumers, “including from the start,” as Cashore puts it, “a broad group of stakeholders and institutions inside and outside forests.”

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Top of Page | Spring 2011 | environment:YALE