Deforestation causes about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but tackling the problem has proved as difficult as reducing fossil fuel-based emissions. The most promising current approach is a proposal called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which will be a centerpiece of the December 2009 international meetings on climate change in Copenhagen. REDD is meant to help poor countries reduce deforestation by enabling aid organizations, NGOs, corporations, and governments to buy carbon credits generated from activities that keep forests standing. The buyers could then apply the credits toward their own quotas or trade them in carbon markets.
REDD is a critical policy tool because slowing deforestation can simultaneously help to put the brakes on catastrophic climate change, slow species loss by protecting habitat, and promote sustainable development. And while the technical challenges are immense, some experts believe that REDD may be the one coalition-building facet of a hotly debated post-Kyoto climate agreement.
But some key affected parties have serious doubts. Forests provide homes and livelihoods for millions of the world's poorest people. Many traditional forest dwellers and indigenous groups do not own the forests they live in and have voiced substantial opposition to REDD. In 2008, indigenous leaders railed against their own representative body, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, for what they saw as a failure to represent them in the climate change debate. The Indigenous People's Global Summit on Climate Change last April produced a declaration that REDD must "secure the recognition and implementation of the human rights of Indigenous Peoples, including security of land tenure, ownership, recognition of land title according to traditional ways, uses, and customary laws, and the multiple benefits of forests for climate, ecosystems, and Peoples before taking any action."
According to the Washington, D.C.-based Rights and Resources Initiative, 80 percent of forests in the world's 30 most forested countries are state-owned. While most of the developing world's forests are owned by governments, the people living in far-flung forests and dense jungles are the de facto managers because governments, especially in Africa, cannot control what happens in their vast hinterlands. Legally, these forest dwellers are squatters.
Yet forest ownership is going largely unnoticed by REDD's principal negotiators. If REDD makes forests more valuable, some locals will benefit from having strong partners in conservation groups and dedicated governments, but a great many others may be overrun in the scramble to secure REDD benefits. From a government perspective it may make more sense to further centralize forests and make decisions about who gets what from the national capital. If REDD dollars accumulate nationally under existing tenure regimes, locals will have to depend on the benevolence of their governments to keep their forest homes and to realize any profit from leaving the trees standing. The responsibility to ensure that the rights of traditional forest dwellers are respected then falls to the donor countries and organizations that are behind REDD. The best way to do this would be by making REDD participation conditional on a thorough examination of existing tenure legislation and a rewriting of unjust laws. Yet such a polarizing stance could leave the Copenhagen negotiations in a stalemate.
The second-best option might be to work for traditional rights bilaterally, as donors partner with REDD governments. Norway, for instance, has made a US$12 million commitment to Tanzania's REDD activities, and could hinge its support on specific land tenure goals while assisting Tanzania in carrying them out. This is also a way to guarantee the best return on an important investment, because many developing country governments will never be able to control what happens in their remote forests without local support. Making partnerships conditional on activities like comprehensive mapping of forest ownership, forest uses, and even the locations of forest dwelling groups can help lay the groundwork for drafting empowering land legislation. Real, legal tenure may be the cornerstone of forest conservation and what dictates if REDD will function or fail.
Zachary Wells and Kelly Moore Brands are practicing conservationists and Masters graduates of the Monterey Institute of International Studies program in international environmental policy.
Wells, Zachary, and Kelly Moore Brands. "Seeing REDD: a useful climate-change policy tool, or a license to deny forest dwellers' rights?" World Watch 22.6 (2009): 29. Academic OneFile. Web. 21 Nov. 2009.
(Album / Profile) http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=10031&id=1661531726&l=cf90f7df9c