REDD alert

An international forest trading scheme claims to be a breakthrough in conservation. But in relying on market forces to fight global warming, write Deepak Rughani & Almuth Ernsting, it may simply repeat past mistakes.

Reduced Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries, or REDD, was heralded as a breakthrough in forest protection by reporters at UN-led climate talks in Bali last month. But its widespread denouncement by civil society groups in the developing world and NGOs including rainforest groups and indigenous peoples’ organisations tells a very different story. At the Bali conference there were three demonstrations against REDD – one of them specifically against a related World Bank project, the Forest Carbon Partnership. 

REDD and its closely allied “Payments for Ecosystem Services” hope to put a price on standing forest by tying forest protection to market mechanisms. The logic is that if the price is set high enough, there will be more interest in protecting forests than in logging or selling plantation rights. However, there are several problems with this logic.

First, the scheme depends primarily upon carbon trading to generate its funds; a system which has proved to be so inherently dysfunctional that after eight years of the World Bank Prototype Carbon Fund and two-and-a-half years of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Joint Implementation (JI) and European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) the global rate of emissions increases from fossil fuels has doubled and emissions are rising in virtually all developed countries. Using markets does not deal with the drivers of destruction or put in place adequate safeguards to ensure ecosystem protection.

The Kyoto Protocol left rainforests out of carbon trading for well-founded reasons that have still not been addressed. These include the illegitimate transfer of land rights and the displacement (or “leakage”) of logging into new, often pristine regions.  

Indigenous rights

Of course, some will benefit from REDD. These will be the polluting corporations, certain governments and the logging, mining and plantation companies. They will all be paid to attempt to reduce their levels of destruction; payments that effectively reaffirm their right to pollute or deforest. Who are the losers? They are the indigenous peoples and forest communities, who have a long track-record as forest custodians and represent the true balancing force in forest protection.

The position of indigenous peoples is weakened by REDD because financial payments are an acknowledgement of land or utility rights; where the money goes, the land rights go too. There are already reports from Sumatra that Shell, Lamborghini and other corporations are seeking land rights over forested land in order to benefit from their commercial carbon-sink value. The World Bank is also taking the lead in carbon trading in forests, despite its dismal record on emissions trading. According to an internal report by senior bank staff and an independent inspection panel, the World Bank encouraged foreign companies to log large swathes of the Congo rainforest – the world’s second largest forest after the Amazon. This undermines the rights and livelihoods of 40 million people who depend upon the forest, squandering tens of millions of dollars of aid money in the process. The World Bank executive has so far refused to draw conclusions from that report and to revise its policy.

The World Bank launched its Forest Carbon Partnership Facility at the UNFCCC meeting in Bali despite having had no prior consultation with indigenous peoples. There was no acknowledgement of the bank’s track record of ignoring and abusing the rights of indigenous peoples and investing massively in rainforest destruction and fossil fuels.

Deforestation bans

There is a systemic problem at work: both carbon trading and trading in forests encourage continued economic growth. Even if we were in a position of zero emissions, economic growth would demand ever more land and raw materials at a time when we are facing multiple systems failure, not only imminent climatic failure. Ecosystems will inevitably be further eroded by a carbon trading model unless something stronger than market forces ensures that all ecosystems and biodiversity are protected. 

The Amazon rainforest is particularly vulnerable. While climate models used by the IPCC do not predict its collapse for a few decades, these models are only based on the impact of climate change on rainforest stability. There is no inclusion of the impact of deforestation, yet 10,000 to 14,000 square kilometres of rainforest are destroyed every year, and an even greater area is destroyed by fire. Rainfall pattern disruption including droughts, dry season wildfires and the savannisation of parts of the interior are the early warning signs of dieback and collapse. All of these phenomena are now present annually in the Amazon. Lose the Amazon and we lose the war on climate, as 120 gigatonnes of carbon are released and the rainfall cycle across the Americas collapses. The truth is we need to safeguard all old growth forest ecosystems, not the 50% claimed optimistically to be achievable under REDD, a figure which, if reliant upon market mechanisms can only be sustained in a buoyant economy. As oil depletion and climate change take hold, the economy will be plunged into permanent recession – if not depression – making cash transfers under REDD precarious to say the least. Default on annual payments at any stage will be seen as a licence to deforest.  

There is evidence that deforestation bans and moratoria can work: China, Thailand, Costa Rica and Paraguay have all implemented at least partially successful bans or moratoria. Paraguay achieved an 85% success record in its eastern territory within a single year. Logging companies and some governments are even now calling for payments for non-deforestation. One reporter writing for the Jakarta Post in Bali responded by describing REDD as a set up for “blackmail”. Deforestation bans, however, will only work comprehensively if the underlying causes of deforestation are addressed at the same time. The over-consumption of agricultural and forest products, the current rush to biofuels, the corruption and the lack of guarantees for protection of land rights of indigenous and other forest peoples all need to be addressed.

False solutions

It looks increasingly likely that REDD will end up discredited as yet another “false solution” just as the tide is beginning to turn against carbon-offsetting and biofuels, and carbon trading is being increasingly questioned. But before that happens the Bali “roadmap” has worse in store. REDD is linked to support for vast industrial tree plantations, which are wrongly classified as “afforestation and reforestation”. Clear-felling followed by the planting of eucalyptus monocultures will continue to be classified as “reforestation” and “forest protection” will thus continue to drive the destruction of the biodiverse natural forests and other essential ecosystems – and of the livelihoods of ever larger numbers of communities.

However, a ray of light is emerging. Bali saw a strong call for a systemic approach to stabilising climate and protecting forests by Friends of the Earth International, the Global Forest Coalition, the World Rainforest Movement, Via Campesina and nearly 60 other organisations who signed the Forest Declaration. The declaration calls for a genuine solution, which combines the twin needs of verifiable fossil-fuel emissions cuts and the total protection of old growth forest ecosystems. 

The Forest Declaration is accessible here. Organisations wanting to sign should email simonelovera [a]

Deepak Rughani & Almuth Ernsting – Biofuelwatch

Homepage photo by Chris Seufert