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Study Projects Increased Conflict And Speculation In Tropical Forests Despite Copenhagen Accord

January 22, 2010

Unclear land rights, corruption threaten to undermine success of promised REDD funds

As environmental and political leaders struggle to determine how to move forward from the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, a new report by an international coalition of top forest organizations warns that the failure to set legal standards and safeguards for a mechanism to transfer funds to forest-rich nations may trigger a sharp rise in speculation and corruption, placing unprecedented pressures on tropical forest lands and the communities that inhabit them.

The report, released today by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) at an event at Chatham House, concludes that unclear land rights in some countries, coupled with threats from corruption, could block success of the US$3.5 billion pledged for a program to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by preventing the unfettered destruction of tropical forests.

The authors of The End of the Hinterland: Forests, Conflict and Climate Change cite numerous studies suggesting that in 2010 the potential for enormous profits will lead to increased competition over forest resources between powerful global governments and investors on the one hand, and local actors on the other, resulting in new and resurging violent conflict.

“Throwing heaps of money into a system without agreeing to any framework or standards has the potential to unleash a wave of speculation unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetime,” said Andy White, Coordinator of RRI and one of the lead authors of the report. “The result will be chaos on the carbon markets, as well as chaos in the field. It will be like the Wild, Wild West.”

Figuring prominently in the Copenhagen Accord last December, the initiative known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation””or REDD””was heralded as one of the rare points of consensus going into Copenhagen.

Negotiators hoped REDD might provide low-cost and easy emissions reductions and offsets for developed countries, as well as finance and investment for developing, forest-rich countries. However, their failure to agree on legal standards and safeguards for implementing REDD schemes suggests that there will be no uniformity of carbon governance across these countries. The study says that in this situation, the inevitable diversion of funds, land grabs, and conflict will limit reductions in forest emissions and greatly worsen the plight of forest peoples in the South.

“Forests will remain remote from the centers of power, but they will be carved up, controlled, and used as global political bargaining chips like never before,” said Jeffrey Hatcher, Policy Analyst for RRI and co-author of the report. “Unless governments adopt the necessary tenure and governance reforms that will lead to a reduction in emissions, the world faces a devastating back-slide into a ‘business as usual’ mode of thinking.”

The authors of the new report argue that the era of forests as “hinterlands,” or remote areas largely ignored except as a supply of cheap natural resources, is swiftly coming to an end. Commodities like food, fuel, fiber and carbon are becoming exponentially more valuable, and new global satellite and technology provides the tools to monitor, assess, and potentially control forests remotely.

As forest areas boom in value, investors, traders, and northern governments will contest for these lands. Governments still declare ownership of about 65 percent of the world’s forests, while only about 9 percent are legally owned or designated for use by communities and indigenous peoples. And national and local leaders may become the target of efforts to use bribery to obtain forest-related agreements that fail to consider the rights of those most affected.

The End of the Hinterland provides examples of conflicts between forest communities and outsiders:

    * In Peru, the “Bagua Massacre,” a violent clash between indigenous protestors and military police along the jungle back roads of the Peruvian Amazon, left nearly 100 dead. Sparked by the government’s allocation of ancestral forests lands for oil and gas exploitation, a coalition of indigenous groups occupied key oil installations and roads for several months in protest to a series of presidential decrees that violated their rights to these lands. After 57 days, President Alan Garcia violently evicted the protestors and upheld the decrees.

    * In India, despite the enactment in 2009 of a forests right law that was hailed as a landmark for tribal peoples and forest dwellers, reports from the field show little real change. Minimal effort has been made to alert villagers to the law’s provisions, and those who have managed to file claims are only given a fraction of the area under occupation/cultivation with no opportunity to appeal. This is taking place amid escalating confrontation between Maoist rebels and the Government, and many believe the real objective of the Government’s “Operation Green Hunt” is to clear the indigenous forest dweller population, known as adivasi, from mineral-rich lands so that the Government can hand the lands over to the corporations.

“A counterbalance to these threats comes from the growing movements and high-level organization of local communities and indigenous peoples who are insisting on respect for their rights,” said Marcus Colchester of the Forests Peoples Programme. “If their rights are not safeguarded in line with international law, REDD will not work.”

Armed with new technologies and tools, such as GPS devices and GIS mapping, indigenous peoples have taken steps to obtain legal recognition of rights to their lands, especially in Latin America, though Africa and Asia remain far behind; it would take 270 years, for example, for the tenure distribution in the Congo Basin to match that of the Amazon Basin.

“The COP15 fiasco demonstrates that the existing world order offers Africa nothing,” said Kyeretwie Opoku of Civic Response-Ghana. “Africa cannot afford a ‘business as usual’ approach. Without restructuring power relations between the global North and South, between corporations and peoples, and between national elites and marginalized communities, no amount of climate or REDD funding will prevent a regional and perhaps global social disaster. No matter how challenging this might be, civil society must mobilize for an entirely new direction for our forests and our people. We really have nothing to lose.”

The report notes as well encouraging signs of progress on tenure reform in countries such as China and Brazil. China’s recent forest land reform, commenced in the early 2000s, allowed collective forest owners to reallocate their use rights to households or to keep them as collective. In 2009, a national-level survey showed that the impact of these reforms have affected more than 400 million landowners and over 100 million hectares of forests, making it arguably the largest tenure reform in history.

In Brazil, the Supreme Court in March 2009 formally recognized the land rights of the Rapos Serra do Sol indigenous reserve, and a legal study of Brazilian and international law concluded that the Surui tribe can claim legal ownership of forest-carbon rights associated with their lands in Rondônia, Brazil.

Nevertheless, despite significant advances in 2009 around tenure reform in certain regions of the world, the report concludes that for real emissions reductions around REDD programs to happen, policymakers must invest in strengthening local organizations, governance, and rights, rather than invest in the same business and development models that failed in the past.

One significant risk to the future of forests, according to the report, is relying on global institutions like the World Bank to become a conduit for REDD or other climate funds. The authors warn that as a government-owned institution with limited power to move its member countries to adopt global standards, the World Bank is inherently more likely to support the conventional status quo development agenda, rather than support the progressive change and local initiatives that are urgently needed for REDD to be effective.

“If the new funds are painted as ‘REDD’ but end up going through the old conventional development models, then we are simply engaging in ‘business as usual,’” said White. “Taking action now to ensure that the new era of forest reform will be locally-led and rights based, rather than externally controlled and corrupt, will determine whether forest communities are protected and global emissions targets are achieved.”

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