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CLIMATE CHANGE: New Forest Agreement – REDD Hot Issue at Cancun

Emilio Godoy* - IPS/TerraViva

CANCÚN, Mexico, Dec 3 2010 (IPS) - A large number of social organisations are not pleased with the international convention on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) being negotiated at the COP16 climate summit.

Hotel expansion in Cancún has destroyed coastal mangroves.  Credit: Diana Cariboni/IPS

Hotel expansion in Cancún has destroyed coastal mangroves. Credit: Diana Cariboni/IPS

“Our concern is that the agreement will fail to recognise the rights of indigenous peoples, and we want it to include our right to be consulted,” native Panamanian Marcial Arias, secretary general of the Foundation for the Promotion of Indigenous Knowledge (FPCI), told TerraViva.

Negotiations on the REDD programme are at the centre of debate at the COP16 (the 16th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), being held Nov. 29-Dec. 10 in the southeastern Mexican resort of Cancún.

Dozens of academic and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from around the world are opposed to the approval of the new global mechanism, dubbed REDD+, to curb deforestation, because of fears that it would exacerbate the dispossession of indigenous communities and theft of genetic material from the forests, and become a lucrative business for the most polluting companies.

The programme, initially launched in 2008 by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the U.N. Development and Environment Programmes (UNDP and UNEP, respectively), is aimed at conservation of biodiversity and boosting carbon storage in forests.

Deforestation wipes out 13 million hectares of forest per year worldwide and generates some 1.5 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the main greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

The REDD initiative, which is being implemented in Panama, Bolivia, Paraguay, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Tanzania, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, combats deforestation, reduces CO2 emissions and promotes access by participating countries to technical and financial support.

The programme “seeks to take over tropical forests; it has become the new version of carbon credits,” Camila Moreno, representing Friends of the Earth-Brazil at the summit, told TerraViva.

Carbon credits are certified emission reduction units which industrialised nations can buy from countries in the developing South and count towards their greenhouse gas emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

The World Bank, which has become the foremost global carbon trader while financing fossil fuel extraction, recognises that the NGOs’ concerns are valid and need to be addressed.

Warren Evans, head of the World Bank’s environment department, told TerraViva in Cancún that these concerns have existed since the debate on REDD began, and are a healthy contribution because they can help avoid mistakes while there is still an opportunity for them to be addressed.

The multilateral lender set up a Carbon Fund to finance REDD+ projects. In 2009, more than two billion dollars were spent on activities to mitigate polluting emissions.

At COP15, held in Copenhagen a year ago, six countries pledged financing for a 3.5 billion dollar fund to finance REDD+ programmes.

In March, another one billion dollars were contributed, and a 10-nation committee was set up to head a world programme against deforestation.

A guide, titled Perspectives on REDD+, was launched Thursday at Cancún by the United Nations. “It will be important to set ambitious but reasonable goals for what REDD+ can do for forests. This can be best articulated and analysed at the national level where relevant approaches and tools can be applied to address risks and to enhance the benefits of REDD+,” the publication says.

The 12-page document stresses the importance of respecting the free, informed, prior consent of indigenous people in projects of this kind.

Mechanisms like those proposed by REDD+ can provoke serious conflicts over land ownership, the territorial rights of native communities and the development of plantation forestry.

For this reason, indigenous organisations want any agreement to be subject to the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Apparently the REDD+ programme will be voluntary, in association with national programmes to curb deforestation, that will however be held to general standards.

Mexico, Brazil and Panama are designing national REDD+ initiatives. In Mexico some 1,000 community projects are under way, most of them geared towards the exploitation of forest resources.

“There are few certainties or safeguards. We don’t know how we are to be compensated for not felling trees, or how we will receive those benefits. We feel we are not being taken into account,” said Arias, a Kuna Indian.

At the conference in Cancún there is some doubt about whether the participating countries envision REDD+ as a means of mitigating CO2 emissions, or as a mechanism to reduce them. In the first case, polluting countries would simply be investing in developing nations’ forests, to compensate for the emissions they are incapable of curbing themselves.

Meanwhile, some environmental groups want the system to be extended to other ecosystems, like mangroves and other coastal habitats that also provide important environmental services.

Sediments in coastal ecosystems sequester and store large amounts of carbon, much more than plants, Emily Pidgeon, head of the marine climate change programme at the NGO Conservation International (CI), told TerraViva.

According to CI, coastal areas are losing close to six percent of their surface area per year, and they provide environmental services worth over 25 billion dollars a year.

A study by CI researchers, presented Thursday at the climate summit, indicates that if well-funded, the REDD+ mechanism could reduce the extinction rate among 2,500 forest species by up to 80 percent.

With funding of between 28 billion and 31 billion dollars annually for five years, REDD+ would decrease total extinctions by 78 to 82 percent, while with minimal funding (between 5 billion and 6 billion dollars a year), forest species extinctions would be reduced by 43 to 49 percent, according to the report.

(*This story appears in the IPS TerraViva online published for the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Cancún.)

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