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Indigenous Rights

Carbon-Cutting Initiative May Harm Indigenous Communities

U.S. Native American leader Tom Goldtooth. Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS

WASHINGTON, Mar 20 2014 (IPS) - Civil society and advocacy groups are warning that a prominent carbon-reduction initiative, aimed at curbing global emissions, is undermining land tenure rights for indigenous communities, putting their livelihoods at risk.

On Wednesday, an international dialogue here focused on the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation Plus (REDD+) programme, overseen primarily by the United Nations and World Bank.

“As the carbon in living trees becomes another marketable commodity, the deck is loaded against forest peoples." -- Arvind Khare

The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a coalition of organisations focused on land tenure and policy reforms, presented new research highlighting the lack of legal protection and safeguards for indigenous communities living in forests.

“As the carbon in living trees becomes another marketable commodity, the deck is loaded against forest peoples and presents an opening for an unprecedented carbon grab by governments and investors,” said Arvind Khare, RRI’s executive director.

“Every other natural-resource investment on the international stage has disenfranchised indigenous peoples and local communities, but we were hoping REDD would deliver a different outcome. Their rights to their forests may be few and far between, but their rights to the carbon in the forests are non-existent.”

REDD+ provides a series of financial incentives and rewards for developing countries to reduce their carbon emissions resulting from deforestation.

The World Bank plays an active role in REDD+ through its Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) and the Forest Investment Programme (FIP), both of which are designed to encourage better forest conservation and stewardship.

However, watchdog groups say Latin American, African and Asian indigenous communities living in forests have yet to receive any REDD+ revenue streams from their respective governments.

“There has been no transfer of funds to the [indigenous] communities through the governmental REDD processes,” Khare told IPS. “And therefore, in most of these countries … no money has been transferred to the communities through these two major bodies [REDD+ and FCPF], which are actually piloting REDD in the world.”

RRI’s new research, which examines 23 countries, finds that only Mexico and Guatemala have laws meant to clarify tenure rights over carbon. Meanwhile, none of the countries have a legal framework or institutions in place to determine who receives REDD+ benefits for carbon emission reductions.

One-eighth the deforestation

In order to ensure that indigenous communities receive an appropriate share of the financial benefits from REDD+, many of the participants at Wednesday’s dialogue called on the programme’s overseers to explicitly link carbon rights with land tenure rights.

“Tenure must be a centrepiece of REDD …That recognition of local rights is essential to the viability of carbon markets,” said Alexandre Corriveau-Bourque, a tenure analyst at RRI.

“These observations are based not only on moral or legal grounds but on a growing body of academic literature demonstrating that communities with secure tenure have proven that they promote the permanence of forest carbon” – essentially, preventing deforestation – “often achieving better outcomes than state-protected areas.”

For instance, in areas of the Amazon where the land ownership rights of indigenous communities are respected and legally protected, the rate of deforestation is only one-eighth of the level in areas not under indigenous control.

When land tenure rights are not clearly recognised or legally protected, however, the potential for violent conflict, state repression and heightened deforestation increases.

“It’s also clear that insecure, unclear and unrecognised community tenure rights can lead to conflict and deforesting activities,” Corriveau-Bourque continued. “If governments decide that carbon is a public good and claim exclusive state ownership, as many have with mineral resources … it will add another layer of contestation and conflict in an already crowded field.”

In 2002, New Zealand declared state ownership of its carbon supplies, which actually resulted in an increase in deforestation. As a result, the government has since reformed the law to adapt a policy that gives communities and individuals more freedom to engage in the carbon trade.

According to RRI, 15 of the 21 countries with national planning documents for REDD+ noted that a major cause of deforestation and forest degradation was the absence of clear tenure policies.

Misattributed blame

In addition to the lack of clear land tenure rights, some analysts believe that the implementation of REDD+ will be detrimental to indigenous people as governments seek to misattribute and direct blame for deforestation towards local communities, rather than on the corporate interests operating in fragile forest ecosystems.

“The message coming from forest peoples is that they are being pressed from both sides,” Tom Griffiths, a coordinator with the Forest Peoples Programme, an advocacy group, told IPS.

“On the one hand, their forests are being given out without their knowledge and agreement to foreign companies for agricultural development and oil extraction. And on the other, they’re being pressed by these same climate initiatives, which are actually limiting their access to the forest.”

Griffiths suggested that the industrial sector is largely responsible for driving deforestation in many countries, but that subsistence farmers and poor people often get the blame.

He also notes that some analysts have characterised traditional rotational farming as “slash and burn” agriculture.

“There’s a deep prejudice in forest policymaking, and indeed the forest profession, against so-called slash and burn agriculture,” said Griffiths. “In fact, there’s a large amount of science to show that, with the right conditions, it is a fully sustainable form of land use and in fact can even enrich forest ecosystems.

“We’re very concerned that some of these REDD policies, forest climate policies, are not paying adequate attention to these obligations to protect customary rights to land and crucial customary systems or ways of using the land.”

Earlier this month, indigenous groups from around the world held an international conference on deforestation and local rights in Palangka Raya, Indonesia.

In addition to singling out agribusiness, infrastructure as well as mineral and energy extraction, they called for a halt to “green economy” projects, which they argued prohibit forest peoples’ “fundamental rights”.

In a declaration, the conference organisers directly criticized REDD+ both for its lack of progress on emissions reduction and for the restrictions it imposes on the rights of indigenous forest peoples to use their land.

“Global efforts promoted by agencies like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), [REDD+] and the World Bank to address deforestation through market mechanisms are failing,” states the communiqué.

“Not just because viable markets have not emerged, but because these efforts fail to take account of the multiple values of forests and, despite standards to the contrary, in practice are failing to respect our internationally recognised human rights.”

Furthermore, the declaration indicated that organisations collaborating on initiatives like REDD+ have implemented development programmes that have themselves contributed to deforestation:

“Contradictorily, many of these same agencies are promoting the take-over of our peoples’ land and territories through their support for imposed development schemes, thereby further undermining national and global initiatives aimed at protecting forests.”

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