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Q&A: What of the Carbon Neutral Countries?

IPS Correspondent Desmond Brown interviews DR. ARMSTRONG ALEXIS, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) resident representative for Suriname.

Dr. Armstrong Alexis, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) resident representative for Suriname tells IPS High Forest Cover and Low Deforestation (HFLD) nations need support as they continue to protect their forests. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

PARAMARIBO, Feb 14 2019 (IPS) - As High Forest Cover and Low Deforestation (HFLD) nations meet in Suriname at a major conference, it is obvious that the decision made by these countries to preserve their forests has been a difficult but good one.

“It is a choice that governments have to make to determine whether they want to continue being custodians of the environment or whether they want to pursue interests related only to economic advancement and economic growth,” Dr. Armstrong Alexis, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) resident representative for Suriname, tells IPS in an interview.

The UNDP and the U.N. Department for Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA) have been instrumental in the coming together of the group of countries under the HFLD umbrella.

Both U.N. bodies have supported countries with the design and implementation of national policies and measures to reduce deforestation and manage forests sustainably, hence contributing to the mitigation of climate change and advancing sustainable development.

Forests provide a dwelling and livelihood for over a billion people—including many indigenous peoples. They also host the largest share the world’s biodiversity and provide essential ecosystem services, such as water and carbon storage, which play significant roles in mitigating climate change.

Deforestation and forest degradation, which still continue in many countries at high rates, contribute severely to climate change, currently representing about a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Amid this, Alexis says HFLD countries need support as they continue to protect their forests.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

For a long time Suriname has maintained 93 percent forest cover of total land area which has been providing multiple benefits to the global community, in particular, combatting climate change for current and future generations. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Inter Press Service (IPS): Can you give a brief synopsis of the work of the UNDP in Suriname?

Armstrong Alexis (AA): The UNDP is a partner in development in Suriname. We specifically focus on resources. We cover a whole spectrum of issues around climate change, renewable energy, the reduction of fossil fuels and adaptation and mitigation measures. We also focus on the issue of forests.

IPS: Why is this meeting important for Suriname, and what was the UNDP’s role in collaborating with the HFLD nations?

AA: Suriname is the most forested country on earth. Approximately 93 percent of the land mass of Suriname is covered by pristine Amazonian forests. So, with 93 percent forest cover, Suriname has traditionally, for centuries, been a custodian of its forests and have preserved its forests while at the same time achieving significant development targets for its people.

Given the role of forests as they relate to climate change and in particular the sequestration of carbon, Suriname genuinely believes, and the science will back that up, that Suriname in fact is a carbon negative country. It stores a lot more carbon than it emits. And there are a number of other countries in the world that the U.N. has defined as Heavily Forested Low Deforestation countries. These are countries that are more than 50 percent covered by forests and at the same time they have the deforestation rate which is way below the international average which I think is .02 percent of deforestation per annum.

These countries have come together through a collaborative effort supported by the UNDP and the UN-DESA.

We’ve brought these countries together because they all have a common purpose, they all have a common story and they all are working towards finding common solutions to ensure that there is:

  1. Recognition of the fact that these countries have traditionally maintained their forests and have not destroyed the forests in the name of development;
  2. Given the relevance of trees and forests to combatting climate change, that these are actually the countries that provide a good example and the best opportunity for serving the earth with high forest cover.

IPS: What is the way forward for the protection of forests?

AA: In every country where there are forests there are activities that result in two things – deforestation, where the trees are cut down and usually not replaced; and you also have what it called forest degradation where the forest is not totally destroyed but it is not as thick, it does not have as many trees and sometimes the trees are much younger for many different reasons, including timber production. So, you might be degrading the quality of the forest but not necessarily deforesting in total.

Those countries that form the HFLD have made commitments with the international community that they will continue to pursue their development objectives without necessarily destroying their forests. And destroying here means either deforestation or degradation.

It’s a challenge because in Suriname for example, the small-scale gold mining sector is the largest driver of deforestation—not timber production, not palm oil as in some countries, and not infrastructure.

IPS: So, what do you say to a country that has gold in the soil? That they should not mine that gold?

AA: It’s difficult to say that to a country when the economy depends on it. How do you say to a country don’t produce timber when the economy of the country depends on it?

There are ways and means of doing it [small-scale mining or timber production] in a sustainable way. There are ways and means of ensuring that in granting concessions whether it be for timber production or small-scale gold mining, that you take into consideration means and approaches for rehabilitation.

You have to take into consideration the biodiversity and the sensitivity of some of those forests and whether or not you value more the biodiversity of that area or the few dollars that you can make by destroying that area’s forests and extracting the gold and extracting the timer.

So, conscious decisions have to be made by governments and our role as UNDP is to provide the government with the policy options, which usually is supported by sound scientific research and data to indicate to them what their real options are and how they can integrate those options in the decisions that they make.

So, it is a difficult choice indeed, but it is a choice that governments have to make to determine whether they want to continue being custodians of the environment or whether they want to pursue interests related only to economic advancement and economic growth.

So far, they’ve done a good job at it. One of the areas that I want to emphasise is that a lot of this work cannot be done by the countries alone, because if you think about it, the market for the timber is not Suriname. The market for the gold is not Suriname.

Usually the companies that come into those countries to do the extractives, they are not even local companies. They are big multinational companies. A country like Suriname or Guyana—those countries cannot take on this mammoth task alone. They need the support of the international community, they need the support of agencies like the U.N., they need the support of the funds that have been established like the Green Climate Fund, the Global Environment Facility, the Adaptation Fund, and they need the support of the bilateral donors and the countries that have traditionally invested in protecting the forests.

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  • ProsperityForRI

    Healing ecosystems and ending poverty are completely intertwined. Healthy forests equal healthy people. HFLD countries are the best bulwark against climate change until we ban all fossil fuel use.

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