The Rights and Resources Initiative, a coalition of groups from around the world, says not enough has been done to address land rights in tropical countries, where much of the money is being directed. Without clearer guidelines on land ownership and involvement by local people, they say, the funds provided by rich countries, including Britain, to protect trees could fuel violent conflict and fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Deforestation causes about a fifth of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and how to protect the huge stocks of carbon locked in tropical forests has become a key issue in the climate change debate. Sir Nicholas Stern, in his 2006 review of the economics of the problem, said that £2.5bn a year could be enough to prevent deforestation across the eight most important countries. Britain and Norway have already pledged £108m to a fund to protect forests in the Congo basin. Rich countries paying tropical regions to protect forests is likely to form part of a new global climate deal to replace the Kyoto protocol, which could be agreed next year.
Stern also said that a series of institutional and policy reforms were needed, including forest property rights. Without such changes, said Andy White, coordinator of the initiative, the money aimed at protecting trees could go to central government officials, many of whom were closely tied to illegal logging and mining activities. He said direct payments to local groups would be more effective, but that required them to be given clear land rights. Evidence from Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil showed that local communities protected the forests better than governments, he said.
White added: "These forests are often in lawless regions with a history of conflict. We have huge concerns about sending all this money in the name of fighting climate change if the land rights for people living there are not resolved. It could cause more violence, benefit only a wealthy elite and lead to even greater carbon emissions.
"We think it would be a terrible mistake to reduce development funding purely to carbon and mitigating climate change. This poses a real dilemma for governments of conscience like the UK. They risk undermining all of their development and human rights work in this area if efforts to protect carbon don't support and strengthen community land rights and organisations."
Two reports from the Rights and Resources Initiative, published today, show that progress on land rights has slowed in recent years. The group says just 27% of developing-country forest is owned by local communities, or designated for their use. It warns that the next two decades could see the remaining forests threatened by the "last great global land grab", with booming demand for land to grow food, biofuels and wood products.
White said more effort was needed to map remote forests and register the people who live there to protect their interests. "We know how to do this. It's not rocket science, it just needs to be scaled up." He praised steps Britain has taken in the Congo basin.
Gareth Thomas, green minister at the Department for International Development, said: "We don't spend money on any project if we can't be certain that the money is going to go where it is needed. But we have to step up work on land-use management, ownership issues and improving governance. We have made quite a lot of progress, but it is not realistic that we can sort out every land use issue by the time of the next climate treaty."
James Heneage, the director of the Prince's Rainforests Project, a group set up by the Prince of Wales to work out a mechanism to fund forest protection, said a focus on land rights risked delaying efforts to protect the climate. He said: "The issue of land rights is important and must be looked at, but it is also an intractable problem and will take time to solve. We are in a state of emergency with climate change and we cannot allow the issue of land rights to delay getting serious amounts of money into forests to stop deforestation."
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008