COPENHAGEN - The clean, ultra-modern chrome and glass lines of the Bella Center, in the Danish capital Copenhagen, is a world away from the thronging canopy suspended over the tropical forests of Uganda, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Cameroon.
But it's here in Scandinavia, in the shadow of the spinning blades of the convention center's wind turbine, that the foundation for an international law governing greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution will be thrashed out this December. The agreement, if it is reached, could determine how the forests of Africa are managed in decades to come, and whether or not local communities will benefit from it.
This law could turn into a "massive human rights disaster" if it is not worded correctly, warned environmentalist Tove Maria Ryding during a briefing with journalists in Copenhagen earlier this year, and could result in "huge violations" of the rights of communities who are dependent on forest resources. Ryding is the chair of a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating under the banner Danish Group 92.
Deforestation contributes nearly 18 percent of all GHG emissions globally. It is also one of the main sources of GHGs from the African continent, where deforestation is driven primarily by clearing forests for agriculture, burning wood for energy in rural homes, and making charcoal for urban cooking and heating.
Since the Kyoto Protocol - the global initiative to stabilize GHGs at a level that will avoid dangerous climate change - expires in 2012, signatory countries to this agreement will attempt to finalize Kyoto's replacement legislation this December. Forest management will feature prominently in this negotiation, primarily under the heading of "reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation", known as REDD.
The REDD component of the proposed law is an attempt to give financial compensation to developing countries that reduce their deforestation-related emissions. Driven primarily by the World Bank, the process will use global carbon markets to move funds from the Global North to the Global South.
But the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC), which met with the World Bank in Burundi in March this year, said in a report that it was concerned that REDD "may aggravate land alienation", that it "rewards the wrong countries and practices, perpetuates commoditization of nature, and focuses on states, not people".
As it stands, the draft law which is being prepared for the final negotiating platform at Copenhagen, acknowledges the rights of forest dependent communities. But at present, it puts state mechanisms as the main conduit for managing REDD-related funds and doesn't show how this money will reach individual communities.
Organizations like IPACC and Danish Group 92 are concerned that governments might fence off forests, denying forest depended communities access to resources which they have used for centuries.
The current draft legislation will benefit those countries where extensive deforestation has already taken place, such as Brazil, and where they can show measurable slowing of forest degradation. But it will not benefit countries that have conserved their forests, such as Costa Rica and Bhutan. It may also not be able to prevent deforestation practices moving from one country to another - for instance, illegal loggers may be expelled from Brazil, but could simply shift their practices to a neighboring country.
"The main issues here are security of tenure (for forest dependent communities), and recovering (their) rights as property holders," said Julian Sturgeon, environmentalist and consultant to the IPACC.
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But in most cases there are no formal records of rights, even though communities may have lived in and off a forest for centuries.
"There has never been any paperwork to say, for instance, that the Batwa people in Rwanda are forest managers. But they've lived there for 1,500 years and their lives and culture are based on forest management," Sturgeon said.
Forest communities need secure rights, access to forests, and need to be included in the management of forests, rights organisations said. Furthermore, there can't be one blanket approach since circumstances vary between countries and communities.
"In Uganda, the main drivers of deforestation are the expansion of agriculture; the supply of energy from biomass for homes and small scale industries like bakeries and brick making; and charcoal for urban areas where many don't have electricity," said Xavier Mugumya, with the Ugandan National Forestry Authority in the Ministry of Water and Environment.
"It is mostly small scale people cutting the forests. The issues here are politics, economic development and poverty. REDD should address each of these," Mugumya said.
Without finding alternative sources of energy and livelihoods for people engaged in these activities, the adoption of REDD in Uganda would marginalise already vulnerable communities.
Brian Mantlana, with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and part of the SA delegation who will help thrash out the law in Copenhagen, said there is a need to ensure the rights and benefits of REDD within local communities, but that it needed to be treated on a case by case basis.
"These are national issues so the way (REDD is implemented) in Peru is different to in Congo." For instance, most land is privately-owned in Uganda, whereas in a country like Tanzania, land is state owned.
Forests also need to be seen as more than just carbon stocks, but also as systems which offer ecosystem services, such as recycling nutrients, harboring extensive plant and animal diversity, regulating rainfall runoff and even generating their own rain. Draft wording for the REDD framework doesn't take this into account.
However it is the matter of weak governance and inclusivity of forest dependent communities which are highest on the agenda for REDD critics. If these issues aren't addressed, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) warned, "the success of REDD is uncertain and REDD mechanisms might even inadvertently reinforce corruption, undermine human rights and threaten forest biodiversity".