Forests contain roughly 90 percent of the world's terrestrial biodiversity and deforestation is one of many crucial issues which ministers and experts are discussing at their 6-17 October UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Korea.
Now let's say it was up to you to reverse deforestation and help fight climate change. Would you use tried and tested methods? Or would you bet on a complex trick that may not work?
Unfortunately, governments around the world are taking the second option, betting on a risky method called REDD, or ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation'.
So far, the trick hasn’t been working. Deforestation is a massive environmental as well as social problem, and climate changing emissions from deforestation are high and rising. REDD is based on the idea that people will not cut down trees if they can make money from them while they are still standing.
'The good news is that we know how to successfully conserve forests: we simply have to empower communities to manage forests on the basis of their traditional knowledge. The main thing that seems to be missing is the political will to do so on a large scale.'
Though this superficially attractive concept is riddled with problems, it is our governments' favored approach, even at the United Nations.
Deforestation contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, which are the main cause of climate change, and for this reason climate change negotiators have been taking a keen interest in the fate of the world’s forests for many years now.
What's the good news? We know how to successfully conserve forests: we simply have to empower communities to manage forests on the basis of their traditional knowledge (pdf). The main thing that seems to be missing is the political will to do so on a large scale. So far, our governments have found it easier to try and make it profitable to keep forests standing by creating ‘forest carbon’ projects.
We took a close look at how some REDD ‘forest carbon’ projects have worked out in practice in many countries and what we found is quite disturbing.
One of the main problems is that turning our forests and their role in regulating our climate into a commodity that can be traded on global markets has a series of highly undesirable consequences.
To start with, REDD tends to benefit a few rich landowners, rather than the local and often impoverished communities who have protected the forests for generations and depend on them for their very survival.
More worryingly, REDD attracts landgrabbers and even fraudsters to the forests. The world’s largest international police organization, Interpol, stated several years ago already that “Alarm bells are ringing... The potential for criminality is vast and has not been taken into account by the people who set it up.”
Criminal problems around carbon forest projects have been reported in Colombia and Papua New Guinea for instance, with shady ‘carbon cowboys’ tricking communities into handing over the rights to their forests.
Some forest carbon projects, for instance in Brazil and Peru have even led to people being ousted from their traditional territories or being criminalized for practicing their traditional forms of agriculture.
Many forest carbon projects are fraught with problems, especially in the many places where there are existing tensions about who exactly owns the land.
Another negative consequence of forest carbon projects is that when funding stops at the end of a project many people decide to cut the trees down to replace the lost income. We have seen examples of this in Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico and Mozambique.
Forest carbon contracts and projects are also complex, which often makes REDD projects risky for communities who hope to benefit.
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In Mozambique, for example, farmers in the N’hambita Community Carbon Project signed contracts committing them and their children to tending trees for periods as long as 99 years, but the small compensation would all be paid in the first seven years. After that there would be no income. Many farmers didn’t even know that the project was supposed to last longer than seven years.
REDD is also technically difficult and risky. For example, it is hard to measure just how much carbon there actually is in forests, and some projects — such as N’hambita — are simply failing to create this ‘baseline’ information.
Without this data it is impossible to even estimate how much forest carbon would be protected if all goes well. Most importantly, it is impossible to guarantee that trees will stay standing for the whole project period, because of the risk of fire and illegal logging for instance.
And of course it is difficult to tell what would have happened to any particular forest if the project had not taken place.
Furthermore, REDD can only save emissions in the short-term, because the carbon in trees is eventually released when they die.
One thing is for sure: REDD creates a huge incentive for governments to overestimate the quantity of forest that would have been deforested, in order to maximise the income they can make from 'prevented deforestation' REDD projects. There is evidence that this has definitely been happening, for instance in DR Congo, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The consequences of all this are of great significance when it comes to the fight against climate change.
Right now, industrialised country governments are focused on the possibilities offered by buying 'credits' for emissions supposedly saved through REDD projects. With these 'credits' they can claim that they are 'offsetting' their own emissions.
If this trick did not exist, their lack of emissions reductions would be obvious to all.
Even more shocking, under REDD+ (an evolution of REDD) monocultures of trees such as oil palm count as 'forests'. What this means in practice is that REDD allows the destruction of biodiverse natural forests and their replacement with plantations that have no biodiversity and require ongoing spraying of damaging herbicides and pesticides.
These large-scale monocultures offer nothing to Indigenous Peoples and local communities who lose lands and resources when plantations are started.
Fortunately, some governments and investors are already beginning to reconsider REDD, as the number of expensive failed projects—such as the Kalimantan Forests and Climate Partnership funded by Australia—begins to grow.
And reconsidering would be a great move. What all our case studies and a growing body of academic evidence show is that the more communities are involved in managing forests on the basis of their traditional knowledge, the more successfully forests are conserved. We urgently need governments to focus on this true win-win approach which benefits the forests and the communities living in them: community forest management.
In addition, industrialised countries must also make a genuine effort to reduce their over- consumption of timber, pulp and wood fiber and crops like palm oil and soy grown in plantations, not to forget many metals such as gold, copper and aluminum (much of it comes from mines in areas that used to be forests).
These measures would decrease deforestation rates massively. But of course in parallel industrialised countries must also urgently reduce their carbon emissions domestically – without false solutions such as offsetting.
Without immediate action, climate change will certainly get worse and could pass a dangerous tipping point where it becomes both catastrophic and irreversible.