Forest peoples' rights key to reducing emissions from deforestation

Armine Hareyan's picture

New research shows rights-based approaches necessary and cost-effective; call for independent advisory and auditing to support UN action on climate change

Unless based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples and forest communities, efforts by rich countries to combat climate change by funding reductions in deforestation in developing countries will fail, and could even unleash a devastating wave of forest loss, cultural destruction and civil conflict, warned a leading group of forestry and development experts meeting in Oslo this week.

The experts are gathering in Oslo with policymakers and community leaders for a conference on rights, forests and climate change. The conference was organized by two non-profits, Rainforest Foundation Norway and the US-based Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).

Speaking at the meeting, Norway's Minister of Environment and International Development, Erik Solheim, says efforts towards reduced emissions from deforestation in developing countries should be based on the rights of indigenous peoples to the forests they depend on for their livelihoods, and provide tangible benefits consistent with their essential role in sustainable forest management.

"In addition to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, early action, pilot projects and demonstrations should safeguard biodiversity, contribute to poverty reduction and secure the rights of forest dependent communities in order to achieve any degree of permanence, legitimacy and effectiveness," said Solheim.

Deforestation is responsible for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing it is seen as one of the quickest and cheapest ways of cutting emissions.

"Moves to finance reductions in tropical deforestation and forest degradation are necessary and welcome," said Andy White, Coordinator of RRI. "But on their own they won't solve the problem. Poorly devised, they could even make it worse. If such initiatives are well designed they can not only secure carbon but present a global opportunity to address the underlying causes of poverty and conflict in many developing countries."

Globally, climate change negotiators are considering the introduction of a new financial mechanism, known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), that could generate billions of dollars for reducing forest loss in the tropics. Meanwhile, the Government of Norway has already pledged up to 3 billion Norwegian kroner annually (US$ 500 million) to cut emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in tropical countries.

"To achieve long-term reductions in deforestation and forest degradation, it is absolutely necessary to respect and strengthen the rights of indigenous and other forest dependent communities," says Lars Løvold, director of Rainforest Foundation Norway. "Many of these schemes are still being developed, and major decisions on how to spend the money will be made in the next few years. For us, the question is whether this money will result in a great deal of good or a great deal of harm to the environment and forest communities."

Previous attempts to reduce deforestation and forest degradation have largely failed, often due to a lack of attention to human rights, property rights and transparency.

"There are growing conflicts between indigenous peoples and both forestry companies and conservation organizations. Imposed forest management initiatives are only viable if they respect the customary rights of forest peoples and ensure they have control about what happens on their lands. Indigenous peoples must be accepted as full and fair participants in all climate negotiations," said Joji Carino, Director of TEBTEBBA, the Indigenous Peoples' International Center for Policy Research and Education.

Conference organizers worry that REDD could fuel corruption and provoke tensions and land grab situations unless good governance, policies and the rule of law are first put in place.

"Indigenous peoples are rightly concerned about how these new investments could affect their access to the forests that they depend on for their livelihoods," Solheim noted. "This is precisely why we are fully supportive of a role for indigenous peoples and other forest dependent communities in the development and monitoring of climate plans and investments at the national and global level. These rights need to be respected, not just for moral reasons, although that is vital. It is also a matter of pragmatism and effectiveness."

Experience from Brazil, the country in the world with the most advanced monitoring of its forests, gives valuable insight to the discussion on how forests can be protected. According to research from the Brazilian NGO Instituto Socioambiental, 19 percent of unprotected forest areas in Brazil have been deforested, while deforestation inside federal national parks is 2 percent. In indigenous territories, however, only 1.1 percent have been deforested.

The Oslo conference will discuss the Four Foundations for Effective Investments in Climate Change:

Recognize rights - establish an equitable legal and regulatory framework for land and resources.
Prioritize payment to communities – ensure that benefits and payments prioritize indigenous and local communities, according to their potential role as forest stewards.
Establish independent advisory and auditing processes to guide, monitor and audit investments and actions at national and global levels.
Monitor more than carbon to keep track of the status of forests, forest carbon, biodiversity and impacts on rights and livelihoods. Secure a role for indigenous peoples in monitoring of emissions, making full use of their knowledge of the state of forest ecosystems, something which could be particularly relevant to keep track of forest degradation.

New research to be presented at the conference demonstrates that the costs of recognizing local rights and tenure systems are low relative to the projected costs of REDD, and that indigenous and other forest communities own or manage a major portion of the global forest carbon stock. The research also shows that communities have proven to be good stewards of the forest.

A new study by RRI and Intercooperation, a Swiss development organization, finds that the average direct cost to legally recognize traditional community tenure rights is around $3 per hectare – an insignificant investment to make when the minimum estimates needed to pay for elements of a global REDD scheme are somewhere between $800 and $3500 per hectare each year for the next 22 years.

Another study that will be released at the conference, by Professor Arun Agrawal of the University of Michigan, uses data from 325 sites in 12 countries to show that community ownership of forests provides the best possibility for increasing carbon stocks and improving livelihood outcomes. This is the most robust research to date at a global scale on the relationship between forest tenure and carbon sequestration, livelihood benefits and biodiversity.

Agrawal's study also finds that the larger the property owned by communities, the better the chances for maintaining and sequestering carbon. This research shows the tremendous scope for cost-effective investments that strengthen local land rights, reduce poverty and conflict, and protect remaining natural forest areas.

To help ensure effective investments to combat in climate change, Rainforest Foundation Norway and RRI have called for the formation of independent bodies to advise and monitor the UN Convention on Climate Change.

"We believe that such advisory functions should be given serious consideration," said Solheim. The conference will take up this recommendation and consider how to best move forward in its deliberations.

Major decisions on REDD, as well as other measures to combat climate change, are likely to be made at the 15th Conference of the UN Convention on Climate Change, which will be held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009.

"In the next fifteen months, the world will have to make a choice," said Løvold. "We can continue to ignore the legitimate rights of forest dwellers, which will exacerbate conflict in forests and make REDD ineffective. Or we can learn from the lessons of the past, recognize the property and human rights of forest dwellers, and almost immediately start reaping the benefits."-Rights and Resources Initiative

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