Forests and climate change: what do the two have in common?
To start, forests trap and store carbon that’s emitted into the atmosphere. Healthy forests help slow climate change. Their destruction releases carbon into the air, causing climate change; deforestation alone contributes to more than 1/6th of the world’s total carbon footprint.
At this year’s climate summit in Cancún, the relationship between the world’s forests and climate change mitigation are going to be among the central issues. This is true especially for indigenous and forest-dependent communities who, if their voices aren’t heard, could be cut off from their lands and resources. The United Nations’ REDD program is a high priority for conference participants, and it could have just those impacts on local communities.
What is REDD?
Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD, is one of the United Nations’ central policies of climate change mitigation. It recognizes that forests’ ability to capture and store carbon can play a central role in minimizing climate change. Under the REDD program, carbon emitters would off-set their own emissions by paying those who protect and sustain forests in other parts of the world.
While the policy sounds appealing—it avoids the unpopular idea of emissions caps that require large-scale change—it has fundamental flaws. REDD could be one of the largest global shifts of wealth in the history of the world (up to $30 billion a year by 2020). As huge sums of money move from the industrialized, global North to the forested South, we must ask the difficult questions: who will be the beneficiaries of this wealth? And how will they be held accountable?
You can read more on REDD policies and their effects here.
REDD = risky business for local communities
Representing these concerns at this year’s COP16 is a large network of indigenous and forest-dependent peoples. Many are traveling from nearby Central America, including Greengrants Grantees Norvin Goff and Carlos García Bulux. Goff is President of the Honduran indigenous group, Mosquitia Asla Takanaka (MASTA), while Bulux represents the Mayan communities of Tonoticapán, Guatamala. Together, Goff and Bulux are leaders of a Mesoamerican-wide movement of indigenous and forest-dependent communities that control more than 40 million hectares of tropical forest.
Across the Global South, local and indigenous communities have been stewards of forests for centuries. Recent policies in some countries have recognized this local management, and have sought to give local and indigenous people a greater share of responsibility.
However, REDD fails to officially recognize the role of local people, and in so doing, threatens their recent advances. If Honduras and Guatemala adopt REDD policies, monies will flow directly into government hands. The Mosquitia and the Mayan communities who live in and care for the forests may never see any benefits. What’s more, the vast financial incentives for governments to reclaim forest may encourage corruption and overturn local cultures and livelihoods. In the worst-case scenario, local communities could be evicted from their lands as contracts for forest management are sold to huge, monoculture timber corporations.
Like Goff and Bulux, activists and community leaders around the world are concerned about the effects of REDD on indigenous and local communities. Discussing REDD’s focus on promoting industry, Subhankar Banerjee, founder of ClimateStoryTellers.org, writes:
…industrialized and industrializing nations will not significantly reduce their carbon emissions, fossil-fuel companies will continue with business-as-usual with drilling and mining in more dangerous territories, and we will not reduce our carbon footprint to anything meaningful — so taking away the last remaining forests from the indigenous dwellers and giving the credits back to the polluters is the most expedient and the easiest road we can take to tackle climate change.
For Goff and Bulux, and thousands of other local leaders, Cancún is an opportunity to get the international community to recognize the forest stewardship and management of local peoples. It is also a chance to reject a model of climate change mitigation that would benefit only corporations and governments at their expense.
Along with Greengrants Advisor Ruben Pasos, Goff and Bulux are hosting a side event in Cancún today to seize this opportunity. The event, entitled “Meso Carbon” is about “real input for climate change mitigation and adaptation” from Mesoamerican communities likely to be affected by REDD (right).
Global Greengrants Fund provided most of the funding needed to prepare for this gathering of voices, as well as the travel of Bulux and Goff to Cancún. We look forward to sharing some of their perspectives and those of others at the climate summit in the coming days.