New Internationalist

Deeper into that dangerous territory

It looks good on paper: the UN has declared 2011 International Year of Forests. A treehuggers’ heaven?

But having last year as International Year of Biodiversity didn’t help the world’s biodiversity much: on average, 130 species of life on Earth still become extinct every day. One year was never going to be enough, but why make matters even worse? Whales, bees, bluefin tuna and other species were allowed to continue their agonizing deaths in 2010.

So logically it follows that to celebrate the International Year of Forests, we have to cut some down. Or sell them off, as the Con-Dem coalition government in England is contemplating. Or maybe – shall we dare? – protect them?

Fresh wind of common sense

Each day at least 32,300 hectares of forest disappear from the Earth, and another 32,300 hectares are degraded, according to Mongabay, an environmental science website. That’s every day. Forests, which still cover around 30 per cent of the world’s land mass, are the planet’s lungs, crucially important to its health and biodiversity. But we’re destroying them as if they were forever.

Ever green. Photo by Horia Varlan under Creative Commons licence.

The latest international response to this was a mechanism called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) and its version REDD+, which was part of the deal that never was at the COP16 climate negotiations in Cancún last December. Majority World countries would get paid to preserve their forests, most likely by generating ‘credits’ of carbon stored in forests which the rich would buy to offset their pollution. Pay here, pollute there, but pollute nevertheless?

On the eve of the official launch of the International Year of Forests at the UN headquarters in New York, a sobering report came from IUFRO, the ‘global network for forest science cooperation’. In it, scientists argue that global efforts to protect forests often ignore local needs and fail to address ‘the most fundamental challenge to global forest management – that deforestation usually is caused by economic pressures imposed from outside the forests.’ Think the usual suspects – international corporations and short-sighted governments.      

The report also highlights that ‘REDD shows signs of repeating many mistakes of the past. Even … REDD+ falls short of considering the needs and roles of forest communities and other local inhabitants.’

Climate capitalism

Those ‘forest communities and other local inhabitants’ themselves denounce REDD(+) as a ‘false solution’. They are concerned that it views forests as commoditized goods rather than complex ecosystems and fear dislocation and criminalization if it goes ahead. The REDD  project agreed in Cancún does not recognize indigenous peoples’ rights to their forests.    

Redwood forest, CA. Photo by Phil Hollman under Creative Commons licence.

‘[A mechanism such as REDD] is part of climate capitalism that’s only going to put more money into the pockets of polluting industries and allow them to greenwash us so that they look good on paper,’ said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. I met him in Cancún just days before the international ‘agreement’ was signed behind the closed doors of climate business, sorry, climate change negotiations. ‘Capitalism does not respect Mother Earth, it only looks at it as an object to be exploited.’

‘Projects like REDD are violating the human rights of indigenous peoples,’ continued Goldtooth, who was suspended from entering the COP16 premises for speaking in solidarity with peasants and indigenous peoples. ‘Any kind of trading system involves property rights. Before you can trade something, you have to determine who owns it.’

Common goods vs marketable goods

…Which might get tricky. ‘We still have uncontacted tribes in Brazil and other places, so the government can’t claim that it is the owner of these forests. I’ve been to Amazon communities in Peru – the government doesn’t even exist there, yet it claims all the resources,’ said photographer and activist Ben Powless, a Mohawk from Six Nations in Ontario, Canada. He warned of more land grabs if REDD goes ahead, a sentiment also expressed by Survival International in their report ‘The most inconvenient truth of all’

Shadows. Photo by Luis Argerich under Creative Commons licence.

‘Countries and other groups, like the UN, begin to see forests as very technical items, and they treat them this way,’ Powless said. So they come up with fancy ways of measuring the forests’ value – namely, in terms of CO2 the trees soak from the air. ‘That turns forests into a marketable good, and once we enter that world, there is a whole lot of dangers that emerge.’ But why have the governments come up with this now? Well, Powless smiles, the answer is obvious: ‘Because it involves money – so they’re going to say, hey, we need a million dollars to protect these forests; meanwhile, the indigenous communities have been preserving them forever.’

So perhaps it’s no surprise that the wrongness of REDD is enshrined in its very name. ‘When you break down the words – reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation – [you realize] they are not talking about stopping deforestation, they are talking about reducing emissions.’ That’s like tackling the consequences, not the root causes of a problem.

‘[As for degradation], for indigenous peoples, it can include different things than those defined by government, like collecting firewood. The forests for these people are like supermarkets, like pharmacies, we’re going to the forests to collect medicines, to do ceremonies, to gather food. For us, this is the real value of the forest, it’s not just a source of emissions.’  

Through the fog. Photo by McD22 under Creative Commons licence.

And it shouldn’t be treated that way. Happy International Forests Year..



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