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EU ups its tropical forest-related aid

tropical forest

Ben Kucinski under a Creative Commons Licence

On the face of it, this is good news, says Saskia Ozinga – but only if local communities have a say in how the money is spent. 

With the chill of austerity still biting across Europe in the wake of 2008’s economic crash, arguments around overseas aid have become increasingly shrill. Demands for it to be cut and for the money to be spent on domestic public services have grown louder.

Against this backdrop of narrowing horizons and growing insularity, it’s surprising then to discover that European Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) on tropical forests has actually risen over the past few years.

For those fighting to protect the world’s dwindling tropical forests and the rights of the people who survive off them, a new study commissioned by Fern reveals European forest-related aid has increased more than three-fold in 10 years: from $140 million in  2002, to $532 million in 2012.

Whatever the arguments on overseas aid – which, while improving the lives of the world’s poorest sometimes also promotes the dubious interests of the donor countries – the case for forest-related aid has never been greater. So – on the face of it – more money for tropical forests is all too rare good news.

Stopping tropical deforestation is crucial in the fight against climate change as well as in ensuring the survival of the millions who depend on forests for their livelihoods. And the latter are facing a new and unprecedented threat.

Forests are increasingly being destroyed not for timber, but to make way for commercial agriculture to satisfy the apparently unquenchable demand for products such as palm oil, soy and beef in the Global North. The consequence is that people’s tenure rights are eroding and their access to vital natural resources vanishing.

The evidence shows that the solution – and the best way to protect tropical forests – is for the people living in them to have a say in how they are run.

The reason is straightforward: ‘Communities with rights to resources conserve those resources,’ says Professor David Bray, who has spent a lifetime working in the field. ‘Communities without rights have no reason to conserve.’

So the best use of this extra European money on tropical forests would be to spend it on programmes which strengthen community rights and land tenure laws. But the research from Fern shows that it rarely does – and that the impact that should come with the increased aid is being seriously undermined by three factors.  

First, although the EU’s flagship forest policy, the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan, puts forest people’s rights at its heart, we found that at the same time as European countries have been increasing spending on tropical forests, they have also been cutting staff with specialist knowledge and expertise in forest management and land tenure. Instead, forest programmes are being designed and monitored by generalist embassy staff.  

Second, a substantial part of European forest-related aid is passing through multilateral organizations such as the World Bank – which have been criticized for their failure properly to involve the people most directly affected by forest destruction in their work.

The World Bank, which is the largest recipient of European ODA, is currently reviewing the conditions on which it gives aid – but, worryingly, a report leaked last year showed that it was planning to weaken its existing environmental and social protection policies with new ‘light touch’ regulations. These would mean that major projects, such as palm-oil plantations, could go ahead without indigenous peoples being properly consulted.

Finally, there is the harsh paradox that much of the European aid on forests is being channelled through institutions which are also financing forest destruction.

Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) provide loans for private-sector investment in the developing world, and while they have been distributing money to save tropical forests, they have also been financing agricultural projects involved in land grabs and deforestation.

The upshot of these incoherent policies is that a lot of good money is going after bad. 

Saskia Ozinga is Campaign Co-ordinator of the social and environmental justice NGO FERN, which she co-founded in 1995, and which monitors the European Union’s involvement in forests. She is also the facilitator of the Forest Movement Europe (FME), a grouping of 45 NGOs from across Europe working on forest issues. She has authored or co-authored numerous books and reports on topics including forest policy, illegal timber and community rights.

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