Do Trees Grow on Money?
In Mayan cosmology, the ceiba tree, with its elephantine, silver-grey trunk that towers above the jungle, is the tree of life, shoring up the corners of the sky and sending its roots deep into the underworld. In the centuries following the conquest of the New World, Mayans by the thousands were forced to work in monterias, or timber camps, and the ancestral role of the ceiba as a bridge between the world above and the world below gave way to the board-feet of timber the trees surrendered when felled. The ensuing rush for sugar, for rubber, for minerals, and for cattle left the jungles of Mesoamerica reduced to a fraction of their original area and devastated the peoples who once thrived there.
Today, another vision is shaping the jungles of southern Mexico: The idea that protecting forests is central to the struggle against global warming.
Tropical deforestation and forest degradation contribute between 12 and 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, as some 13 million hectares of forest are lost annually. The Lacandon Jungle on the border of Chiapas and Guatemala is a case in point: Only about 10 percent of the jungle remains intact. Saving forested areas like the Lacandon is key to reducing the impacts of runaway climate change.
Past efforts to reduce deforestation, like setting up protected areas or promoting sustainable land-use practices, have had limited success. That’s because the drivers of deforestation – agriculture, mining, fossil fuel extraction, paper demand – offer rich financial rewards. But what if forests were more valuable left standing than cut down?
A new policy mechanism is being developed to do just that. Dubbed REDD, for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, the mechanism (along with a list of spin-offs such as REDD+ and REDD++) is backed by major multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank. Support for REDD spans the spectrum of green groups, from market-minded conservation NGOs like Environmental Defense and Conservation International to more capital-skeptic outfits like Greenpeace.
At a high-level event during COP16, the UN climate summit last year in Cancún, Mexico, pilot REDD projects were hailed by heads of state and a gamut of global figures including primatologist Jane Goodall, Walmart CEO Sam Walton, and billionaire philanthropist George Soros. The World Bank’s Robert Zoellick called REDD “the best chance, perhaps the last chance, to save the world’s forests.” Zoellick admitted that the policy still has some kinks, but closed his remarks to great applause with one of the mantras of the summit: “Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.”
After the applause died down, Linda Adams, the head of California EPA, took the stage and announced that, as one of his last acts in office, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had signed a carbon trading agreement, predicated on a REDD scheme, with the state of Chiapas. Adams called the plan “a way for California to help the developing world by investing in forests.”
“Saving our forests is good not only for the atmosphere,” she said. “It’s also good for Indigenous Peoples.” Chiapas Governor Juan Sabines, on hand to promote his state’s comprehensive Climate Change Action Program, nodded in vigorous agreement.
But as official delegates applauded REDD in Cancún’s plenary halls, grassroots activists in the streets were staging protests against the policy. Benign as it may appear, what outsiders see as forest protection many locals see as the potential loss of their homes. REDD is fiercely contested by many human rights advocates and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, who see in it the continuation of colonial resource extraction at best, and at worst perhaps the largest land grab in history.
Tom Goldtooth, Director of the North America-based Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), has called REDD “a violation of the sacred, and the commodification of life.” Goldtooth warns that the policy won’t actually reduce emissions, that it is already violating communities’ rights, and that it relies too much on the market. IEN, along with the Global Forest Coalition, World Rainforest Movement, Friends of the Earth International, and La Via Campesina, the world’s largest federation of peasant farmers, came away from Cancún charging that the UN, in promoting REDD, had become “the World Trade Organization of the Sky.”
“When a natural function like forest respiration becomes a product with a price, it’s easy to see who’s going to end up with control of the forests.”
The REDD scheme unfolding in Chiapas offers a particularly compelling test for this controversial idea. Home to most of Mexico’s tropical trees, a third of its mammal species, and half of its bird and butterfly species, the Lacandon is also, famously, home to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the insurgent rebel group that rose up in 1994 to demand that Indigenous Peoples be allowed to control their own territories. That struggle, and the Mexican government’s response, has engendered paramilitary massacres, years of counterinsurgency, and tens of thousands of displaced people – and it can be traced, in part, to a decades-old agreement that took as its pretext the protection of the Lacandon. The region’s rich biodiversity, open conflicts over land tenure, and the potential investment from California make Lacandon a fascinating test case – or an instructive cautionary tale – of what REDD may bring.
REDD, in Black and White
REDD works like this: Because trees capture and store CO2, maintaining intact forests is essential to mitigating climate change. REDD proposes that governments, companies, or forest owners in the global South be given financial incentives for keeping their forests standing. REDD was formally taken up by the UN-sponsored climate change talks in Bali in 2007. Since then it has moved rapidly to the forefront of the climate agenda. Norway, its biggest donor, has pledged upwards of $120 million to the UN REDD program, and given $1 billion each to Indonesia and a confederation of Amazonian states to establish the program. In December 2010, REDD was adopted into the UN’s Cancún Agreements, the closest thing to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol.
While paying to preserve forests appears to be a long-overdue gesture of goodwill, it brings up an array of thorny questions. For starters, what is meant by “forests”? Because the UN’s definition is unclear, “forests” under REDD may include monoculture tree plantations or even genetically engineered trees. Since timber, paper, and biofuel plantations are more lucrative than natural forests, REDD could fund the destruction of native forests and their replacement with tree plantations.
Beyond the ecological concerns, REDD is proving exceedingly elusive to put into practice. One fundamental question is: Where will the money come from? At present, there is no “compliance market” for REDD – meaning it is not yet part of any mandated legislative effort to reduce emissions. Of numerous government-sponsored REDD projects worldwide, the agreement between California and Chiapas, expected to come on line by 2015, is the most advanced.
The most likely source of funding for REDD is a combination of private investment and multilateral funds, boosted by a huge dose of carbon offsets from industry in wealthy nations. An offset-based REDD will allow those who protect forests to earn carbon credits – financial rewards based on the amount of CO2 a forest can store and a market-derived price per ton of CO2. Governments (or NGOs, or local communities) that protect forests can then trade these credits to industrial polluters for revenue that, in theory, provides incentive not to cut down trees.
But if the money comes from carbon offsets, as the UN and the California protocol propose, this means that even if deforestation is reduced, industrial emissions – the main driver of climate change – will not be.
The offsets component brings REDD strong support from the fossil fuel industry. BP (yes, that BP) recently became the first company to join the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, which will allow the company to offset its emissions. REDD’s market-share potential has also attracted the financial services industry – Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley – the same Wall Street speculators that threw the global banking systems into a tailspin.
The whole idea is based on the notion of “Payment for Environmental Services.” To the market-minded, this is a pioneering method for quantifying the worth of ecosystems, thus incentivizing their preservation. Many in the global South, however, see it as the rationale for a wholesale privatization of territories and natural resources. Gustavo Castro of the Chiapas-based NGO Otros Mundos says, “When a natural function like forest respiration becomes a product with a price, it’s easy to see who’s going to end up with control of the forests.”
That is, the people who have the cash to put up the protection money.
REDD Alert in Chiapas
Amador Hernández is a village of about 1,500 Tzeltal Mayan peasant farmers set deep inside the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in the Lacandon Jungle. Three months after the Cancún talks, as darkness fell over the village assembly hall there, a few dozen villagers gathered in the dusty glare of a single solar-powered lightbulb to talk about the climate policies that were lapping at the edges of their territory like the first ripples of an oncoming flood. One villager, Santiago Martinez, explained REDD to the assembly in broad strokes: “REDD is a program the government is promoting to do what they call ‘capturing carbon,’ and conserving the jungle,” he said. “From what we’ve heard, it’s a global program led by rich people, businessmen, Europeans.”
Martinez was opposed to the program; among the reasons was concern that it would require abandoning their lands and traditional farming methods. The worries were fueled by recent government messages warning that a team would come through the village shortly to measure property lines and evict any ‘irregular settlers.”
The villagers clearly perceived this as the legacy of a land tenure arrangement that has been at the heart of conflicts in the Lacandon for decades. In 1971, the Mexican government ceded over a 1.5 million acres to the Lacandon tribe – one of the six Indigenous groups in Chiapas – which at the time consisted of only 66 families. Seven years later, the government created the 800,000-acre Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, overlapping the Lacandon territory. In order to give the first chunk of territory to the Lacandones, and to protect the second as a reserve, 2,000 Tzeltal and Ch’ol families – 26 villages – were moved. Among the displaced were some families who later came to form Amador Hernández.
The resulting tension between the Lacandones and the rest of the region’s Indigenous groups led to the formation of several peasant farmer organizations demanding redress; some of these groups later coalesced into the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. The militant response made it impossible for the Mexican government to draw solid boundaries around the land in question. Now, with the promise of financing under REDD, the government is making a renewed attempt to get the boundaries drawn, to expel anyone without land title, and to inventory the Montes Azules Reserve to quantify, and then bring to market, the area’s carbon storage potential.
Earlier this year, the Chiapas government began distributing 2,000 pesos a month (roughly $200) to each Lacandon landholder. The payments were authorized, according to a government statement, “to allow the completion of the forest inventory so that [the Lacandon community] can access federal and international funds, as well as complement these funds with projects such as agricultural conversion outside the Reserve with species such as oil palm and rubber.” In the abstract, the money is incentivizing forest protection. But in the words of the villagers of Amador Hernández, the purpose of the payments is “to guard the border against their neighbors – that is, us.”
The most publicized aspects of REDD in Chiapas are the payments to the Lacandones and a program to train them as “environmental police.” As a Lacandon man named Chankayun said, “Yes, there are other poor Indigenous communities living in our territory, and I hope we can come to a peaceful agreement for them to find another place to live.” Governor Sabines speaks openly about the need to resettle jungle communities, and makes regular visits to the Lacandon to distribute funds and good will. “The jungle can’t wait,” he said in June. “Of 179 ‘irregular’ settlements within the jungle’s protected area, most have been removed and only eleven remain. Of these, some are Zapatistas. We hope they leave voluntarily, but if they want to stay, they stay.”
But what Governor Sabines describes as voluntary resettlement takes on a darker shade from the viewpoint of those with no land rights. At the village assembly in Amador Hernández, villagers stood up one by one to denounce what they perceived as a land grab. A year before, the villagers said, all government medical services, including vaccinations, had been cut off; several elderly people and children died due to lack of medical attention. This neglect, they believed, was due to their refusal to capitulate to the demands of REDD. “They’re attacking our health as a way of getting access to our land,” Martinez said.
The case of Amador Hernández appears extreme, but it’s hardly unique. As preparations for REDD are laid around the world, Indigenous communities in other countries – Ecuador, Peru, Congo – are saying, with increasing urgency, that forest protection without land rights represents a direct threat to their ways of life.
The Price of an Arm and a Leg?
A cornerstone of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a provision called Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. FPIC, as it is known, offers a theoretical bulwark against human rights abuses by declaring that Indigenous Peoples must have a say in projects that affect them. It is central to debates over REDD. Some argue that REDD can work as long as it includes FPIC safeguards. But FPIC is nonbinding, and as the case of Amador Hernández shows, it rarely works.
In Chiapas, where the Zapatista movement rose up in arms precisely because Indigenous voices had been disregarded for five centuries, “informed consent” has never been a consideration. Gustavo Castro says: “There’s a lot of talk in the government’s documents, in the REDD scheme, of the need for consultation. But there haven’t been any consultations, and I don’t believe there will be.”
Discussing the practical aspects of community participation, Castro is dour: “When we talk about consultations, we have to take into account who does it, and what we mean by ‘prior’ and ‘informed.’ What they say to the communities is, ‘We’re protecting the planet, we’re fighting climate change, and we’ll pay you to help.’ So then the consultation consists of one question: ‘Are you with us?’ And the answer you can expect from rural communities is, ‘Of course we are.’”
There’s little doubt that pouring money into rural communities involves serious challenges. As Miguel Angel García, whose NGO Maderas del Pueblo supports ecological projects in the Lacandon, says, “This whole thing is bringing on a terrible cultural transformation. Putting forests, a common good, into the market has the effect of tearing the social fabric and generating economic interests that go directly against the interests and values of the Indigenous peoples. And it’s causing death; not only physical death, but the death of a culture, and of a cosmovision. It’s an ethnocide.”
To be clear: Groups that oppose REDD are not against receiving funds from wealthy nations to maintain forests. The social movements that oppose REDD generally favor the creation of a fund to pay for the resources that industrialized nations have consumed. This is the idea of “climate debt.” Led by Bolivia, a coalition of more than 50 governments has submitted a proposal to the UN demanding that the costs of adapting to the climate crisis be borne by the countries that created the crisis, as a kind of reparations. It’s not that they don’t want payment; it’s that they don’t want payment based on pollution permits and market speculation.
Pablo Solon, until recently Bolivia’s Ambassador to the UN, offers a haunting analogy: “Through REDD they want to put a price on nature. Our point of view is that you can’t do that, and I’ll explain why: In Bolivia, if you lose an arm or a leg, you receive compensation of around $1,000. But can you imagine a situation where you create a market for arms and legs for $1,000 each? Sure, we need the money to pay for the operation. But the intention is not to commodify your arm.”
Solon’s analogy points to the core tension in the REDD scheme: We should protect forests because, like our own limbs, they have intrinsic value.
To think that global policy will ever be guided by the principle of forests’ inherent worth and Indigenous Peoples’ rights is perhaps naïve. But no less naïve, and certainly no less dangerous, is faith that the market, and the industrial society that drives it, can solve the global catastrophe it precipitated.
As global climate negotiations continue to generate friction without momentum, the world’s forests continue to burn in great blazes and to fall before an onslaught of mining, agribusiness, and timber plantations. REDD’s proponents envision a way to buy our way out of the cycle of destruction. And those who have inhabited and protected the world’s forests for millennia – and whose cultures have been devastated by the race to exploit resources – continue to press for a better deal.