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After Cancun: We’re all foresters now

External Reference/Copyright
Issue date: 
January 11, 2011
Publisher Name: 
The Centre for People and Forests
Ben Vickers
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The mild success of Cancun provided a great advance for the world’s foresters: global attention. But with this attention comes responsibility.

From the chill of Copenhagen we reached the calm seas of Cancun, and the mood of climate change negotiators soared with the balmy temperatures. There is agreement. COP16 is officially a success. We can move forward with renewed confidence and hope.

All true, of course. But before we start doing cartwheels for joy, consider this: If the Cancun agreement had been the outcome from Copenhagen, it would still have been considered a failure.

So how far have we come?

The Cancun agreements do not deliver the politically-binding, ambitious emission reduction commitments that were demanded before Copenhagen, over a year ago. On the other hand, they do represent a political triumph for Mexico, a much-needed boost for multilateralism, and ever-increasing recognition of the importance of the forest sector.

A Mexican stand

As expected, the Mexicans poured considerable financial and political capital into the event, and did probably more than any other country to ensure an encouraging outcome.

The hosts of COP16 were determined to avoid the ignominious fate of Denmark. In Copenhagen, the Latin American quintet known as ALBA (Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela) ended any chance of agreement by objecting to the backroom dealings that produced the text of the Copenhagen Accord. Whether or not this stand was justified, it allowed other parties to duck the tough choice between taking on firm commitments, or being held accountable for collapse of the talks.

Mexico’s influence with its Latin neighbors was important to avoiding a similar outcome at COP16. Of the five ALBA nations, this time only Bolivia was prepared to hold up consensus. Even so (as jaded followers of UN processes know only too well) it only takes one country to prevent consensus. At Cancun’s opening plenary, Kevin Conrad of the Papua New Guinea delegation anticipated just such an outcome, and urged the assembly to prevent progress becoming hostage to process. Despite a round of protestations from several parties that consensus must be preserved at all costs, when it came to the crunch, Mexico followed Conrad’s advice and declared agreement by majority. The sense of relief was palpable, and multilateralists the world over mopped their sweaty brows.

Simply REDD?

The 29 pages of the Cancun agreement are the culmination of the work of the Ad-hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) – the body with the unwieldy acronym set up three years ago at Bali to forge the path to a new climate agreement. Although REDD+ is just one sub-section of one of the five elements under negotiation, it has been the most prominent and progressive track from the outset.

At times, REDD+ has seemed to pull the rest of the negotiations along, against a tide of apathy and pessimism, towards the distant promise of agreement. This was partly due to enlightened chairmanship (particularly of the Philippines’ Tony La Vina, who actively encouraged the direct participation of civil society groups in the negotiations). But REDD+ was also driven forward by the beguiling simplicity of the idea – pay poorer countries to manage and preserve forests – and the intimate, ancient connection between people and forests which all of us can understand.

REDD+ is both as simple as it first sounds, and fiendishly complex. The complexity stems in part from the confusion generated by the concept of ‘payment for environmental services,’ known as PES, of which REDD+ is just one form. PES does not always fit neatly with our understanding of ownership, rights, and trade, because these concepts apply to commodities, and PES refers to ‘encumbrances,’ i.e. the acceptance of limits on the full expression of use rights. The distinction is slippery. So is the difference between inputs (the practical actions undertaken by the service provider) and outputs (the measurable environmental impact that the investor expects).

However, REDD+ is also difficult to define in simple terms because forests are extremely complex systems. Foresters understand this, particularly those who manage large, diverse areas in tropical countries. The people who depend on these forests for their livelihoods also understand this complexity, in a way that those who studied forestry as a vocation (like me) perhaps never can.

But REDD+ has made foresters of us all. Economists, lawyers, climatologists, anthropologists, politicians, and journalists are beginning to grasp the importance of understanding how forests respond to the pressures we exert on them. This is excellent news for forests.

A certified response

This mass interest brings with it an insatiable demand for information, as similar interest has sparked demand for news on climate change and other technical fields. Information must be provided transparently and consistently to meet the needs of a diverse and growing group of interested stakeholders. It cannot therefore be limited to the specific needs of carbon markets, which are the focus of current discussions under REDD+.  It must also encompass the technical, social, and environmental ‘safeguards’ that define the quality of a forest in the broadest sense.

Fortunately, foresters have been here before. In the 1980s, the growth of environmental awareness among consumers of forest products led to a similar demand for a trusted source of information on forests. The result was the spread of forest certification, and the development of international standards that cover all aspects of forest management. These standards evolve as we learn more about the interaction of social, environmental, and economic issues in forestry, and as the information demands of stakeholders change over time.

Forest managers aiming for certification are, by definition, aiming for high quality in all aspects of forest management. The steps that they need to achieve certification are very similar to the steps that they need to engage in REDD+. Both require a demonstrable improvement in the social and environmental impacts of forest management. So, instead of starting from scratch, foresters can look to the experience of global certification schemes, such as that of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) with its balanced, democratic membership of economic, environmental, and social interest groups.

Much of the hard-nosed negotiating on REDD+ safeguards has, in effect, been thrashed out over the last two decades through the internal meetings of the FSC and other international, regional, or country-specific certification schemes. This is why, despite the detailed negotiations on REDD+ methods and safeguards that will start in earnest after the Cancun agreements, one of the most significant events of 2011 may be the tri-annual General Assembly of the FSC, to be held in June in Sabah, Malaysia.

The past three years have been fascinating for foresters.  With so many more of us around, the next few years promise even more interesting times.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut