Oaxaca, Mexico (3 September 2010)—With governments across Latin America preparing to implement a new financial mechanism aimed at mitigating climate change by curbing carbon emissions from the destruction of tropical forests, experts gathering here today warned against a "one-size-fits-all" approach, calling instead for flexible, balanced solutions to the thorny dilemmas surrounding this new mechanism. Among the experts' chief worries is that the wealthy and powerful could capture many of the benefits, largely at the expense of rural communities, including indigenous groups.
Organized by Mexico's National Forestry Commission and the Swiss government, with scientific support from CIFOR, this conference—which opened on August 31 and convenes through Friday, September 3—is the fourth in a series of country-led initiatives focusing on forest governance and decentralization in support of the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF). It will feed into a UNFF meeting to take place in early 2011, marking the launch of the International Year of Forests. It brought together scientists, as well as representatives of governments and nongovernment organizations, for discussions on governance, decentralization and REDD+ in Latin America.
Under REDD+ (for reducing deforestation and forest degradation), industrialized countries will provide developing nations with sizeable sums of money in exchange for verifiable storage of carbon in forests, in addition to the conservation and sustainable management of forests. Forest destruction currently accounts for 12 to 18 percent of annual global carbon emissions. Several Latin American countries, including Mexico, have taken the lead in designing REDD+ schemes and stand to benefit significantly.
"Good forest governance – involving transparent and inclusive relationships between governments, forests and the people who depend on them – is fundamental for ensuring that REDD+ helps forest-dependent communities move out of poverty, instead of fueling corruption and funding entrenched bureaucracies," said Elena Petkova, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). "REDD+ schemes could either flounder on governance failures or flourish under successful governance."
The central aim of the conference in Oaxaca – was to provide science-based advice on the design and implementation of REDD+ schemes, so these schemes can capture carbon and reduce emissions effectively, while at the same time generate significant benefits from sustainable forest management that are equitably shared.
"About 40 years of public sector investment in curbing deforestation, while producing many local successes, has fallen far short of its goal," said CIFOR scientist Andrew Wardell. "REDD+ might be our last chance to save the world's tropical forests. So, it's extremely important to get it right in Latin America and elsewhere. This region holds nearly a quarter of the world's forests, upon which millions of people depend, and over the last five years, it has accounted for 65 percent of global net forest loss."
The conference in Oaxaca also marks a key milestone in preparations for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP16), to be held later this year in Cancun, Mexico. Among other contributions, it will help shape the content of Forest Day 4, the fourth in a series of influential events taking place alongside COP16, which have heightened awareness of the important role forests play in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Last year's event attracted 1,500 forestry experts, policymakers, activists and others, including three Nobel Laureates and two former heads of state.
The note of caution about REDD+ sounded by participants in the Oaxaca conference reflects extensive evidence of major barriers to forest governance reform in Latin America, including burdensome, unrealistic and contradictory government regulations; widespread disregard for owners' rights to forest use, even when these have been legally granted; and continuing corruption and illegal logging.
Yet, forestry experts are not necessarily pessimistic, citing a number of positive developments. Among these are Brazil's extraordinary progress in monitoring forests to detect illegal logging and Costa Rica's simplified standards for sustainable forest management. Such achievements provide grounds for hope and useful models from which to learn in designing successful REDD+ schemes.
Another encouraging trend, according to several conference presentations, is the wave of land tenure change that has swept Latin America since the 1980s, often building on earlier agrarian reforms. This has helped greatly to clarify the rights of diverse rural groups, especially those of indigenous people, thus meeting an important, though not sufficient, requirement for sustainable forest management.
As a result of far-reaching land tenure reforms in Mexico, for example, most of the country's 64 million hectares of forest are now owned by rural communities, including many indigenous groups. Much evidence in Latin America has shown that such communities, as local custodians of forest resources, are often more successful in protecting them than are formally protected areas overseen by governments.
Rural people have also proved to be a powerful force for creating local forestry enterprises, which raise rural incomes and foster sustainable practices. In the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca, for example, community forest management has gained ground economically through commercial timber production, ecotourism and other enterprises, while also registering a modest increase in forest cover.
"Mexico's long tradition of community forest management provides a strong foundation for local action, which is highly relevant to the design and implementation of REDD+," said José Carlos Fernández Ugalde, head of international affairs at CONAFOR, Mexico's National Forestry Commission.
Despite such experiences, some indigenous groups fear they will receive little but crumbs from the REDD+ table, to paraphrase one conference presentation. During recent conferences in Bolivia and Costa Rica, representatives of such groups complained that, just as they have historically been deprived of benefits from the use of natural resources in their territories, including timber, minerals and hydrocarbons, history will likely repeat itself, as "carbon cowboys" descend upon them with new, but ultimately empty, promises of big benefits.
Their fears are fueled by the broader concern that REDD+ will prompt governments to recentralize forest management, reversing many of the gains that have accrued to rural people from recent land tenure and decentralization reforms. The temptation to seize control of large sums of money, the argument goes, on the pretext that only governments can be held accountable for the use of this money to reduce carbon emissions, could prove irresistible.
In the case of Brazil at least, that is an unlikely outcome, according to one conference presentation, because the central government of such a large country cannot possibly monitor land use across its entire territory and must therefore rely heavily on local authorities to perform this function efficiently.
"Far from reversing the decentralization of forest management," the author said, "REDD+ could provide new incentives and resources for building local capacity. Besides, if local populations believe they are being harmed or deprived of due benefits, they can simply sabotage REDD+ schemes."
"If REDD+ is to succeed, it must not come from central government decrees that undermine rural communities," said Christian Küchli of Switzerland's Federal Office for the Environment. "It must have local support and involve increased resource flows to rural areas, with adequate safeguards in a balanced regulatory framework."