Southeast Asia’s REDD alert

This year’s climate change negotiations have been something of a travelling roadshow. There have been UNFCCC talks in Bonn in June and August, the first leaders meeting of the Major Economies Forum (MEF) in L’Aquila, Italy in July, a New York summit convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in September, another MEF meeting in London in October and the just-concluded UNFCCC negotiations in Barcelona. All of this, of course, has been leading up to the UN Copenhagen conference in December. For two weeks in early October, however, it was Bangkok’s turn. While not highly publicised in the wake of Ban’s summit, the Bangkok talks covered some of the most important areas for discussion prior to any global agreement being reached. One of these topics was REDD – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. REDD (or ‘REDD-plus’ as it is now called) has the potential to effect communities in southeast Asia more immediately than almost any other area of the climate change discussions.

REDD was originally seen as one of the great potential areas for solving climate change in a socially just manner. Instead of forests being seen merely as exploitable resources for big logging companies adept at avoiding scrutiny in developing countries, not to mention as an obstacle to the expansion of monocultural crop plantations, the survival of forests would be given a value that would make it more attractive for companies and/or local communities to leave the forests standing. The ‘carbon credits’ attributed to the forests could be sold to foreign governments or businesses needing to offset their own emissions. Given that emissions from deforestation account for approximately fifteen percent of global emissions, action to reduce these emissions has come to be seen as crucial to the success of a global deal.

However, since it was first introduced to the discussions REDD has raised concerns around the implementation and verification of any attempt to include forest carbon in a global carbon budget. Indigenous groups have raised concerns about the impact of commoditisation of their forests. It has also been suggested that REDD has lacked appropriate mechanisms to ensure local people are involved at all levels and that they see the benefits of carbon trading. Scientists have questioned whether it is reasonable to equate carbon emissions from industrial sources with the carbon that is stored and released from forests, not to mention the difficulty of measuring and verifying carbon stored in the world’s biologically diverse forests. A useful, if slightly one-eyed, blog to keep an eye on is REDD-Monitor.

While it was hoped that many of these concerns would be addressed in the REDD-plus negotiations leading up to Copenhagen the situation has, if anything, become more hotly contested.

The Indigenous Environment Network (IEN) which had a presence at the talks in Bangkok, catalogued a number of concerns with the REDD mechanism. IEN fears that a market in forest carbon will take ownership of forests away from local and indigenous people and hand it to large, foreign-owned companies. The ownership issue is particularly sensitive in countries with a long history of dispute over land use rights and struggles for recognition. A recent story has highlighted the sensitivity around such issues in Thailand.

IEN points out that there is no guarantee that REDD will “fully recognize the land tenure, customary and territorial rights of Indigenous Peoples”. They even suggest that if forest carbon is given a value, it may create incentives for governments to take control of indigenous areas and evict local people.

The movement for indigenous rights recently had a major win, with the establishment of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. IEN and others have suggested that elements of REDD could potentially contravene the UNDRIP, opening a can of worms for negotiators at the climate change talks. While the Declaration is just that, and is not binding, anything in REDD that is seen to set back progress on indigenous rights would not be a good look for a global climate change deal.

More specific to Thailand, the Bangkok Post quoted a member of the ‘Network of Indigenous People in Thailand’ during the talks:

Indigenous people had demanded that all countries uphold the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which recognises free prior and informed consent as a prerequisite for resettlement, projects affecting indigenous peoples’ territories and lands, or any other legislation which may affect them.

“These principles to safeguard our rights were somewhat watered down at the Bangkok talks,” said Mr Kittisak, a member of the Chiang Mai-based Iu Mien ethnic group, who was in Bangkok during the two-week talks to campaign for indigenous rights.

Further, IEN has highlighted that some of the potential downsides of the REDD mechanism may stem from its complexity, and the inability of local people to fully understand what they may be getting in to. For instance, they suggest that price volatility in the forest carbon market may also affect the security of local relationships with forests, especially if speculation is allowed. On the other hand, if local people do have ownership, and access to the benefits of carbon trading, will they be liable for damage caused to the forest? ie. by natural disasters.

While many local communities in southeast Asia are aware that such a scheme is coming, they can fall victim to people who may take advantage of the complexity of the scheme, as with the prominent case in PNG earlier this year: here, here and here.

The Wilderness Society, another NGO with a strong presence at the talks, credited the Australian delegation with leading the way in the discussion of a fair REDD-plus. However, they say that the biggest problem lies in REDD’s definition of forests. According to the Wilderness Society, “no clear distinction between natural forest and forest plantations under REDD at the moment, and this might create a major loophole for the private sector to benefit”.

REDD-Monitor pointed out that this may be compounded by a change made to the negotiating text during the talks, removing a proposed sentence which read as follows:

Protect biological diversity, including safeguards against the conversion of natural forests to forest plantations.

At the insistence of some negotiating countries this was reversed at the Barcelona talks, however the clause is yet to be agreed to.

Finally, IEN points to the REDD-plus Framework Document itself which acknowledges the concerns that have been raised around REDD:

  • REDD will lock-up forests by decoupling conservation from development
  • Asymmetric power distribution will enable powerful REDD consortia to deprive communities of their legitimate land-development aspirations
  • Hard-fought gains in forest management practices will be wasted
  • Commercial REDD may erode culturally rooted not-for-profit conservation values

It seems, therefore, that groups like IEN have some serious issues of concern around the REDD negotiations. However, what opportunities might they be ignoring in the process?

Also based in Chiang Mai is a research group called Forest Restoration Research Unit (FORRU) at Chiang Mai University. FORRU is involved in a project with the World Agroforestry Centre, called ‘Making the Mekong connected’.

According to those involved, the project aims to “support the development of carbon and biodiversity assets in the multifunctional landscapes of the upper Mekong region. To this extent, there are several sites involved in the study, spread through Thailand, Yunnan province of China, Laos and (hopefully) Myanmar”.

From the project summary, the aim of the project is to:

Support enhanced and connected multifunctional landscape corridors with both positive livelihood and environmental benefits, managed by smallholder farmers through integrated management and financial mechanisms; and hence contribute to sustainable land-use policies and practices. The purpose is to identify and develop landscape corridors, stepping stones, and framework species within secondary vegetation and agricultural landscapes in the region. The proposed project seeks to build regional, national, and local capacities for improving livelihoods and landscapes with integrated conservation and development mechanisms.’ This is especially in respect to carbon and biodiversity offset options.

A second major project currently underway is research based: “FORRU is working with two PhD Students based in the biology department of Chiang Mai University who are investigating carbon sequestration in FORRU’s restored forests, and then comparing this to natural forests, an unplanted weedy control plot and plantation forests (pine and eucalypt). FORRU hopes that once the results from these students are published, they may be able to use the information in some sort of carbon trading scheme.”

While the Bangkok talks did see some concerning compromises on language in the negotiating document, there are some important points still included, for instance:

In accordance with relevant international agreements[, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,] and taking into account national circumstances and legislation, respect for the knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples[, including their full prior and informed consent,] and members of local communities and promote the full and effective participation of all relevant stakeholders.

The hopes were that REDD-plus would take more consideration, than previous texts, of the needs of communities and to utilise the skills that many communities already have. There has been considerable discussion around the issue of “full prior and informed consent”, however it has yet to provide clarity as to how ‘FPIC’ will be followed through. It needs to be implemented skilfully, and past UNFCCC mitigation strategies such as the Clean Development Mechanism do not necessarily inspire confidence in this regard. An observer commented that REDD-plus should at the very least ensure that the situation does not go backwards, and that “implementation is going to have to have the right approach: a broad scale one size fits all approach is not going to work, and communities have to have a deciding say in what goes ahead and how.”

New Mandala readers looking for further information may find two reports on REDD (here and here) useful.