Johannesburg — Several issues around the UN mechanism that aims to curtail greenhouse gases by preventing forest loss were resolved in Warsaw at the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the meeting is being described by many as the "Forest COP".
The decisions were mostly on how a UN mechanism known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) and its successor, REDD+ (which additionally aims to reverse forest loss) will be governed.
Perhaps the most significant development is a decision that affects local communities and indigenous peoples who live in, or depend on, forests.
It has now become mandatory for countries who want to access funds for projects to conserve their forests to show that they are involving local forest-based communities in their efforts, and ensuring their livelihoods are safe.
REDD+ was initially designed to benefit countries with rainforests but now covers all developing countries, which could be compensated for preserving their forests, either from a fund or with carbon credits to be traded on international carbon markets.
But private companies as well as countries can earn carbon credits to help them offset their industrial emissions, and this has long been a sore point with the critics of REDD.
So, will REDD+ decisions help forest-linked communities and forests? IRIN takes a closer look.
Help the people, save the trees
Forests are known to remove huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, while the destruction of trees releases carbon back into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
Environmentalists have long argued that REDD+ must not simply protect trees, it must also protect biodiversity and forest-dependent communities. The logic is that if you don't help the people who live with the forests, you can't expect them to help save the trees.
Several studies - including an assessment by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), the world's largest network of forest scientists - show that efforts to conserve forests, and so reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions, cannot work without protecting biodiversity and the well-being of forest dwellers.
"There is clear evidence that including objectives to improve the livelihoods of forest-dependent people and local communities will strengthen local involvement and acceptance, and thereby support REDD+ goals," said Christoph Wildburger, the coordinator of IUFRO's Global Forest Expert Panels (GFEP) initiative, was quoted by IRIN as saying in 2012.
"Socio-economic impacts should therefore be considered early on in REDD+ planning and implementation. Tenure and property rights, including rights of access, use, and ownership in particular, also need to be emphasized, as they are crucial to ensuring the sustainable success of REDD+ activities."
Global thinking on forest management, even in developing countries where governments are often pressed to concede rainforest exploitation rights, has been moving towards decentralized forest management that allows local actors increased rights and responsibilities, which has been found to be effective in protecting forests.
In the 2010 UNFCCC meeting in Cancun, Mexico, the rights of indigenous forest communities and biodiversity were recognized as "safeguards", or conditions that countries were required to meet to qualify for REDD+ funding. But subsequent meetings failed to make adherence to those conditions mandatory, which is what forest-linked communities and civil society said was necessary.
Despite the best attempts of environmentalists and similar lobby groups, language in the proposed climate treaty that would make countries accountable for ensuring the rights of the forest-based communities remained "substantially weak", says Anggalia Putri Permatasari, Forest and Climate Change Officer, Association for Community-Based and Ecological Law Reform in Indonesia.
Instead of a system to monitor, report and verify (known as the MRV) for safeguards, she said, countries at the 2011 meeting in Durban, South Africa, settled for language that "obliged" them to provide a "summary of information on how safeguards are addressed and respected".
What happened in Warsaw?
The incessant lobbying by civil society and other groups paid off. Countries adopted a package of seven decisions finalizing the basic governance framework for REDD+, said Allison Silverman, an attorney with the US-based Center for International Environmental Law.
The framework requires countries to show that they have made efforts to improve the lives of forest-based communities and will involve them in initiatives to conserve and protect forests in a meaningful way. "These benefits are known at the UNFCCC as 'non-carbon' benefits'," she said.
Is this good enough?
Well, no. Raja Jarrah, climate advisor with the NGO, CARE International, answers the question candidly, "As with almost all the decisions on REDD+, the wording leaves a lot of room for interpretation ... the spirit of the decision might be seen as making it 'mandatory to report on safeguards', but what it actually does is ask countries to provide their 'most recent summary of information on how all of the safeguards'... have been addressed and respected."
He points out that neither "summary" nor "information" is defined. The language also does not stipulate how this information will be verified by indigenous peoples and local communities. Jarrah thinks the Warsaw decision has not really taken the issue forward since Cancun.
Permatasari, the Indonesian activist, admits the Warsaw decisions on REDD+ do not address the Safeguards Information System (SIS), which defines the information countries need to provide, and the manner in which it should be provided.
Environmentalists realize they still have a "great battle" ahead at the next UN talks in Lima, Peru, in 2014 to determine the details of the SIS.
Jarrah says in Durban it was acknowledged that "information must be transparent and cover all the safeguards, but national sovereignty and circumstances were also stressed, thereby giving countries more or less carte blanche to report as they will".
Permatasari feels the general message now is that in the long run the success of REDD+ will depend on "whether it creates long-term benefits for communities that live in and around forests and does not harm them. Recognition and protection of community rights is the first step towards achieving this".
Clearing rainforest for palm oil plantation in Cameroon
Pasang Dolma Sherpa, national coordinator of the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, sees the biggest challenge as ensuring that national governments recognize the rights of forest-based communities at all tiers of government in a meaningful manner.
Nepal has a community-based forest monitoring system in place and is regarded as much more advanced in recognizing the rights of indigenous communities, but she says the recognition is still "superficial". Dolma Sherpa notes that a process involving indigenous and forest-dependent people and communities must be put in place at all levels of government to record their grievances.
Countries have begun to develop their SIS frameworks, but are recognizing that they do not really know how to go about it, reports the REDD+ Safeguards Working Group (R-SWG), a North-South coalition of civil society and indigenous people's organizations.
Lakpa Nuri Sherpa, of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP)-Environment Programme, based in Thailand, points out that most of the information on REDD+ is only available in English; and there is a need to translate it to make communities aware of the requirements for implementing REDD+, and their role in the process.
Will REDD+ prevent deforestation?
Activists like CARE's Jarrah say that for REDD+ to work, the world has to tackle the demand-driven drivers of deforestation. These include a growing global demand for beef from ever larger cattle ranches, soya for animal feed and biofuels, palm oil for a variety of food and non-food uses, and of course tropical timber.
Where will the money come for REDD+?
REDD+ was supposed to have been funded by carbon markets, which have not really worked. This is largely because mitigation efforts to create carbon credits have so far not been able to place a decent value on carbon.
There was a lot of talk on the sidelines of the Warsaw conference about the enormous amounts of money it will take to conserve forests, and that public funding will not be adequate.
Juan Carlos Carrillo from Mexican Environmental Law Center and a member of the R-SWG, says, it "seems to be clear that markets won´t save forests and therefore the GCF [Green Climate Fund ] will play a more important role." The GCF is the biggest fund created under the UNFCCC to raise funds for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.
In 2004, the World Bank created a BioCarbon Fund that allocates money to develop projects that sequester or conserve carbon in forests and agro-ecosystems.
Rich countries like the US have already begun channelling money to this fund. The Bank hoped to create a market for soil carbon credits that will help small-farm productivity, and mobilize increased private sector investment in the agriculture sector. However, NGOs like ActionAid say farm soils will not be able to sequester the massive amounts of carbon required for such a market.
Jarrah says the "BioCarbon Fund is to help prime a system for trading forest carbon, since the carbon market itself is dysfunctional".
Forest-dependent communities don't really mind where the money is coming from (the private or public sector), but what does matter is the price the planet is paying if the money comes from the carbon market. At issue is the principle of forest carbon credits acquired by private companies. Since they are actually emitting the gases, practically, they are the ones who can trade to offset their continuing emissions.
"If - and it's a big if - we had ambitious global emissions reduction targets, offsets might make sense to help us achieve these," he said in an email to IRIN. "But we don't, so offsets are simply a method to avoid reducing emissions.
Forest carbon (which is based on removal of carbon from the atmosphere) is NOT equivalent to industrial carbon (released by burning fossil fuels that have previously been locked away underground). Therefore, using forest carbon as offsets does not slow down climate change, but rather allows the status quo of ever-increasing impacts to continue."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]