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Environmental and Indigenous Activists Criticize Proposed Deal to Save Rainforests

StoryDecember 18, 2009
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On Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the Obama administration would commit $1 billion over the next three years toward a proposed global scheme to preserve tropical forests. It’s called REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. As countries attempt to hammer out a final deal before the end of the summit, Anjali Kamat files a report featuring a range of concerns over what this UN-backed proposal could mean for the future of the world’s rainforests and forest dwellers. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


On this final day of the climate summit, we turn to an issue that many hoped would be the silver lining to come out of Copenhagen. For two weeks, negotiators have been discussing a global deal to preserve the world’s tropical rainforests. Democracy Now!’s Anjali Kamat has more.


    Soon after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize last week, President Obama praised Norway’s forest protection programs in the Brazilian Amazon.

      BARACK OBAMA: I’m very impressed with the model that has been built between Norway and Brazil that allows for effective monitoring and ensures that we are making progress in avoiding deforestation of the Amazon. And we all understand that it’s probably the most cost-effective way for us to address the issue of climate change.


    Here in Copenhagen, the United States is putting its weight behind a deal to protect rainforests that many say could be the most concrete agreement to come out of the two-week climate summit. The proposed program is known as REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. It would set up an international fund to pay poor nations for saving or replanting their forests instead of cutting them down for timber or cash crops. If this deal is adopted, billions of dollars could flow from rich nations to rainforest countries in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

    We asked Bill Barclay from Rainforest Action Network to explain why rich countries like the United States are pushing for forest preservation in poor countries.


      The US wants REDD to come in, but they want it to come in as a way to avoid taking deeper emission reduction cuts at home. So, in other words, they see it as a sort of a low-cost way to buy their way out of the investments in clean energy economy that we need to do in the United States. So, rather than invest in, you know, revamping our energy sources, moving away from coal quickly, investing in that long-term infrastructure, they say, “Well, it would be much cheaper just to invest in forests.” But that doesn’t work for the climate.


    A number of conservation groups have hailed the proposal as the strongest global measure to tackle deforestation and climate change. Forests are efficient absorbers of carbon dioxide, and deforestation in tropical countries is estimated to amount to a fifth of global greenhouse emissions.

    But here in Copenhagen, a leaked draft of the agreement has some environmental and indigenous activists worried it could have the opposite effect, hastening the destruction of the world’s rainforests. Bill Barclay explained that countries haven’t even agreed on what gets to be considered a forest.


      If we don’t get the definitions right, countries could take credit for avoiding deforestation by clear-cutting natural primary forest and putting in monoculture plantations, and then that wouldn’t count as deforestation, so that would be seen as part of contribution towards avoiding deforestation. That would be a very perverse outcome, because we would be destroying important biodiversity values, critical habitat, beautiful pristine rainforests, and substituting them with something that is obviously completely different, which is monoculture plantations for large industry, and that’s just not the same thing whatsoever.


    Miguel Lovera is the climate negotiator from Paraguay. He had spent several nights hammering out the text, and we caught him during a brief break from the closed-door discussions.


      We lost quite precious text for forests and forest peoples. One thing we lost was a very clear reference to drivers of deforestation, especially those international drivers. We would have needed that to really hands-on tackling of the problem of international drivers of deforestation. We also lost a very clear reference to plantations, in the sense of avoiding that REDD moneys would go into replacing or promoting — replacing natural forests and promoting monocultural tree plantations.


    Lovera wouldn’t say who had pushed to gut the safeguards, but spoke of pressure from wealthy nations, or, in the language of the climate change convention, Annex I countries.


      What I can say is that very powerful Annex I countries and other industrialized countries, which are not part of the Annex I, were very adamant and very picky about details, because of their vested interest.


    As negotiators at the UN climate summit fought over the language into the early hours of the morning, environmental and indigenous groups organized daily protests in the Bella Center.


      [singing] Too much fossil fuel, trees chain-sawed, no strings attached, and a big fat logging subsidy.


    Camila Moreno of Friends of the Earth in Brazil worries that the proposed deal will end up privatizing the rainforests, not saving them.


      REDD, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, it’s not a mechanism to the boreal forest or to the Siberian forest; it is a mechanism to tropical forests. And so, from Brazil, what we are seeing is that it’s acting as a counter-land-reform in the sense that it’s pushing for the privatization and commodification of land, because only with the land title you can get with the big REDD business that are being promised. Should we allow that? Is that what we want as an international public policy, that all of the sudden, the last public forests and public lands on earth, where there is biodiversity, where there are indigenous people, be now, from now on, connected to financial markets?


    What does this mean for the rights of people who live in the forests? Attorney Davyth Stewart from Global Witness showed us a copy of the leaked agreement.

      DAVYTH STEWART: Unfortunately, the language has been watered down over so many negotiation tracks that the only thing that everybody could sort of agree with was the absolute lowest common denominator on indigenous people’s rights.


    Camila Moreno worries that the REDD proposal is simply about compensating the loggers at the expense of indigenous people.


      REDD is a mechanism designed to avoid deforestation. But we know, and they say, indigenous people do not deforest, because their life depends on the forest and they live with the forest. So the whole point is that REDD is designed to the guy that has a chainsaw or the money to buy the chainsaw or the big bulldozers, and can say, “OK, I’m going to do this. How much you pay for me not doing?”

      PROTESTERS: Respect indigenous people’s rights! Respect indigenous people’s rights!


    But indigenous leaders are not taking this lying down. Marlon Santi heads the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities in Ecuador.

      MARLON SANTI: [translated] Indigenous people from all around the world, we are demanding that the countries that are emitting all of the carbon, that they don’t just give money, that they actually begin to reduce their own emissions. We are hoping that our request will be taken into account. If our proposals aren’t taken into account, many indigenous people around the world and in places like Ecuador, we’re going to have to find ways to raise our voice, and potentially in some kind of resistance.


    We asked Camila what kind of proposal she would support to end deforestation in the Amazon.


      If you really want a mechanism to avoid deforestation, dismantle agribusiness. This is the whole point. This is the main driver of deforestation in the entire South America.


    Indeed, a Greenpeace report from earlier this year states that cattle ranching is behind 80 percent of the deforestation of the Amazon. But commercial agriculture and other powerful drivers of deforestation, like the timber and paper and pulp industry, are barely mentioned in the draft agreement.

    Whatever the final shape of the deal, one thing is clear: indigenous and environmental activists in some of the rainforest countries most affected by deforestation agree that the REDD mechanism is missing the forest for the trees.

    For Democracy Now!, I’m Anjali Kamat in Copenhagen.

AMY GOODMAN: Special thanks to Jacquie Soohen and Elizabeth Press for that report, as well.

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