Forest Peoples at risk from 'carbon grab'

| 20th March 2014
Dancing in the forest - Baka children in the rainforest of Cameroon. The Baka have been there for millennia, but the government 'owns' the forest and its carbon. Photo: .

Dancing in the forest - Baka children in the rainforest of Cameroon. The Baka have been there for millennia, but the government 'owns' the forest and its carbon. Photo: .

A new 'carbon grab' is under way as governments and corporations seize valuable rights to the carbon stored in standing forests, with UN and World Bank support. But there's no benefit for forest communities - who even risk expulsion to make way for 'carbon plantations',
Carbon markets must not provide governments with yet another tool to dispossess their citizens from the natural resources they have cared for and depended on for generations.

As the United Nations and the World Bank prepare to develop world carbon markets as a tool to halt deforestation under so-called REDD+, new research warns of a new 'carbon grab' in the making.

And the grab could prove highly destructive to forest communities and indigenous peoples. First the process offers them no benefits. Worse, it may actually force their explusion, as natural forests are turned into intensively managed 'carbon plantations'.

Indeed this is already happening in Kenya, where the government is evicting Sengwer indigenous people from their ancestral forest lands and burning their homes, food stores and belongings to the ground - all to make way for a 'Natural Resource Management Project' run by the Kenya Forest Service and financed by the World Bank.

The problem is that neither the REDD+ regulations, nor national laws in forested countries, nor the World Bank's Framework Guidelines, offer adequate legal protections and safeguards for Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

No legal protection for forest Peoples

A survey of 23 low and middle income countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, covering 66% of the developing world's forests, found no laws governing how Indigenous Peoples and local communities could profit from the carbon in the forests in which they live and depend on for their livelihoods.

"As the carbon in living trees becomes another marketable commodity, the deck is loaded against forest peoples, and presents an opening for an unprecedented carbon grab by governments and investors" said Arvind Khare, Executive Director of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), which conducted the research with the Ateneo School of Government in Manila, the Philippines.

"Every other natural resource investment on the international stage has disenfranchised indigenous Peoples and local communities, but we were hoping REDD would deliver a different outcome. Their rights to their forests may be few and far between, but their rights to the carbon in the forests are non-existent."

Who owns the forest carbon?

The research, just released at an international conference, found that:

  • Only Mexico and Guatemala have passed national legislation defining tenure rights over carbon.
  • None of the 23 countries examined had the necessary national legal framework establishing rules and institutions determining how carbon from REDD+ should be traded.
  • One country, Bolivia, passed a law explicitly prohibiting the commodification of ecosystems services - therefore closing off the possibility of local peoples' participation in carbon markets.
  • Six countries have drafted laws that establish carbon rights and / or a consistent regulatory framework for their trade - but none had been finalized.

With carbon commodified as an exploitatable 'resource', all the indications are that forest communities are set to lose out, based on a study of the 'Pacific Basin Region' - a corridor that starts in the Panama Canal, runs through western Colombia and Ecuador, and ends in northern Peru.

Carbon markets must not provide governments with yet another tool to dispossess their citizens from the natural resources they have cared for and depended on for generations.

The Region encompasses one of the most biodiverse forests in the world, and in 41% of this region - 12 million hectares - the lands of Indigenous Peoples and local communities have been overrun with projects involving natural resource extraction as well as massive infrastructure construction.

Rights must be defined and protected

Alexandre Corriveau-Bourque, Tenure Analyst for RRI and a lead researcher on this analysis, said: "It is clear that ownership rights and governance are still deeply contested over tangible resources, such as land, forest products, and the minerals under them.

"Adding a new layer - especially one as abstract as carbon - without clearly defined rights and established institutions to safeguard against abuses, drastically increases the risks for communities."

"If communities are going to be included in and benefit from this effort to preserve the last remaining tropical forests, their rights to land, forest, and carbon need to be defined and protected."

Since REDD launch in 2008, forest peoples have lost out

Since the inception of REDD in 2008, organizations have advocated that secure local land rights are critical to the program's success. Extensive research confirms that local communities sustainably manage their land and resources when they have greater ownership and control.

Yet REDD's potential to boost local land rights has not been seen so far. The amount of forest land secured for community ownership since the program's launch in 2008 is less than 20% of the area secured in the preceding six years.

In many regions of the world, the national governments claim ownership rights over their forest land as well as the wealth contained by its lumber and soil regardless of who lives there.

From Congo to Indonesia, governments claim forest ownership

For example, in the countries of the Congo basin - which collectively contain the world's second largest rainforest - as well as in peninsular Southeast Asia, governments claim legal control of more than 99% of their forest land.

In Indonesia, a year-old constitutional court ruling that handed control of the forests from the national government to the customary communities still has yet to be implemented.

"The recognition of Indigenous land rights needs to be more than a political public relations tool", noted Tony La Viña, of the Ateneo School of Government.

"We know then when operationalized, those land rights have shown to be one of the last bulwarks saving mature forests from being 'grabbed' and cleared.

"The carbon markets, when up and running, need to support the forest stewardship of the people who live there, and not provide national governments with yet another tool to dispossess their citizens from the natural resources they have cared for and depended on for generations."

Negotiations going ahead - and ignoring carbon rights

At the UN climate negotiations in Warsaw in November 2013, delegates reached an agreement that would allow REDD+ to move forward.

But the difficult question of who should control and benefit from the new carbon value found in standing forests was left unresolved.

Although 88% of countries who have taken the first step to implement REDD+ initiatives listed tenure clarification as a component of their strategy, initiatives have so far failed to reverse the slowdown in rights recognition.

And as the report notes: "the absence of clear definition of tenure rights over carbon may create an opening for governments to transfer the right to trade carbon to third parties within communities' lands.

"This was the case in Liberia, where carbon rights have been awarded to several large-scale agricultural concessions that took place in land claimed by communities."

World Bank - no guidelines on who owns forest carbon

At present, the process defining carbon rights is being driven by the finalization of a carbon purchasing policy by the World Bank's Carbon Fund.

These emissions reductions credits represent a new class of assets, inextricably linked to and yet established separately from property rights to forests.

Yet the Carbon Fund's Methodological Framework says nothing about the need to respect or enforce the rights to carbon - and provides only an feeble, ambiguous guideline for an examination of rights:

"The status of rights to carbon and relevant lands should be assessed to establish a basis for successful implementation of the emissions reduction program."

Civil society groups have criticized the Framework for creating a conflict between the new property rights to carbon and the existing statutory and customarily held rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities - without providing any clear safeguards and measures to prevent strife and negative impacts on community rights.

A long and sordid history

"Natural resource exploitation has a long and sordid history in most developing countries", concluded Khare. "The World Bank's Carbon Fund has a unique opportunity to make a transformative change in this history.

"If tenure reform is a pre-condition for purchase of emissions reduction, long term security of REDD+ can be secured along with the security of forest peoples. To do otherwise is not feasible, however.

"You cannot trade on local and indigenous livelihoods without safeguarding their participation and guaranteeing their profits."



The report: Status of Forest Carbon - Rights and Implications for Communities, the Carbon Trade, and REDD+ Investments.

The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) is a global coalition of 13 Partners and over 140 international, regional and community organizations advancing forest tenure, policy and market reforms. RRI is coordinated by the Rights and Resources Group, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC.


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