Battle Rages Over Indigenous Rights and REDD at UN Climate Talks

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WMNF, Cancun, Mexico

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The UN climate talks in Cancun are heating up this week with a clear division emerging on the issue of Forests and Indigenous Rights. WMNF's Kelly Benjamin is at summit in Mexico and files this report.

You’re listening to the sound of a Machete held by a Mayan villager chopping the bark of off of a several hundred year old sapodilla or chicle tree … or as we would call it in the US, a bubble gum tree.

I'm about 4 hours south of Cancun in the jungle outside the Mayan village of San Antonio Tuk. The locals are showing me how for they make a living off of the forest, sustainably.

"We welcome you and we want to show you how we Mayan people preserve our forests."

San Antonio Tuk is in the state of Quintana Roo, the most deforested state in Mexico. Mining, cattle farming, tourism and commercial agriculture have all contributed to the loss of the natural jungle here. But now, the people of this village are getting money to preserve their forests from the Mexican government.

"We can live in the forest and we can take advantage of it but it in old ways."

That’s Miguel Cante Chuk, speaking through a translator, he’s the chief of the environmental services network that is hoping to benefit from something called REDD That’s REDD and it’s the most commonly used acronym at this year’s UN climate talks.

"REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation."

Rolf Skar is with Greenpeace.

"There's a lot of climate pollution that comes from the burning, slashing and destroying of tropical rain forests. The idea behind REDD is a simple one; that northern countries, rich nations, help developing countries with those tropical rain forests where they would otherwise destroy all of those rain forests. So they provide financial aid to do something better, to develop sustainably instead of destroying all of those forests."

The goal of the UN talks in Cancun is to reduce global greenhouse emissions that are causing climate change. About 15 to 20% of emissions come from deforestation. So a potential REDD agreement is being held up as the best hope for any deal coming out the Climate talks in Cancun. But not everyone feels that way.

“When I say no, you say REDD. NO REDD!! NO REDD!!”

Over the weekend, Via Campesina, an international movement of peasants and indigenous people, staged a march through downtown Cancun.

Over 2,000 people from Mexico and several other countries took part. Kandi Mossett is a Native American from North Dakota. She’s not a fan of REDD.

"What it can do is create toxic ... in the United States because what it's allowing is countries like the United States, rather than reducing their emissions at the source, they are able to continue to do it by starting new projects in other countries. And it's already making it possible for indigenous people's rights to be slowly dwindled away. Indigenous people and forest dwelling peoples, when they sign these contracts, they're no longer to even go into their own lands and manage them like they've been doing for years and years and years. They're not able to go get their berries and their food. The other problem with REDD is that it doesn't differentiate between plantations and forests so that what they can do is actually remove forests and plant monoculture plantations of Eucalyptus and Palm Oil and these are all things that are not going to be sustainable for us or our future and that is why REDD is not ready and why we're strongly opposed."

But Louis Vercot, Senior Scientist for the Center for International Forestry Research disagrees. He says REDD could help indigenous communities by creating financial possibilities.

"REDD could be done in a way that would benefit local communities by creating financial incentives or financial possibilities for them to move from unsustainable forest management practices to sustainable forest management practices."

Rather than a mechanism that allows the first world exploit the third, Vercot says that REDD is something that developing nations came up with.

"First of all we need to remember that this REDD mechanism was a proposal by developing countries for how they wanted to begin approaching reducing their emissions and they asked for support from northern countries to do that."

But Clayton Thomas-Mueller with the Indigenous Environmental Network doesn’t buy it.

"The World Bank has co-opted the United Nations framework convention on climate change and other international instruments, with the gall of creating a new market bubble. A new neo-liberal plan that they're imposing on people in the global south, primarily indigenous peoples and forest dependent peoples. It's nothing more than a privatization scheme aimed at commodifying over 60 million indigenous peoples and forest dependent peoples lands in the global south to become commodities to be bought and sold from the international forest carbon facility."

In the middle of this debate is Vicki Tauli-Corpuz of the United Nations forum on Indigenous Issues. She says there’s a lot of misunderstandings about REDD and how it will work.

"The reason why they are so opposed is they think that it's a market mechanism, but actually if you take a look at the REDD agreement it's not a market mechanism. It says that ... implementing REDD will really be funded by public funds. Even in the agreement that you see now, there is hardly any reference to the market. So I think there's widespread misinformation or misunderstanding of what REDD is all about."

Meanwhile, back in San Antonio Tuk in the southern Yucatan, the Mayans are still harvesting gum from the chicle trees, but not nearly as much as they used.

"Fifty years ago we were able to extract 5 kilos of chicle, but nowadays with the global warming we only are able to extract 1 kilo and a half."

Kelly Benjamin is in Mexico on a fellowship with Earth Journalism News. Tune in to the Evening News the rest of this week for his daily reports from the UN Climate Summit in Cancun.

Previous WMNF coverage of COP 16