Reforestation agreement plays a crucial role in global pact

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Investigate West, Cancun, Mexico

CANCUN — As two weeks of United Nations climate talks wound down this weekend, negotiators emerged with a global agreement they predict will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by limiting deforestation in the developing world.

The deal, known as REDD, has held a leading role in UN deliberations since the end of last year’s talks in Copenhagen, but the details of the plan remain unsettled.

Simply put, REDD would create a global market for selling and trading carbon credits, a practice which would allow corporations in the developed world—from hotel chains to those involved in practices that directly harm the environment—to continue their operations, so long as they pay for forest preservation and reforestation projects in the developing world.

With the promise of money on the negotiating table, the UN timber proposal makes for an unlikely alliance between northern industrialists and those in the global south. A number of REDD-eligible projects are already underway.

Just three hours south of Cancun sits the Mayan city of Felipe Carillo Puerto. Outside its crowded maze of buildings and cracked roads, locals have begun a reforestation project they hope will offer them the financial benefits currently promised by negotiators. The Mayans believe they earn $12 per ton of carbon they sequester. Their project, managed cooperatively in what is known as an ‘ejido,’ was given the name ‘Much’ Kanaan K’aax.’ The name is Mayan for ‘Together we take care of the forest.’ Roughly 240 locals oversee the effort to preserve and reforest over 3,300 acres.

Farther south, proponents of an incentives-based UN timber deal look to the Brazilian state of Amazonas, where former Minister of the Environment Virgilio Viana oversaw what is considered one of the most successful contemporary forest preservation programs. The project, known as Bolsa Floresta, offers a series of incentives to 7000 families in forest-based communities in exchange for their commitment to stop deforestation. They include health services, provisions for traditional and income-based education programs, and a monthly allowance of $25 a month per family and $100 a month for the community, Viana said. Upon completing the training program, members of the community are awarded with certificates that claim they’re ready to care for the forest.

Though people in communities like Felipe Carillo Puerto and Amazonas seem to benefit from incentives-based forest conservation programs, some warn that the small projects won’t actually cut emissions.

Ann Petermann, Executive Director of the Global Justice Ecology Project, came to Cancun to oppose REDD. She doesn’t trust the short-term success of projects like the Mayan ejido or Viana’s Bolsa Floresta.

 “There are different kinds of carbon,” she says. “When fossil carbon is burned and put into the atmosphere, that’s permanent. You’ve permanently taken it out of the ground.” Reforestation then, will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions without a simultaneous cap on emissions levels. Unless something is done to address the industrial activity that drives deforestation, REDD is useless in the effort to stop climate change.

There are also cultural shocks to traditional communities, Petermann says, especially those that have no previous experience with international markets. “Even the people that are allowed to stay in their forests as part of the REDD program have to deal with the impacts of being thrust into the market, which are hard to predict.” Petermann is concerned that traditional societies will suffer as members of younger generations leave their homes to seek prosperity elsewhere.

Other critics of REDD spy an invitation for overtly criminal behavior. Speaking to ‘Living on Earth’ reporter Bruce Gellerman, Davyth Stewart, Senior Forest Campaigner & legal counsel at Global Witness warns of the possibility for organized crime in the carbon market:

“There's going to be a lot of money coming in from the climate change process. And, a lot of the places in which the money is moving into countries with serious corruption risks, with poor countries with poor law enforcement, poor regulations. It's easy to move in and move money around and manipulate the system to take advantage.

Davyth goes on to say that the language used in the definition of land ownership is key for ensuring control over and profit from forests stays with the people who live in them. The payoff for a clever criminal is big, with up to 15 to 20 billion dollars being traded each year within the next five to 10 years, so the passage of careful legislation in each REDD eligible area is key, Davyth says.

In some parts of the world, governments and private parties are not waiting for the United Nations to agree upon a carbon-trading scheme.

As LA Times correspondent Margot Roosevelt reports, California’s governing leaders have made a deal with the Mexican state of Chiapas to sell up to 2 million metric tons of carbon into the California market over the next eight years. The credits would only offset a very small portion of California’s overall emissions however: 2%, reports Toby Janson-Smith, an expert on carbon offsets with Conservation International.

Alone, that tiny number won’t go very far in reducing atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations to 350 parts per million—the number scientists say we need to return to in order avoid catastrophic climate change.

REDD advocate Virgilio Viana knows that. When asked if the program would succeed in delivering humans and the planet from the numerous horrors that likely lay ahead, he said:

“No, they don’t. And that’s the bad news, that we should have ambitious targets based on science and legally binding, but that’s something that no one seems ready to do.”

Journalist Alex Kelly is covering the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun through a fellowship program with the Earth Journalism Network, in cooperation with the Society of Environmental Journalists. Kelly also covered last year's climate talks in Copenhagen for InvestigateWest.