Within the Amazon hinterlands of northeast Bolivia, Noel Kempff Mercado National Park has become a model in a new effort to preserve the world's forests.
The park, home to jaguars, toucans, and rare river otters, faced the threat of loggers until recently. In a first-of-its-kind approach to conservation, the Bolivian government joined forces with environmental groups and U.S. investors to secure the forest's most valuable asset: its carbon.
After the coalition purchased the park's logging rights in 1997, environmentalists worked alongside indigenous groups to establish alternative income sources - sustainable timber, ecotourism, heart-of-palm production - to essentially double the protected area. The project now includes more than 642,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) and should prevent the release of 5.8 million tons of carbon dioxide over the next 30 years.
"Overall, the project has been a great success - a great example of how poor and rich countries can work together to fight climate change through biodiversity and still protect land rights for indigenous people," said William Powers, a senior fellow at the New York-based World Policy Institute, who developed the Noel Kempff project while working with the Bolivian group Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza (FAN).
Despite the success, Bolivia recently declared its opposition to plans that would expand similar carbon mitigation projects to tropical areas worldwide. The proposal, known as "reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation," or REDD, may strip developing countries of their ability to govern their forests, critics say.
Powers finds Bolivia's response upsetting. "I don't see any reasoning for it. REDD is win-win," he said. "It's a lack of information about what this really is, an understandable fear and suspicion because of such a history of intervention in Bolivia. There has been a raping of natural resources here since the 18th century."
Climate negotiators are now debating how to replicate Bolivia's success without causing an eruption of controversy. Shaping REDD will likely be among the most difficult tasks at December's United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark,
where a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol will be decided.
Negotiators widely agree that, unlike in the Kyoto Protocol, incentives for forest preservation must be included in the new agreement. The reason is simple: healthy forests absorb carbon dioxide. Cutting and burning forests, however, contributes about 18 percent of annual human-caused greenhouse gas emissions - a larger share than all the world's vehicles combined.
Yet it remains unclear how REDD will be integrated into the final emissions-mitigating mechanism - or whether it will be included at all. Among tropical countries, leaders are falling into two camps. A coalition of nations led by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica is calling for the inclusion of REDD in a global cap-and-trade system. Under such an approach, industrialized countries would finance REDD projects, mainly in developing countries, to compensate for their own emissions.
The opposition, led by Brazil, advocates that industrialized nations should instead support REDD with direct public funding, akin to international aid. Bolivian President Evo Morales wrote last year that he supports such an approach.
Industrialized countries, including the United States and the member states of the European Union, appear more supportive of the market-based route. Most estimates predict that if forestry projects such as REDD are included in a global cap-and-trade system, the credits generated from such projects would rank among the cheaper options to offset emissions. The market strategy may also generate more funds over a longer period of time.
"It's good for climate. It's good for businesses because they can get [carbon] offsets at lower costs. And it's good for local people," said Sarene Marshall, director of The Nature Conservancy's climate change program, which organized the Noel Kempff project.
Greenpeace International, on the other hand, warned at a climate summit in Bonn, Germany, earlier this month that a widespread allotment of forest offset credits would depress the price of carbon as much as 75 percent, and therefore remove the incentive for polluters to reduce emissions. The report also said that a market-based REDD strategy could redirect critical funding away from clean energy efforts in developing countries. China alone would lose $10-100 billion per year, the group said.
Other critics, such as the research group Ecosystem Marketplace, disagree with the Greenpeace report, arguing that the cost of REDD projects may increase over time and that several industrial carbon offsets would likely be less expensive.
Beyond the issue of financing, several tricky issues face negotiators. It remains unclear, for example, how to establish deforestation baselines: should countries improve upon current levels of forest cover or historical levels? Developing countries with low deforestation rates, such as Guyana, are positioning themselves to receive REDD funding - should they be treated equally to countries with high deforestation rates, such as China?
Negotiators must also agree on a standard to measure and validate emissions reductions. "A lot of what we need is technically feasible," said Val Kapos, a senior advisor in forest ecology and conservation with the U.N. Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre. "The bigger problem is making it possible for people to use it. The world is full of remote sensing [satellite imagery] wizards who can do all this, but they're mostly at universities and research institutes in developed countries."
Another concern, which negotiators are only beginning to address, relates to indigenous peoples' rights and the fact that land ownership is ambiguous in many areas likely to receive REDD funding. Indigenous leaders are lobbying for the climate treaty to mention that all REDD programs seek the "free, prior, and informed consent" of local people.
"If we have to compromise a bit, let's at least see that the rights of indigenous people are respected," said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. "If the rhetoric is there, we can push for greater recognition of rights."
While these issues are far from being resolved, the notion of a three-staged approach is gaining traction among the designers of REDD. First, countries would develop a national strategy and undertake demonstration projects. Next, countries would receive loans to reform policies such as land tenure and forestry laws. Finally, large-scale funding would be provided for improved forest management. A World Bank avoided-deforestation program that launched last year follows this approach, and a Norway supported Meridian Institute report, released at this month's Bonn conference, recommended it as well.
For environmentalists who have spent years struggling to halt deforestation, REDD offers tremendous hope. If forestry credits are included in an international carbon market, an estimated $1-10 billion could be raised for REDD projects each year - a much larger sum than has been typically made available for forest protection. In contrast, protected areas across the developing world were provided with only an estimated $695 million annually during the 1990s, not exclusively invested in forests, according to Kapos.
Despite the additional funding, Kate Horner, an international climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said REDD will likely fail unless countries properly address the crucial second phase, of reforming land tenure and other policies.
"Efforts to address deforestation have never been want of money. We've been throwing money at deforestation for years," Horner said. "Addressing issues of rights and governance is at the heart of the problem."
Image credit: Pattrön/Flickr
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