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The Missing Delegate at Cancún: Indigenous Peoples

cross-posted from: National Geographic blog

Forest set-asides are at the heart of the United Nations’ climate negotiations, but a Native American restoration specialist says it will get the wrong people out of the woods.

As nearly 200 delegates gather at the Conference of the Parties in Cancun, Mexico, writer Dennis Martinez points out that Indigenous peoples and their advocates have no official seat among nations, and yet have experienced the worst impacts of climate change. To solve the problem, delegates of the wealthy nations have a climate-mitigation plan of choice — carbon offsets embodied in a program called Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD). But for healthy and stable ecosystems, Martinez finds that it fails to measure up to an overlooked method: continued indigenous stewardship.

This essay by Dennis Martinez is part of a two-part series on REDD and indigenous communities produced by the media NGO Project Word, and featuring a companion story by Ruxandra Guidi.

By Dennis Martinez

So they are at it again. At last year’s summit in Copenhagen for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the most powerful nations on the planet failed to set binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Meeting in Cancun, Mexico, this week, the industrialized countries are repeating the performance. They are, again, avoiding the drastic cuts recommended by scientists — and, again, diverting attention to the alternative these countries put forward in Copenhagen: a proposal that allows them to continue polluting, and offset the results via forest conservation.

The proposal is a suite of options known as REDD+ or REDD (for “Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation in developing countries”).

Funded by the World Bank, wealthy countries, and three UN agencies, REDD is designed to allow polluters to offset the emissions in industrialized countries by paying for the carbon absorbed in standing trees of developing countries.

Proponents claim that REDD will cut the world’s deforestation-related CO2 emissions by 20 percent and at the same time support local livelihoods. The program has the support of large conservation groups. Industrial countries have pledged U.S.$4.6 billion dollars to it, and REDD pilot projects are under way in more than 20 countries with tropical and subtropical forests.

The UNFCCC imprimatur at Cancun would only add to the momentum.

As a hedge, Norway, France, and other industrialized countries recently organized a partnership to implement REDD without the UNFCCC at all. But they’d prefer to hammer out specific terms for REDD at Cancun, especially if the terms explicitly include REDD in a U.N.-sanctioned carbon market [see sidebar below].

Any agreement at Cancun would give REDD a tremendous boost as industrialized countries would release billions of dollars in pledges; and if the agreement hitches REDD to a carbon market, reassured investors would pump in massive amounts of capital. According to a perhaps-generous estimate by the UN-REDD Programme, the total infusion could reach “up to $30 billion a year,” which proponents say will put saving the planet on a sound financial footing.

But even if everything worked perfectly in such a carbon market, REDD would not actually stop greenhouse gas emissions at the tailpipe or smokestack — it would just generate pollution credits.

To offset their emissions beyond an agreed limit, polluters (or consumers) would buy carbon credits from companies, communities, NGOs, or nation-states that promise not to continue deforestation or forest degradation for a specific period, in an unregulated market.


Even if such promises could be meaningful and enforceable — a highly contentious point — the pollution will continue elsewhere. Critics say REDD merely serves to delay the day of reckoning, a painful weaning off fossil fuels. “Carbon offsetting … is the cheapest and quickest way of achieving an insignificant reduction,” as commentator George Monbiot put it in a recent Guardian column. “Let us not pretend that it lets us off the hook.”

Rights and Wrongs

Perhaps most tellingly, all the talk of silver linings and “win-win” has failed to win over arguably the most vulnerable constituent in the REDD debate: traditional Indigenous peoples.

From the glacier-fed valleys of the Himalayas and Amazonia, to the thawing Arctic, to the islands of Papua New Guinea and savannah of Kenya, indigenous peoples act as stand-ins for all of us. They are experiencing the first, most direct impacts of climate change (while bearing the least responsibility for them).

Because many of these indigenous cultures depend directly on their local environments for sustenance, they are the most vulnerable to climate disruption, and have the most to lose. So their perspective should give us pause.

To be sure, some poor indigenous peoples have looked to REDD for their economic salvation. But in other communities, the more people have learned about the program, the more divided and concerned they have become.

Increasingly vocal opposition, led by NGOs like the Indigenous Environmental Network and Global Forest Coalition, has called the fast track of REDD into question. “Mitigation policies of the developed world will kill us before climate change does!” Ramiro Batzin, a Keqchikel Maya from Guatemala, recently told the World Bank’s Economic and Social Development Policy Section.

Since Indigenous peoples account for only 5 percent of the world’s population, one could reasonably ask why we should care. But consider: according to the UN and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, indigenous peoples occupy 22 percent of the earth’s land surface, including 80 percent of threatened biodiversity hotspots. They are ecologically important far out of proportion to their numbers.

Indigenous communities have, in the main, stewarded their natural resources sustainably for generations, helping to protect a significant part of everyone’s birthright (think of how forests produce clean water, protect wildlife, and give off oxygen while taking in CO2).


Rising seas around Panama’s Caribbean islands have forced the Kuna peoples to consider moving to their mainland territory–but it’s the same land Panamanian authorities want to set aside for “avoided deforestation,” part of the REDD program under debate at Cancún. Read more about the conflict in Kuna Yala.

Photo © Roberto Guerra 2010

REDD’s recent pilot programs, flush with millions of dollars in World Bank start-up funds, have set their sights largely on traditional indigenous territories because that’s where the intact forests are. Although Amazonian Indians comprise only 3 percent of Brazil’s population, they protect one third of the world’s most threatened forests.

Yet UN climate-mitigation negotiations since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol have virtually excluded indigenous populations, relegating them to “observer” status. The REDD plan focuses largely on the programs of NGOs and nation-states, overlooking and in some cases prohibiting indigenous forest stewardship.

And upon closer inspection, it seems that REDD will make it harder for that stewardship to survive. In the end, that would be a loss for everybody.

According to NGO reports, media accounts, anecdotes from REDD pilot projects, and interviews with indigenous leaders, REDD agents in at least nine countries, from Guyana to Papua New Guinea, have attempted to secure access to land without adequately consulting or gaining the permission of traditional authorities.

Even indigenous leaders who favor the potentially lucrative program have complained that REDD plans have targeted their land without their authentic consent.

panama_2010_3778.jpgThe Emberá peoples of Darien, Panama, have seen the most dramatic rates of deforestation in Panama.

Photo © Roberto Guerra 2010

A 2010 document unearthed by Friends of the Earth illustrates the problem. A REDD-related application for the Paraguay Forest Conservation Project on the land of the Mbyá Guarani people, it reads: “The Mbyá seek a full process of consultation and understanding of the concepts involved prior to any engagement, which does not fit the decision-making schedule the project must adhere to.”

There is a good reason why the Mbyá would seek a full process and understanding of the concepts involved. Most indigenous communities lack secure land tenure, and the latest UNFCCC proposal at Cancun does not directly address longstanding indigenous land claims. It’s not clear how it would affect the security or territorial sovereignty of indigenous communities.

The proposal also studiously omits any binding commitment to respect indigenous rights, like those embodied in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As a result, nothing at Cancun prevents REDD advocates from coercing a community into participating, withholding potential negative consequences, or seeking approval after the fact.

By failing to require their genuine consent (known as “free, prior, and informed” in UN-speak), the Cancun document would invite corruption and abuse of indigenous communities — especially if the plan includes credits in the carbon market, which could drastically increase land values.

“Who decides and owns forest resources is going to be at the heart of any new set of arrangements,” as James Mayers of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) recently put it to the New York Times. “If land tenure has not been formally established, REDD could mean exploitation of local communities … by governments or powerful private-sector stakeholders.”

REDD advocates could use carbon-offsets without abandoning other market and national economic interests that may contradict the program’s aims.

As it is, REDD advocates could use carbon-offsets without abandoning other market and national economic interests that may contradict the program’s aims. REDD does not address wasteful consumption of forest products, nor does it prevent national governments from maintaining tax breaks and other incentives to destroy forests. And in an absurd irony, the more logging a country does before REDD, the more credit it could get for stopping — and the more REDD support it could receive for doing so.

A recent editorial by Guyana’s Kaieteur News made the case explicitly: “We believe that we should proceed full steam ahead with the exploitation of our forestry resources,” the editorial stated. “It will ironically make our arguments for REDD even stronger.”

According to Simone Lovera, the director of the Global Forest Coalition and a longtime participant in UNFCCC, REDD sends all the wrong signals: “Removing perverse subsidies that promote deforestation,” she says, “is far more effective than throwing $30 billion at forests.”

The predictable consequences of REDD are already evident. Indonesia has announced that it would include its lucrative, destructive palm-oil plantations in its REDD plans. In Guyana, the first REDD-related project would fulfill a decades-old national economic priority: the construction of the Amalia Falls dam, which would flood nearly 20,000 hectares of land inhabited by the indigenous Akawaio.

And the REDD proposal for Panama ultimately could allow developers to fulfill a ten-year-old master plan, conceived before REDD: log secondary or primary forests in order to build dams, roads, and biofuel plantations — the nation’s economic agenda in a nutshell, with carbon credits thrown in. Not surprisingly, Panama’s forestry companies are positioning themselves for potential cash windfalls.

How to See a Tree

Of the many loopholes in REDD plans, one of the more troubling involves plantations.

In the draft language for Cancun, REDD would make no distinction between plantations and primary forests–both sink carbon. Ignoring significant ecological differences, the REDD program would allow monoculture tree farms to uproot primary forest, or to prevent the restoration of degraded forest.

While it is difficult or impossible to quantify the hectares at stake, World Bank-funded REDD plans contain evidence of plans for plantations in at least 19 countries, from Colombia to Vietnam.

These plans are music to the ears of the World Forestry Congress, an industry association, which has averred that “the best way to protect forests” and to sink carbon is “expanding monoculture timber plantations.” The Congress was less clear about the ecological effects of plantations, and says little about protecting primary forests.

If it seems strange that REDD should allow plantations to redress deforestation, perhaps it should. Plantations do help ensure reliable short-term return on investment for carbon credits: trees grow uniformly, making it easier to measure their carbon storage. And younger trees grow more quickly than older ones. Proponents of plantations also claim that their products relieve pressure on primary forests.


Proponents of REDD, a program under debate at Cancún, say it will achieve a 20 percent percent reduction in carbon emissions from deforestation, like that caused by this logging operation near Ipetí, Darien, whose lumber is exported to overseas markets.

Photo © Roberto Guerra 2010

But according to a wealth of research, monoculture plantations store less carbon and provide less long-term stability than mixed-species forests. In addition, clearing a forest for a plantation can release carbon from exposed soil and decaying or burned-off vegetation. The plantations themselves can pollute waterways with pesticides and fertilizer runoff, deplete groundwater with non-native species like eucalyptus, and pose a high-risk fire hazard.

But a far bigger problem with plantations lies in the sacrifice of biodiversity. Each year on average more than 12 million acres of forests are being cut for plantations, according to the World Resources Institute. This represents a staggering loss of habitat for plants and animals, as well as a loss of cultural resources for Indigenous communities.

In my 40 years as a Native American restoration specialist working with indigenous peoples around the world, I have visited many communities that no longer can find culturally important plants and animals at all, or find them only in degraded form. Drought, for example, reduces the size, abundance and nutrition of seeds, nuts, and berries, frustrating wildlife and humans alike. Indigenous peoples dependent on wild foods represent the ultimate human vulnerability: we all ultimately depend on natural ecosystems, which are perilously degrading worldwide. Plantations only hasten their decline and further reduce biodiversity.

“REDD would also accelerate the erosion of traditional knowledge — perhaps the most important form of biodiversity protection on the planet.”

REDD would also accelerate the erosion of traditional knowledge — perhaps the most important form of biodiversity protection on the planet. The plan would largely ignore indigenous landcare practices that have preserved the bulk of the planet’s biodiversity for millennia, in some cases demonizing them or even preparing to ban them outright.

Native fishing, hunting, pastoralist, and subsistence farming communities have long worked with a vast store of traditional knowledge and tools that help maintain healthy and diverse gene pools: harvesting selectively, saving and sowing well-adapted heirloom crop and landrace seeds, establishing reserves where it’s taboo to harvest scarce game or plants, creating community authority to monitor and guide resource use, periodically rotating land or livestock to fallow resources.

Communities also carefully managed fire-adapted ecosystems with frequent low-intensity burns, which, supplemented by lightning, reduced fuels and thus risk of catastrophic fire. But over a century of fire suppression efforts have tragically burdened those ecosystems with extra fuel. In Arnhem Land, Australia, Western fire ecologists who recently quantified traditional Aboriginal fire practices found them superior to other fire regimes in five measurements of biodiversity.

Indigenous peoples have also long cared for and defended sacred sites, which have proven to be exceptionally healthy, species-rich ecosystems.

Fortress Conservation

But this wealth of knowledge, accumulated over millennia, is being cast aside. Judging from the track record of a few REDD pilot projects and many carbon-offset programs operating under Kyoto, indigenous participants in REDD projects would have to give up governance of their territory and cede control to outside parties. Those parties would possibly include aid or relief groups, but would more likely be partnerships of conservation NGOs, carbon entrepreneurs, government agencies, and security personnel.

In a well-documented trend that critics call “fortress conservation,” these kinds of partnerships have cordoned off land, and banned ancestral hunting, fishing, gathering, and subsistence agriculture by local people, as well as restoration practices like thinning and burning–allegedly to protect species, and institute carbon-offset programs.

John Nelson, Africa policy advisor for the Forest Peoples Programme, estimates that such conservation projects have displaced 150,000 to 200,000 indigenous inhabitants in the Congo Basin alone–and not peacefully. “Imagine as an indigenous person from a biodiverse area you have husbanded for a millennium, waking up one day,” he says “to find a boundary outside your village–with armed paramilitary guards telling you that you cannot enter the forest. When you put in armed paramilitary forces to protect forests from indigenous hunter-gatherers, inevitably there are human rights violations,” he says. “Guards have license to do whatever they want. They steal, slap people, beat the bottoms of feet and worse,” he says. “People are scared. It’s difficult to gather testimony. You hear –‘ we can’t go there anymore.'”

Nelson says that some of the cordoned-off areas in Africa — including Boumba Bek, Nki National Parks in Cameroon — “are cultural cores of [local indigenous] society. People need to move around the forest, share traditional knowledge, and pass it on to children, saying ‘this is how we fish in this place, these swamp are good for this.’ That’s getting lost,” he says. “If people are disenfranchised, two or three generations down it will be pretty hard to find an old person saying, ‘This is where we went.'”

In as little as one generation, forest dwellers can lose so much subsistence knowledge that they must depend on cash to buy food — leading to the irreversible poverty we see on the outskirts of large cities in developing countries.

In as little as one generation, forest dwellers can lose so much subsistence knowledge that they must depend on cash to buy food — leading to the irreversible poverty we see on the outskirts of large cities in developing countries.

These results are largely unintended. “Researchers admire traditional knowledge and its conservation capacity,” Nelson says. “They think those people are amazing. And they don’t want them to lose their knowledge. They are trying to do the right thing. But their work is eroding traditional practices. The irony is it’s middle class Americans with pandas on the fridge trying to do the right thing.”

Stakeholders counter that REDD is being fluidly co-created by national governments, NGOs, and local communities, generating blueprints for local-friendly results. The 750,000-hectare Ulu Maasen project in Aceh province, for example, “is in the process of formally recognizing Mukim (a traditional management institution unique to Aceh), customary forest boundaries, and management rights,” says Jane Dunlop of Fauna & Flora International, an NGO actively engaged in Ulu Maasen. “An explicit aim of this project is to enhance the rights and livelihoods of local communities.”

However, the project is asking participating communities to abide by an Aceh-government logging moratorium on all 5.7 million hectares of the province. The ban covers all inhabitants, regardless of their engagement with REDD, and would include tree felling for swidden, the traditional fire-based agriculture.

Another official REDD pilot project touted as a model, the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project in Bolivia, also cordons off its area from the locals. “The local communities can’t access the grounds that they previously used for hunting and for small-scale agriculture, large swaths,” says Erika Bjureby of Rainforest UK, who researched the Kempff project for Greenpeace in 2009.

REDD critics point to the basic logistical problem: buyers want carbon, and a project can’t easily deliver it without fencing out people. “You have to get people away from the forest, keep them away, because the carbon cannot be disturbed,” says Timothy Byakola, of the Ugandan NGO Climate and Development Initiatives, an advocate for local communities. “The measurements assume that nobody cuts trees.”

“Evictees are living in refugee villages. And this is a peek into the future of REDD.”

Since 2005, Byakola has monitored scores of forcible arrests, violent harassments, evictions, and displacements of forest-dwellers at a carbon-offset plantation on Uganda’s Mt. Elgon. “The restrictions don’t realize the forest exists as symbiotic relationship with the community,” he says. “The evictees are living in refugee villages. And this is a peek into the future of REDD.”

Nelson echoes these misgivings: “Guns and guards is the old model, and it doesn’t work,” he says, “I am concerned that REDD is using the old model, and expanding it. It will ramp up the number of people affected.”

Of all the ways REDD could crack down on forest-dwellers, the most immediate would ban cultivation. In REDD plans submitted to the Word Bank, at least eight countries, from Ghana to Panama, have singled out traditional subsistence farming as a cause of deforestation, effectively declaring a ban on the practice.

“The emerging policy documents want to stamp out swidden,” says Simon Counsell, executive director of the UK-based Rainforest Foundation. “They have been trying to stop slash and burn.”


Onel Masardule, center, a Kuna leader and environmentalist, has led workshops to educate the Kuna Yala community on whether to participate in REDD, particularly in a project that Panama and the World Bank propose for Kuna territory. Read more on the Kuna’s decision.

Photo © Roberto Guerra 2010

Panama’s REDD plan, which partly blames deforestation on “slashing, burning,” could allow REDD projects to wipe out a key means of traditional sustenance for groups like the Emberá or the Kuna. The Guyanan government, while less explicit about swidden, has said that REDD activity to control deforestation will not affect the logging and mining industries. But logging and mining are “70 percent of the deforestation problem,” says Counsell of the Rainforest Foundation UK. “If the government doesn’t tackle those, it’s hard to see what else they could be proposing to do to preserve trees, if it’s not stopping Amerindians from traditional farming.”

To be sure, REDD projects would allow for compensation of communities, essentially in exchange for any use of land and restrictions. But if the carbon-offset plantations and forest set-asides in countries like Uganda, Brazil, and Costa Rica are any indication, REDD would create more of the “conservation refugees” documented by investigative journalist Mark Dowie. By forcing more people into the vagaries of the cash economy, by downplaying or even criminalizing traditional culture, REDD would deprive the planet of its most valuable forest managers, exactly when they’re needed most.

 Disturbing Biodiversity

In an age of climate disruption, biodiversity is increasingly important. Where gene pools of plants and animals are impoverished, ecosystems and species won’t be able to adapt fast enough to climate change without massive intervention — costly attempts to propagate and move species. The more limited the gene pool, the less chance an ecosystem can adapt, and the greater the likelihood of ecosystem collapse and human suffering.

In times of ecological crisis, certain habitats are needed as all-important “refugia,” or ecological safe havens, for plants and animals. These areas buffer the inevitable loss of some species by giving others a chance to repopulate, thus conserving overall ecosystem resilience.

In the tropical and subtropical forests targeted by REDD, Indigenous peoples still protect much of the remaining refugia. But those areas, too, are disappearing — and already-degraded forests, which could be restored as refugia, would be converted to plantations under REDD.

Species may indeed disappear. The latest science indicates that their ranges are shifting ten times faster than they did in the last ice age, overwhelming the ability of some to adapt.

But sophisticated restoration efforts can help us buy time, and it’s far from hopeless. Instead of doing expensive “assisted-species migration” — propagating species and moving them across long distances — people can stay on-site to select species that resist harsh conditions, extreme temperature, abrupt chaotic weather changes, invasive insects, and blight. This can work especially well in terrains like mountains, where varied topography provides lots of niches for propagation. Species adapted to these niches would increase as climate change intensifies.

“Traditional Indigenous peoples worldwide, with their varied cultural practices, are ideally suited to manage … helping species adapt to changing conditions.”

Traditional Indigenous peoples worldwide, with their varied cultural practices, are ideally suited to manage such efforts, helping species adapt to changing conditions. In case after case where scientists have compared the outcomes, traditional Indigenous management regimes protect biodiversity better than conventional efforts.

Even the much-demonized swidden — traditionally, crops are planted briefly, and land fallowed for a long period — can introduce successions of new growth, bursting with new species and enriching biodiversity. In a groundbreaking 2008 University of Michigan study of 325 sites in 12 countries, researchers found that local- and indigenous-managed areas consistently outperformed government-managed areas in other regions. In particular, the study found that Indigenous peoples with secure land tenure in Brazil (called terras Indigenas) “are very effective at reducing carbon emissions from forest fires,” and that “the larger the forest area under community ownership, the higher the probability for better biodiversity maintenance  … and carbon sequestration.”

 Emberá youth Anel Mezúa bears a message.

Photo © Roberto Guerra 2010


A Matter of Time

The “biocultural” approach to conservation, as coined by linguist and anthropologist Luisa Maffi, is not a romantic notion of a mythical noble savage. It is based on a reality that ethnographers, ethnohistorians, political ecologists have long documented: The peoples who depend on biodiversity most immediately preserve it most effectively.

The Kichwa of the Andes say: “Without the forest, we have no culture; without our culture, there will be no forest.” And because they possess a strong cultural memory of past environmental changes, indigenous people are particularly sensitive to the impacts of climate disruption.

Inuit and Inupiat people detected the thinning and loss of extent of Arctic ice in the 1960s, at least a decade before climate scientists confirmed the disappearance of sea ice in 1979, through passive microwave technology.

But now we no longer have the time that climate scientists had in the 1970s.

Nor do we have unlimited funds to mitigate climate change. Research shows that traditional land-management practices can be performed far more cost-effectively than those proposed by big environmental NGOs, which appear set to manage REDD.


The primary cost is in securing land title. Despite their long tenure there, most indigenous forest inhabitants have no secure claim to their land. According to one recent study comparing the cost of securing title for indigenous communities with the costs of REDD projects, the biocultural approach was 800 to 2,500 times cheaper. Of course, this also says something about how expensive conventional conservation can be. One researcher who helped negotiate Panama’s REDD plans has estimated that it would take “$16,383,824 annually in order to reduce Panama’s deforestation by 50 percent.”

Ironically, as long as polluters are willing to pay, REDD is bound to be attractive to the UN, NGOs, and any entity that would hold the purse strings [see sidebar].

“REDD is another funding stream,” says Nelson, the Forest Peoples Programme advisor in Africa. “Guns and guards is expensive. Keeping it funded is a struggle. Conservation funding is not rising. So conservation NGOs are replacing biodiversity with REDD.”

The cost comparisons, along with praise of traditional practices from researchers, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the World Bank, ought to reinforce what should be common sense: solving a human rights problem can save the planet — indeed, it’s the best way to do so.

Enforcing indigenous land-rights, and thus preserving traditional indigenous cultures and their management strategies (while instituting a carbon tax to stop emissions at the source), would be a far most effective solution to climate change than REDD.

REDD pays lip service to indigenous land tenure and practices, while often undermining and even prohibiting them. If the participants at Cancún allow or reinforce the separation of indigenous communities from their ancestral forests, and disregard the biodiversity crisis while evading necessary emission cuts, it would be worse than the usual injustice to marginalized traditional cultures. It would be a betrayal of future generations of all humanity.

Dennis Martinez, an ecological and biocultural restoration ecologist, ethnoecologist, ethnobotanist, and traditional knowledge practitioner of O’odham-Chicano-Swedish heritage, is Chair of the Indigenous Peoples’ Restoration Network (IPRN) of the Society for Ecological Restoration International (SERI) and Steering Committee member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Biocultural Climate Change Assessment Initiative (IPCCA). His work has appeared in a range of popular and academic publications, from Sierra to Ecological Restoration to Ecological Applications (of the Ecological Society of America.)

This article was produced in association with the media NGO Project Word, a project of the Tides Center. Additional reporting by Laird Townsend.

Production of this article was made possible by a grant from The Christensen Fund.

The views expressed in this article are those of Dennis Martinez and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. 

10 dic., 2010
Posted in Noticias, Bosques y Cambio Climático