Saturday, May 23, 2009

Garo People

Hemantha Withanage

It was my dream to see “Garo people” when I saw the book entitled “Stolen Forest” written by environmental writer Philip Gain which shown the destruction of the “Sal Forest” they live. I had a rare opportunity to meet the “Garo people” live in Modhupur, about hundred kilometers away from Dhaka. I was with the Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific regional members and the friends from the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association.

Garo people have a Tibet- Burmese origin. Some believes they have come from Garo province in Meghalaya, in India and settled in the Sal Forest in Bangladesh centuries ago. They have own culture and living style. Garo people believe them as the “children of the forests”.

The “Sal Forest” now being reduced to a small area since the forest has been encroached by various agencies and elites. They grow Banana, Pineapple and Papaya for commercial purposes and apply agro-chemicals as promoted by an ADB funded project. Unfortunately they have lost the original life style. The authorities take them to the courts if they try to engage in their original activities. Garo people now look for support to reclaim their rights over the forest. It’s clear case how local indigenous people push into a development debacle.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Red lines for REDD

Hemantha Withanage
Centre for Environmental Justice - Sri Lanka

May 2009

The UN initiated Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD) in Developing Countries is one of the latest approaches for reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere. A multi-donor trust fund was established in July 2008 in collaboration with FAO, UNDP and UNEP for this purpose.

As per the IPCC estimates the cutting down of forests is now contributing close to 20 per cent of the overall greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. Forest degradation and land use change also make a significant contribution to emissions. Reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries and approaches to stimulate action” was first introduced at the Conference of the Parties (COP11) in December 2005 by the governments of Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica, supported by eight other Parties.

There are opposing and supporting views for this. One of the opposing views is because REDD text agreed in COP 14 in Bali did not include the rights of the indigenous people who are living in the forests. Largest forests in Asia, Africa and Latin America are inhabited by the local indigenous people for thousands of years. “Adivasi” people live in Dambana, Sri Lanka are also a good example. However, most of the forests in Sri Lanka are not inhabited by people as they have been removed under conservation programmes or development projects more than two decades ago. Yet there are many local communities who live near the forest areas protect, and depend on the forests resources and the services.

Forests in all tropical countries play a major role in the life of the communities living around them. It is not just a carbon sink but also it is the source of food, water, fire- wood, medicines, building material, non timber forest products, raw material for household appliances. It also controls erosion and floods, maintains the seed banks. It is our life.

On one hand Annex I countries which are supposed to reduce their GHG emissions owe a huge debt to countries which maintained good forests which absorbed CO2 since the industrial evolution began. Those who lived inside and protected forests should be entitled to get the repayment for those services. However in practice this may not be easy. All Sri Lankan forests were vested with the Crown by the British colonials under the Waste Land Ordinance which are now under government control. In practice, the REDD programme will mainly enter into agreement between the [so-called] forest owners, which is the Government, and the parties that seek emission cuts. The Government can only gain benefits in this case.

If the forests are included in a contract by the governments it will have serious control and will limit access to local people. Many of them are local poor who are rely on the forest. So, protecting the rights of those people living in poverty and those who are relying on forests for subsistence is an utmost important aspect in this business. Is the REDD program ready to compensate those people and find alternate livelihood for them?

REDD will cut emissions if we keep those forests healthy. As we know Sri Lankan forests have many threats. The illegal cutting of timber, encroachments, massive destruction for development projects are some of them. In many countries they are the government itself, forest and energy industries, road development and big agri-businesses, tea cultivation etc., are responsible for the forest degradation. Involvement of these sectors in both economic and political structures, needed for a successful implementation of REDD, which will have serious cost involvement too.

If we are to receive REDD funds we have to maintain healthy forests. According to the UN “The UN-REDD Programme is aimed at tipping the economic balance in favour of sustainable management of forests so that their formidable economic, environmental and social goods and services benefit countries, communities and forest users while also contributing to important reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

It is the opinion of many activists that forests should not be treated as carbon sinks. it has multiple values. The above explanation shows that REDD has been proposed as not only for Climate Change Mitigation, but also the conservation of eco-diversity and continue to give other forest services such as water regulation. For local people living by the forests is much more important than getting control by the climate mitigation mechanisms ( such as emission traders) who are far away from them. Therefore we believe that REDD should not be included in the emissions market. Further, if REDD is considered under emission market, the developed countries could by themselves be out of their own obligations to reduce CO2 emissions in their own country by buying cheap forest certificates. According to the Rain Forest Foundation ,UK “REDD would potentially be using for the carbon offsetting and the it would subsidy the loggers.”

On the other hand, since developed countries are not willing to accept emission cuts, the REDD will be mostly voluntary. They will prefer some countries where they can find cheap credits. This may create a cold war between Annex II countries and it might weaken the Annex II countries’ positions. Specially this is more possible in the case with the global financial crisis. Some countries will have more to offer which means they will offer cheaper CO2 absorption.

Conservation of forests is not cheap in countries such as Sri Lanka where the threat is so much compared to some countries which have more lands with low population pressure. So the cost of maintenance is not equal in all the countries. This means the cost of CO2 absorption is also not the same. Therefore if those countries are to maintain healthy forests they need more funds. On the other hand too much focus on some forests in order to respect the REDD agreements will limit attention on some not so important forests which means the total forest degradation might still go up.

As we always believe real emission cuts should be done at home by controlling their own life style by the developed countries. However, there should be a mechanism to stop further degradation of tropical forests. With the REDD funds it will not be possible to stop all deforestation within a country at once. But, the conservation of existing natural and well managed forests should have priority over reforestation and afforestation under any mechanism. Although we can see that we are losing our natural forest cover in Sri Lanka, overall forest cover has gone up since it includes the new plantations. So it is sometimes hard to depend on the national statistics about degradation.

Consideration of biodiversity is a important aspect in REDD approach. Monoculture and Plantations have little or no contribution to biodiversity compared to natural forests. Undoubtedly, natural forests could store more carbon than forest plantations. Therefore REDD should not waste its funds for plantations which are economically so attractive.

Countries such as Sri Lanka has contributed to the conservation of forests for thousands of years. That should be rewarded in order to discourage future deforestation. There is a trend in Annex II countries, such as Sri Lanka, to destroy some forests disregarding climate impacts for development projects. If they are to save them, it needs attractive income generation from those global forest services.

One big problem with REDD is the consideration of the rights of the Indigenous and local communities whose rights must be fully respected. This is undeniable specially when UN has already accepted the rights of the indigenous people. Therefore, REDD should respect the good governance principles and democratic decisions making including Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC). Participation of the people on site is indispensable to make forest conservation permanent and socially just. In my opinion there won’t be conservation to the forest unless people have access to the funds earned under the REDD.

Nevertheless, if the REDD are going to be successful it needs dedicated funds rather than support going through the general ODA accounts. The ODA funded activities are not successful in many countries. Neither the carbon market managed activities. It will need serious management. The good governance, compensation for local right owners, poverty elimination, fair treatment of all forests, should be included in designing implementation and in post activities.

The project is normally looked after only during the implementation. If the REDD is to be successful the forests should be managed not only during the short term project period but for a long term i.e 100- 200 years. It is a question whether this is going to happen and whether those developed countries are going to put funds for such a long period.

The Tropical Forest Conservation Act of 1998 by the United states proposed something similar to „debt for nature swap“ which was under heavy criticism. Yet some 16 countries including Indonesia, Peru, Philippine are part of this programme. It allows countries to put debt payment to United States into a fund which manage national forests in the way United States want to control. US president has veto power over the use of the fund money. It is my fear that the REDD could be another face of the same.

With all pros and cons of REDD, more importantly REDD programmes will include forests’ ability to absorb CO2 emissions in future. However, our forests have already fixed carbon and they are already carbon stocks. If the REDD considers forest carbon stock roll, it may be easier to respect forests’ roll and continue the services without conflicting the local interests.

Unlike many countries Sri Lanka has home gardens. They are not forests but they have canopies similar to a rain forests with timber and non timber species. They act as carbon sinks and reduce erosion and control floods too. If you look at these home gardens and carbon stocks rather than forest carbon sinks it can greatly increase the carbon absorption. While forests are still with much higher diversity, if the REDD consider home gardens as carbon stocks which are done by the ordinary people they may look as an alternative. For the carbon absorption. Sri Lanka has 818,000 Ha of home gardens approximately which is about 1/3 of the total natural forest and Plantation cover in Sri Lanka. This may be the case in many tropical countries.