Big REDD

Right now, there’s more money to be made cutting tropical forests down than leaving them standing. Environmental policymakers are trying to reverse that equation.

By Rhett Butler

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Photo Courtesy of the RAINFOR consortium

Until forty years ago, the Surui people spent their days roaming the Brazilian Amazon with bows and arrows, hunting monkeys and wild pigs. Their only contact with the outside world was with the rubber tappers who occasionally ventured through their territory. Then, beginning in the late 1960s, the Brazilian government laid a 2,000-mile highway through the heart of the jungle. Lured by the promise of cheap, fertile land, thousands of poor farmers boarded buses, rickety pickups, and horse-drawn wagons and bore deep into Surui tribal lands. The results were catastrophic. First the tribe was decimated by disease. Then unscrupulous speculators started hawking fraudulent titles to the land, spawning bloody turf wars between the tribe and settlers. Within a few years, the Surui population dwindled from roughly 2,000 to fewer than 200.

Amid the onslaught, neighboring tribes scattered, died off, or sold out to loggers and ranchers. But the bitter suffering and long odds only seemed to sharpen the Suruis’ resolve and fighting instincts. After ten years of struggle, in 1982, the tribe rose up, armed with clubs and poison arrows, and drove the settlers from their land.

Since then, the Surui have been battling to keep new incursions at bay. The tribe has split into four groups, each living in a different corner of their 600,000-acre territory, so they can better guard their turf. They regularly throw chains over logging roads, chase miners out of pits and rivers, and take the government to task for failing to rein in the destruction. So far, their tenacity has paid off: even as development has eaten away at the surrounding landscape, the tribe has managed to preserve their forests and their way of life. Viewed by satellite, their territory is a lone patch of green amid stretches of barren, ocher earth. But the struggle is relentless. In the last decade, the Surui and neighboring tribes have seen eleven tribal elders assassinated. At one point their chief, Almir Surui, was evacuated by helicopter to the United States because of threats to his life.

Behind the brutality is simple economics: in rural Brazil, grinding poverty is the norm, and there is ample money to be made from plundering the forests. Logging alone supports at least thirty timber mills and more than 4,000 jobs in the areas surrounding the Surui territory. This means that, for every trespasser the tribe fends off, thousands more lie in wait. Despite the admonitions of tribal elders, even some members of the Surui tribe have given in and opened their land to loggers in return for cash.

Almir Surui is well aware that, given the forces he’s up against, poison arrows won’t be enough to keep intruders at bay forever. In recent years, the plucky young chief, who wears a traditional feather headdress even when visiting Washington or Rio de Janeiro, has embraced a variety of new tools that would have boggled the minds of his ancestors. The one-room schoolhouse in his village has been outfitted with broadband Internet and computer terminals that run a high-resolution version of Google Earth, which the Surui use to monitor illegal logging. Working with environmental groups, including Forest Trends and the Amazon Conservation Team, the tribe is also exploring ways to tap into global carbon markets. As a first step, they have hired the heavyweight law firm Baker and McKenzie to parse their claim to the carbon dioxide stored in their part of the Amazon, which, like all tropical forests, absorbs large quantities of this heat-trapping gas. They have also begun laying out methods for measuring the carbon stock, most likely through a combination of high-resolution satellites and on-the-ground observation. In the meantime, an anthropologist has been dispatched to explain to the tribe’s rank-and-file what exactly carbon is.

The aim is to get businesses and governments in the developed world to pay the Surui to preserve their forest as part of the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The money would go toward a rigorous, independently certified monitoring and enforcement system, as well as toward building schools and health clinics and reforesting the areas of their land that have been ravaged by loggers. The Surui also plan to use some of the funds to set up sustainable industries, such as shade-grown-coffee plantations and small-scale furniture factories, which would allow them—and, eventually, the surrounding communities—to make a living from standing forests, thereby helping to alleviate the poverty that has fed constant assaults on their territory.

The project is part of a bold experiment, called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, which is being piloted in countries around the globe. Though REDD can take many forms, the key idea is that businesses or governments in wealthy countries compensate those in the developing world for preserving their forests, either by paying into a fund or by purchasing credits on carbon markets. Though the concept is not entirely new, it is rapidly gaining traction as the international community comes to grips with the crucial role forests play in regulating greenhouse gases. Not only do our forests absorb and store vast quantities of carbon dioxide in their vegetation through photosynthesis; when they’re destroyed, they also release the gas into the atmosphere. Roughly one-fifth of the world’s carbon emissions stems from deforestation and forest degradation. Scientists warn that without measures to keep forests intact, we will stand no chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

REDD is expected to play a key role in the new global climate treaty to take effect after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Similarly, the landmark Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, which as of this writing is moving through Congress, would allow polluters to offset a portion of their emissions by sinking money into REDD projects. Although support for these proposals is growing in many quarters, they remain deeply controversial. Backers say they could deliver the same benefits as cutting emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks while improving the lives of poor rural people and protecting vital ecosystems and watersheds. Critics counter that the policy will be costly and complicated to monitor and could undermine the transparency, simplicity, and predictability of carbon markets, dealing a critical blow to the global battle against climate change.


T he idea of protecting tropical forests as a way of mitigating climate change is by no means new. During negotiations over the Kyoto Protocol, President Bill Clinton established a system of incentives, including grants and tax credits, to encourage U.S. businesses to voluntarily reduce their carbon output before mandatory caps were set. Polluters could also get credit for "offsetting" emissions by investing in projects to prevent deforestation, with the result that U.S. power companies poured millions of dollars into protecting at-risk forests in Latin America. For instance, the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, a preserve of nearly four million acres in the Bolivian Amazon, was established in 1997 using $11 million from U.S. energy companies, such as American Electric Power and BP Amoco. The project is administered by the Bolivian government and environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy, which uses tree counters and satellite data to keep tabs on the health of the forest. So far, it has been a success. Even as logging and agriculture have eaten away at forests elsewhere in Latin America, including those that are nominally protected, Noel Kempff’s ecosystem has remained pristine. It is estimated that more than twenty-five million tons of carbon dioxide emissions will be avoided as a result of the project.

But these types of forestry projects were relegated to the sidelines with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, the first and only global climate treaty, in December 1997. Though some signatories supported the idea of allowing developing countries to sell credits from forest-preservation projects on the emerging global carbon market, the majority held that large-scale monitoring and verification would be difficult, if not impossible, with existing technical tools. Critics also noted that discrete projects to protect against deforestation couldn’t be counted on to reduce overall carbon emissions, since the loggers and ranchers who chop down the forest for their livelihood could shift their activities to nonprotected areas, a phenomenon known as "leakage." Moreover, they argued, there was no way to guarantee that forests set aside as carbon sinks would continue to store heat-trapping gases in the long term, since drought or fire could cause the foliage in protected areas to die back and release stored carbon into the atmosphere.

Perhaps more importantly, many environmental groups believed that credits from forest-preservation projects could swamp the carbon market, driving down the price of carbon and allowing polluting industries to continue emitting greenhouse gases without consequence. The few environmentalists who expressed support for REDD during the Kyoto talks became mired in bitter shouting matches with their peers. "It was a pretty lonely battle," recalls Tia Nelson, a longtime REDD supporter and the daughter of the late Senator Gaylord Nelson, who founded Earth Day.

Ultimately, REDD was excluded from Kyoto, though parties to the agreement could earn carbon offsets by funding reforestation projects (or projects to plant new forests where none existed) in the developing world. However, due to technical stumbling blocks, few of these projects got off the ground. In the absence of meaningful incentives to protect or restore forests, development ate away at these lush ecosystems, including millions of acres of primary forests, which are the richest biologically, the most carbon dense, and the hardest to replace. Nowhere was the devastation more evident than in Brazil and Indonesia, two of the countries with the most extensive tropical forest cover. Between 1997 and 2004, Brazil’s deforestation rates increased dramatically, peaking at 10,600 square miles a year, an area the size of Massachusetts. In Indonesia, the collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998 ushered in a period of chaos, resulting in unprecedented destruction of forests. Loggers and oil palm plantation developers cleared and burned vast areas, and the damage was worsened by one of the strongest el Niño events on record. When the smoke cleared, more than 25,000 square miles had burned in Indonesian Borneo alone, unleashing upward of two billion tons of carbon. All told, since Kyoto’s exclusion, Brazil and Indonesia have lost more than 160,000 square miles of forest—an area nearly the size of California—with the result that billions of tons of carbon have been released into the atmosphere. In fact, due to deforestation these two countries, which have relatively modest industrial emission, rank just right behind the United States and China as the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases.

Faced with this devastation, scientists and environmental groups began working to solve the technical, political, and ideological woes that have prevented the widespread adoption of REDD. In 2005, six leading Brazilian and American researchers published an essay titled "Tropical Deforestation and the Kyoto Protocol" in the journal Climatic Change, which concluded that it would be impossible to curb global warming without protecting forests. The authors proposed solutions to some of the technical problems surrounding REDD. Most critically, they suggested that countries participating in REDD schemes commit to reducing deforestation on a national rather than project level, thus addressing the pressing concern about leakage.

Meanwhile, new guidelines were emerging, among them the Climate, Community, and Biodiversity Standards and Voluntary Carbon Standards, which laid out rules for ensuring that REDD projects delivered on promised carbon reductions. At the same time, tools for monitoring deforestation, such as GPS and computer mapping, were becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous. New technologies were also surfacing, among them applications for analyzing high-resolution satellite data, which could spot small gaps in the rainforest canopy and pinpoint areas where even a handful of trees had been felled by loggers. Similarly, Lidar, a laser-based remote-sensing technology, could penetrate the dense layers of foliage, allowing researchers to create three-dimensional maps. In addition to making it easier to monitor deforestation, these developments simplified the process of estimating how much carbon forests were storing, something that previously required venturing into the woods on foot and measuring the girth of tree trunks and the depth of the leaf litter.

Another crucial development was the emergence of a negotiation bloc, led by Papua New Guinea. At the time, the tiny island nation was under pressure from the international community to quit felling its tropical forests, but its leaders feared that ferreting out the loggers would devastate its already fragile economy. The dilemma caught the attention of a Columbia University MBA student named Kevin Conrad, who had grown up deep in the Papua New Guinea rainforest. He decided to form an organization to push for a mechanism by which developing countries could be compensated for preserving their forests. Called the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, it came to include more than a dozen tropical countries, among them Costa Rica, a country lauded by the international community for transforming itself from a high deforester to a model of conservation.

The coalition made its public debut in December 2005 at the United Nations Climate Change Convention in Montreal, where Conrad offered a proposal for including REDD in the post-Kyoto climate treaty, partly as a means of encouraging poor countries to contribute to the global fight against climate change. Previously, developing nations had refused to commit to targets for cutting their greenhouse gas emissions because, they argued, it would stifle economic growth—a fact that had emerged as a key sticking point in past negotiations. According to Conrad, the proposal initially met opposition from the United States, which feared that if developing countries committed to robust and meaningful reductions of heat-trapping gases, the U.S. would no longer be able to cite their lack of participation as an excuse not to take action. But the United States eventually backed down, and, to the surprise of many observers, the parties agreed to study the proposal—a first step toward its inclusion in a future climate accord.

Two years later, representatives from more than 180 nations descended on Bali for another UN climate conference, this one focused on hashing out a road map for negotiating a post-Kyoto climate treaty. When, after twelve days, the parties finally reached an agreement, the United States attempted to block its passage. Conrad issued a direct challenge: "We ask for your leadership, but if for some reason you’re not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way." Minutes later the U.S. delegation capitulated, paving the way for the Bali Action Plan, which recognized the critical role tropical forests play in regulating climate and established REDD as a likely component of the post-Kyoto regime. Soon after the meeting, money began pouring into voluntary REDD programs. Norway unveiled its International Climate and Forests Initiative, a plan to commit some $500 million per year to rainforest conservation, while the World Bank announced a $385 million Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) to jumpstart REDD in developing countries, in part by helping them develop the tools and expertise they’ll need to administer the program.

More recently, Britain and Norway put $160 million toward the Congo Basin Forest Fund to finance forest conservation activities in Central Africa. Britain’s Prince Charles has made saving rainforests his signature cause by developing the Prince’s Rainforest Project to bring business and political leaders around to supporting conservation. His efforts culminated in a historic meeting between heads of state, in advance of the G20 summit in April 2009, to discuss rainforest conservation. Developing countries have also gotten involved, including Brazil, which in 2008 announced the formation of a $21 billion fund to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 70 percent within ten years. The project is expected to cut the nation’s carbon emissions by 4.8 billion tons by 2017. (For more information, see Marcelo Leite, "The Brazilian Dilemma.")

Meanwhile, the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill includes a REDD component. Specifically, the measure would allow U.S. companies to offset six billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions by investing in forest conservation projects between now and 2025.

These developments are part of a surge of support for REDD, which extends even to once-skeptical environmental groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Sierra Club, and the growing momentum toward its inclusion in the post-Kyoto climate treaty, the final details of which are meant to be hammered out in Copenhagen this December. Stuart Eizenstat, who led the U.S. delegation in Kyoto, summed up the evolving attitudes of many environmentalists and diplomats in testimony before Congress last year, when he said that continuing to exclude tropical forests from the global efforts to fight climate change "makes no sense scientifically, and it makes no sense politically or economically."


D espite this outpouring of enthusiasm, REDD remains controversial. Critics, including some European countries, argue that even with new technologies it will be complicated to monitor. Some environmental groups maintain that allowing polluters to offset their emissions by investing in forestry projects will undermine low-carbon technologies without meaningfully reducing emissions (something REDD supporters say can be avoided by setting strong emissions caps).

There are also deep divisions over how to finance REDD projects. Some countries, most notably Brazil, argue that instead of integrating forest-preservation projects into international carbon markets, wealthy nations should reward developing countries that curb deforestation by paying into funds that the developing countries themselves control. Their reasons have partly to do with sovereignty concerns—Brazil doesn’t fancy international monitors descending on its forests or weighing in on its land-management policies—and partly to do with the belief that allowing forests into carbon markets would let developed nations off the hook when it comes to cutting their own emissions. "Brazil is not interested in giving industrialized countries cheap carbon credits from protecting the Amazon if they are not going to stop building coal-fired power plants," says William Boyd, a professor of law at the University of Colorado who has worked extensively on REDD policy issues. But some REDD advocates hold that a fund-based system will be subject to political whims of donor nations and won’t generate the kind of money needed to reduce deforestation at the scale and pace necessary to meet emission-reduction targets.

Another contentious issue is how to measure a nation’s progress toward curbing deforestation. The most straightforward approach is to compare current or future deforestation rates to historical ones. But this method favors nations with a history of slash and burn, something countries like Costa Rica, which have taken pains to preserve their forests, argue is deeply unfair. This idea is also troubling to the Surui, who fear their REDD project could fail because they’ve kept their forests so pristine. To solve this quandary, some rainforest advocates, including Kevin Conrad, have proposed giving nations with a track record of good stewardship credit for early action. "If we don’t provide incentives for countries that have so far maintained their forests, but otherwise have land suitable for conversion, then those forests are going to fall," Conrad explains. But the idea of giving credit for past successes raises eyebrows among those concerned about the integrity of carbon markets. Similarly, for REDD to work, at least some of the money that is generated will have to go to agents of deforestation, such as commercial logging operations. Otherwise, there is no incentive for them to stop destroying forests. But this idea doesn’t sit well with many environmentalists.

There is also the question of what REDD will mean for the well-being of indigenous people. Despite having occupied lands for years or generations, many forest-dwelling communities still lack formal titles, or even basic rights, to land and resources. Indigenous advocates fear that as REDD makes forests increasingly valuable, even more rights are likely to be wrested from native inhabitants. Groups like the Global Forest Coalition and the World Rainforest Movement paint a nightmare scenario of forced displacement at the hands of carbon speculators. "REDD projects do not help indigenous peoples and forest peoples," says Jihan Gearon of the Indigenous Environmental Network. "In fact they hurt these communities and take away access and rights to forests, traditional territories, and medicines."

REDD’s supporters counter that, if well designed, the mechanism could actually benefit forest dwellers, by providing funding for services such as health care and education as well as by focusing fresh attention on the plight of indigenous people and their territories. "For decades, capitalists, socialists, private companies, governments, and local operators have blasted into tropical communities, razed forests, and moved on with little concern for the fact that they denuded the land," says John O. Niles, a REDD expert with the Tropical Forest Group, a forest policy think tank. "REDD will put a microscope on these issues. I think a UN-driven system of incentives for keeping forests—a system of oversight with some transparency—and the strong voice of critical observers will lead to more positive outcomes more of the time."

Certainly, some voluntary REDD projects have benefited forest dwellers. Among them is the Juma Sustainable Development Reserve, which encompasses 1.4 million acres of rainforest in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, an area that until a few years ago was plagued by illegal logging. Foreign businesses or governments can purchase offset credits on the voluntary carbon market, with funds going toward protecting the reserve’s lush ecosystem, in part by compensating 6,000 Juma families for preserving their forests. Each family is given a monthly stipend and their villages are provided with solar panels, computers, and money for community services, such as schools and clinics. Monitoring is done by satellite. If the forest is damaged or destroyed, the family that owns the land is dropped from the program and their village put on warning. The project is still in the early stages, but if successful it could prevent the release of 190 million tons of carbon between now and 2050.

To some degree, REDD’s effect on forest dwellers will depend on how the policy is structured. Some parties to the UN climate talks have proposed building protections for indigenous people into the REDD program in the post-Kyoto climate treaty. But the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have blocked this provision, a fact that has spawned outrage. Indigenous groups have turned out at UN climate conferences with placards reading, "No Rights, No REDD!"


G iven the myriad obstacles, will REDD designers be able to develop a workable framework? Many people involved in REDD discussions think so. "I think the chances are very strong that if we get a climate agreement in Copenhagen REDD will be a part of it," says Tracy Johns of the Woods Hole Research Center, a scientific think tank that has researched REDD extensively. "All of the stakeholders that have been involved in the REDD process in recent years—governments, NGOs, the private sector, indigenous peoples—have done a lot of work and made a lot of progress on the issues and challenges. I think in many ways the REDD negotiation process is more advanced than many of the other lines of negotiation that are under way for Copenhagen."

This is not to say that the parties to the negotiation, and the civil society groups weighing in from the sidelines, are unaware of the challenges. Even REDD’s strongest supporters admit that trying to fulfill all the hopes invested in the policy, while avoiding the possible pitfalls, is a risky proposition. But they support it just the same. "REDD is being asked to do a lot of things—improving governance, promoting sustainable development, and mitigating climate change—but the potential benefits are so great, it’s a chance worth taking," explains Stephan Schwartzman of the Environmental Defense Fund. This is because REDD is the only existing mechanism that promises to make preserving living forests more lucrative than cutting them down—and only by accomplishing that feat can we hope to stem the tide of deforestation. Put another way, despite its shortcomings, REDD may be our last, best hope of saving the tropical forests, which are so essential to the future health of our planet.

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Rhett Butler is founder and chief editor of Mongabay.com, a conservation news Web site with a focus on tropical forests. He is currently based in San Francisco’s Bay Area.  
 
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