文章 Articles

End of the hinterland

The status of forests in climate politics changed radically in 2009, bringing opportunity and peril in equal measure, says the Rights and Resources Initiative.

Article image

Forests have long been a hinterland: remote, “backward” areas largely controlled by external, often urban, actors and seen to be of little use to national development or the world except as a supply of low-valued natural resources. The year 2009 marked the beginning of the end of this era. Forest lands are booming in value for the production of food, fuel, fibre and now carbon. More than ever, forests are bargaining chips in global climate negotiations and markets.

This unprecedented exposure and pressure provides nations and the world at large tremendous opportunity to right historic wrongs, advance rural development and save forests. But the chaos at the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen laid bare the looming crises that the world will face if long-term trends of ignored rights, hunger and climate change remain inadequately addressed in 2010. While the era of the hinterland is ending, the future of forest areas is not yet clear.

The year 2009 will be remembered for the global economic recession and the chaotic attempts to address climate change. But it might also be remembered as a year when governments were overthrown for ignoring local land rights and there was finally widespread realisation that addressing long-standing questions over forest and land rights and tenure is required for addressing global crises of food security, war and climate change.

In March the government of Madagascar was ousted, a move accelerated by widespread resistance to the government handover of half the island’s arable land to a South Korean corporation, Daewoo Logistics. This reality awoke many to the real political consequences of the volatile combination of insecure land rights, persistent government control of land and forests and booming demand for commodities like food, fuel and speculative forest carbon.

The Copenhagen summit neatly captured the contradictions and challenges of the year. Despite the unclear and limited outcomes, it was one of the most important global negotiations to date and indigenous and other community leaders were organised, influencing global decisions about the future of the planet.

Yet at the end of the summit, these same leaders returned home to forests where many do not have government-recognised rights to the land and trees they have used for generations. The flood of money now promised to their governments to help maintain tropical forests and secure additional carbon is putting unprecedented pressures on forest lands and also offering unprecedented opportunity to secure the rights and development of local people.

Forest communities have long been fighting for more control over their forests. Now, clarifying forest tenure and governance has become a priority for some global leaders and even carbon traders. If, and how, local, national and global actors deal with these issues will determine the future of forest areas.

Today, governments claim to own about 75% of the world’s forests, and just a little more than 9% are legally owned by communities and indigenous peoples. This unbalanced pattern of statutory ownership has begun to change over recent decades but state ownership claims remain particularly dominant in Africa. Latin America has done more to legally recognise the tenure rights of indigenous peoples and forest communities. In fact, at the present rate of change it would take 270 years for the tenure distribution in the Congo Basin to match that of the Amazon Basin.

Tenure transition from state to communities and households is both a reinstatement of traditional governance patterns and a modern development of more equitable governance, rule of law and defence of human rights. It can be peaceful and incremental but, more often than not, it has been confrontational.

The revolutions in Mexico in the early-twentieth century or China in the 1950s, for example, transferred the majority of forests from the state and large landholders to collectives and households. In Europe and the United States, communities and households own the majority of forestlands and in New Zealand and Canada, there are long processes of the indigenous Māoris and First Nations claiming their forest rights. But in a large part of the developing world, state domination over resources put in place during the colonial period has not given way to alternative models and post-colonial legislation continues to assign rights to governments at the expense of local peoples.

Conflicts between forest communities and outsiders are not a new phenomenon. Earlier in history, they were often limited in number and short in duration, with forest communities quickly overwhelmed by an external power. 2009 was different. Just as powerful global investors and national governments realised the enormous potential profit to be made from the remaining tropical forests, violent conflicts in and over forests sparked and raged anew.

Deadly conflicts in Peru and the repression of a longstanding insurgency in India are the most prominent examples but long-overlooked local disputes over resource rights have spun into major conflicts in Afghanistan and the Niger Delta. As the demand to control forest resources increases, so will violent conflict over these valuable resources.

Unready for REDD

As the dust settles from the chaos in Copenhagen, it is clear that REDD, the programme to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, is going forward with at least US$3.5 billion (23.9 billion yuan) of initial funding but without the framework or standards to guide it responsibly. The combination of new money and limited controls dramatically raises the risks and pressures on forests and forest peoples. The current lack of a comprehensive architecture for REDD means that the carbon market and funding will be global but justice and legal redress will have to be meted out locally.

REDD was held up as one of the rare points of consensus in Copenhagen: promoted by the “global north”, the world’s rich countries, because of the potential for easy and cheap emissions reductions and by the “global south”, or developing countries, for the lure of finance and investment. International programmes like the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) and the UN-REDD Programme were set up to have pilot results ready in time for the Copenhagen summit. But as these pilots got under way, the inherent complications of slowing deforestation came into focus: effective REDD will not be easy. The FCPF and UN-REDD have received donations and pledges of more than US$186 million (1.3 billion yuan) from a handful of governments but only a small fraction of the money has been allocated to actions on the ground to date.

Despite the doubts still haunting REDD, existing REDD-readiness funds have established innovative governance structures that include representatives of indigenous peoples and civil society. This progress cannot be discounted for it hints at the real issues that REDD will encounter in implementation. Yet even where this is recognised, the operational capacity to include local participation and ensure rights recognition in REDD is quite limited.

Where there is value and confusion, there is also high risk of corruption and 2009 may become known as the first year of major carbon crookedness. Just before the climate talks in Copenhagen, the government of Papua New Guinea quietly disbanded its Office of Climate Change and Environmental Sustainability after longstanding and well-publicised accusations that it had illegally sold carbon-ownership certificates valued at AU$100 million (616 million yuan) to an Australian company and egregiously neglected to consult with forest communities – the clear legal owners of the forests of the country.

Last year the widespread lack of legal clarity and enforcement and rising global value of REDD attracted the attention of Interpol, the intergovernmental police organisation, and international environmental crime experts globally. In the words of Peter Younger, environment crimes specialist at Interpol, “The potential for criminality is vast and has not been taken into account by the people who set it up…Organised crime syndicates are eyeing the nascent forest carbon market.”

2010 is the beginning of a new era for the people and forests in developing countries. Northern governments, investors of all ilk and traders of all hues will inspect and vie for forest lands, negotiating, luring and potentially bribing developing country governments – who still lay claim to most forests – to make deals. The era of forest as hinterland is over. Forests will remain remote, but they will be carved up, controlled and used as global political bargaining chips like never before. Work to strengthen local rights, local organisations, and governance is more relevant, and urgent, than ever.


This article is a summary of an original report by the Rights and Resources Initiative, co-authored by Liz Alden Wily, David Rhodes, Madhu Sarin, Mina Setra and Phil Shearman. It is used here with permission.

Homepage image by Erwyn van der Meer

Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

谁来掌管森林?

与此同时,强化地方权利、地方组织和管理的工作也将空前地重要和紧迫。 ——大多数森林面积广阔的地区都处于发展中国家,这些国家自身就存在很多土地使用权不清的问题,更别说对森林、矿产这些资源地的霸占了。国际资本流向森林也许是好事,但是这些资金怎么用?向当地政府购买森林所有权?

Who is in charge of the forest?

Meanwhile, the task of strengthening local authorities, local organizations and management will also be important and unprecedented urgent. - Most regions with vast forest area are in developing countries. In many of these countries exists prevalently the problem of unclear land-use rights already, let alone the illegal occupation of forest and mineral resources. It's might be a good thing that international capital flows to the forest, but how do we use these funds?Do we purchase the forest ownership from local government?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

REDD的隐秘议程

一篇优秀的文章。

引起REDD+(减少发展中国家因滥砍滥伐和森林退化引起碳排放合作组织)(对森林和气候的潜在危害)进退维谷的主要原因是,污染国不希望停止污染,但同时又需要一块遮羞布,以显示他们的“承诺”。

因为很多大型非政府组织(包括相当数量的美国组织)都已经被收买,成为这个环境问题的一部分,因而导致更多的资金浪费在这个潜在的威胁中。

而问题的另一部分则是联合国本身,他们拒绝将工业用林(如棕榈油、橡胶、纸浆用林)从传统林业种分类出来。与后者相比,工业用林严重缺乏生物多样性,同时只能够满足较少的且多为非当地人口需求。事实上,工业用林无一例外的疏远了当地居民,并表现出一种土地掠夺的倾向。

此外,在印度尼西亚,甚至更广范围来说的马来西亚,工业用林产业(棕榈油和纸浆)使他们成为了大量温室气体排放以及全球气候变化的主要污染国。那么又是哪个国家购买了最多的棕榈油和纸浆呢?是中国,但是同时也请看一看Kit Kat的绿色和平广告。

The hidden agenda of REDD

An excellent article.

REDD+ (a potential disaster for forests and the climate) is being pushed primarily because polluting countries do not want to stop polluting and need a fig leaf to demonstrate their "commitment".

So much money is being thrown at potential critics that some big international NGOs (particularly a number based in the USA) have in effect been bought off and have become part of the problem.

Another part of the problem is the United Nations itself - which refuses to classify industrial-scale tree farms (notably plantations for palm oil, rubber or pulp) other than as forests. The former are largely devoid of biodiversity and sustain the livelihoods of fewer people (usually not locals) than the latter. Indeed they almost invariably alienate the local population and reflect a land grab.

Further, most of the greenhouse gas emissions which make Indonesia and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia amongst the world's leading contributors to climate change are attributable to the plantations sector (palm oil and pulp). Who buys most of their palm oil and pulp? China, but see also the Greenpeace advertisement for Kit Kat.