Developing Countries United under UN Agency to Counter Deforestation

Photo: World Resources Institute

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), deforestation causes a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to storing more than 1 trillion tons of the world’s carbon, forests purify water, protect soils, prevent floods and droughts, and are home to the majority of the world’s land-based species. With deforestation and forest degradation accounting for more global greenhouse gas emissions than the emissions from the world’s cars, trucks, ships and planes combined, forest protection has become critical to achieving environmental sustainability.

In September 2008, the United Nations started a program to combat deforestation by paying developing countries to maintain the health of their forests. The program, UN Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or UN-REDD, currently has four donor countries – Norway, Denmark, Spain and Japan – who provide support for forest preservation activities in 13 developing countries: Bolivia, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ecuador, Indonesia, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia.

Concerns of corruption and neglect of indigenous rights

Though it is the first UN initiative to focus solely on the issue of sustainable forest management,  UN-REDD has been criticized for neglecting the rights of indigenous communities. Rainforest Foundation Norway voiced disapproval that there is no explicit wording in the UN-REDD treaty ensuring indigenous rights, and expressed the belief that the program’s proposals undermined the rights guaranteed to indigenous groups under existing international agreements. Joji Carino, the director of TEBTEBBA, the Indigenous People’s International Center for Policy Research and Education, a non-profit indigenous rights advocacy group based in the Philippines that has Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations, believes that programmes like UN-REDD can lead to land claims and the eviction of indigenous people.


“There are growing conflicts between indigenous peoples and both forestry companies and conservation organizations,” Carino said at a meeting of forestry and development professionals in Oslo in October 2008, according to the Rights and Resources Initiative, a Washington, DC-based non-profit group that supports indigenous rights in forest economies. “Imposed forest management initiatives are only viable if they respect the customary rights of forest peoples and ensure they have control about what happens on their lands. Indigenous people must be accepted as full and fair participants in all climate negotiations.”

In May 2009, the UN released a statement entitled, “Engagement of Indigenous Peoples and Civil Society,” which asserted that “REDD will succeed only with the full participation and ownership of Indigenous Peoples and other forest-dependent communities. This is especially relevant at the local level, where land and other natural resource management decisions are ultimately made.” The document further stated, “Indigenous Peoples and civil society organizations are represented both as members and as observers to the UN-REDD Programme Policy Board, providing leadership, direction and decisions on financial allocations to ensure the overall success of the UN-REDDProgramme.”

Still, some believe that the initiative is susceptible to corruption. In October 2009, The Guardianreported on experts’ warnings that the program is “at risk from organized crime,” largely because countries are allowed to trade carbon stored in their forests. “Fraud could include claiming credits for forests that do not exist or were not protected or by land grabs,” Peter Younger, an environment crimes specialist at Interpol, told The Guardian. “It starts with bribery or intimidation of officials, then there’s threats and violence against those people.” Younger’s concerns were supported by the suspension, in July 2009, of Papua New Guinea’s climate change minister Theo Yasause, who allegedly issued multi-million dollar fake carbon credits to the Australian company Carbon Planet.

Finding financial flows for forest protection


UN-REDD – which arose out of partnership between the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) – has predicted that up to USD $30 billion a year could be flowing from developed countries to developing countries in the hope of preserving forests and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In March 2009, UN-REDD gave USD $18 million to five of its member countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania and Vietnam. The program then campaigned to raise additional funds as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a major cash injection into the program.

“We now need to mobilize further funding for REDD and establish transparent systems to distribute payments and measure results,” said Ban in a September 2009 UN high-level event on deforestation in developing countries that included 13 heads of state, including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of Norway, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Congo, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of Sweden and President Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana. Ban noted that developing countries were willing to participate in the program provided that they received adequate funding and support.

Calls for stronger scientific research

Financing is also needed to fund scientific research of deforestation causes and methods of prevention. Indonesia has stressed that there is an urgent need for scientific assessments of carbon absorption in forests and scientific data detailing exactly how forests can contribute to the fight against global warming. “Most developing countries are being hit by the impacts of climate change because their science has not been adequately developed,” said Rachmat Witoelar, head of Indonesia’s National Council on Climate Change (DNPI), at a speech given to the IPCC in Bali in October 2009. “They lack the capacity to produce adaptation and mitigation measures due to the lack of a scientific basis,” said Witolear, who was named the Special Envoy for Climate Change by Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in May 2010. “The world now demands stronger scientific assessment to pursue adaptation and mitigation measures at local levels, of a high degree of certainty that can be measured.”

There have been some efforts made in collecting research on deforestation. The FAO conducted a worldwide survey assessing deforestation and released the results in the 2010 Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA 2010), which was hailed as “the most comprehensive assessment of forests and forestry to date.” Since 1946, the FAO has been monitoring the world’s forests in 5- to 10-year intervals by analyzing data collected from a questionnaire issued to countries. “By combining remote sensing technology with field data collection, we improve the quality of both methods,” said Jan Heino, FAO’s Assistant Director-General of Forestry. “This provides more accurate information on forest trends and new information on the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation.”

In 2009, the FAO announced the launch of the Forest Remote Sensing Survey, the world’s first global, free and ready-to-use forest monitoring system based on high-resolution satellite data. According to the UN News Centre, the system, which was launched by the FAO and other partners as part of the Global Forest Resources Assessment, is able to deliver data for 13,000 of the world’s forests and interpretive tools to help developing countries monitor the size and health of their forests. “This brings a revolution to the forest monitoring field, said FAO director general Jacques Diouf. “Never before have data of this kind been provided directly to users in developing countries. Monitoring will be cheaper, more accurate and transparent for countries that want to participate in reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.”

Nevertheless, there is still a need for monitoring systems that will verify carbon counts, not simply assess them. With Interpol’s suspicions of carbon fraud and governments susceptible to corruption, such a system is urgently required, especially by initiatives like UN-REDD that provide financial reimbursement for carbon credit. Moreover, according to Peter Holmgren, Director for Environment, Climate Change and Bioenergy at the FAO, monitoring systems must go beyond the the simple assessment of carbon activity. “Forest resources have many other values beyond carbon credits,” writes Holmgren in an August 2010 UN-REDD paper, adding that the REDD program “can not be implemented in isolation from these other values because the mitigation activities will inevitably affect other products and services.”

Endangered tigers and the “lungs of the Earth”

As UN-REDD is financially assisting member countries in forest protection, some are stepping up to the challenge in alternative and formidable ways. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported that in October 2009, Argentina and Paraguay “agreed to work towards zero net deforestation in the Atlantic Forest – one of the most threatened and fragmented subtropical forests in the world.” While zero deforestation refers to the concept of eliminating all deforestation activities, zero net deforestation allows room for change in land-use patterns as long as the net quantity, quality and carbon density of forests are maintained. It is a strategy that allows for development and forest protection.

Indigenous people are also getting involved in forest protection. Frederick Sagisolo, the chief of the Knasaimos people living in the western region of Papua, Indonesia, believes that forest management and protection should be a community endeavor, particularly in light of unsustainable or illegal logging. “We do not see nature as something to be destroyed,” Sagisolo writes in a 2007 BBC News opinion piece. “The forests here provide for our needs. For building houses we take rattan, bamboo and other woods, for lighting fires we take damar, and for food we process sago taken from the forest in the traditional method…The relationship between our people and their nature is important, and it’s become our pride and part of our traditional wisdom. That’s why we manage the land in a simple way. The way we manage our land, however, has been disturbed by outsiders coming here to log trees.” Chief Sagisolo has pushed for indigenous forest management on the global stage with the help of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). In 2008, Sagisolo travelled to Brussels and spoke to the European Parliament about the the effect of illegal logging on his community, as part of a DFID-funded project that includes developing a network of civil organizations to help increase awareness and understanding of the issue.

Additionally, environmental groups have been ramping up the pressure on corporations that source paper from unsustainable sources. In June, activists at the international environmental non-profit group Greenpeace, for example, unfurled a huge banner on the facade of the headquarters of the toy giant Mattel that showed a picture of an angry Ken doll saying, “Barbie, it’s over. I don’t date girls that are into deforestation.” The campaign intended to highlight Mattel’s packaging of its hugely popular Barbie doll line with paper sources from Asia Pulp & Paper, which has been criticized for destroying Indonesia’s rainforests, including critical habitat for endangered orangutans and Sumatran tigers. After receiving some 45,000 activist letters, Mattel anounced that it would direct its “packaging suppliers to stop sourcing pulp from Sinar Mas/APP [Asia Pulp & Paper] as we investigate the deforestation allegations.” Greenpeace, WWF and other non-profit environmental groups like the Rainforest Action Network and Green America, have been trying to help consumers make the right decisions about purchasing paper products that are sustainably sourced.

International organizations are also taking up the cause on behalf of indigenous people. The International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests, a global network of organizations representing the indigenous and tribal populations of tropical forest regions in Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Americas, advocates indigenous rights and sustainable forest management. The Alliance, which includes both UN-REDD member and non-member countries, contributes to the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF), a subsidiary body established in October 2000 that promotes long-term political commitment to forest management, conservation and sustainable development.

International initiatives like UN-REDD have highlighted the importance of forest protection to environmental sustainability. Countries, indigenous people, international organizations and consumers are building upon recent progress and successes to ensure protection and care of the world’s forests, which are central to the health of the global environment.

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