As environmentalists and politicians rally around the inclusion of avoided deforestation projects in an international climate change agreement, some big questions about forest and land ownership loom unanswered.
A new report released yesterday by the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development aims to address some of those questions by promoting debate among reduced deforestation stakeholders about current land rights and institutions in countries with tropical rainforests, like Brazil and Indonesia. The goal is to find the answers before delegates meet in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December to negotiate a new international climate change treaty.
Uncertainty over land ownership, rights and access to natural resources are familiar problems in developing countries where deforestation is an issue, according to James Mayers, head of the natural resources group at IIED and co-author of the report.
However, the possible inclusion of "reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation," or REDD, projects in a post-2012 global climate change framework could mean exploitation of local communities who live in and around rainforests by governments or powerful private-sector stakeholders if land tenure has not been formally established, he said.
"We're trying to point out who decides and owns forest resources is going to be at the heart of any new set of arrangements for climate change as it is and has been [at] the heart of pretty much all other questions of governance and forest resource use," Mayers said yesterday about the report.
Mayers said he wants to initiate debate on the topic before the Copenhagen conference since that meeting will decide whether to include REDD or a similar avoided deforestation finance mechanism into a climate change agreement.
20% of emissions is the problem. What is the solution?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that cutting down forests now contributes almost 20 percent of the overall greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere.
REDD projects, which seek to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, try to do so in a sustainable manner that gives incentives to local communities who rely on forest resources for their livelihoods not to cut down trees.
However, Mayers and co-author Lorenzo Cotula point out in the report that local communities may not benefit from financing mechanisms such as REDD when they have little incentive to protect forests because of land ownership issues.
Tenure, which can influence the distribution of risks, costs and benefits of financial transfers linked to forest conservation, will give local people greater leverage in negotiations with the government and private-sector stakeholders if it is defined and secured, according to the report.
"REDD is simply an idea cooked up at an international level," Mayers said, adding that it is important to consider how such an international mechanism is applied and to include a wider range of stakeholders, such as locals, in the ongoing international climate change treaty discussions.
Implementing a system that ensures benefits from REDD projects will "trickle" down to local levels should be structured around local organizations that already exist, rather than trying to construct organizations around a REDD project, Mayers said.
Community land rights in Cameroon
The report drew on experiences from seven countries with tropical rainforests to develop a typology of tenure "regimes," explore land ownership issues in each country and identify challenges that must be addressed in order for REDD projects to work.
Steve Panfil, senior manager of the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance, said the report is useful because it gives examples of the legal systems and that various stages of land tenure in those countries.
"Land tenure is critical to have worked out, and in some countries it is much more clear than in others," Panfil said, adding that much of the land in several countries is still listed as state-owned even though local inhabitants and indigenous groups claimed it long ago but never had it formally titled.
The government of Cameroon, for example, passed a law that allowed communities to gain control of their forest if they go through certain procedures.
In practice, however, those procedures are "extremely cumbersome and difficult for communities to go through," Mayers said, pointing to the need for communities to develop "complicated" management plans and register the land in certain ways.
This results in an "overlapping law situation" in which groups at the local level share various land ownership arrangements.
There are attempts, however, in some parts of Cameroon to codify the terms of some of these customary arrangements so they are recognized under modern legal systems.
"Any initiative trying to support more sustainability in tropical forest regions needs to think how it's going to deal with local institutional issues, very small organization arrangements and [the] local level because without dealing with them, experience suggests little progress will be made," Mayers said.
Carbon rights are also a consideration
Another important issue to consider in addition to land tenure is carbon rights, Panfil said.
"The concern is REDD could suddenly make lands that haven't been economically very important much more ... valuable and that means when land tenure is not clearly established, there's a potential threat for those people whose rights haven't been made clear," Panfil said.
Most developing countries are sorting out these issues, Panfil said, explaining that some countries have set up special government agencies to establish who has legal rights to land.
"That's at different stages of developing, depending on which country you're talking about," he said.
The Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance has established a standard that requires projects to demonstrate that the people who have legal rights to the land are the people who will participate in any commercial agreement about carbon credits coming from that land.
The standard also recognizes countries that do not yet have laws established to describe who is legally authorized to sell carbon credits.
"In those cases the organization has to describe how they will get those rights made clear before it enters into any commercial transaction with carbon credits," Panfil explained.
The Voluntary Carbon Standard, which ensures that the carbon offsets associated with a project have real environmental benefits, also require organizations to have legal rights to carbon credits.
This, Panfil said, is "crucial because anyone who wants to invest in projects wants to know if [the] seller had [the] right to sell it," he said.
Click here to read the IIED's report.