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Battle Over the Trees: Indigenous Peoples Denounce REDD+ at COP 17 Talks

At the COP 17 conference in South Africa, Indigenous environmental activists have criticized carbon markets as harmful to forests and people.

Indigenous peoples came to COP 17 with a simple message: Your Kyoto Protocol isn’t working for us.

Amid skepticism and growing doubt, the climate talks known as COP 17—shorthand for the 17th United Nations Conference of the Parties—began in Durban, South Africa, on November 28 and are set to end December 9. Many environmentalists arrived feeling that the world’s nations aren’t serious about taking action to prevent catastrophic global temperature increases, especially in regions most vulnerable to climate change and where indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected as temperatures rise.

On November 26, following a two-day workshop attended by representatives from Ecuador, Panama, India, Nicaragua, Peru and Samoa, the Indigenous Peoples’ Biocultural Climate Change Assessment (IPCCA) Initiative issued a strongly-worded declaration denouncing the schemes known as REDD and REDD+, which are acronyms for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. REDD and REDD+ were designed to halt deforestation in developing nations by placing monetary value on the carbon absorbing properties of trees which corporations from industrialized nations can then buy the rights to, giving them permission to emit greenhouse gases beyond their agreed upon limits.

Indigenous peoples living within the boundaries of nation-states are subject to the nations’ laws (usually without their consent), as are their lands and resources; and as the IPCCA declaration notes, most of the world’s remaining forests are within indigenous territories. The forests not only provide the livelihoods of the people, but for thousands of years they have been their homes and the places from which their cultures are derived and maintained. The view of forests as commodities to allow powerful nations to continue polluting is anathema to indigenous beliefs in the sanctity of nature—yet another violation of Mother Earth.

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“The life of people and Pachamama has become a business. Life, for Indigenous Peoples, is sacred, and we therefore consider REDD+ and the carbon market a hypocrisy which will not impact global warming,” the declaration states.

The declaration asserts that the so-called “green economy” “is a vehicle for promoting trends of commodification of nature. It is a vehicle to impose neo-liberal environmental strategies on developing countries, which undermines traditional communal land tenure systems.” Polluting corporations from industrialized nations who have purchased emission rights through the cap and trade carbon market system are effectively given free rein to continue mining for and burning fossil fuels, while collaborating with colonial governments who continually reinforce their power over indigenous communities. Companies that benefit from the traditional forest management practices of indigenous peoples from which their pollution permits are derived can even pit groups of indigenous peoples against each other when other tribal people are negatively impacted by the extractive processes of those companies in distant locations. Additionally, revenues that are generated by nations through the sale of pollution rights based on indigenous forest territories usually don’t find their way into indigenous communities. The violation of indigenous rights is manifest in many other ways as well, including forced removals due to land grabs, the creation of institutions that concentrate ever greater power in state hands, ignoring of traditional forest management practices, and impacts on food security and traditional health care systems.

The IPCCA declaration notes some of the other risks to indigenous communities and the environment created by REDD/REDD+, including the establishment of monocultured tree plantations and genetically modified trees. The United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) definition of “forests” includes monocultured tree plantations, which critics contend encourages clear cutting of natural forests in favor of replanting, benefitting industrial loggers under the guise of practicing “sustainable forest management,” to say nothing of how clear cutting impacts indigenous communities.

What will better serve forest conservation and indigenous communities, activists say, is for management efforts to remain in indigenous and local communities. In a seminar held at the University of Kwazulu Natal in South Africa by indigenous, community, peasant and women’s groups to address forest management practices in the context of climate change mitigation efforts, representatives agreed that their traditional practices which have been working for generations are still viable today, instead of top-down, government imposed forest protection programs that violate human rights and ultimately result in further deforestation and degradation. Citing studies that compare forest protected areas with community managed practices, conference participants emphasized that what is needed is land reform that supports indigenous and community rights, traditional governance, food sovereignty, sustainable alternative livelihood options, and an end to logging, mining, and the planting of large tree plantations.

In its final section, the declaration spoke to Natives around the world, cautioning that “Indigenous peoples should not commit themselves to a process that does not respect them,” and dubbing REDD “a false solution that breeds a new form of climate racism.”