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Paris COP21: To Save Forests,
A Combination of Carrots and Sticks

By Fred Pearce

01 Dec 2015

Forests must be saved and restored if we are to fix climate change. That's a given here at the Paris climate conference. But how? It's a tough issue for many environment ministers, who know that back home their agriculture, mining, and even forestry ministers have other plans for forest lands.

You wouldn't want to be the Peruvian environment minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, who is no nearer turning the tide on deforestation in his own country than he was a year ago, when he chaired climate talks in the Peruvian capital, Lima. In Paris, he joined Britain's impassioned forest-protecting Prince Charles to lead a discussion on saving forests, and agreed it was "very important to have forests in the climate debate."

But his government last year passed a law stripping his ministry of its ability to protect forests from palm oil companies and others intent on taking forest lands. His promise to deliver zero deforestation by 2021 seems unlikely, to say the least, according to Juan Pablo Osornio of Ecofys, a UK-based energy consultancy. Currently, Peru’s emissions from deforestation are on track to rise by 70 percent by 2030.

It would be nicer to be Pulgar-Vidal's Costa Rican counterpart, Manuel Gonzalez Sanz, whose country is on a much greener path. He has been able to boast here that his country has doubled forest cover in two decades, boosted power from renewables, and cut greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time increasing GDP. "It's not true that reducing emissions curtails economic growth," he said.

For countries not convinced of this, there are plenty of carrots on offer in Paris to encourage them to save their forests. Norway announced a deal with the West African state of Liberia, in which it will deliver $150 million into the nation’s exchequer in return for validated protection of its forests. And Norway, Germany, and the U.K. are promising other countries $ 1 billion a year in similar "pay for performance" financing for forest protection. Ending deforestation "can contribute nine gigatons of CO2 a year" toward Paris’ goals, said German climate negotiator Karsten Sach, announcing the plan.

Some of that money could go to Indonesia, which announced that it is looking for $4.4 billion to pay for restoring two million hectares of recently forested wetlands. The degradation of peat on wetlands drained for palm oil is the country's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

There were sticks as well as carrots from the private-sector members of the Consumer Goods Forum, which represents major retailers and food manufacturers. Mark Bolland, CEO of British retail giant Marks & Spencer, said its members, which include giants Nestle and Unilever, would be shunning agricultural commodities from deforesters in favor of crops from countries that take the lead on ending

Getty Images
Representatives of indigenous groups from Peru and Brazil at a session on forestry at the Paris climate negotiations.
deforestation. Palm oil exports from deforesting Peru could be in trouble.

Charlotte Streck of Climate Focus, a Dutch NGO, reported "no sign" of any decline in the rate of forest loss since dozens of corporations and governments signed the 2014 New York Declaration, committing them to zero deforestation. Even allowing for reforestation, the world still loses 3.3 million hectares of forests each year, said U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

The best way to protect forests, many here argue, is by handing them back to indigenous communities and other forest dwellers. This approach has worked in Brazil, where deforestation rates have fallen 80 percent in a decade and much of the remaining Amazon rainforest is now within some 300 indigenous territories.

Meanwhile Indonesia, Brazil's successor as the world hotspot for deforestation, has similar plans for handing back some 80 million hectares of state-controlled forests to its 70 million indigenous people, according to Abdon Nabadan, head of the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN).

Indigenous people are here in force, demanding direct access to the funds on offer to protect forests. "We want to manage the Amazon using our traditional ways,” said Jorge Furagaro of COICA, which coordinates indigenous groups in the Amazon. “We want an Indigenous Fund for the Amazon to channel resources directly towards indigenous peoples... not to consultants."

Many scientists agree that indigenous groups are the best forest guardians. Mapping from the Woods Hole Research Center published here shows that indigenous lands hold a fifth of the carbon in tropical forests. "We know indigenous peoples are reliable guardians of that carbon — and all the important ecosystem services provided by tropical forests — as long as they have legally recognized rights to their forest," said Wayne Walker of the center.

Or as Prince Charles insisted: "We must do all we can to support the communities that live within forests."

Fred Pearce, a freelance author and journalist based in the U.K., is on assignment in Paris for Yale Environment 360 and will be reporting regularly throughout the climate conference.

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