By the end of this year, governments may have finalised arrangements for preserving developing countries' forests under the UN climate convention. But, argues Arun Agrawal, forests used to belong to people - and people are being left out of the equation.
A long time ago - before the Copenhagen summit, before words such as biodiversity or development were invented, before even colonialism - most of the world's forests belonged to people.
People lived in them. People depended on them.
And people used forests for food, for firewood, for timber - indeed, for much of what they needed.
But by the beginning of the 20th Century, governments owned most of the world's forests.
Industrial expansion, coupled with colonialism and blossoming government capacity, made it both desirable and possible for governments to assert control over forests.
They did so in the name of a greater ability to protect and manage forests. The interests and claims of local communities and forest-dependent populations received short shrift in the global forest grab that occurred between 1850 and 1950.
But forests today - all four billion hectares of them - are no more than a remnant of the vast stretches of vegetation that used to cover the entire planet.
The global spasm of deforestation that has occurred in the 20th Century took place under government ownership of forests.
Governments cut down trees themselves. But more importantly, they caved under pressures from timber companies to allow logging, failed to enforce their own regulations to reduce deforestation, and often encouraged clearing of forests for agricultural development.
Worried about deforestation, international donors spent billions of dollars in the 1980s in an attempt to increase forest cover.
In many countries, there have been incipient efforts to decentralise control, with donors and local communities demanding a greater say for forest-dependent peoples in what happens to forests.
Despite massive investments, forests continue to be lost because of a combination of high demand for wood products in the West and in emerging economies, imperfect decentralisation, ongoing disenfranchisement of local communities, and corrupt enforcement.
Today, the critical importance of forests - this time in the context of global climate change - is being recognised again.
Forests stores more than twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. If they disappear, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will easily cross 1,000 parts per million. Long before that, dangerous climate change will become unstoppable.
Governments and non-governmental actors alike recognise the dangers.
At the recent Copenhagen climate negotiations, one of the key accomplishments was to set aside substantial funds towards Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+).
(The "+" signifies that in addition to reducing emissions, REDD+ projects should also strive to protect biodiversity and local livelihoods.)
Six developed world nations pledged $4.5bn to developing country governments to build their capacity to reduce deforestation and increase the carbon stored in tropical forests.
Before the commitments at Copenhagen, the World Bank and the United Nations had already launched other forest carbon schemes, although on a smaller scale. The World Bank started its Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) three years ago.
UN-REDD is a similar effort, with pilot projects in developing countries to demonstrate that carbon sequestration in forests is possible.
In comparison to the $40bn global trade in forest products, the sums allocated for REDD are small.
But they are very substantial in comparison to the budgets of forest departments in developing countries.
Of course, the greater hope is that a global carbon market will emerge in the next five to 10 years, and today's initiatives will jumpstart massive private sector involvement in forest carbon trade.
The question is whether the planned REDD+ projects and investments will indeed encourage major changes in how governments have managed tropical forests.
Current attempts to involve governments in forest carbon storage suffer from many flaws - problems that should not be swept under the carpet.
One major problem is that most of the emphasis in REDD+ capacity-building projects is on increasing national government capacity.
There is little attention to the interests of local populations, poorer communities, and indigenous peoples.
The funding for implementing REDD+ projects will flow to government departments, to reward demonstrated improvements in forest carbon storage. It will support training and capacity development of civil servants, and help build monitoring systems managed by national governments.
There is little attention to strengthen the capacity of the real forest stakeholders - poor, local communities that depend on and use these forests.
The emphasis on carbon storage means that government departments will feel free to ignore the needs of local populations once again. To be counted as successful, they will assume ownership of carbon in forests and exclude local communities and poor forest-dependent peoples.
A hundred years of historical experience with centralised forest ownership shows that governments may be unable to enforce forest regulations against powerful corporate interests; but they are certainly able to exclude less powerful, poor, forest peoples.
It will be a shame if the international community, in the rush to protect carbon storage, encourages projects and policies that hurt poorer and marginal peoples.
The inequalities that have characterised forest policies for more than 100 years are ready to be encouraged once again through forest carbon management.
Climate change is a danger that has been created by the actions of rich, profligate consumers the world over. It will visit its worst effects on those who are most vulnerable, those who generate the least emissions.
The greatest irony of Copenhagen will be that it may have supported policies that will further exacerbate the unequal impacts of climate change.
To guard against such perverse outcomes, governments must involve local communities and indigenous populations in the design and implementation REDD+ projects and policies.
International donors should support institutional mechanisms to ensure that the greater share of REDD+ related international funding flows reach local communities.
And local communities and indigenous peoples themselves will need to mobilise and articulate clearly the benefits of inclusion and risks to carbon sequestration in tropical forests if people are excluded from REDD+.
Arun Agrawal is associate professor of natural resources and environment at the University of Michigan, US
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
Do you agree with Arun Agrawal? Do attempts to reward forest carbon storage risk leaving people out of the equation? Are governments doing enough to protect their forests? Do forest communities need to reclaim power over their lands?
Excellent work Arun. The culture and livelihood of the indigenous community must be respected with deep faith. On the contrary, all over the world it is being destroyed and stormed by the commercial urban culture. To some extent, the commercial culture is alright, but the manner it is expanding and occupying the precious land areas by destroying the forests and indigenous cultures is really alarming. People from the rural background are being migrated to urban areas in search of jobs but they hardly get good jobs due to lack of so called 'modern education' and urban skills. Their young generation is going closer to urban culture which is not at all nature friendly. We need restriction on deforestation and promotion of aforestation and reforestation through sound legislation. The efforts of REDD+ which help the forest to rebound must be enhanced. Very effective and prompt mechanism is needed to resist and transform the loggers, miners and politicians who have had their way with the forest land for many years. We require radical changes in the modern day education in order to create nature friendly mindsets, free from any complexes.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India
The forests were never 'owned' by anybody. That's quite different than saying they were owned by the "people". Just look at the history of the enclosure movements to see that the legal concept of ownership (collective or otherwise) was a step in the direction of facilitating a faster transition into marketised and private ownership of such "common" resources.
I agree with steven. The reality of the situation is extremely depressing. Corporations and money always win out, and the indigenous people have no chance of permanently retaining their cultures in this day and age. None of the measures that will be taken are going to be drastic enough to be effective until its too late. Moderation is not the key when it comes to the environmental measures that need to be taken. Our consumption, and corporate greed is going to bring the earth to its knees before its all over.
Cami Logan, Columbia
I don't know if Arun was trying to explain this very simply (it is highly complicated), but he didn't do a great job of it. I work with Indigenous Peoples (IP) at the international level (UNFCCC, FIP, FCPF, and UNREDD). I can ensure you that they are making progress on ensuring their rights are included in the final agreement. Now, having that language there doesn't guarantee IP rights actually being implemented at the national, provincial, community, etc... levels. Interestingly, if one actually follows the FCPF, FIP, and UNREDD discussions (texts, design documents, initiatives), there is a hyper focus on IP rights in regard to ensuring their participation in the national level REDD planning process. If you look at the UNREDD program specifically, IP representatives have voice and vote privileges to block any national level program financing and a national level IP representative has to sign off on the proposal before being submitted the advisory committee for proposal. This was already used to block Panama's proposal once. FCPF and FIP advisory committees are different (only voice, no vote), but at the least they are sitting at the table. Within the FIP, the IPs are actually designing their own financing mechanism (read themselves designing it and will manage it). Look at the delay caused by trying to get the IP issues right just for a $200k in REDD preparation financing for Guiana by the FCPF. Yes, many IPs are against REDD. If they don't like it, no one is forcing them to participate. However, many IPs like the potential of REDD if executed properly. They see it as a way to help them actually get the rights Arun is worried about being trampled, be compensated for the work they were already doing (conserving the forest), and use the financing to develop their communities in the form they want. As with anything, there is always the chance of things going bad and I'm sure there will be examples. We wish there was as much thought going into thinking about how it could go bad as to what is needed to make it work. Cheers
Meyer, Washington DC
I'm pleased that this part of your web site is called the Green Room. My dictionary defines "green" as relating to the immature and unsophisticated, and the relationship to the content of these webpages is very obvious. Above we're told "Climate change is a danger that has been created by the actions of rich, profligate consumers the world over." First, climate is always changing, so why can't the associate professor be more precise? Second, no-one has produced a shred of credible evidence that human activity has a significant influence on climate. The politically driven IPCC certainly didn't, nor has any other organisation, ergo, carbon sequestration is futile and expensive nonsense. REDD should be killed stone dead.
John McLean, Melbourne, Australia
Very interesting I would like to add a few paragraphs of condensed data. Tropical forests are in danger due a several reasons and the most dangerous one is the Climate Change. Lesser rains will dry up the soil and plants and create favourable scenarios for fire - which is usually pointed as a human intervention. Large pieces of what is considered "Tropical Forest" is already secondary forest which is lesser stable than the fragile cycle of a primary forest. Not much has been said about the illegal miners and logging. More resources to the countries with vast areas of forest would help to set up a better control about those illegal operations. A complete Ban of the first quality wood also would reduce dramatically the invasion of the forest. The forest people. Brazil has allocated 1.069.424 square kilometres for a population of 512 thousand people. - Of course spread all around the country. To be used as a reference, UK has 244.820 square kilometres. We are talking about 3 times England and the equivalent of population found in Liverpool. According to the Brazilian laws, any native does not need to respond under Brazilian law... therefore many of the reserves are selling their area for loggers and Brazilian government can do nothing. There are a marginal people living in the skirts of the forest, brought by illegal gold explorers and loggers, which stay because there is nowhere else to go. Those people are not the main responsible for the forests and draconian rules are not the correct approach. Easier to improve the environment through other techniques, right investment and tight foreign trade rules for Wood. It is indeed a lost battle - as has been said above - between government and powerful corporations.
Carlos Frohlich, London
What of a forest people who have lost their home through no fault of their own and of internal refugees in nations where people have been pushed from their native homes by mineral and forest product extraction. The long report 'Seeing Redd' highlighted the need to include peoples' rights in efforts to keep forests standing and cultures alive but the thing missing, the main point in my view was the fundamental difference between the way native peoples often originally thought about their land and their relationship with it and the overwhelming sense of having to put a monetary value on everything with the spread of 'civilization'. The ability to live within our means was lost with the spread of the very substance which is the liquidity blood coursing through the out-of-control corporate world of mankind today. When a mountain is laid waste a tree has fallen; when an oil slick spreads and a wetland suffers a tree has fallen; tree of ages lies with fossil carbon frozen waiting to see what mankind will do.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA
The total forest coverage accounts to about 40% in Nepal where the government has been able to meet the demand of rural communities through Community Forestry practices. Nepal is considered pioneer in CFs and there are a number of case studies where CFs also helps in socio-economic upliftment of the users. REDD projects are new to Nepal and it is important that such projects should aim in providing alternative livelihood options and clearner energy packages to the rural communities to claim their carbon credits and they do have rights over their CFs.
Shalu adhikari, Kathmandu, Nepal
For a start tie the funding to the requirement that project proposals are put to an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment by professionals. The results of the ESIA inform the stakeholders and the decision makers on how to avoid the pitfalls mentioned and to optimize the positive outcomes.
Patrick Duffy, North Vancouver, Canada
Shouldn't we as 'Western' countries be more focussing on being less reliant on wood imports? This will then infact stop the trade demand for timber from tropical regions. Shouldnt Britain be planting MANY more trees seeing as it is at around %12 tree cover when at one time it was up in the 90's. While 'REDD' countries still have lots of their forest remaining. Planting in Britain will also help to mitigate climate change and allow for ecosystems more chance of adapting to climate change because it will happen. It seems a much simpler option than going through ALL the massive complexities of REDD. I disagree with some comments about REDD not taking into account indigenous people, if you look at UN-REDD the departments involed know a whole lot about the important of forest dwelling communities and their rights. Its a tricky one! Britain needs firstly to become more self-sufficient and the west before it tells what other countries must do!!
John , Cumbria
Arun Agrawall draws a very simplistic historical view of forest management. Most of those poor forest communities have had little impact in the forest because they have historically lacked of the tools to do it. It is not only public management that brings deforestation, it is also the development of machinery (chain saws and trucks are the best examples) and of new markets during the 20th century (such as the American dream of having a full wooden 3 story house for each single family) that has increased the rate of deforestation. Poor forest comunities don't preserve the forest for ethical or management reasns. They just cannot eliminate the forest because the lack of the techinical and economical means to do so.
John, Vancouver, Canada
Sadly yes; it's becoming one big machine, and the people who used to live there will become another extinct bit of bio-diversity By trying to "engage with the Markets" - mouthing the fawning, drivel of "carbon markets" and "carbon trading" we are simply encouraging more of the same shovelling that dug us into this hole; - call it a "market" and the guys in suits will expect it to "grow" - they will expect more returns, more volume, more sales . . . More more more . . . And it was that relentless expectation of more more more that caused us to cut down all the trees in the first place !? Until we get our heads around the concept of "wilderness"; that there is stuff we leave to do it's own thing because it keeps us alive and healthy; until we include that in our plans; we will perish. Did the tree's agree to help bail us out of a mess of our own making ? Where did we fit into the tree's agenda for their lives on Planet Earth ? - at some point in the proceedings, every last tree will become a product, with a metal bar code nailed into it's trunk, and "owned" in a glass fronted building full of computer screens. . . . not much chance of the "illiterate native squatters" being allowed access to that. The whole world will die because the people who understood how it lived; will not be invited to the shareholders meeting. Ho Hum Steven
Steven Walker, Penzance