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The world’s tropical forests should not fit in your grandmother’s attic

Sebangau National Park in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Credit: Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR
Sebangau National Park in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Credit: Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

In Indonesia, forest fires have spiraled out of control throughout much of the country. These fires were started as a way to clear the forests and peat swamps and replace them with palm oil plantations and other agricultural development, but have spread far and wide because of abnormally dry conditions over the past few months. These fires have produced more carbon dioxide over the past few months than Germany or Japan does in a year.

Tropical forests are a key component to any climate change solutions; standing forests help mitigate emissions and climate impacts, while the act of deforestation and the forest fires that deforestation sometimes spawns is one of the more polluting activities that mankind has produced.

Even as the fires in Indonesia continue to rage, international acceptance of a proven solution has yet to penetrate the dense text of the draft international treaty that the United Nations is trying to coordinate. This is a diplomatic process, concluding in December, which argues out almost every word in a 55-page document. And the placement of an issue in the treaty—if it is discussed in the front, middle or back of the document—makes the difference between whether the final agreement will address the issue, or just pay lip service to it.

“If your issue gets stuck in a preambular paragraph,” said Charles Barber of the World Resources Institute, referring to the preamble or introduction of the treaty, “it’s like sticking it in your grandmother’s attic; it’s going to get dusty and forgotten.”

Barber, talking at a conference on forests, governance and climate change earlier this week, was referring to a specific issue—the role of indigenous peoples and local communities in halting deforestation. Study after study has shown that securing the rights of indigenous communities to their lands was the best way to maintain the forests on those lands, better even than fencing off the forests and declaring the place to be a protected area. Fences fail, but people with strong, protected rights don’t.

The last scheduled negotiations in the lead-up to Paris took place in Bonn, Germany last week, and indigenous rights found no further traction. The preamble is the only place in the treaty where indigenous rights are expected to appear. This is the “grandmother’s attic” that Barber was referring to. Indigenous rights could possibly be mentioned in two paragraphs found in the middle of the treaty, but this placement has yet to be confirmed.

“Having a discussion of indigenous issues in the Paris agreement is essential,” said Niranjali Amerasinghe of the Center for International Environmental Law. “But the language isn’t the be-all, end-all though. How it is carried forth is also important.”

Overall, an estimated 46-58 thousand square miles of forest are lost each year. This includes land cleared of trees for timber production, mining operations, large-scale agricultural plantations, or other natural resource extractions.

Stopping deforestation has not been an easy task, however. Acknowledging the value that many find in cleared, empty land—regardless of the carbon dioxide released in clearing that land—new international programs are being created to place a value on the carbon that the forests contain, provided they are left standing. That value could then be traded in a “carbon market,” much like any other forest commodity, like palm oil or timber.

This approach leaves a host of thorny question though. Who receives the proceeds from keeping the trees standing? The national governments, or the people who live in the forests? If the indigenous don’t have ownership rights to their land, can they still take responsibility for managing the forests? And does that allow them to profit from the carbon in the trees, or do they need carbon rights?

“We often confuse markets with incentives,” Amerasinghe pointed out. “But should you rely on a market to create incentives for better land management?”

Ultimately, indigenous peoples and local communities need clear ownership rights to their lands, the trees on the land, the carbon in the trees, and any other commodity that can be extracted. And no market solution or treaty is insisting on this guarantee. Not yet at least.

As preparations begin in earnest for the UN conference in Paris in December, everyone needs to keep their eye on grandma’s attic. Indigenous rights need to be taken out of the attic and included as a solution to climate change in the final treaty. Otherwise, we may as well fit what’s left of the world’s tropical forests in that attic as well.