More on REDD

9 Jan

So my question of the day is: would it be easier to convince a whole lot of small-scale farmers to conserve land and plant soil-enhancing and bio-fuel-producing trees around organically fertilized crops? Or to persuade wealthy ranchers to stop burning forests in return for a chunk of cash.

The question brings me back more than 20 years, to a conversation I had with a lawyer in Acre shortly after the murder of Chico Mendes. Don’t ask me to remember the lawyer’s name, but the gist of the conversation I remember quite well. He was telling me about one of Chico’s last journeys, to talk to rubber tappers in northern Acre about tenure rights, unionizing and the idea of setting up extractive reserves. This lawyer had accompanied him and recalled how some of these hardy yet impoverished forest dwellers actually had tears in their eyes as they listened to Chico, because no one had ever told them before that they had rights. For the ranchers, rubber dealers and shop keepers living in the nearest towns, they were little better than animals, ragged, ignorant throwbacks to a more primitive age. 

In other parts of the Amazon during my travels of the late 80s, I also met scores of newly arrived peasant farmers who were continually threatened by big landowners and their armed thugs. While both cleared forest, the ranchers had both the means and the incentive to strip far more forest, and to do so more drastically. Talk about rights – in their case, a combination of finance and violence made them sure they could do as they liked.

Now the UN climate experts think they can deal with not only ranchers and pulp-and-paper producers in Latin America, but palm oil corporations in southeast Asia, where that sector is worth $15 billion annually in Indonesia alone. (See: Seeing REDD)  They may have nothing against dealing with the small fry, but that requires a major shift in thinking, long term relationships, education and technical support. For many of them, no doubt, it is easier to deal with a smaller number of economic elites than huge numbers of the disenfranchised.

Yet just as those rubber tappers for whom the notion of rights opened the door to an entirely different way of understanding their circumstances, slash-and-burn subsistence farmers would also respond, I believe, to support for much better and more diversified agricultural practices. After all, it would bring huge improvements to their lives. While more money for a large company or landowner may be an inducement, it’s one they would most likely seek to leverage. And they could do that by either selling it as a credit on the carbon exchange to polluters, or even worse, cut down forest to plant monocultures.

Bernd Heinrich, emeritus professor at the University of Vermont, and author of the forthcoming book, Nesting Season, recently wrote an op-ed piece in the NYT that explained the problem with REDD in a knowledgeable way. He made it crystal clear that planting monocultures is not at all the same as preserving forest. And for me, that means extending right of tenure and technical support – and the U.N. money itself – to the people.


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