Hope for deforestation breakthrough

1 Comment
DeforestationMy interest in ecology stems from my experience of working with the T'boli people in the southern Philippines, from 1980 to 1991. Within a few months of arriving in Lake Sebu, where the T'bolis live, I was convinced that protecting what remained of the tropical forest in the area was vital for the wellbeing of the T'boli and the settlers who lived in the lowlands.

Tropical deforestation has taken a huge toll on the Philippines. When the Spaniards left at the end of the 19th century almost 75 per cent of the tropical forests were still intact. The onslaught began in earnest after World War II. Companies were given permission to clear-cut large tracts of forests. The local tribal peoples were never asked for permission to destroy their habitats, which they had managed for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years. A few people made enormous fortunes, while the majority of the Filipinos and the environment suffer.

Today, less than 10 per cent of the Philippines is covered with tropical forests. Sustainable agriculture in a tropical archipelago like the Philippines demands about 50 per cent forest cover. Without it soil erosion will increase dramatically and expensive irrigation systems will become useless, because the forests will not secrete water slowly into the rivers to sustain the flow during the dry season.

The legacy of that plunder is now evident every time a typhoon causes flooding, massive landslides and terrible loss of life, especially among the poor. Filipinos could have managed our forests in a sustainable way and, in doing so, secured long-term employment for hundreds of thousands of Filipino families.

What happened in the Philippines is mirrored world wide. Between 2000 and 2005 tropical forests disappeared at approximately 10.4 million hectares each year. These forests contain about 70 per cent of the world's biodiversity, and about 60 million people, many of whom are among the poorest on the planet.

A last minute reprieve for tropical forests may emerge in discussions around the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bali. IPCC scientists reckon 20 per cent of greenhouse emissions globally come from forest destruction. So stablising greenhouse gas emissions at safe levels requires significant reduction in the current rate of deforestation.

One initative which is being pursued is REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). REDD has a number of priorities. It aims at preserving forests that contain significant levels of biodiversity, or are important for what are now called 'ecosystems services' — an objectionable term that puts a money value on natural systems including water regulation, flood control and the protection of local species.

If verifiable and credible emission reductions can be generated, the carbon markets could provide some revenue for REDD initiatives. According to Urip Hudiono writing for The Jakarta Post on 30 November, Indonesia could net US$2 billion in potential annual revenues from preserving the country's forests and offering them as a carbon dioxide sink on the global carbon market.

If REDD is to succeed, the financial benefits must be, at least, on a par with the current economic incentives that are driving deforestation at unprecedented rates. During my time in the T'boli hills, I often came across reforestation proposals, from government and other agencies, that completely overlooked the fact that tribal people both lived in the forests and lived off their resources. Any REDD initiative must address the needs of rural forest dwellers and indigenous people.

In my own experience ownership is a crucial issue. When a community owns the land there is a huge incentive to protect it. It is unrealistic to expect people to protect a forest for the benefit of other people, unless they have some level of ownership of the forest.

On a national level, if countries such as the Philippines are expected to promote policies that do not harm climate through deforestation, they will require additional financial support to achieve such goals.

Many of the NGOs here at Bali argue that REDD should have a stand-alone fund, outside bodies such as the World Bank. They are also worried the new money might be diverting from existing aid flows such as a country's Official Development Assistance (ODA) program.

There are complex issues involved in developing REDD, from designing monitoring mechanisms, to choosing the best financial instruments. But this complexity should not stand in the way of an agreement, because it will benefit rich and poor countries alike.

REDD could deliver multiple benefits in the area of climate change, protecting biodiversity and securing a sustainable agricultural base for countries where food security is becoming a major issue.

Sean McDonaghSean McDonagh is a Columban missionary priest who is the author of several books. Originally from North Tipperary, he now resides at Dalgan Park, Navan, Co Meath in Ireland. The above report comes live from the Bali United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.




submit a comment

Existing comments

It's nice to hear from Fr. Sean McDonagh, a passionate environmentalist. I love to read his book The Vanishing Earth, as a kid grown from where he used to work. I missed those days.
Arnito Son | 29 September 2011


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up