Struggles of Deforestation in Latin America: Does Protecting Your Forest Mean Remaining Poor?

From August 31 to September 3, the National Forestry Commission of Mexico and the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment held an international conference in Oaxaca, Mexico, in preparation for the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) in 2011. The focus of the workshops was on forest governance, management, and finance, with a particular emphasis on implementating the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) mechanism and the rights of communities relating to REDD+.

REDD+ measures seek to create financial incentives for developing countries to decrease their emissions from forests while at the same time alleviating poverty. However, skeptics worry that more centralized forest governance will infringe on the rights of local communities to manage their own forest resources.

Aftermath of Deforestation

All of Latin America shares similar struggles when it comes to deforestation. In most of these countries, growing populations and economies are putting a strain on limited environmental resources, including forests. In Mexico, as a result, less than 10 percent of the original tropical forest is left.

The benefits of REDD+, such as sustaining forest ecosystems and providing greater motivation to reduce climate change, seem obvious. So why is it taking so long to implement these practices? One answer raised at the conference was the difficulty in finding balance between preventing social and ecological harm and being as cost-effective as possible. It is nearly impossible to share the costs and benefits of REDD+ equally, whether internationally, nationally, or locally.

One recommendation that came out of the conference was to strengthen national and local efforts to form and implement “fiscal policy reforms related to forests, and create participatory financial mechanisms that support REDD+ transfer payments to strengthen national and local capacities.”  However, one sticking point with financial incentives is the long-term availability of REDD+ funds. The future of sustainability is not cheap, so REDD+ must prepare for future outliers such as a continually increasing population.

The process of framework, discussion, and implementation of potential policy reforms takes time, and communities are being asked to forgo revenue-generating activities now. So the problem is not the lack of money, but rather the pressure in spending it quickly enough to show immediate results (emissions reductions, reduced deforestation, revenue generation) so that local communities will believe REDD+ is necessary for their future.

Some Latin American countries are more dependent on their forests than others. Guidelines would need to be implemented so that a balance of monetary investments is achieved between countries with high versus low deforestation levels, while also accounting for differing degrees of forest dependence and capabilities to address forest loss. Highly deforested areas are often wealthier, in some cases from the cultivation of agricultural products, while areas that have retained many of their forests have important environmental benefits but are often impoverished.

The goal of the conference was to identify best practices and policies for sustainable forest management while addressing the multiple implications of governance. However, the concern that REDD+ centralization could disenfranchise rural communities should be taken seriously, because these communities can undermine any REDD+ proposal. Hopefully the issues raised in Oaxaca will be addressed when the world convenes for the UNFF and International Year of Forests in 2011.

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