A growing number of forestry, conservation and remote sensing experts are questioning the role in the REDD debate being played by the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research Centre (WHRC).
The Centre, which is widely recognised for its high quality research, such as by Dan Nepstad, who has now left the organisation, is a relative newcomer in policy discussions on forestry and climate. But questions have been raised about WHRC’s work in other parts of the world, and about the scientific integrity of some of the organisation’s recent ‘policy’ positions, such as the extent to which industrial logging contributes to forest degradation and climate change.
At the Bali UNFCCC Conference in December last year, Woods Hole launched a series of reports looking at deforestation in each of the major tropical forest regions, and purporting to describe who was responsible for it, and how much it would cost to stop it. The report for the Democratic Republic of Congo concluded, on the basis of analysis of satellite imagery, that the main problem is slash-and-burn farming being carried out by hundreds of thousands of poor subsistence farmers. The document, which has subsequently had the name of the Congolese government appended to its front cover, suggested that this deforestation could be halted by paying such farmers a few hundred dollars each year in ‘compensation’ for their lost agricultural activity.
What is not clear is whether WHRC’s analysis has taken into account that rotational slash-and-burn farming as widely practiced right across the Congo Basin, often takes place on a limited area of often secondary forest that is allowed to regenerate afterwards, and which cultivators return to in later years. During these fallow periods, much of the carbon that has been lost from clearance can be re-absorbed back into vegetation.
So ‘snap shots’ of deforestation at any one moment can give a very misleading picture of where forest is really being lost permanently, and carbon is being released to the atmosphere. An area of forest that might from superficial analysis of low-resolution satellite images appear to be ‘deforested’ in any one year might appear in subsequent years to once again be forested. Some experts believe that it might require analysis of satellite images over a 15-30 year sequence, along with careful ‘ground-truthing’, to be able to distinguish between areas that are being deforested by farmers from those that are part of a broadly sustainable forest-fallow system. Unless the careful distinctions are made, tropical country governments are likely to be encouraged to blame the wrong ‘culprits’.
Whilst the lack of any such analysis does not seem to have deterred WHRC from deciding who is to blame for deforestation in the Congo, it has equally concluded that industrial logging in rainforests should not be blamed for causing carbon emissions.
In an ‘Addendum’ to its reports on deforestation in the Amazon and Congo, Woods Hole claimed in response to the question ‘Does WHRC support the logging of rainforests?’ that “Sustainable forest management for timber production will be an important component of REDD strategies for many tropical countries because of its potential in reconciling economic development with the maintenance of forest carbon stocks.” WHRC also claimed that “For both the Amazon and the Central African forests, the technology for good forest management – called Reduced Impact Logging – is well developed.”
Experts say that the scientific evidence does not support these assertions. There is now an extensive literature showing that industrial logging does not promote economic development, and even the World Bank has been forced to accept that in regions such as the Congo Basin, it probably causes ‘de-development’. As for the climate impacts of logging, research published in Science by Greg Asner has shown that “Selective logging contributes substantially to gross carbon fluxes from the Brazilian Amazon”, accounting for 25% in addition to carbon losses from complete deforestation, or around 100 million tonnes carbon per year. Research in the concession of what is widely described to be the most progressive (and Forest Stewardship Council-certified) ‘reduced impact’ logging concession in the Congo Basin – that of Congolaise Industrielle des Bois, CIB – has found that its operations release around 10 tonnes carbon per hectare, or 37.4 t CO2e/ha. Recent research in Australia has shown that logged forests can have 40%-60% less carbon than the forests in their natural state.
REDD-Monitor has learned that WHRC has refused to answer repeated queries about the apparent difference between the organisation’s claims concerning industrial logging, and the best scientific evidence available in the literature, or about the methodologies used in its remote sensing analysis. Questions are thus starting to be raised about the scientific integrity and motivations behind this work.
As governments, international agencies and donors clamour for more information as the REDD debate hots up, they will increasingly turn to research institutions, consultancies and technical experts for advice. There is a real danger that, in the competition for lucrative consultancy contracts, respectable research institutions will engage in ‘a race to the bottom’ of scientific standards and integrity by ‘saying what they’re paid to say’, ignoring the best empirical evidence or distorting it in order to support specific political agendas.
REDD-Monitor believes that such scientific short-cuts could have catastrophic consequences. We will be closely following the work of scientific advisory bodies in the field of forests and climate, and invite comments on this posting, in particular from WHRC.