in Brazil

Interview with Winnie Overbeek, World Rainforest Movement: “REDD is not only a false solution to climate change, REDD also represents a severe threat for communities that depend on forests”

Interview with Winnie Overbeek, International Coordinator of the World Rainforest Movement. The interview was conducted by email in August 2015.

REDD-Monitor: Please describe WRM and its work with social movements in Brazil and worldwide.

Winnie Overbeek: The World Rainforest Movement (WRM) was set up in 1986 by a group of activists from different countries and continents to facilitate, support and reinforce the struggles against deforestation and land grabbing in countries with forests.

WRM aims to expose how international initiatives and policies led by governments, FAO, World Bank, and others, presented as solutions to halt or reverse deforestation have been failing both to conserve forests as well as to attend the demands of forest-dependent peoples and communities, because they fail to address direct and underlying drivers of deforestation. In such international initiatives communities who depend on forests, besides not being involved in the formulation of these initiatives, are often wrongly blamed to be those who are most responsible for deforestation.

WRM carries out its activities through an international secretariat team that interacts with hundreds of community organizations, social movements, NGOs and indigenous peoples organizations in countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In Brazil we have been interacting with several social movements representing women, peasants, indigenous and forest peoples.

REDD-Monitor: What is WRM’s position on REDD? What is WRM’s analysis of how the REDD mechanism is developing internationally through the UNFCCC, and in Brazil through a series of actors including the government (at federal and state levels), conservation NGOs, and corporations.

Winnie OverbeekWinnie Overbeek: REDD is not only a false solution to climate change, REDD also represents a severe threat for communities that depend on forests. This is what we have learned from communities affected by REDD+ projects that we could visit and/or whom we have talked with over the years. Based on these experiences from around the world, we produced a booklet called “10 things communities should know about REDD”.

One of our activities has been supporting several of these communities in their struggles to defend their territories and the forest against REDD projects and the proponents behind these projects.

Earlier this year, WRM also published a report that summarizes conclusions from the documentation available on 24 REDD initiatives around the world. Those examples include not only individual projects but also jurisdictional-level initiatives such as the UN-REDD programme in Nigeria. The report’s title summarizes our findings: “REDD: a collection of conflicts, contradictions and lies”.

Through the UNFCCC, about 10 years of discussions on how to make REDD work have been unable to solve basic structural problems of the REDD mechanism. For example, how can one calculate how much carbon a certain area of forest stores, now and in future, with and without a project?

In addition, and very unfortunately, the years of time and energy spent on discussing REDD at the UNFCCC have come at the expense of governments focusing their time and energy on the crucial discussions about how to come to real solutions to address climate change, in other words, how to face the roots of the problem: extraction of oil, coal and natural gas and an economic model that depends on destruction of cultures, biodiversity and peoples’ way of life.

In Brazil, REDD has been promoted by a diverse range of actors. Individual projects have been launched and supported by ‘carbon cowboys’ such as the case of the Mundukuru project, and also by transnational corporations together with international  conservation NGOs, such is the case of the Guaraqueçaba project in Paraná.

There are also initiatives supported or initiated by international conservation groups and by state governments in the Amazon forest region.

The government of Acre has been particularly active and some years ago adopted probably one of the most detailed laws worldwide aiming to set up a system to incentivize so-called environmental services, including forest carbon. The fact that the first version of this law was written in English, and only then translated for the parliamentarians to approve it, shows clearly that REDD in Brazil, as in other places, is being pushed in a top-down way.

International interest groups in particular promote such initiatives that are received well by governments in the hope that they can get loads of money.

However, from our field visits and talks with local communities, we have learned that forest conservation with an active REDD policy is far from guaranteed. Timber extraction now called ‘sustainable’ continues with increasing figures of wood extraction, and there are even plans in Acre to start oil extraction in the forest.

The so-called ‘green economy’ is therefore far from ‘green’ and rather meant as a smokescreen for the continuation of a polluting, destructive and dominant development model. For example, the Acre-California-Chiapas ‘governor’s agreement’ on REDD included the idea that the very polluting heavy industry in California could offset part of its greenhouse gas emissions through buying forest carbon credits from Acre (see more about this agreement here).

REDD-Monitor: What is WRM’s position on REDD as a carbon trading mechanism? Does WRM consider putting a price on carbon to be an important part of addressing climate change?

Winnie Overbeek: The immense value and importance of forests has been recognized for a long time, in particular by those for whom forests provide a livelihood and home.

It remains entirely unclear how putting a price on forests, or the carbon stored in forests would address the profoundly unequal power relations that determine the fate of forests – and which more often than not ignore those who have protected the forest against those who see profit in destroying the forest to sell those parts of the forest that have already been made visible to capital: land, timber and other “natural resources”.

Putting a price on these in past rounds of economic valuation of nature has not saved the forest from destruction or respect for forest peoples’ rights. The same would happen once again if another asset is created out of the multitude and diversity of human and non-human relations that create and shape a forest.

On the other hand, putting a price on carbon is fundamental to creating carbon markets. Putting a price on carbon is the logical conclusion if climate change is seen only as a quantitative problem – too much carbon dioxide in the wrong place – rather than a structural problem caused by unequal power and the destructive economic model that relies on such inequality.

The solutions that are proposed are dependent on how the problem of climate change is understood – is framed – in the first place. And reducing it to merely a quantitative problem that can then be solved by addressing the market failure that in this explanation has caused climate change, i.e. by putting a price on carbon, has led to false solutions like carbon trading. They change things quickly so nothing has to change.

To those however, who understand climate change as the symptom of a development model that requires growth to survive and who call for ‘system change, not climate change’, putting a price on carbon is a solution that will in the end be worse than the problem.

For quite some time, WRM has analyzed and joined efforts with other groups to show that carbon markets, including forest carbon markets, are such a false solution to the climate crisis, and that they will increase, not reduce overall emissions. Carbon markets have become a distraction from the need for real measures to address the primary root cause of climate change: the extraction of oil, coal and natural gas.

Besides, transforming a forest into units of tradeable carbon that can be bought and sold on markets for carbon credits represents the introduction of a new sort of property rights over forest areas. Buyers of the carbon credit want to be sure that the ‘product’ or ‘service’ they buy – carbon stored in a forest somewhere – is and continues to be there for the period of time that the carbon they emitted interferes with the climate.

Therefore REDD as a carbon market mechanism increases the control of financial actors and their profit-maximizing logic over tropical forest areas. This undermines the rights and the control of forest and forest-dependent peoples over their territories and the forest they depend on: Carbon contracts almost always guarantee the owner of the carbon credit unrestricted access to the territory on which the carbon is stored and these contracts also determine how the land that provides the carbon credit can or cannot be used.

This in turn restricts traditional practises of forest use for communities depending on such practises for their livelihoods. They thus lose the right to use the forest in the ways that provided their livelihood while at the same time the promises from REDD project proponents about employment and alternative income generating options generally tend to turn out to be empty promises, forgotten once the contract is signed.

REDD-Monitor: If REDD were not funded by carbon trading do you think it could be successful?

Winnie Overbeek: No, because Northern Governments interested in funding any sort of REDD initiative have declared that they will only do this if it is result-based. It means the projects would still bear characteristics that have been proven harmful for forest-dependent communities.

The main interest of keeping the forest standing continues to be the carbon stored in the trees; this remains unchanged. It means that one of the main problems for communities in REDD project areas also continues to exist: unequal power relations, lack of respect for their territorial rights and consequently, restrictions to their access to forest areas and prohibition of certain activities such as agriculture in the forest. The latter in spite of community’s experience and knowledge of an agriculture practiced for generations in the forests that benefits the forest, rather than harming it.

For example, the model programme of the German government through the German development bank KfW in Acre is not selling carbon credits but the payments are ‘results-based’. Like carbon offset projects, this initiative also targets those least responsible for climate change and deforestation. And they still do not address the large-scale drivers of deforestation, because they continue being promoted under a logic that a price on carbon will halt deforestation.

That assumption is based on the false analysis that climate change is primarily a quantitative problem and such pricing has been shown to be wrong many times before: the oil shock in the 1970s, for example, did not lead to the end of oil consumption.

Additionally, existing REDD programs like the one in Acre or the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility’s Carbon Fund that are performance-based are proposing or paying prices for carbon that are so low that there is no disincentive to end the large-scale, highly profitable deforestation.

A ‘results-based’ mechanism would also change the nature of future initiatives that will receive funding. Entering into results-based projects means those participating in the project will need enough access to funding to pre-finance the activities that are expected to lead to the required ‘results’. Activities that can show quick ‘results’ at low up-front cost will be preferable for such results-based REDD, but they are the opposite of what is needed to tackle the structural causes of deforestation.

What happens if the results take longer to show or the funder finds them not adequate?

It therefore remains much more of a mechanism based on (carbon) market principles rather than a step towards a new way of development funding and/or recognizing the huge climate and development debt that the global North owes the global South.

REDD-Monitor: On the WRM website, REDD is filed under the category “Mercantilization of Nature”. Please explain what you mean by this term and how REDD is a part of this process.

Winnie Overbeek: What we mean by mercantilization of nature is the growing process of commodifying all aspects of life, including tropical forests, by market forces.

In the case of REDD it has been designed by its main proponents to function as a market and offset mechanism. The main problem then is that you create not just one more commodity or service for sale out of something that had no such exchange value before and was not available for sale, but the ‘carbon’ being sold is also very different from other goods and services traded on markets.

What you concretely have is just a paper document, that suggests that you have a ‘product’ or service, a certain quantity of carbon which is stored in some specific forest area, in some tropical forest country – and that this carbon is still stored in a forest only because of the REDD activity. Although this sort of trade in paper documents is not new – it happens with many agricultural commodities for instance – what is new is that you trade something created by comparing a projection of future emissions without the REDD project with the actual emissions when the REDD project is implemented.

Carbon credits are therefore a product created from a very hypothetical story of what would have happened compared with what the project thinks will happen once its REDD project is implemented. Such a hypothetical basis for calculating the volume of the product to be traded is an incentive for speculation. In addition, the REDD credit allows polluters that buy the credit to exceed legal or moral limits elsewhere.

The trade in such credits has meant the creation of a new property right: the right to emit more than a law or social norm allows and to control the land use in the place that has sold the carbon to compensate for the emission. This combination of rights associated with carbon credits is almost always in violation of community rights over such forest areas.

Another crazy and very perverse thing is that actually REDD and the mercantilization process of other ecosystem services such as biodiversity offsets only can function and further grow if destruction and/or pollution takes place. Without continued pollution or destruction there is nothing to compensate for. So REDD credits from carbon storage in a forest area in the Amazon can only be traded if there are carbon emissions beyond a certain limit that need to be compensated for, for example in an oil refinery in the USA.

It is often argued that this pollution in the USA would happen anyway, and that offsetting is better than nothing because the carbon emitted by the refinery is the same CO2 that a forest can absorb elsewhere. But this argument is wrong, because from a climate perspective there is a fundamental difference between the carbon released from burning fossil fuels and the carbon in the forest.

Carbon emitted through deforestation is part of the natural cycle of carbon that is released and absorbed by plants, and has been circulating for millions of years. On the other hand, the carbon that is released when oil, gas or coal is extracted and burned was stored underground for millions of years, and when it is released, it increases the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

Although plants can absorb part of this, they do so only temporarily, and when the plant dies or if there is a forest fire, the carbon will return to the atmosphere. This will make the climate crisis worse rather than helping to solve it.

Furthermore, in the USA, this mechanism will especially affect the local communities living next to the polluting industries. Of course these communities are generally not the better-off in society.

That is why REDD has been associated by indigenous and other groups in the North as a new sort of environmental racism, and in the South of CO(2)lonialism.

Another perverse aspect of REDD is that the populations affected by the REDD mechanism are not responsible for creating the climate crisis in the first place, but they end up having a central place in this supposed “solution”.

REDD-Monitor: REDD proponents often claim that REDD is a way of ensuring respect for indigenous peoples’ rights, particularly land rights. What is WRM’s experience of the impact of REDD on indigenous peoples’ rights in Brazil? Will REDD safeguards, such as free, prior and informed consent, help to address the dangers of REDD?

Winnie Overbeek: Brazil is maybe a particular case in the sense that it is one of the few countries where the Constitution declares that Indigenous Peoples have the rights over the lands traditionally occupied by them, and they have the right to use them according to their customs, practices, beliefs, etc.

The fact that REDD offset initiatives require a new form of property right has therefore in Brazil raised serious concerns among authorities like the Federal Public Prosecution Service. The concern is that these new property rights represent a violation of the constitutional rights of indigenous peoples when REDD projects are implemented on their territories.

What we have learned in practice from communities in the Amazon affected by REDD is that Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is not applied; leaders of organizations involved with REDD told us they have no idea of what REDD actually is because they are only informed about the potential benefits of the project.

But FPIC done seriously, in Brazil and elsewhere, should include informing communities about all the relevant aspects that are part of the REDD mechanism, including the continuation or increase in carbon emissions elsewhere, the long duration of the contracts associated with such projects, the fact that contract obligations will last much longer than REDD payments, and the fact that the buyer acquires the right to determine the land use in the forest even where they do not buy or rent the forest.

In addition, communities affected by the increase of carbon emissions elsewhere through a REDD project should also be heard, if FPIC is taken seriously. And that never ever happens, as far as we know.

Even for communities that receive information and are directly affected or even involved in the project, experience has shown that in practice, the information they receive is very selective and one-sided. They are informed only about the supposed benefits which then most often are not fulfilled for the whole of the community – see the recent case of the Suruí. At the same time they still have no idea of what REDD is, because particularly that information is filtered by the project proponents, so that REDD becomes a ‘nice story’.

When we challenge project proponents about their partial presentation of what REDD involves, they say that giving the whole picture of REDD is not necessary or is ‘too complicated’ for communities to understand. However, there seems nothing complicated in explaining in simple terms that the money – if it reaches the community – is a payment that obliges the community to restrict their land use so someone else can polluting more than the law or a social norm allows.

REDD-Monitor: Brazil’s Congress is considering a constitutional change (PEC 215) that would transfer the power to demarcate indigenous peoples’ land from FUNAI (Brazil’s indigenous affairs department) to Congress. What do you see as the implications of PEC 215 for indigenous rights and for the future of REDD in Brazil?

Winnie Overbeek: PEC 215 is probably the most serious threat to indigenous land rights since these rights were guaranteed in Brazilian legislation through two specific articles inside the Federal Constitution in force now and adopted in 1988. These two articles are still considered by the indigenous peoples’ movement in Brazil as an important victory of their mobilization at that time. These two articles provide a fundamental legal guarantee for their struggle for land demarcation.

Now, we face the problem in Brazil that the majority of the National Congress is opposed to indigenous peoples and questions their constitutionally guaranteed rights.

The intention of the PEC 215 is that the National Congress would have the power to decide on any land demarcation for indigenous peoples instead of the government. And this would be a disaster for indigenous peoples because it would hand over the decisions over land demarcation to an institution that fails to recognize the constitutionally guaranteed rights of indigenous peoples in Brazil.

Even worse, the PEC also proposes to give the right to National Congress to review already existing land demarcations. Most of the parliamentarians behind PEC 215 consider these already existing demarcations as “excessive”. So adopting this PEC 215 would allow much more large-scale destructive projects to legally invade indigenous lands that have been proven to be the lands where the forests are much less under threat than in areas outside indigenous lands.

As destruction goes hand-in-hand with REDD, it is probable that adopting PEC 215 will also increase the number of REDD and other offset projects, as well as the deforestation rate. The same results that can be expected from the implementation of the revised Forest Code from 2012.

REDD-Monitor: What is your opinion of the Rio de Janeiro Green Exchange (BVRio)? Does WRM see BVRio as a step in the right direction, or an excuse for further forest destruction?

Winnie Overbeek: The creator and director of BVRio, Pedro Moura Costa, has a longstanding experience with carbon trading as founder of Ecosecurities, a company involved in many carbon offset projects early on in the carbon market. His statement that “The goal is to transform environmental legislation into tradeable instruments,” clearly shows the intention of the BVRio.

In the Brazilian case, the Forest Code was revised in 2012. The new code requires that land owners in the Amazon who previously cut more forest than the law allowed, restore the illegally cut forest or risk losing access to agricultural credit lines. But like the Kyoto Protocol allowed industrialized countries a way out of reducing emissions at home, the new forest code allows Brazilian land owners to buy so-called forest restoration credits (cotas de reserva ambiental – CRAs – in Portuguese) if this is the cheaper option to restoring the illegally cut forest on their own land. These forest restoration credits are offered by land owners who claim to have destroyed less forest than was their legal right.

This change in the law has several perverse incentives. For example, it provides impunity for past illegal deforestation. It also means that those land owners who previously did not destroy as much forest as the law allowed because it was not profitable to do so can now offer this ‘legal right’ to someone whose property is in the area where deforestation is most lucrative.

In this ‘arc of deforestation’, forest previously destroyed illegally will not be restored because the land-owner can just buy a restoration credit from someone elsewhere. It is only a short step to the same mechanism also being applied for future destruction, which would lead to rapid increases in deforestation at the ‘deforestation frontier’.

REDD-Monitor: Deforestation in Brazil has fallen since 2004. This was partly a result of agricultural commodity prices, but it was also the result of a series of NGO campaigns, moratoria, government policies, government monitoring, and enforcement of the law. This happened before REDD started. Brazil’s rate of deforestation is now increasing. Is REDD supporting these earlier measures to reduce deforestation, or is it undermining them?

Winnie Overbeek: Indeed the Brazilian results in reducing deforestation were not because of REDD, but basically a result of the aspects that you mention, especially governmental policies and law enforcement.

But the recently detected increase in deforestation in Brazil goes hand-in-hand with the introduction of the aforementioned new forest code with the “compensation” mechanism included, and also with on-going discussions in Brazil to implement the so-called “Landscape REDD approach”.

The design of these two initiatives is shaped not by forest-dependent peoples but by agribusiness corporations, in other words those who are mainly responsible for forest destruction in the country, and big conservation NGOs. The objective is to find ways to expand agribusiness in a so-called “sustainable” way – an example of the so-called “green economy” – by means of REDD and REDD-inspired compensation mechanisms.

Once again, REDD will not exist if there were no destructive and/or polluting activities to compensate for. And Brazil has a huge number of ongoing and planned destructive projects, not only by the agribusiness sector but also, for example, by mega-hydrodams, oil and gas extraction and mining projects in the Amazon region in particular.

REDD-Monitor: What do you see as the biggest threats to the people and forests of Brazil? And what do you see as the best way of addressing these threats? Is there any role for REDD to play in addressing these threats? Could REDD be reformed, or is it a false solution to climate change and saving the forests?

Winnie Overbeek: The present development model based on sectors as mining, agribusiness, oil and gas extraction, etc., controlled by foreign companies and a Brazilian elite, to attend the needs of a global market, has destroyed not only forests but the livelihoods of millions of people and caused a lot of suffering.

REDD is part of this model, as WRM and many other organisations and social movements have documented in many publications. One such publication exposing these links is a Call to Action launched before the Lima climate conference in 2014. People can still sign-on to this declaration (click here).

Important ways to address this destructive model and the threats it represents is, for example, to demarcate and recognize all indigenous peoples’ and also traditional peoples land in the Amazon and other forested regions in Brazil. Such demarcations have already shown to be a very effective way to halt forest destruction.

Another urgent step is to stop subsidies for the big destructive projects in the Amazon.

The billions of US dollars that are being invested in the Belo Monte hydropower dam could be used, for example for strengthening law enforcement to stop deforestation. It also could help implementing the proposals of the Amazon people to strengthen their local economies and livelihoods.

By doing so, the peoples’ well-being would be much more guaranteed, as well as the conservation of thousands of hectares of Amazon forest now being destroyed by the Belo Monte dam construction (see this video about the tragedy of this dam for the forest and the people that were expelled from the places they always lived. You do not need to speak Portuguese to understand the message….).

Full Disclosure: This post is part of a series of posts and interviews about REDD in Brazil, with funding from Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung e.V. Click here for all of REDD-Monitor’s funding sources.

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  1. Super interview. Definitely eye opening but I suspect it won’t be popular as there is too much truth in it.