in Brazil

Interview with Michael Schmidlehner, Amazonlink: “REDD aims at shifting the responsibility for the climate crisis from industrialized societies to forest communities”

2015-08-20-230613_1121x1022_scrotInterview with Michael Schmidlehner, founder of Amazonlink. The interview was conducted by email in August 2015.

REDD-Monitor: Please describe your work and your role in the organisation

Michael Schmidlehner: I co-founded the organization in 2001 and from then on presided it. The goal was to support and strengthen forest communities in Amazonia through information access and fair-trade. I established contacts with one world stores in Germany for the sale of indigenous handicrafts.

In 2003, when our German partners were interested in commercializing sweets from Cupuacu (theobroma grandiflorum – an endemic Amazonian fruit), we were confronted with the fact that a Japanese company had registered the fruit´s name as its trademark. We understood that this was a severe case of biopiracy and denounced it through the web and press. Together with other organizations we filed a process at the Japanese Patent Office and in 2005 the trademark was cancelled.

The cupuacu-case drew increased public attention in Brazil to the issue of rights over genetic resources and protection of traditional knowledge.

During this time, Marina Silva was Minister of Environment. She was concerned with the implementation of the principles established by the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) and in this context we executed the “Aldeias Vigilantes” (watchful villages) project in Acre, funded by the Brazilian government. The project aimed at empowering indigenous communities by informing them about their rights regarding the protection of their traditional knowledge.

After Aldeias Vigilantes, did not execute any more projects. In 2011, signed the Letter of Acre, a declaration in which we reject, together with thirty other civil society groups, the politics of green capitalism in Acre. Our signature of this document marked a divide with the Acre Government and other government-related NGOs in Acre and caused the retraction of a part of our associates. Since then, a small group of the original members and myself continue campaigning for climate justice and forest people´s rights, mainly in cooperation with CIMI (Indigenist Missionary Counsel).

REDD-Monitor: What is your position on REDD? Please describe your views on the development of a REDD mechanism internationally and in Brazil.

SchmidlehnerMichael Schmidlehner: To a large degree my position on REDD derives from my experience with Aldeias Vigilantes. On the one hand we were confronted by the reality of forest dependent communities in Acre. On the other hand, we had to consider the policies and discourses promoted by big NGOs, companies, governments, development agencies and the UN. I could see how unrealistic and deceitful the idea of “fair and equitable sharing of benefits” – as foreseen by the CBD – was.

The idea that a forest dependent community could benefit in the long run from a bioprospecting project is in the same way utopian as it is from a REDD project. These projects do not stem from a community’s demands, but are imposed on it in a top-down manner. Based on the ideas of commercialization and financialization of biological resources, they are not only incompatible with the relation of these communities to nature, but actually undermine it.

In the international context, REDD aims at shifting the responsibility for the climate crisis from industrialized societies to forest communities, from north to south. REDD (as well as payments for so-called Environmental Services) actually reproduces colonial power relations. Being presented as if it was a solution to the crisis, REDD tends to mask the real problem (which is basically the burning of fossil fuels) as well as preventing societies from recognizing its urgency and the need of addressing the root causes (the excessive production and consumption by wealthy societies).

Brazil holds a special position in CBD and UNFCCC negotiations. Both conventions were created at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and there was always an expectation that the country´s vast biological diversity could boost its development and that Brazil could in some way pioneer a global transition towards sustainability and resource fairness. However, the actual course of events inside the country points in the opposite direction.

In Brazil the implementation of REDD has shown to be part of a continuous large-scale process of shifting control over natural resources away from smallholders and traditional communities and concentrating it in the hands of local oligarchies and multinational corporations. This process builds on old established power structures, which stem from the colonial period, were reinforced during the period of dictatorship and are paradoxically reiterated under the current workers party´s government.

A series of new legal regulations on both state and national level, such as SISA (Acre state law 2308 from 2010), the New Forest Code (Law No. 12,651 of 2012), the new Biodiversity law (Law No. 13.123 of 2015), and PEC 215 (constitutional amendment) create new a legislative framework that accelerates this concentration process.

For the Brazilian financial elite, REDD offers one more opportunity of capital accumulation. Large forest areas with uncertain land tenure – now eligible for REDD projects – are at present under increased threat of land grabbing. While disempowering forest dependent communities, REDD is becoming a rewarding business for the big landowners, speculators and intermediate NGOs.

REDD-Monitor: Although there has not yet been a decision at the UNFCCC about whether REDD will be a carbon trading mechanism, several international organisations and NGOs are promoting a carbon trading version of REDD (e.g. the World Bank, UN-REDD, the Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation International and WWF). What is your position on REDD as a carbon trading mechanism?

Michael Schmidlehner: The basic assumption of these organizations, as put forth by the TEEB study (The Economy of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) is that humans are unable to preserve natural resources, as long as there is no monetary value attached to them. Besides this resigned conception of humankind (as merely driven by a greed-rationale and unable to change), the argument relies on the ill-fated myth of the self-regulating market.

On the level of global finance, history shows us that unrestricted markets tend to produce distorted and unstable situations. The same way speculation on housing loans in the US led to financial disaster in 2008, the trading of carbon, environmental services and derivatives of these is likely to cause a financial bubble.

In real life, more and more REDD projects are proving to be ineffective, socially unjust and in many cases fraudulent.

It is important to understand that these failures are not something that could be fixed by additional measures, like the so-called socio-environmental safeguards. They actually mostly derive from a fundamental contradiction that is intrinsic to market financed environmental projects. On one hand they are based on easily malleable data, hypothetical assumptions and conjectures. On the other hand, they are driven by a very straightforward profit intention.

Let me give you an example. The projects Purus, Valparaiso and Russas in Acre are private REDD-plus projects promoted by the US Company CarbonCO LLC. Project Purus was certified by VCS (Verified Carbon Standard) and by CCBS (Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standard), in this case even with ”Gold Distinction”. It has already issued and sold carbon certificates to events, such as the 2014 soccer World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, allegedly contributing to the carbon-neutrality of the event.

In 2013, the Brazilian Platform of Rights to Education, Social, Cultural and Environmental Human Rights (DHESCA) undertook a mission into the three project areas. The mission revealed severe violations of basic rights of the resident communities (see report here). Some of the residents told that the promoters of the project had given a “secret” incentive for deforestation: “Then he told us that we should clear a lot this year. One who planted two acres [of cassava] should plant four, but we must not tell anyone and that next year everything would be prohibited…”.

The encouragement of deforestation, coming from a promoter of a forest conservation project, at first glance seems paradoxical, but is easily explained by the principle of “additionality”, that generally underlies all REDD-type projects: The proof that emissions were avoided is only possible by comparing the “positive” scenario of the project with a hypothetical “negative” scenario that would have taken place in this area without the project. In this “negative” scenario more emissions would have occurred. By showing the difference between the two scenarios – the so-called additionality of the project – the promoters of the project seek to prove that the project has actually avoided emissions.

Be it the additionality, the carbon counting, the consent of a community: project data are always likely to be biased, manipulated or faked in market-financed REDD projects. The overly complex architecture of REDD projects makes a participatory approach and effective control impossible. In a commercial context this obscurity facilitates all kinds of possibilities for scheming or fraudulent practices.

REDD-Monitor: REDD, of course, is one part of much larger recent developments such as green capitalism and the financialisation of nature. Given this context, do you think that it would be possible to have a “successful” version of REDD that does not involve carbon trading?

Michael Schmidlehner: REDD being financed through a fund (and not the sale of the project´s certificates) would probably be a lesser evil. Projects would be independent from unstable carbon markets and direct interference of corporations in forest dependent communities could be avoided.

At the same time, as long as long as payments are based on results (payment according to the amount of reduced CO2 emissions), non-market REDD will also have severe impacts on forest dependent communities. This so-called results-based approach forces indigenous communities to alter their traditional way of interacting with the forest (actually the way they preserved the forests since time immemorial) and comply with the rules established by current occidental climate science.

It is still open, whether the UNFCCC will decide to adopt a market mechanism for the financing of REDD or not. Many other issues regarding REDD will have to be sorted out before the constitution of a new climate regime (as expected for COP 21 in December of this year). For instance: What scale will be required for financing? Project based, subnational or national?

In all possible cases, REDD cannot effectively contribute to tackling the climate crisis. We must remember that only 11% of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions come from deforestation, whereas approximately 65% come from industries and the burning of fossil fuels.

Above all we must have in mind that REDD does not address the true causes of deforestation. The main drivers in Brazil are large scale cattle ranching, monoculture plantations like soy, sugar cane or oil palm as well as industrial logging. These activities are usually carried out by local oligarchies and multinational corporations.

In countries like Brazil, those groups have strong influence on the government. Either regulated through the market or governments, REDD will always end up shifting control over forest areas to them. Reducing deforestation is ultimately largely a political, and much less a technical challenge. REDD – increasingly promoted as a solution for both forests and the climate – conceals this fact.

REDD-Monitor: REDD has brought a large amount of attention to the forests of Acre, with WWF, IUCN, the Federal Univesity of Acre, IPAM (Amazon Environmental Research Institute), the Woods Hole Research Center, Embrapa and GTZ (German Technical Cooperation Agency, now renamed GIZ) and KfW (Germany’s government-owned development bank) all working on aspects of REDD in Acre. Isn’t all this attention – and funding – a good thing?

Michael Schmidlehner: Acre is being projected as a showcase for green economy by these organizations. Internally, in Acre, this favors a small group of people, whilst overall fostering state-authoritarianism and censorship. The small group of people who benefit from the funding are government employees, consultants from government-related NGOs, and a few selected leaders of rural workers syndicates and of indigenous organizations. The great majority of forest people do not receive any benefits from the international funding. Deprived of many of their basic rights, they live in a situation of scarcity and insecurity and – what makes it worse – the truth about their situation is systematically concealed.

Externally a false image of Acre is popagated. EDF, as well as GIZ and WWF seek to present Acre’s green economy as if it was based on a demand of the forest people and as if it was in line with the historic political struggle of these people.

After receiving the “Florestania Prize” from the Acre Government in 2008, Steve Schwarzmann from EDF wrote: “It is in fact in part owing to Chico’s legacy that international climate negotiators in the United Nations climate convention spent much of the first half of December in Poznan, Poland debating whether and how tropical forest countries and forest peoples that reduce deforestation could be compensated through a new climate agreement to go into effect in 2013.”

An article about KFW’s REDD Early Movers (REM) funding program in Acre – after informing us that the programs coordinator received the “Chico Mendes Prize” from the Government of Acre – states “The German federal government would like in future to extend the successful REM programme to Ecuador, Colombia and Asian countries. Something that Chico Mendes would also have approved of.” Nothing could be further from the truth! Chico Mendes was a self-declared socialist. By portraying him as if he was the patron of green capitalism and by distorting the history of the forest people’s movement, the false solution of REDD is being propagated outside Brazil and at the UN-level.

In 2012, at the Rio+20 conference, a group of activists from Acre, including myself, launched the “Dossier Acre”. In this document we argue that the green economy policies in Acre, rather than representing a successful example, demonstrate the precise failure of this model, revealing it as environmentally destructive and socially exclusive. (The dossier can be read in Portuguese here.)

Up to now our many criticisms of the state’s green economy policy, as put forward in the Dossier Acre and various other publications have been systematically ignored by the state’s government and its REDD-sponsors like KFW.

Now a growing number of people in Germany, are also questioning the REM funding in Acre. Recently, an information request was filed at the German Bundestag. (See the filed questions in German here) We expect that this inquiry may instigate a broader discussion among German civil society and lead to a rethinking of Germany´s funding goals in Acre.

There is an urgent need for supporting indigenous people’s rights in this state. The German funds could be applied much more effectively if addressing real needs of the forest people like demarcation of indigenous lands and bringing heath and education services to the abandoned communities.

REDD-Monitor: REDD proponents often claim that REDD is a way of ensuring respect for indigneous peoples’ rights, particularly land rights. What is your experience of REDD and indigenous peoples’ rights in Acre?

Michael Schmidlehner: REDD threatens both indigenous peoples’ right to their traditionally occupied land and their right to the self-determined use of the land’s resources. In 2012, the president of the Federation of the Huni Kui People of Acre (FEPHAC) Ninawá Huni Kui denounced: “In Acre, the demarcation of indigenous territories is paralyzed because they want to take our land to make profits with environmental services, through programs such as REDD.”

As a matter of fact, there are 21 indigenous territories jet to be demarcated in Acre. All demarcation processes are paralyzed since 1999. These territories are frequently invaded by non indigenous people and under constant pressure from big land owners and corporations. REDD, being a lucrative compensation- and investment opportunity for these stakeholders, increases this pressure.

Within the territories, environmental restrictions threaten the communities’ food security. A member of one of the communities was interviewed by the rappoteur of the DHESCA Mission and stated: “We’ve been suffering for so many years. We’re worse off this year because we can’t grow our crops. The landowners can and we can’t? There are 24 families here. How will we survive?”

REDD-Monitor: At the same time that REDD is being implemented in Acre, 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 are the implications of PEC 215 for indigenous rights and for the future of REDD in Acre?

Michael Schmidlehner: Currently, almost all demarcation processes are paralyzed in Brazil because the government delays FUNAI´s work, not passing the necessary resources to it. PEC 215 is aggressively promoted by the so-called rural caucus that holds an unprecedented powerful position in Brazilian Congress and in many aspects dominates the federal government. If PEC 215 goes through, probably not a single indigenous territory will be demarcated in the future.

Again, there are massive interests upon indigenous land: mining, oil (in Acre possibly even fracking), establishment of cattle ranches or monocultures, construction of highways and railroads (in Acre probably crossing the territories of uncontacted indigenous peoples). The very same interest groups that promote these activities covet the remaining undestroyed (and preferably unpopulated) forests for lucrative offset schemes. The new Forest Code as well as SISA enable those schemes.

While SISA facilitates carbon offsetting, the new Forest Code institutes tradable Environmental Reserve Shares called CRA (from Portuguese: Cota Rural Ambiental) that can be used to compensate deforestation. The CRA-market offers synergies with the carbon market, allowing multiple compensation possibilities. One single forest area in Acre can now be used twice for compensation: for offsetting emissions (SISA) and for offsetting deforestation (new Forest Code).

Through both PEC 215 and REDD, multinational corporations, in alliance with local oligarchies, seek to acquire rights over indigenous territories, by either by evicting indigenous people, or by disenfranchising them within their territories.

REDD-Monitor: One important right for indigenous peoples is the principle of free, prior and informed consent. Please describe your experience of the FPIC process in the setting up of REDD in Acre, including public consultation for State Law 2.308 which set up the State System of Incentives for Environmental Services (SISA) in 2010.

Michael Schmidlehner: The SISA law passed in only two days through the legislative assembly of Acre as a “matter of urgency”. It was sanctioned on October 22nd 2010, in late evening after a power point presentation by a representative of Forest Trends.

The “urgency” was explained when only four days later, on October 22nd, the Government of Acre was granted 66,7 million Real (approximately 40 million dollars at that time) for the project Valorization of Environmental Forest Assets of Acre from Fundo Amazonia (money from the Norwegian government, KFW and the Brazilian oil company Petrobras, administrated by the Brazilian Development Bank BNDES). There is still very little transparency about the application of these funds.

The actual driving force of REDD in Acre is the money that is injected into the state in order to create a showcase for green economy policies. Still, the government alleges that SISA is the result of extensive consultations with stakeholders. At the same time it states that only 174 people were directly consulted: 85 technicians from non-governmental organizations (probably the ones you mentioned in question five); 50 extractive workers (like rubber tappers or nut gatherers); 30 indigenous people; and nine representatives of producer organizations. Given a population of almost 800 thousand people in Acre, this is next to nothing.

Since 2010, numerous meetings and information workshops about REDD and SISA were organized. We do not know, what actually happened in these events (minutes of the meeting are not published). Still, it is clear that they raised high expectations of financial returns among indigenous people.

In one of the workshops, Almir Surui from the Paiter-Surui people was invited to speak about a REDD project he promotes in the neighboring state Rondonia (RO). The workshop was reported by a government journalist with the words: “The presentation by Almir Surui Narayamoga, chief of the Paiter people, on the last day of the Information Workshop on the System of Incentives for Environmental Services (SISA), put an end to the doubts of indigenous leaders of Acre and filled all – Indians and non-Indians – with hope: the protection of forests and biodiversity is worth millions of dollars.”

At the same time, obviously many doubts remained after the event, as expressed one of the participants: “It is not yet clear what will be sold, how it will be sold, who will monitor, who will negotiate, what is this sale actually is, how it will be done.”

The unintelligibility of the over-complex REDD mechanism, coupled with the expectations of big money causes deep divisions among indigenous peoples. The promoters of REDD systematically conceal such problems and conjure what they then call a Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC).

The perfect example of this distortion is the abovementioned Surui project, the implementation of which was based on a FPIC promoted by Forest Trends and which caused severe problems and the deepening of conflicts among this people, as you reported. For years the project was presented as example for the indigenous people in Acre and today the same divisions and distortions are taking place here.

At this point we must also question the overall feasibility of a Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) in the given context. How free can a community’s consent be, if it suffers scarcity of basic necessities and has its fundamental rights threatened? To what degree can it be called prior? Prior to what? Before the proposal of a REDD project, usually numerous interventions by the government and market-NGOs take place in those communities like forest-management or ethno-mapping programs or training of indigenous agro-forestry agents, biasing the communities towards this kind of project. And above all, what does “informed” mean? How much information and what kind of information does one consider necessary for a community to decide about a REDD project? Who could provide unbiased information? What are the impacts of such an information process on an indigenous community’s social and cultural equilibrium?

REDD-Monitor: In the five years after 2003, deforestation in Acre fell by 70%. This was partly a result of agricultural commodity prices, but it was also the result of a series of policies, government monitoring and enforcement of the law. This happened before REDD. The rate of deforestation is now increasing (the area deforested in 2014 was the largest area since 2006). Do you see REDD as potentially supporting these earlier measures to reduce deforestation, or is it actually undermining the previous successes?

Michael Schmidlehner: First of all, the rate of deforestation – based on satellite data – only takes into account the amount of clearcutting. The extensive extraction of wood through the so-called timber forest management already caused degradation of the forests in Acre before 2003. The extent of this hidden deforestation is hitherto unknown.

The increase of deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon certainly has to do with the rising dollar and soy and beef exports. At the same time it must be understood in connection with the new Forest Code from 2012. This law granted generous amnesties for deforestation crimes. Rural property owners are now freed from fines related to deforestation that took place before July 2008. This is largely interpreted by them as a license to deforest.

Above all, the new Forest Code marks a transition from a policy of environmental restoration to a policy of environmental compensation and thereby creates strong synergies between agribusiness and REDD-type projects (as described in the answer to your seventh question).

The expectation of more future amnesties and the new possibilities of offsetting are probably the main causes of the increasing deforestation since 2013. REDD is part of this dynamic. The forest areas from which the above mentioned Environmental Reserve Shares (CRAs) are issued can also be used for generating carbon credits. Instead of penalizing deforesting landowners, the new Forest Code in combination with REDD creates additional business opportunities for them.

REDD-Monitor: Acre is one of the founding members of the Governors’ Climate Forests Task Force, set up under then-governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009. What is your view of the Governors’ Climate Forests Task Force? Has it helped to reduce deforestation and support the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples in Acre?

Michael Schmidlehner: The Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force (GCF) promotes subnational REDD, where states or provinces adopt legal frameworks that allow them to establish a regulated forest carbon market among them.

There are several problems with this approach. Many technical issues like carbon measurement, additionality (as described in answer to your third question), leakage (the fact that protection of a limited forest area often leads to increased deforestation in the surroundings) and permanence (the fact that a forest can be destroyed by unforeseen causes) are very difficult (actually impossible) to tackle on a subnational level.

On a national level, REDD would be technically more feasible. The state-laws that facilitate the subnational carbon market tend to be conflicting with the countries’ constitutions. In Brazil, for instance, the constitution defines the natural environment as “an asset of common use”. The SISA law is seen by its critics as unconstitutional, for allowing the commercialization of the so-called environmental services like storage of forest carbon.

During the last two COPs we could sense that the Brazilian government does not approve REDD initiatives on state level, but wants bilateral negotiations to take place on federal level. In the view of the federal government subnational REDD deals are compromising the nation’s sovereignty over its natural resources.

By adopting a national REDD mechanism the government may in the future even prohibit subnational agreements. To prevent this, the promoters of subnational REDD propose the so-called nested approach that is supposed to harmonize REDD on different scales, but actually adds various technical issues to the already overly complex REDD mechanisms.

Still, the Acre government insists on its subnational strategy. Internationally showcased as REDD-pioneer, it is a key player among the GCF partners. Currently the Governor of Acre is also the president of GCF.

Acre’s main partner in the group is California. In 2010 the Governors of California, Chiapas, and Acre signed a Memorandum of Understanding that foresees the offsetting of Californian industries’ emissions through REDD+ in Acre and Chiapas. While most people in Acre do not know about either this memorandum or about the GCF, a small, but growing number of organizations, community leaders and activists oppose these initiatives.

In 2013, 25 organizations and 40 individuals rejected the planned offset deal with California in an open letter. The main arguments are that the parties that would be affected by REDD+ activities were not heard, that REDD+ will not effectively reduce global carbon emissions or deforestation and that it actually deepens social and environmental injustice.

REDD-Monitor: What do you see as the biggest threats to the people and forests of Acre? And what do you see as the best way of addressing these threats? Is there a role for REDD to play in addressing these threats?

Michael Schmidlehner: The majority of climate scientists agree that if climate change continues at the current pace, tropical rainforests could cease to exist within this century. If we take this seriously, and if we take into account the overall failure of governments and the UN to draw the right conclusions, we will come to the conclusion that climate change is the biggest threat to all of us and particularly to forest dependent communities like the ones in Acre.

The right reaction to this crisis would be to put a halt to the burning of fossil fuels and to change the patterns of production and consumption of industrialized societies. These urgent measures will be delayed as long as false climate solutions like REDD are propagated by a small elite that pursues its own particular interests. Our conclusion, especially here in Acre, with our state being used as a REDD showcase, must be to denounce this false solution.

Climate change is the most tangible symptom of a much larger crisis that comprises our entire socio-economic organization and relationship with nature, and this crisis demands a radical global change. If we believe in this change and if we believe that another world is possible on at global scale, then first of all we must oppose the destruction of the few “other worlds” that still exist at the local level on our planet.

In other words, we need to respect indigenous peoples in their cultural difference, stop the incessantly expanding industrial and trade interests that invade their territories, and we must support indigenous peoples’ political fight for rights and autonomy.

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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