No rights of nature, no reducing emissions: REDD, el buen vivir, and the standing of forests

By Jeff Conant and Anne Petermann

NOTE: This article is excerpted from the report “Rights of Nature: Planting the Seeds of Real Change” published by Global Exchange, June, 2012

 “For my people, the forest is sacred, it is life in all its essence. We can protect Pachamama only if this is respected. REDD and other market mechanisms have turned our relationship with forests into a business.” – Marlon Santi, leader of the Sarayaku Quichua community of Ecuador

Forests have always been valued by human societies for a multitude of uses and non-uses. Among them, the practical-use value of shade and shelter, thatch and timber, fuel wood, food and medicine; the ecological value of capturing, storing and filtering water, producing oxygen, and harboring biodiversity; as well as the spiritual value of their mere existence, for which Indigenous peoples and forest-dependent communities have prayed and held ceremony since the dawn of time.

Today, with the emergence of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes, the use value and the ecological value of forests have collided to eclipse all other value they may have, and any other values that human societies may place on them. While the emerging PES schemes pretend to shift the paradigm away from extractive approaches to resource use, they have one important feature in common with other uses that industrial society has for forests: the further you are from the forest, the greater the economic value it has — and the greater the potential for forest destruction.

Like the crusading armies of missionaries that in the colonial era claimed to save indigenous souls by converting them to Christianity at the point of the sword, one of the greatest emerging threats to forests today is the very policy that claims to save them. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) is a mechanism for wealthy countries and polluting industries to pay cash-poor countries in the Global South to conserve their forests instead of cutting them down or allowing them to be logged.

As the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility puts it, REDD programs “provide value” by monetizing standing forests. Likewise, the United Nations REDD Programme advertizes that the chief aim of its REDD program is “to make forests more valuable standing than they would be cut down, by creating a financial value for the carbon stored in trees. Once this carbon is assessed and quantified, the final phase of REDD involves developed countries paying developing countries carbon offsets for their standing forests.”

Taken superficially, the idea of “reducing emissions from deforestation” is of course very appealing — we do, after all, need to protect forests from an endless parade of threats. But, rather than “saving” forests, the debasement of forests into the sum of the carbon stored in their trees, combined with the vast absence of any political will to address the underlying drivers of deforestation, is moving forests closer to the abyss.

From a practical perspective, REDD has many problems. It makes trees part of a property rights system, excluding Indigenous peoples and local forest-dependent communities who often lack basic rights and especially rights to their forested lands. Human rights safeguards, even if they were put in place, are guaranteed to fail. National governments and carbon trading companies stand to make billions of dollars on the sale of forest carbon, while the communities that live in and depend on forests, whose traditional livelihoods are up for grabs under REDD, will receive small cash payments at best. At worst, they will be displaced from their homes. For big polluters, it becomes cheaper to buy permits to pollute through a REDD carbon offset mechanism than to reduce emissions — which allows them to continue burning and mining fossil fuels from the Alberta tar sands to the Ecuadorian Amazon, and from the Niger Delta to the mountaintops of Appalachia.

In other words, these practical concerns are the real costs of doing business with forests. While treating forests as carbon sinks and commodities may create economic value, it greatly diminishes their intrinsic value — and it is precisely the intrinsic non-monetized value of forests that has kept them standing. This value — the value of forests as forests — can be upheld best by an approach based in the Rights of Mother Earth.

Sadly, at present, decision-making bodies are so far from understanding what the rights of forests might look like that the United Nations cannot even make a determination on the difference between a forest and a monoculture tree plantation. This compounds the problem of reducing emissions from deforestation because it makes measuring the true levels of deforestation impossible, as the cutting of forests is balanced out by the “reforestation” or “afforestation” of trees in industrial timber plantations. As a result, the logging of primary forests is accelerating, while the amount of land covered by biologically poor tree monocultures is rapidly increasing, with genetically engineered trees waiting in the wings.

Thus, the real paradigm shift necessary to protect forests will come not from assigning economic value to forests through REDD. Indeed, this approach is nothing more than a continuation of the extractive approach, in a subtler but more insidious form. The real value of forests can only be protected by recognizing the rights of forest-dependent communities and the rights of forests and Mother Earth.

In recognizing both the rights of forest-dependent communities and the rights of forests, we enter into the need for biocultural approaches. Rather than an approach that focuses strictly on conserving ecosystems or biological diversity, we need a paradigm of conservation and stimulation of biocultural diversity: the Rights of Nature and rights of people intertwined and understood to be interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

These concepts are age-old. In the Tzeltal language of Chiapas, Mexico, the broad term is el lekil kuxlejal; in the Andes, it is sumak causay; in Spanish these concepts are loosely translated as “el buen vivir,” to live well, which connotes harmony in interpersonal relations, health, education, nutrition, peace, territorial autonomy, ecological balance, and personal and collective growth appropriate to local conditions. In a modern context, where we must develop legalistic mechanisms to revive such concepts, the Rights of Mother Earth may be the closest thing we have to an approach that can preserve el buen vivir, and thus truly protect forests and other planetary ecosystems, by protecting the social and spiritual fabric that accompanies and underlies them.

Without first identifying and addressing the underlying causes of deforestation, understanding and advancing the rights of forests will be impossible. And with forests being the cradles of biodiversity on our small and fragile planet, we must recognize the rights of forests if we are to advance the Rights of Mother Earth. REDD claims to keep forests standing in order that they may serve us by acting as the Earth’s lungs and absorbing our pollution; the Rights of Mother Earth, in contrast, offers an opportunity to give forests legal standing in order that they may continue to serve, in all of their timeless and sacred complexity, as forests.


This article is excerpted from the report “Rights of Nature: Planting the Seeds of Real Change” published by Global Exchange (June, 2012). Reproduced by permission only.  For more information contact Shannon Biggs, Community Rights program director at 415.575.5540.

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  9. I understand and fully agree with this article, but I remain concerned that even if (when) nature’s rights are protected, a big problem remains.
    When more “efficient” farming methods, the isolation of a rural existence or the lure of city lights drive people to the cities, any money they may get from sale of their land right won’t house their families in the city for generations as their land right did – land rights are not attached to people wherever they may be, but to particular people on a particular piece of land.

    I believe that land, like air water and sunlight, is a birthright which follows you wherever you are. The responsibility attached to this right of access to land is to use only your share of it for the purpose of personal shelter and gardening, and to use it sustainably so as to preserve that right for future generations.

    How could this work for people when agribusiness forces them to move to the cities and globalization makes the job market even more competitive? See