Thursday, June 11th, 2009 | Author:

Saving rainforests needs both property rights and payments

Still Pictures

Still Pictures

Forests lock up a lot of carbon. Cutting them down accounts for around 20% of the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases. On paper, halting deforestation should be the simplest way to cut emissions. Achieving a similar reduction by building wind turbines or nuclear-power stations, or by mandating more fuel-efficient cars and buildings, would take years and cost billions. In practice, however, halting deforestation is hard: much of the world’s rainforest has already succumbed to loggers and farmers. That is because it is difficult to align the interests of people who live in forests (now 20m in the Brazilian Amazon) with those of the rest of humanity.

The best way of doing so involves a mixture of two ideas: establishing clear property rights over land and paying its owners not to cut down trees. If these policies are to work anywhere, it will be in Brazil, which possesses 60% of the world’s greatest tropical forest. Brazil has powerful motives for preserving the Amazon. Deforestation does terrible damage to the reputation of a country that is a pioneer in renewable energy. It also puts at risk the Amazon rain factory that enables Brazil to be one of the world’s biggest agricultural exporters.

Brazil now has a sophisticated system for monitoring deforestation from satellites and aeroplanes. It has set aside some 40% of the Amazon as national parks or Indian reserves. It has laws that restrict deforestation in the rest. The problem is enforcing those laws over a vast area where many of the inhabitants dislike the rules (see article). The first step is a proper land registry to confirm who owns what. Some 15-25% of the Amazon is private property, which is supposed to be kept 80% forested (though often is not). Most of the rest is nominally federal land, but in practice is up for grabs: title deeds are forged, people are killed and deforestation accelerates because of competing claims. Some farmers even clear trees as a way to solidify land claims: fines from Brazil’s environmental agency can create a paper trail that acts as proof of ownership.

A law approved this month by Brazil’s Congress aspires to end this mess—but at a price. It would grant title to all landholdings up to 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) occupied before 2005 in the Amazon, comprising an area the size of France, and ban further land claims. The law entrenches injustice: it risks rewarding people who used violence to obtain land, including large landholders who occupy almost 90% of the area under discussion. Brazilian greens want to limit the measure to smaller plots, and to ban their resale for ten years.

Yet that risks defeating the object. Better for the government to complement this attempt to end battles over privately owned land with a decision to take the rest of the Amazon into public ownership, as parks or reserves. Countries with rainforests also need to have due regard for their preservation and for the Indians who live in them when allowing mining and oil exploration. The lack of such procedures was behind a bloody clash in Peru this month (see article).

Lay down that axe and you will get cash

At the moment it makes economic sense to cut down trees: those who do so can sell the timber and turn the land into farms or ranches. So the second idea for saving forests lies in changing economic incentives by paying people not to chop down trees—an idea known in the ghastly jargon of climate-change diplomacy as “reduction of emissions from deforestation and degradation” (REDD). Since many rich countries felled their forests as they developed it seems fair that they should pay some of the cost of this.

There are difficulties, though. One is that “avoided deforestation” is hard to define and quantify. Another, raised by officials in Europe who have chosen not to include REDD in the European carbon-trading scheme, is that the carbon market would be flooded with deforestation credits that will push down the price. Companies would then buy cheap credits and continue doing business as usual rather than cutting their own emissions. Further tricky issues abound: who should have the right to sell credits? How should the money be split between central governments, local governments and indigenous people? And should the money be paid in perpetuity?

REDD schemes will require careful monitoring to ensure that forests really are left intact and that carbon credits for an area are not claimed more than once. Murky goings-on in Papua New Guinea, one of the leading advocates of REDD, highlight such worries (see article).

Even so, it is worth trying, simply because avoiding deforestation is so effective in slowing carbon emissions. So REDD deserves a place in the world climate treaty to be negotiated in Copenhagen in December, to replace the Kyoto treaty when it expires in 2012. As with other forms of carbon credit, today’s voluntary and experimental REDD schemes will need to be replaced by more rigorously accredited and monitored schemes. But they have a chance of working only if the countries in which they operate define forest land rights clearly. Brazil’s flawed attempt to do this is a step forward.

Source: The Economist

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