The Oil Palm Industry and REDD

With a 12-day joint climate change summit underway in Cancun, Mexico attempting to make progress on REDD – Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation – a palm oil industry group has issued a 38-page report saying that in fact conservation of forests in developing countries such as Indonesia will do more harm than good.

The report, REDD And Conservation: Avoiding The New Road To Serfdom by World Growth, seeks to debunk estimates that greenhouse emissions from deforestation provide as much as 30 percent of global greenhouse gases, saying they are wildly wrong. The actual figure, the report says, is 12.9 percent at best and could be as low as 6 percent – which is certain to be debated by environmentalists and climate scientists.

And, the report says, "while there may exist some consensus on the proximate causes of deforestation – such as agricultural expansion, wood extraction, and infrastructure extension," the report argues, "the underlying drivers are complex social, political, economic, technological, and cultural variables. Because drivers are specific to these contexts, importing a 'one size fits all' land use model is ineffective in addressing geographically specific issues."

World Growth has mounted a no-holds-barred attack on REDD. And, while the report was produced by an organization with an undeniable economic interest in letting deforestation and forest degradation continue so that vast tracts of oil palm can replace virgin forest, it raises some intriguing questions. For instance, the report argues that forest conservation could doom a major segment of the world's rural poor to continuing poverty, depriving them of jobs, and that setting aside protected areas has displaced 900,000 to 14.4 million poor , mostly without any compensation.

"Approximately 40 per cent of the world's population lives in tropical countries," the report notes. "With minor exceptions, all are developing countries. One projection estimates that by 2060 more than 60 per cent of the world's population will live in tropical regions. This population already requires access to natural resources and land; this will increase in the future."

REDD + came into being at Copenhagen conference on the Kyoto Protocol last year when leaders agreed to mobilize developed-world funds to seek to protect carbon-rich forests in the developing world through 2012. The UN-backed scheme aims to conserve or sustainably manage forests in the name of mitigating climate change. Developed countries that fund REDD+ projects in developing nations with these objectives can offset their carbon emissions and earn carbon credits to trade on markets that are slowly emerging.

REDD, the report argues, "reflects the conventional wisdom in wealthy countries that conservation of all forests is a good thing." But it isn't, it argues. "The problems are underlying conditions including poverty, poor land tenure, poor government planning and other issues which lead to deforestation."

That argument pretty much flies in the face of the conventional wisdom propagated by some of the world's most important social institutions and much of the scientific community. Primarily because of deforestation to produce palm oil, Indonesia is often ranked as the world's second-biggest producer of greenhouse gases, primarily because of the destruction of deep peat soil, which is a

major carbon sink. Other countries that catch the blame are Brazil and The Congo.

For instance, biologists R.A Butler, Lian Pin Koh and Jaboury Ghazouli, writing in the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology in March of 2009, write that "Tropical deforestation is both a major source of carbon dioxide emissions and a leading cause of species extinctions." Oil palm agriculture, they write, "deserves special attention because over the past few decades it has become a major driver of deforestation in the tropics."

World Growth's most visible public face is Alan Oxley, Australia's ambassador to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, the precursor to the World Trade Organization. Its ostensible mission is to break the poverty cycle for the world's poor "by developing and expanding property rights for individuals in underdeveloped countries; transparent government practices; capital inflows and private-sector based technology transfers; the rule of law and protection of assets." His sworn enemies are Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, which he has regularly accused of being economical with the truth at best and outright lying and fraud at the worst.

Underlying that is a determination to expand the oil palm industry. To do that, World Growth denies that climate change is a problem and in a recent newsletter gleefully pointed to the November mid-term elections in the United States, which brought large numbers of climate change deniers into the US Congress.

The report does point out quite rightly that one of the big failures of the protected area scheme is the failure of developing world-governments to monitor misuses. Indonesia, according to numerous reports, is at the forefront. As an example, on Sumatra, some 5 million hectares of which are protected, "deforestation and logging remain rife within the boundaries of these protected areas. More than 35 per cent of Sumatra's 40 Protected Areas have experienced severe rates of forest loss during the years 1990-2000" the report notes. "Some 60 per cent have indications that logging has caused extensive forest degradation within their boundaries."

Protected area schemes, the report argues, often fail because projects suffer from logistical and institutional flaws, they often fail to achieve conservation targets because they prioritize sources of short term benefit over final goals of halting biodiversity loss and that they don't identify underlying drivers of biodiversity loss.

Specifically, the report found, between 1997 and 2002, a US$19 million conservation and development project got underway in the Kerinci Seblat National Park, the largest of Sumatra's Protected Areas, covering 13,791 sq km. The project included funding of development projects in local villages inside the conservation area in return for local commitments not to convert traditional forest areas into farmland. "However, remote sensing and GIS database analysis has shown the project had little effect on deforestation rates surrounding …villages and other villages outside the National Park."

In the meantime, global temperatures have continued to soar, reaching record levels in several regions including Russia, Greenland, Canada, China, North Africa and South Asia. The three main temperature records by the World Meteorological Association indicate that 2010 will be the warmest, or perhaps joint warmest, in history.