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March 21: The International Day of Mourning for Destroyed and Stolen Forests

Posted Mar. 21, 2014 / Posted by: Jeff Conant

The United Nations has declared March 21 the International Day of Forests: a day, in the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, "dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of all types of forests and trees to our economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being.”

But a close colleague of Friends of the Earth’s forest program, Wally Menne of Timberwatch, South Africa, suggests that the day should more likely be named “the International Day of Mourning for Destroyed and Stolen Forests.”

"We should weep in solidarity with the millions of displaced, dispossessed and now poverty stricken, formerly forest dependent local communities and indigenous peoples around the world,” writes Menne.

Grieving the loss of the world’s forests, and the cultures that go with them, may not do much to inspire -- but Menne is right. The state of the world’s forests calls for each of us who breathe air, who eat food, and who covet clothing and shelter, to honor the fallen, as it were: to take a moment to seriously grieve the current state of our forests, and to recognize the true causes of our loss.

In the UN secretary-general’s message, he highlights the value of the world's remaining forests to nearly 1.6 billion people worldwide who "depend on forests for their livelihood, food, fuel, shelter and medicine;" he also notes the value of forests for their climate change mitigation and adaptation services. But nothing is said about the ongoing corporate-driven land-grab that is devastating forests and forest peoples; or of the complete destruction of forests through logging and land use change that has occurred over the past several decades.

The secretary-general praises forests for their economic contribution: “Not only do forests provide essential economic safety nets for a significant number of the world’s poor, they underpin economies at all levels.  Round wood production, wood processing and the pulp and paper industries account for nearly one percent of global gross domestic product. Non-monetary benefits from forests, such as water, energy, shelter and medicine, are estimated to be two to three times as great.”

All of it is true. But at what cost -- to forests, rivers and forest dependent people -- does this "one percent" of global GDP come? What about devastating large-scale monocultures such as palm oil, rubber and pulpwood plantations? These plantations may be chock-full of trees, but they are far cries from real forest ecosystems; instead they are green deserts designed solely to feed industries that are among the largest contributors to global warming and climate change.

Ironically, the United Nations itself technically considers such industrial plantations as forests – which is why, in a parallel message for the International Day of Forests,  Friends of the Earth International, World Rainforest Movement and Focus on the Global South  are loudly declaring that plantations are not forests, and  urging the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to review its present definition of forests – a definition that mainly benefits industry.

Another ironic but real threat to forests and the people who live in them is the suite of policy proposals known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). The UN, many green groups, governments and international financial institutions promote REDD+ as the last, best effort to save our remaining forests. The debate on REDD is fractious to say the least, but a growing body of literature demonstrates that trading forests for pollution permits will neither save forests nor reduce CO2 emissions. For example, a paper released this week by the Rights and Resources Initiative concludes: “the complex financial mechanisms needed to implement REDD+ programs tend to create opaque conditions, promote a lack of transparency, and impose high participation and transaction costs on those who can least afford them.”

The RRI paper, “Status of Forest Carbon Rights and Implications for Communities,” looks at the legal status of communities' rights to buy and sell CO2 (the heart of the financing for REDD+) in a cross-section of 23 countries, and finds that none of these countries have legal frameworks to determine how CO2 from REDD programs should be traded -- let alone legal guarantees that the economic benefits will accrue to indigenous communities, who tend to be the most marginalized and impoverished groups in every country. While some argue that REDD and the money it promises will bring increased  attention to indigenous peoples’ rights, the RRI paper concludes that, in the absence of comprehensive legal tenure reform, REDD programs could “perpetuate and amplify existing conflicts” and “lead to reversals in the gains that communities have made securing their rights over several decades.”

And it is exactly this -- ensuring that governments grant land tenure to and respect the statutory and customary rights of the people who live in forests -- that experts increasingly agree is the most important thing we can do to protect forests.

The threat of REDD+, along with the greater threat of agro-industrial commodities like soy, palm, and cattle and extractive industries like mining and oil, brought together global forest communities in West Kalimantan, Indonesia last week to produce the Palangka Raya Declaration on Deforestation and the Rights of Forest Peoples, with its stark cry: “Global efforts to curb deforestation are failing.”

The declaration, representing forest peoples, indigenous peoples, local communities, farmers, rubber tappers, rattan collectors, peatland dwellers, women, men and youth from Asia, Africa and Latin America, says “Checking deforestation requires respect for our basic rights, which are the rights of all peoples. Deforestation is unleashed when our rights are not protected and our lands and forests are taken over by industrial interests without our consent.

Which is precisely why, after stopping for a moment of silence to observe the International Day of Mourning for Destroyed and Stolen Forests, we urge you to join us, not in promoting false solutions like REDD, or in celebrating the contribution of forests to global GDP, or in working toward "sustainable exploitation" of forests and forest peoples, but in facing the threats head-on and working to halt the expansion of palm oil and other forest-destroying industries.

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