Seeing Peru’s forests through the trees

As climate change talks kick off, lofty climate goals run counter to Peru’s bent for commodity-driven growth.

Scientists conduct research into carbon-recycling dynamics in one of Peru's Amazonian rainforests [Reuters]

Puerto Maldonado, Peru – In an Amazonian timber yard bordering Bolivia and Brazil, Nelson Kroll names stacks of rough-hewn hardwoods, pointing out shihuahuaco and pumaquiro species freshly felled from select tracts of the Madreacre logging concession.

“In this campaign we’ve cut 39,000 cubic metres of round timber, which is about one tree every two hectares,” Kroll, head of the sustainable tree farm, told Al Jazeera.

But lining the floors of European and American households isn’t the private-public partnership’s only source of income. Madreacre earns up to $200,000 a year in carbon credits through emissions captured by its forest. The company gets paid to leave trees in the ground.

The concession is one of more than 40 Peruvian national projects involved in the UN initiative called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD+. Set up by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2005, the mechanism aims to cut emissions from deforestation in developing countries and promote sustainable forest management.

It's a huge struggle of how to politically reconcile the will of the bigger players - those with power who push for growth - and those that say let's slow things down and do things more sustainably.

by - Mary Menton, environmental consultant

Madreacre’s 100,000-hectare forest stripped 700,000 tonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere last year. The captured CO2 is monitored by the UN Measuring, Reporting and Verification system, converted into credits, and then traded on world carbon markets.

Revenues help to cover about 40 percent of the company’s costs, employ 170 local workers, and compete with illegal logging that is rampant in Peru’s Amazon.

In 2012, 246,000 hectares of Peruvian forest were hacked down, largely at the hands of agri-business, oil exploration, and gold mining.

Could REDD+ be the model to save these forests? “Modestly yes,” Kroll told Al Jazeera.

‘Two headed’ on environment

For two weeks starting Monday, Peru will host crucial climate talks. Negotiators from more than 190 countries will meet in Lima to work on drafts for a global climate deal that is supposed to be adopted next year in Paris. 

Saving carbon-sucking forests will certainly be part of any agreement. Ahead of hosting the UN climate talks, Peru pledged to halt deforestation in six years, safeguarding three-quarters of its rainforest – an area the size of France.

While its deforestation rate is relatively low, 0.8 billion tonnes are at “imminent risk”. These are vital in preventing global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 – the figure that scientists say is crucial to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

In September, Norway inked a deal awarding Peru $300m in funding if it meets targets for REDD+ before 2020. That adds to the $50m it will receive from the World Bank’s Forest Investment Plan.

But despite solid support for the programme in the government’s environment ministry, messages from President Ollanta Humala’s administration are mixed.

Deforestation, agriculture, and forest conversion into arable land account for three-fifths of Peru’s emissions. Climate goals run counter to the country’s bent for commodity-driven growth as a global exporter of copper, silver and zinc. Extractive industries propelled Peru to become South America’s fastest-growing economy from 2004 to 2013.

More than 40 percent of the country’s territory is earmarked for mining, oil, or logging concessions, with five million further hectares of timber zones set for auction.

The government was “two-headed”, said Mary Menton, a tropical forest specialist and cofounder of SEED International, an environmental consultancy.

“It’s a huge struggle of how to politically reconcile the will of the bigger players – those with power who push for growth – and those that say let’s slow things down and do things more sustainably.”

Challenges of REDD+

In a signature year with the capital Lima welcoming climate envoys, Peru’s own green credentials are being held up to scrutiny.

In July, lawmakers passed a law relaxing environmental safeguards to spur slumped investment mainly in its mining and hydrocarbon sectors. Corruption cases implicating public officials with logging mafias cast further doubt on the resolve of the authorities to tackle deforestation.

The “laundering” of illegal hardwood through legal concessions raised concerns about the accuracy of reporting coming from the jungle regions, Julia Urrunaga, Peru director at Environmental Investigations Agency told Al Jazeera.

“The problem is: Can we trust the monitoring carried out by regional forestry authorities in the current situation?” Urrunaga said, adding that carbon credits may also be claimed through false declarations of carbon stocks in REDD+ projects.

If regional governments don’t tackle the key drivers of deforestation, REDD+’s impact will be muted. A failure to curb slash-and-burn agriculture, carried out largely by migrants coming from the poor Andean highlands, is a major factor, said Claudia Leber, ecosystem specialist at Association for Research and Integrated Development, a non-profit which assists in forestry management projects.

REDD+ has come under criticism for flaws in its design. The concept had “failed” because of underinvestment, Chris Moye, an environmental governance campaigner at the Global Witness NGO told Al Jazeera. Permits to emit one tonne in the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme – which accounts for 97 percent of all trading – plummeted 80 percent in October from a 2008 peak.

Analysts said this could discourage investment by carbon emissions polluters. “The problem is, it’s far more profitable for a hedge fund or investment vehicle to invest in established technologies like oil concessions or agro-industrial projects,” than REDD+, Moye said.

Madreacre indeed only sells a fraction of credits earned due to low prices, its finance manager, Jose Luis Canchaya, told Al Jazeera. “The rainforests can’t survive off REDD+, though it’s one more element in its sustainable exploitation,” he said.

Indigenous concerns

REDD+ was illegitimate in the first place, said Peru’s main indigenous association, Aidesep. The programme was a form of “carbon piracy”, the group’s forestry adviser, Roberto Espinoza said.

REDD+ projects had appropriated land from indigenous communities who lacked the rights to oppose their creation. Natives were refused prior consultation or duped into signing contracts that they didn’t fully understand, Espinoza added.

Aidesep proposes an adapted version called “Indigenous REDD”. Its central demand is that 20 million hectares of land titles are awarded to indigenous communities. “It’s a right that the Peruvian state owes.” The government has only pledged to gift 5 million hectares as per its agreement with Norway.

The importance of land rights was brought into sharp relief earlier this month by the pained demands of widows of four tribal leaders slain by suspected illegal loggers.    

Land titles were the only weapon to ward off illegal loggers, said Ergilia Rengifo of the Saweto community, having travelled to Lima to demand justice from the government as the case went cold. On September 1, her husband, Jorge Rios, was killed alongside prominent anti-logging activist Edwin Chota, who had led the ongoing 12-year petition for recognition. 

An area deforested by illegal gold mining at Peru’s southern Amazon region of Madre de Dios in January [Reuters]

“All I ask is for my land title. Without it I can’t do anything,” Rengifo said.

Programmes were in place to help native communities resolve territorial problems, as well as strengthen regional governments, a spokesperson for the environment ministry said.

‘Ghost towns’

Peru’s zero-deforestation target is a work in progress, and REDD+ is only part of a multi-layered strategy. The benefits of rural development, stronger forest governance, and biodiversity conservation are key features.

Madreacre has invested $20m in Iñapari since 2002, bolstering the community, according to Kroll. 

But, it is Peru’s balancing of demands for growth and conservation that will determine the climate fight.

Gazing a few kilometres over to the Brazil border, Alberto Cardozo, the mayor-elect of the province of Tahuamanu which contains Madreacre, knows first-hand the perils of unchecked deforestation.

“We’ve seen [Brazilian] communities that aren’t managed, are levelled, become sponges for 10 to 20 years and then ghost towns. We want our future generations to have an economy that provides livelihood and a forest that isn’t ravaged. Madreacre generates work.”

Source: Al Jazeera