The climate-forest continuum

By Sunita Narain
Published: Friday 15 November 2002

I remember how I first learnt about global warming. It was in the late 1980s. My colleague Anil Agarwal and I were searching for policies and practices to regenerate wasted common lands. We quickly learnt to look beyond trees, at ways to deepen democracy, so these commons -- in India, forests are mostly owned by government agencies, but it is the poor who use them -- could be regenerated. It became clear that without community participation, afforestation was not possible. For people to be involved, the rules for engagement had to be respected. To be respected, the rules had to be fair.

In the same period, we had a green environment minister; data released by a prestigious us research institution completely convinced her it was the poor who contributed substantially to global warming -- they did 'unsustainable' things like growing rice or keeping animals. Anil and I were pulled into this debate when a flummoxed chief minister of a hill state called us. He had received a government circular that asked him to prevent people from keeping animals. "How do I do this?" he asked us. "Do the animals of the poor really disrupt the world's climate system?" We were equally foxed. It seemed absurd. We had been arguing since quite a while that the poor were victims of environmental degradation. Here they were now, complete villains. How?

With this question we embarked on our climate research journey. We began to grasp climate change issues, and quickly learnt that there wasn't much difference between managing a local forest and the global climate. Both were common property resources. What was needed, most of all, was a property rights framework which encouraged cooperation. We argued in the following way:

One, the world needed to differentiate between the emissions of the poor -- from subsistence paddy or animals -- and that of the rich -- from, say, cars. Survival emissions weren't, couldn't be equivalent to luxury emissions.

Two, managing a global common meant cooperation between countries. As a stray cattle or goat is likely to chew up saplings in the forest, any country could blow up the agreement if it emitted beyond what the atmosphere could take. Cooperation was only possible -- and this is where our forests experience came in handy -- if benefits were distributed equally. We then developed the concept of per capita entitlements -- each nation's share of the atmosphere -- and used the property rights of entitlement to set up rules of engagement that were fair and equitous. We said that countries using less than their share of the atmosphere could trade their unused quota and this would give them the incentive to invest in technologies that would not increase their emissions. But in all this, as we told climate negotiators, think of the local forest and learn that the issue of equity is not a luxury. It is a prerequisite.

Interesting how climate negotiations have come a full circle -- back to forests. Trees are carbon sinks. Planting trees will soak up -- sequester -- carbon, so the world can use forests and other vegetation to combat climate change. At the conference of parties of the climate convention being held in Delhi, this week, governments are now discussing the rules under which forests can be used as sinks. But it is here that we need to learn, once again, from forest communities.

We need forests that will grow. Not saplings planted one season, eaten up in the next. (This is where the bogey of the poor is always raised, so let me be very clear: the poor in India did not destroy the forests. Industrial greed and mismanagement is to blame for that -- forests being sold at throwaway prices to the pulp and paper industry, for instance, and vast areas chopped down. Yes, once the forests were cut, intense grazing pressures never allowed regeneration.) If we want "reliable" forest growth, we have to ensure that these same poor communities are involved in the forest management. If governments or industry believe that they can grow trees, anymore than they can grow food, they really need their head examined.

Here is an opportunity: use the labour of the poor to grow trees and sequester carbon. In return, rural communities could get paid for each hectare of forests they grow and conserve. It puts a value on growing trees, not just cutting trees, perhaps for the first time.

But trust fossilised climate negotiators to take a potentially exciting idea and turn it to soot. Today, the rules for using forest sinks are so cumbersome and ridiculous that poor communities will find it difficult to find a space in this particular sun. Instead, what it would promote is precisely what we don't need: large afforestation projects controlled by government agencies or corporations. But remember what I said before: people will use forests. To protect these trees/sinks, these agencies will then need vast armies of guards and guns.

Also currently the going price to grow forests is ridiculous -- between us $3-5 per tonne of carbon sequestered. Roughly one hectare of mixed forest would sequester between 3-6 tonnes of carbon each year and with this sum, communities would get a miserly us $10-15 per hectare per year. Just think of the labour and opportunity costs for these communities. Mean and cheap. As they say, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. That is what the climate conference seems to have in abundance right now.

-- Sunita Narain

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