By Anne Petermann
Global Justice Ecology Project
Photo by Orin Langelle/GJEP
In the midst of the first week of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in Manhattan, the Indigenous Environmental Network and Land is Life hosted a workshop on REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) titled “REDD: Seeing the Forest for the Trees.” The event took place on the evening of Wednesday, May 18th at the UN Church Center across First Avenue from the massive, imposing UN building—a shock to see with its floors of missing windows covered by tarps (it is under construction). The event was co-sponsored by Earth Peoples, Global Forest Coalition and Global Justice Ecology Project.
Participants trickled into the room steadily and by 7:30 the room was packed to capacity with Indigenous Peoples from across the globe who had come to learn more about the hotly contested topic known as REDD–the UN and World Bank programs designed to supposedly reduce emissions from deforestation through the use of market-based strategies involving trading in carbon offsets and so-called ‘payment for environmental services.’
Tom Goldtooth, the Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), opened the event with a greeting followed by a stripped down description of what REDD is, why it is important to Indigenous Peoples, and what the assumptions are that underlie it. He explained the problem this way, “Imagine that the Earth is a bathtub, and carbon is the water. The bathtub is overflowing. Our Mother Earth cannot absorb any more carbon. We have to turn the water off. We have to stop emitting carbon—we have to stop it at its source. REDD does not do that.”
He went on to explain how REDD has been explicitly designed to use Indigenous Peoples’ forested lands—especially in the South—to “offset” the carbon emissions of the North, which means that Northern companies will be allowed to go on polluting communities in the North, and worsening climate change. He invoked Casey Camp, an indigenous elder from the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma, who lives in a community heavily impacted by the fossil fuel industry. He quoted Casey as describing REDD as a gun being held to the heads of her people. Because REDD will allow the pollution to continue, REDD means her people will continue to die.
After Tom spoke, the video “Lives of the Forest,” was shown. The film is a recent creation from “Conversations with the Earth,” a project of Land is Life. It depicts Indigenous Peoples from Southeast Asia and the Pacific speaking out about their traditional life in the forest, which is either threatened by or has already been lost to REDD-type projects. Some explained how the government had intervened and taken their ancestral lands away to supposedly protect the forest, but that in the process, their way of life, their very culture, had been lost. They questioned how the government could protect the forest if the people making the decisions about it don’t live there, or even know how to live in the forest. The film ended with a powerful montage of the speakers in rapid succession demanding “No R-E-D-D” “NO REDD!”
The film was followed by a surprise guest—Pablo Solón, the UN Ambassador from the Plurinational State of Bolivia—who further elaborated the fundamentals of REDD: “They will tell you, ‘oh, we just want to give you money and you don’t have to do anything. We just want to use the carbon in your forests.’ Oh, okay, sounds great. But then they will produce a piece of paper and say, ‘all you need to do is sign here’ because, you know, they are going to want some security for their investment. And suddenly, before you know it, you do not have control over your forests anymore.”
He then put REDD into the context of the larger emerging theme of the “green economy,” to which he was candidly opposed. “I have just returned from a meeting of Ambassadors about the Green Economy,” he explained. “Everyone wants to be green. Even when they’re killing you they want to be called green. So now we have this green economy. They want to commodify not just the forests, but everything. They want to apply the laws of Capitalism to the laws of Nature.” He then frowned seriously and said emphatically, “No!”
Solón was followed by a succession of Indigenous Peoples from Latin America who spoke passionately about the dangers and impacts of REDD. One spoke about how REDD was already dividing Indigenous communities, because some people in the communities wanted the money that was being offered while others wanted to retain their traditional way of life with the forest.
A woman from Bolivia in traditional dress explained that in Spanish “red” means “network,” and that REDD was the “Network of Death.” “What Indigenous Peoples really need,” she said, “is a network of life—one that is opposed to REDD, but supports peoples’ traditional ways. We must form this network,” she insisted. “We need a global network of Indigenous Peoples opposed to REDD.”
Another speaker from India explained that in his country the government was already taking money for REDD-type projects, but instead of protecting forests, they were developing industrial monoculture tree plantations and calling it “forest regeneration,” even though these tree plantations meet none of the needs of the local communities—for food, medicines, shelter or even water, that had always been provided by forests.
At the very end of the evening—several minutes over the scheduled end time—I added two more pieces of the problematic REDD puzzle. “I attended the World Forestry Congress in 2009,” I explained. “And while I was there, Tiina Vahenen, from the UN REDD Secretariat, explained to the auditorium full of timber executives and foresters that ‘REDD would be very beneficial for forestry.’ Not forests—forestry. Ms. Vahenen told them that REDD would be worth $45 billion for the timber industry and insisted, ‘the forestry sector cannot afford to lose this opportunity.’”
“So REDD gives the timber industry money for their standing forests; they get profits for cutting them down and selling them; then they get more money from REDD for replacing the forests with monoculture timber plantations. In addition,” I continued, “because of a decision made by the UN Climate Convention in 2003 in Milan; under REDD these tree plantations can even include GMO trees, also called genetically engineered trees.”
On that note, Tom concluded the event, thanked everyone and we quickly cleaned up and reassembled the room while key organizers congregated to discuss next steps of how to move forward with creating a global network of Indigenous groups and communities opposed to REDD that would support Indigenous peoples and give them tools and information to empower them to stand up against the great pressure being put on them by countries, the UN, the World Bank, funders and other Indigenous groups, to buy into this dangerous and false solution to climate change called REDD.
As one participant from Tahiti explained, “This is all well and good, but while REDD is going forward, we will be drowning with the fishes.”