Statement to House of Commons RRI book launch by Andy White, Rights and Resources Initiative 'From Clash of the Commons to a New Agenda for Forests' 14 July 2008

Statement to House of Commons RRI book launch by Andy White, Rights and Resources Initiative 'From Clash of the Commons to a New Agenda for Forests' 14 July 2008

Thank you Marcus, and thank you Mr. Horwood for your work and for hosting this event. It is truly an honor to be here to launch these new reports. It's also an honor to follow Marcus Colchester, who's made outstanding contributions to the recognition of indigenous people's rights around the world, and to precede Joji Cariño and Kyeretwie Opoku, two well recognized leaders on these issues in Asia and Africa. It's also a privilege, and so appropriate, for us to launch these reports here, in this House of Commons, a house built to enable the voices of common people to be heard, and built to celebrate the once radical claim that governance should be based on the voices, participation and aspirations of common people.

The findings I will present today are sobering, and indeed I think quite scary. I have long been accused of being an optimist - so perhaps it's notable that I and my colleagues look at these results and come away quite worried. They are made even more compelling when you consider the fact that they are the product of many different organizations, each with different mandates and perspectives. They include leading international research organizations - such as CIFOR, conservation organizations such as IUCN, human rights organizations such as FPP and local, community organizations, such as the federations of community groups from Nepal and Central America. And unfortunately, the overarching finding of our work is that the idea that governance should be based on the voices and rights of common people remains radical in many, if not most, forested areas of the world.

While the results are sobering, they also show promise and opportunity - particularly with the funding and attention given to climate change.

So let's start by looking at the facts:

  • First, it is important to recognize that forest areas in developing countries are characterized by:
    • high rates of poverty - not density mind you, rates - up to 1 billion people globally depend to some extent on forest products for their livelihoods and they are a good portion of the poorest people in developing countries;
    • violent conflict - at least 50% of forest areas in Africa have experienced violent conflict in the last 20 years, a smaller percentage in Asia and Latin America. Conflict over resources. Use of forests to finance and fuel conflict is common, not unusual or infrequent as we might think.
    • lack of recognition of human, civil and political rights - at least 100 million forest people globally are not even registered as citizens - and I should add that while this lack of recognition does not always erupt into violence it means that communities are often locked in longstanding disputes with their governments and frequently their neighbors - not an environment hospitable for investment, conservation or development. Of course there are islands of security, but this pattern of conflict and contestation is the broader picture.

So that is the background, but our studies also show that this is changing, at least somewhat:

  • About 27% of developing country forests are either public land designated for use by communities or owned, as private property by communities;
  • This is up from 22% in 2002 - an increase of 25% over six years, or just over 4% a year. On one hand this rate of change seems impressive, on the other hand - at this rate forest ownership in developing countries won't get sorted for another 75 years or so. Can the world, and all of these 1 billion indigenous and other common people wait for 75 more years?
  • Perhaps even more disconcerting is that all of this change is taking place in about 8 countries - so again we see islands of hope in a sea of indifference and stagnation.
  • In Africa, for example, our studies show that almost no forests are legally owned by communities, even though they are the historic owners and defacto managers in most cases. This imbalance needs to be rectified to enhance their livelihoods as well as protect forests.
  • And of course, we all know that recognition of rights on paper is not the same as recognition in practice. Even where new laws have been past, communities often face rules and regulations that do not allow them to use their forest or to have enterprises that help them improve their incomes.

But again, not all of the news is bad: communities are becoming much more organized, building their own enterprises, and movements; there are growing number of economic opportunities for them to benefit from; and there are new technologies than can empower them - such as cell phones, and mapping. We can, and should, build on these promising trends.

So that is the current picture - of the past and trends over the last six years or so. What we've not yet considered is the future, and here our findings are both stark and disturbing. One of the studies, led by Sten Nilsson of IIASA, identified how much additional land the world will need by 2030 to produce all of the food, bioenergy - including biofuels - and forest product that we will need. Using conservative estimates and checking with other projections they found that we'll need at least 550 million new hectares.

The study also identified how much arable land is currently available. In brief, they found only somewhere between 250 and 300 million hectares available for expansion, only one-half of what will be required. Where will the remaining land for biofuels, agriculture and forest plantations come from? Clearly it is coming from forests - where there's enough moisture to produce biomass. And these technical projections are backed up with the empirical evidence that is coming in from around the world - the acceleration of deforestation and land grabs by governments and private investors to establish new industrial plantations.

And so, in sum, what we see unfolding is a collision between the poor and poorly governed forest hinterlands of the world with the modern, globalized market, the wall of capital and the wall of speculation that comes with booming global demand for commodities. And it's on this basis that we find that we're on the verge of a new, global land grab - where lands that for millennia have not been valuable are suddenly very valuable to the outside world - for growing the food, for sequestering the carbon, and for growing the wood fibre that the world, primarily the already developed world wants. Land prices are going up globally, here too in the UK, and food and energy prices are not expected to go down. This presents a new and much more challenging world for all of us. And all of this means that there is a very real risk that all progress on rights and development that has been achieved over the past years, can all be rolled back and reversed in the next few decades.

And in this set of challenges efforts to mitigate climate change, and in particular efforts to reduce deforestation and degradation - so called REDD emerges as a very important initiative. Global urgency to reduce emissions, and some reluctance to reduce consumption in the wealthy north, has led to the rapid set up of global funds and investments to protect forests. This in itself presents both a threat as well as an opportunity.

But for this to be converted into an opportunity there needs to be rapid and massive commitment from developed country governments to steer this money towards resolving these long-standing issues of rights and development. Business as usual will mean that the climate funds will end up in the hands of governments and the elite and will raise the risk of conflict.

And these challenges present a real dilemma for governments of conscience, in which category I certainly put the UK (!) There is urgency to address climate change, yet there is urgency to do so in a manner that does not undo the great progress and investments in advancing human rights and development over the last decades. Options and tradeoffs are not clear and there is no absolute blueprint for action. We are not pretending that we have all of the answers in these reports.

That being said, we do feel that there are some strong, compelling courses of action. There are many recommendations detailed in the reports, but here I will focus on just four.

  1. Full transparence, and open governance, of all financing for climate change mitigation. By this we mean, not only government to government funding, but funds committed to the World Bank, and other international organizations, private sector and NGOs. Given the weak track record of the World Bank in forests, we strongly recommend that all governments who intend to pass funds through the Bank insist on new mechanisms to ensure that their initiatives secure local rights and prioritize supporting forest communities.
  2. Donors need to condition funding to any governments on the effective recognition of local rights by those governments. And commit not to undermine existing initiatives to strengthen rights and good governance in forests, such as the FLEGT, the Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade initiatives. Donors should undertake the same open and participatory processes, as they've done in the case of FLEGT and the associated VPA negotiations, or they risk undermining and rolling back progress made on these other fronts.
  3. Developed country governments seeking to reduce emissions from forests should commit to setting up regulatory frameworks for private sector funding which respects the rights of forest peoples. This would include simple standards for the recognition of rights, open and transparent governance, independent monitoring, verification, etc., all similar to the certification systems set up to promote sustainable forest management.
  4. Substantial increase in direct funding to communities for mapping local rights, strengthening their organizations and enterprises. We know how to do this. Many of you in this room have been involved in this. There are plenty of good examples and lessons from approaches around the world, in mapping, in facilitating negotiations between communities, and in assisting governments advance tenure reform. We just need to get on with it.

These two reports, more than anything, are a call to scale-up the many existing positive efforts that are underway around the world. These reports show, perhaps more clearly than before, that a major shift in how we conceive of and how we promote development in forest areas, towards the recognition and strengthening of local rights and enterprises - is now longer just a moral imperative, but an ecological, economic imperative - and indeed it is increasingly evident that the recognition and strengthening of local land rights and enterprises has become a security imperative. The radical idea upon which this House of Commons was built, that rights should be respected and governance should emanate from the common people - remains radical in the forest areas of the world - and our continued negligence of that fact now risks imperiling not only the forest peoples of the world but ourselves and our planet. We see that there is a major risk of increased carbon emissions, deepened poverty and violent conflicts, - conflicts that can now easily spread across borders, unless these long-standing inequities are addressed, and addressed quickly.

Thank you.