BBC World Service: Climate Change and Community Forest Management in Kuna Yala, Panama

June 5th, 2014

Mongabay SRI Fellow Ruxandra Guidi published a seven-minute segment on BBC World Service’s Science in Action program.  The piece focuses on the indigenous Kuna of Panama, whose livelihoods and homes are already being affected by sea level rise and climate change, and the ways in which they are adapting to it while trying to preserve their customs and sovereign control of their forests.

Listen to the full segment here.

The Joint Declaration of Intent on REDD+ in the Congo Basin between Central African and Donor Countries: making history, déjà vu, and which way forward ?

January 5th, 2012

Op-ed by Ngembeni Wa Namasso, special to

The Declaration on REDD+ expected as part of ongoing climate talks in Durban, South Africa, by the Central Africa Commission on Forests (COMIFAC) and some donor countries, was released, Wednesday, December 07, 2011.

To many observers this declaration is a ritual and therefore, expected after every meeting by ‘high-level’ decision-makers on forests from that part of the World. However, closer examination would reveal evidence of donor inertia; three tendencies – the forward, the going-it-alone and the going-along; some cracks appearing in the commission, and some face-saving gestures made.

Firstly, there is good news! The Congo Basin remains strongly committed to forest management; yet, it is a zone experiencing low investment in the forestry sector, insufficient flexibility in REDD+ readiness and weak integration of the forestry sector with growing pressures for land from international investors. The bad news is however that, moving towards a genuine and tangible consensus for REDD+ in the Congo Basin will require much more than intentions and declarations.

Firstly, the prominence of ‘intent’ in the title of the declaration is telling. From the region’s recent history on REDD+ since Bali in 2007, through COP16 2010 Cancun, Mexico, to the grand standing of the “Summit of 3 Tropical Forest Basins of the World” held in Brazzaville, May/June 2011, rounding-off 2011 with a declaration of intent seems a bit lame. Few can see COMIFAC, led by the vigorous doyen of Central African forestry, architect of the Brazzaville summit; H.E. Henri Djombo of the Republic of Congo, settling for a declaration of ‘intent! A declaration with ‘intent’ as the highest water mark is covered by the fingerprints of donor inertia.

For observers of the REDD+ process in the Congo Basin, COMIFAC countries exhibit three types of attitude vis-à-vis REDD+ readiness. Type 1 – are the forward countries with high forest/people ratio, weak road infrastructure and prospects for immediate foreign investments. Type 1 countries generally expect substantial windfalls from rapid REDD+. The republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo fall into this first category. Type 2 – are countries going-it-one, somewhat trending away from the REDD+ option as currently structured. They have a strong natural resources base, higher prospects for foreign investments. They also have a high forest/people ratio and a strongly independent, even nationalist character. Gabon and Equatorial Guinea fall in this Category. Type 3 – are countries going-along, fearing negative reciprocity if they don’t. These countries have enjoyed historic forestry leadership and have made investments in COMIFAC. Some have perhaps dwindling forests; they enjoy better road infrastructure and therefore relatively lower cost of foreign investments. Cameroon falls under this category. With shaky commitment to REDD+ Types 2 & 3 are actively espousing greater creativity and flexibility in REDD+ options. Type 1 countries on the other hand seem impatient for a faster REDD+ mechanism.

These apparent cracks in the COMIFAC facade are also demonstrated by the number of State flags not appended to the declaration. Of the ten (10) members of COMIFAC, the Flags of Sao Tome & Principe, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea are not included. This casts a shadow on the traditional togetherness of ‘COMIFAC’. Of the seven whose flags are appended, Chad, though proud of its parklands is not a typical forest country. The Central Africa Republic boasts modest amounts of tropical forests. Still the bulk of Chad is non forest. Rwanda and Burundi are both countries with relatively high population densities, Montaigne woodlands and small surface areas.

If the pre-Cancun/COP16, Brazzaville summit of May/June 2011 is anything to go by, it seems this declaration has been pushed by H.E. Henry Djombo, Minister of Sustainable Development, Forest Economy and the Environment of the Republic of Congo, and doyen of Central Africa Forestry Ministries. Some pundits would make light of this longevity, expecting rivalry, between the two Congos. After all, the DRC has more than 60% of the region’s forests. However, it may be precisely because of DRC’s forests and H.E. Henri Djombo’s longevity that, leadership advances by DRC’s H.E. Edouado Endundu, would clearly be overkill. With a below par Brazzaville summit on ‘3 forest Basins’, it seems quite plausible that this Durban Declaration is a success for H.E. Henry Djombo and a grace – saving act for COMIFAC.

In keeping with the spirit of the declaration however, a number of concrete steps must be taken.

In the coming years the COMIFAC region must explore a number of concrete sustainable forest management solutions. For decades forest governance has been talked about as if it belonged in another era, and little done to build capacity so citizen actors can be incentivized to take greater part in managing forests. With possible incentive mechanisms on the horizon the technical requirements for managing forest carbon seem clear and so are sustainable benefits from forests. It is now also clear that forests must be made more valuable standing, than converted. Investments in forests should lead directly to stronger local and national capacity to manage and market diverse products and services from natural forests without destroying them. Proxy – or less than direct strategies for managing natural forests have not succeeded.

Approaches to REDD+ must become more creative and longer term. Sub national options for marketing carbon under specific national circumstances should be looked at on case by case, country-by-country bases more carefully. More of the same medicine, for all countries is clearly not working and some countries are choosing other options and going-it-alone or just going-along for reasons other than sustainable forest management. The use of donor funds to support REDD+ should be directed towards investments in keeping forests, natural by moving to a higher level of valorization of products and services from natural forests.

The use of the term ‘Country’ in international forest policy communications needs to be clearly unpacked to mean not national governments or their representatives exclusively, but all the citizens in the COMIFAC countries – each according to their skills, interest and resources, and including state agents. Such distinction is now necessary as more citizens have or are acquiring needed knowledge and skills and want to become involved; to work as partners with foreign collaborators and their governments. Citizens no longer want to be ‘convened’ by Government or foreign experts as has been the status quo. Arguably, State forestry agents in COMIFAC countries are currently over-saturated with responsibilities, while sectors like national research, institutions of higher learning, nongovernmental organizations and ordinary entrepreneurs can often be without business, without funds and resources with which to support the forestry sector. Diversification of support to all these sectors is the way to go for forest and climate work in the Congo Basin.

Finally, COMIFAC countries must clearly demonstrate awareness of how global demands for agricultural lands are being taken on-board in current forest and climate change mitigation work. The only way skills can be developed, focus maintained on competing land and forest uses; make citizens into actors, take-on their livelihoods concerns, their fears and interests, is to enlarge the forest and climate process and to support a truly national consensus; one that is measurable, verifiable and reportable.

Picture: 3D mapping of rainforests

January 2nd, 2011

High-resolution example of deforestation and degradation in the Peruvian Amazon. Image courtesy of the Carnegie Airborne Laboratory.

In 2009, researchers with the Carnegie Institution, World Wildlife Fund, Amazon Conservation Association, and the Ministry of Environment, Peru used satellite images and airborne Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), together with field plots, to map aboveground carbon stocks and emissions at 0.1-ha resolution over 4.3 million ha of the Peruvian Amazon. To measure forest deforestation, degradation, and regrowth, the researchers collected 27 LiDAR survey areas covering a total of 514,317 ha throughout the 4.3 million ha region, at a spatial resolution of less than one meter (3 feet).

Results of the research were published in September 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The mongabay write-up can be found at Peru’s rainforest highway triggers surge in deforestation, according to new 3D forest mapping.

More about the exercise, which is being duplicated in other forests around the world, is available at the Carnegie Airborne Laboratory’s new web site:

Forest carbon offsets under California’s AB-32

December 7th, 2010

The Tropical Forest Group, a forest policy organization, has released a briefing on California’s AB 32 Regulations, as it relates to the reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) mechanism.

Briefing Note on Proposed CA AB 32 Regulations

An editorial by John O. Niles of the Tropical Forest Group can be found at:

    Can RED Hot California Heat Up A Sedated Cancun?
    (12/07/2010) In his concession speech after the 2010 mid-term elections, President Obama said that prospects for meaningful US climate change legislation are doubtful for years. With the US and the international community unable to take even modest steps to combat global warming, the State of California has stepped up in a big, big way. Despite record unemployment rates, deficits and unemployment, California voters trounced a measure that would have suspended AB 32, California’s landmark climate change law. California’s AB 32 cap and trade program will soon be the biggest market for compliance emission reductions outside of Europe. In
    the wreckage of the Copenhagen talks and the new political landscape in America, California is the most dynamic jurisdiction for climate change implementation in the world.

Without oversight and safegaurds, REDD may be caught up in web of corruption

November 28th, 2010

By Angela Dewan

This post originally appeared at CIFOR’s blog as “Forest Crimes and Money Trails

The issue of measurement, reporting and verification of carbon levels is set for the agenda at COP 16 in Cancun next month. Experts warn, however, that more attention must be given to the monitoring and reporting of REDD+ financial flows, which stand to be caught up in complex webs of corruption.

There will be a lot at stake. In Copenhagen last year developed countries committed new and additional resources to forestry worth $30 billion for 2010-12, and set out to mobilise $100 billion annually from 2020 to address the needs of developing countries. If any of that money makes its way into bank accounts overseas, the money trail becomes difficult to follow.

“We need to focus on prevention, because once money is put into accounts abroad, they become very difficult to trace,” said Ajit Joy, Indonesian country manager of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. Joy was speaking at the International Anti-Corruption Conference in Bangkok, joined by other experts in a session on forest crime, organised by CIFOR and Transparency International.

The panelists painted a grim picture of the current climate of corruption. CIFOR researcher Ahmad Dermawan reminded the audience that most of the countries that stood to receive financial REDD+ were among the most corrupt.

“Most of these countries rate very poorly on Transparency International’s corruption perception index. Many of them are close to the bottom,” he said.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s chief commissioner, Dat’o Sri Abu Kassim, pointed to projects where local officials in Malaysia were tested for bribe taking, showing a bribe acceptance rate of 100 percent.

“Every time we asked if forest had been destroyed, they would always say the forest is fine. And every time we saw it wasn’t and tried to enforce the law, they would attempt to pay a bribe,” he said.

But not all the news is bad. Some progress has been made in tackling corruption, and countries like Indonesia appear to be taking the potential benefits REDD+ could bring their country very seriously.

Director of CIFOR’s Forest Governance Program, Andrew Wardell, pointed to Indonesia’s appointment of Kuntoro Mangkusubroto as head of its REDD+ taskforce as a positive sign. Kuntoro earned widespread trust and respect for managing the millions of dollars that were poured into Indonesia after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 180,000 in Aceh and Nias.

Wardell added that forest agencies alone could not effectively address many of the issues associated with forest crimes.

“The scale of these problems requires the involvement of multiple agencies and actors, and the application of sectoral and intersectoral instruments to curb corruption and fraud.”

Kassim of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission agrees, saying that a new “joint-venture” approach adopted by the commission to tackle corruption in the forestry sector was proving successful.

“We have used a new approach, where we’ve used people on the ground as informants and undertaken undercover operations,” he said.

The approach has resulted in the prosecution of a number of top forestry officials.

Another sector that could be better utilised to help follow the money trail, panelists said, is the banking sector. Julie Walters from the Australian Institute of Criminology said that Indonesia banks had a legal obligation to collect information about account holders, identify “political exposes people” and report any unusual activity in their accounts.

“For a small bank, it probably won’t have the skills or capacity to identify a political exposed person, someone who is in a local government or a judge,” she said.

CIFOR’s Dermawan said that without an improvement in the capacity of all relevant agencies to monitor the money trail, Indonesia could stand to lose REDD+ benefits.

“If Indonesia does not manage funds better, donors will go to other countries to start REDD+ projects. Anti-corruption is key to making REDD+ work.”

Liberally Green

October 13th, 2010

Conservation is traditionally associated with left-wing politics.

The distinction between left and right dates back to the days of the French revolution when those supporting radical changes in society where seated on the left side of parliament. Left-wing politics tend to strive for a more egalitarian society, achieved through cooperative, mutually respectful collaboration.Right-wing politics may see social and economic hierarchies as natural or normal.

Left-wing economic politics are often characterized by extensive government intervention. On the right side of politics, or at least the center-right, capitalism, private property rights, and the market economy with limited government regulation are more valued.

Looking at conservation in Indonesia, I wonder where, in the political spectrum, conservation fits in best. Here conservation is seen as a government duty, and for decades the standard approaches to conservation were built on collaboration between NGOs and governments. Unfortunately there has been limited success.

Many protected area in Indonesia are in a very bad shape. The majority of nature and wildlife reserves have no on the ground management. And outside protected areas, the loss of forest, freshwater and marine resources is even more rapid.

Indonesia’s private sector, both its big and small-holder industries, are a major driving factor behind these losses. But they are also the biggest hope for solutions.

Many companies in the timber, fibre, oil palm, and mining industries create conservation set asides which they themselves aim to manage. If this trend continues, we may soon find that the private sector plays a much bigger role in conservation than the government. This reflects the situation in North America and Europe where many conservation lands are privately owned and managed.

I wonder whether this is leading to a political shift in conservation. Is the increased integration of conservation in market economies, green thinking in companies, and the commodization of environmental services (think carbon ,water etc.) shifting conservation to the right? Is this green-tinged liberalism the future of conservation? If it is, would it be a good thing?

I wouldn’t mind less government meddling in conservation. Let the government govern, but leave the conservation implementation to others. Privatize national parks that the government has not been able to manage. But hold the new managers accountable. Make conservation pay for itself.

In rapidly developing economies like Indonesia, with a large natural resources sector, the private sector, not the government is the main factor determining the future of conservation.

Chinese Whispers in Indonesian Conservation

September 25th, 2010

You can call me a scientific nit picker, but I am confused.

For almost a decade conservationists have been trying to give a more comprehensive picture about deforestation. Rather than talking about hectares, square kilometers or acres lost, the popular measure of “football fields” is increasingly used.

I guess the thinking is that Joe Public doesn’t quite get the standard scientific units of measurements. But as he sits in front on his tv to watch men run up and down grassy fields, he will have some picture of the size of a football field.

Deforestation as measured by numbers of football fields , however, acts like Chinese whispers. I did a quick Google search on “deforestation”, “football field”, and “Indonesia” and found the following conflicting statements:

According to the English Football Association, the length of a full-size soccer pitch must be between 90 and 120 meters and the width between 45 and 90 meters, i.e. between 0.4 and 1.08 ha. An American football pitch measures about 0.45 ha, without the end zone.

Based on the above statements and the variation in the size of football fields, deforestation rates in Indonesia vary from 0.2 ha per hour at the lowest to 648 ha per hour at the highest. Or in the more usual measurements, between 1752 and 5.7 million ha per year. That’s a 3,000-fold difference! And at least one source ascribes most of that deforestation to oil palm.

Deforestation rates are notoriously difficult to get hold of. They are obscured by definition of what is forest, methods of detection, and willingness of governments to report to the FAO who keep the official data. More transparency and more frequent information on deforestation is badly needed to see whether we are making any progress towards reducing it. I doubt, however, that football field estimates make things any clearer.

I don’t know who started measuring deforestation in football fields lost. The obvious idea was to drive home the severity of deforestation, especially in the tropics. But I really don’t think the present confusing reporting is making things any clearer.

Obviously as conservationists we are also opening ourselves up to the criticism that we can’t even get our facts right. Ultimately I believe it puts us in a weaker position to influence the forest conservation agenda.

Let’s stick to the deforestation facts. And let’s stick to measures that everyone understands and that are unambiguous.

Or if you do need to simplify, use something that is clear. For example, when you talk to a US audience, tell them that Indonesia is losing a forest area the size of New Hampshire every year, which will work a lot better than saying that a forest area the size of 190 king size mattresses is being lost every second. Anyway, you get the point.

Conservation Forestry Rule Engine Financed by the Carbon Markets and A Commodity Buffer Zone

January 9th, 2008

Malaysian rainforest 

Previously, we wrote “the land dictates the rules, and rural communities are the gatekeepers” [The Jakarta Post, December 2007] regarding how should the nascent forestry ecological service market develop. Essentially, this equates “avoided deforestation” best practices with best practices in natural resources management.

To explain further, a successful avoided deforestation project is a subset of land use, land use change, and forestry. What this means on the ground is that land use, land use change, and forestry can primarily fund avoided deforestation projects along with possible secondary carbon financing. This removes the responsibility of the carbon markets for being the primary source of funds for these large scale transactions. Furthermore, this integrative management technique relays less on new possible developments in on the sub-national, national, and international level as current avoided deforestation management policy driven tools originating from Bali.

Yet, what I have observed in my survey of project developers internationally are the following:

A.      Linear thinking and arrogance by participants will cause project failure.

B.      Inability of ex-pats to understand / participate in local culture.

C.      Inability of locals to bridge societal levels.

D.      Inability of all participants to communicate effectively.

Let me explain. Linear thinking dominates the logic expressed by project developers in the market place today. We have few market participants who are willing to understand how there may be causality and correlation between local nutrition levels and clean water and deforestation. In fact, local communities if they have access to improved nutrition and cleaner water will in plain English “have more to live for” and may “express greater interest in engaging with the sustainable management of their local resources”. I have been told of two projects, both anonymous, where a policy decision coupled with protection of a threatened forest have caused either starvation or malnutrition. These projects are geographically dispersed on two continents.

Next, ex-pats are often times not willing to engage local communities culturally. An anonymous source described unintentionally how little she knew about the local community she was working in when she mentioned that she hadn’t spent an evening communicating with locals on the ground in their village in an informal fashion. The key for project success is trust and confidence garnered by you the project developer through interaction with your local community. This in many cases will not occur in formal meetings since many communities simply want us as project developers to leave as soon as possible without minimal disturbance.

Yet, I have also experienced local individuals’ lack of ability to bridge societal levels. Many local individuals I have spoken to always assume poverty as a rationale for not wanting to engage with their fellow citizens. If your local connection is uncomfortable talking to all members of her community, you may be in for a surprise once the project begins. It the ability of your local project developer counterpart to successfully and effectively communicate with individuals within their society that may decrease qualitatively and quantitatively decrease your risk.

Finally, I have generally noticed a lack of project participants globally to effectively communicate with the individuals that they most need to communicate with. An anonymous project developer I know lost their contract because they couldn’t relate emotionally to their funder’s passion for forest protection and sustainability. These two counterparties clearly communicated regarding technical concerns about GHG and carbon accounting and project scope. Yet, the contract was lost because they didn’t communicate emotionally with their client. This specifically means that by relying too much upon a contract to define a relationship the firm missed the point. We are developing a new market and we have a tremendous amount to learn from each other ­– and this requires sincerity, credibility, and trust.

Gabriel Thoumi is a Masters Fellow at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan in conjunction with the Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources and Environment. He can be reached at