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Rules for managing environmental issues are increasingly set at the global level. But both researchers and the people who put such rules into effect find that there is frequently a mismatch between global policy, the economic models used by decision-makers responsible for putting policy into effect, and local realities.

Such mismatches are most common where local issues such as property rights, cultural norms and social values are involved. They are now emerging in efforts to reduce carbon emissions through changes in land use and forestry to meet the requirements of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

As a result, those at the receiving end of such projects potentially face a number of difficulties. These need to be taken more seriously by those keen to make international policy on climate change compatible with sustainable development.

Global priorities

Under the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, targets were agreed committing industrialised countries to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to at least five per cent below 1990 levels. To achieve this objective, some developed countries — particularly the United States — proposed that they should be allowed to set aside land for sustainable forest management, and count the extra carbon dioxide captured (or 'sequestered') through photosynthesis as a contribution to cutting overall carbon emissions.

A lengthy debate has since taken place on the technical, legal and socioeconomic implications of accepting such an emissions reduction strategy for developed countries. At the same time, there have been fierce discussions on cost-effective land use and forestry options that developing countries might be encouraged to pursue through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). This allows countries to reduce their overall contribution to carbon emissions by funding projects in developing countries that reduce emissions either by promoting renewable energy, or by planting trees to create carbon 'sinks'.

Much of the international debate on the CDM has centred on whether developed countries should be paying to protect Amazonia, which reportedly contributed to between 10 and 20 per cent of the carbon released into the atmosphere by human activity in the 1990s. In the final decision on carbon sinks in the CDM, agreed in 2001 at the climate conference in Marrakech, Morocco, afforestation and reforestation activities were deemed acceptable, while conservation activities were excluded.

Until now, mechanisms such as the CDM have scarcely existed, apart from a number of pilot projects established predominantly in Latin America in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, the rules and procedures regulating the social and economic impacts of these projects have been contentious, and the technical details and rules on small-scale afforestation and reforestation have yet to be agreed. This will happen at the 10th session of The Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Climate Change in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December 2004.

Carbon sink projects involve highly complex technical and social institutions in their design, implementation of the rules and ensuring the long-term sustainability of these schemes. But although many developing countries are paving the way for such projects by establishing elaborate rules concerning the sustainable management of their natural resources — such as Bolivia's 1996 forestry law, or recent pollution laws in India — enforcing them remains a big challenge.

Furthermore, many countries have yet to establish national regulatory systems for carbon sinks that are coherent and robust. And it is not only the regulatory framework that requires attention. The organisations that manage the projects must be multi-skilled, highly innovative and sensitive to local realities — not an easy task.

Local realities

As yet, no CDM projects have been implemented. But two pilot projects focusing on carbon sinks already show how some local realities are being addressed. One is the Noel Kempff Climate Action project in a national park in Bolivia, and the other is the Peugeot/ONF project in Amazonia, Brazil.

Both of these are multi-component projects aiming to sequester carbon, conserve biodiversity and help alleviate poverty. And both highlight how institutions have introduced changes in the rules over land use without enough guidance from the respective national governments, and without sufficiently including local stakeholders in decision making.

The result has been conflict between project developers and community representatives, and between local NGOs and external developers, as well as within communities.

The lack of regulatory frameworks is a key problem with both projects, as is enforcement of existing environmental legislation. The Noel Kempff project initially met resistance from locals over the expansion of the national park boundaries because of misunderstandings over local access to subsistence resources, such as timber and non-timber forest products, as well as grazing land. In the Peugeot project, land was bought by external developers, affecting the level of benefit local smallholders got from the scheme.

With these and other pilot projects, an additional issue is the number of stakeholders. There are often many of these, making management highly complex. International organisations driven by a specific mandate have tended to spearhead pilot projects.

Research shows, for example, that conservation organisations have tended to prioritise biodiversity conservation and carbon benefits. Meanwhile, local households tend to prioritise education and other direct benefits of development, such as road building and exploitation of forest timber.

Such benefits are not mutually exclusive. But addressing local development is time-consuming and costly in the short term. Project developers need to think carefully about how to address local needs in a more cost-effective and socially responsible manner.

Another barrier to getting projects off the ground has been a lack of local participation in the early stages of decision-making. In both the Bolivian and Brazilian pilot projects, local stakeholder groups (farmers or scientists) were initially bypassed for the sake of time and the ambitious expectations of project developers.

Carbon sink projects require local stakeholders to abide to a set of rules that may run counter to local habits and traditions. These may, for instance, defy local traditions governing slash and burn activities, or advocate planting unfamiliar tree species.

Understanding local culture and how this may affect land use is therefore essential for the success of such projects. For example, projects such as these that aim to address deforestation and local development have encountered highly complex social dynamics that affect dealings with local institutions.

An example of this is the habilito system in Bolivian Amazonia, which originated in the slavery system of the rubber-tapper era. Under this, workers used to receive payment for their labour in the form of goods, and were highly dependent on a bonded relationship with a patron or boss. When carbon, a modern commodity, is traded within this kind of long-established socioeconomic tradition, adjustment is needed on both sides.


In the spirit of 'learning by doing' — which implies a flexible and adaptive learning process — pilot projects should build a common vision early on. In the process, they need to be more deliberate and inclusive. Normally, adapting in this way demands flexible, yet robust participatory monitoring that allows for reflection, anticipation and response to change.

In practice, however, pilot projects have been motivated by political and publicity interests, and implemented in complex local contexts in a fairly ad hoc manner. Institutional arrangements such as the local rules and norms that dictate land management are constantly fluctuating between old practices and new systems. This is the context within which many poor and marginalised people live in frontier forests.

Without appropriate institutions to address the social and economic dimensions of sustainable development, for instance, projects may likewise not address issues of social welfare and equity. And if this happens, they will fail to have much impact on saving the world's rainforests.

The consequences of such institutional mismatches between local and international have to be recognised and addressed at the global level. This is a vital step in informing policy makers on policy that addresses sustainable development.

To avoid such mismatches, attention must be paid to matters of process and structure, such as the inclusion of previously marginalised groups. A number of organisations are already working towards establishing standards that reflect local stakeholder concerns for projects aimed at fulfilling social objectives.

The challenge is to ensure that decision-makers become aware of such standards, and that agreement can be reached on them. This means that information from the local level will need to be conveyed to international policy circles to ensure that the experiences of these communities are taken on board in policy decisions. For example, the UNFCCC Secretariat has begun to hold workshops during climate negotiations to provide opportunities for scientists and policy makers to interact and discuss, in an open forum, issues that are otherwise highly political and divisive.

At the local level, pilot projects have taught us that monitoring and evaluation can help foster better systems of sharing information between partners, and establish relationships of trust and reciprocity. These relationships can then serve as a social learning tool so that people learn from each other to engage in the process of shifting towards a low-carbon economy.

All this means significant time needs to be spent on understanding the interaction between global and local institutions, as well as addressing what sustainable development means to poorer communities on the margins of development.

The author is a postdoctoral fellow at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, United Kingdom.