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The UN climate agreement signed off in Paris, France, in December 2015 intensified the global push to protect forests as ‘carbon sinks’ that can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Many developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have pledged to ring-fence their natural capital, creating parks that will be protected from logging, mining and other forms of industrial exploitation.
But analysis published today warns of a major blind spot. It says the price of failing to consider the people who live in protected areas could cost billions of dollars because of conflict, compensation and maintenance, delaying projects and thus missing the mitigation targets.
The Rights and Resources Initiative NGO and consultancy group TMP Systems teamed up to challenge the common myth that frames ‘wilderness’ as areas empty of people. The analysis looks at the specific cases of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia, where plans to implement ambitious conservation actions are moving at pace.
The researchers analysed Liberia’s proposal of protecting 30 per cent of the country’s forest by 2020, with an initial donation of US$150 million from Norway, now reduced to US$100 million due to the strong depreciation of the Norwegian currency, to be managed through the World Bank.
They overlapped geospatial data sets on the country’s population and forest cover, producing six scenarios to estimate the number of people who would be displaced by creating the parks in less or more populated forest areas.
The results (see graph below) also include the locations most likely to be chosen, as they have been identified through the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA).
Of the six scenarios, the WDPA scenario will cause higher than average displacement, exceeding the average number by about 35,000. The implication here is that the scenario fails to take into account the number of people affected by the measure.
The map shows current population densities within the potential protected areas.
When it comes to costs, too, the numbers just do not seem to add up.
David Theis, a spokesperson for the World Bank, said in an email: “The World Bank recognises the need for careful consideration of land tenure issues as well as the important role of forest-dependent people in sustainable forest management worldwide.”
He added that the Liberia Forest Sector Project seeks to invest an initial amount of US$37.5 million to improve the management of forest landscapes in the country and increase benefits for forest communities.
But should these preventive measures fail to avoid displacement, the report warns that compensation for people forced to move and facing loss of livelihood is estimated to cost up to six times more than the US$100 million currently available to implement the entire project.
Andy White, head of the Rights and Resources Initiative, says “there is an unfunded liability to the government of Liberia” that could lead to the proliferation of ‘paper parks’. These are projects where money is set aside and agreements signed off, but nothing happens on the ground.
This leaves room for illegal logging or mining. “This is not only a waste of money and abuse of human rights, but it also doesn’t achieve the forest’s conservation goals,” says White.
However, the World Bank challenged the research’s findings, saying in an email: “the specific allegations made regarding displacement of people in Liberia are very much off the mark, as they are based on erroneous assumptions and lack a firm basis in fact.”
The email says that under the Liberia Forest Sector project people will not be displaced from their houses and farms. The creation of new protected areas will take into account the established human settlements, rather than requiring their relocation.
Forests cover 30 per cent of the world’s land surface. Their protection features prominently in the Paris agreement. Although scientists have been unable to accurately estimate how much carbon global forests are absorbing, damage from deforestation is measurable. Evidence shows it is becoming more serious by the year.
Programmes such as REDD+ intend to preserve these natural carbon sinks. But, says Ben Bowie, a risk analyst at TMP Systems, the tools available to design effective conservation programmes have not been used rigorously.
Another myth that the research aims to dispel is the assumption that local governments have a clear picture of where their people live, and that they can use this data to identify areas where conservation projects will have minimum impact. The researchers warn that this is rarely the case, although international funders seem unaware of the problem.
Population data is available, Bowie says, but nobody uses it. Instead of drawing achievable goals based on evidence, climate targets are often aspirational and efforts to meet them come afterwards.
Still, Bowie believes the Paris agreement is an opportunity for countries to develop policies based on solid evidence, as they will have to report on their progress at international negotiating tables.