A priceless forest

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By Beverly Natividad

It sounded like one of those credit card advertisements that pointed to putting value to an experience, despite the cash outflow that it entailed. The experience, it always said, is priceless.

Today at the opening session of Forest Day 4, every speaker that lined up the podium outlined why forests are valuable and why they should be preserved.

It is not hard for people to imagine, they said, that forests are valuable to people and institutions in terms of food sources, livelihood, shelter, and biodiversity.

Forest value has been, of course, the talk in various corners here in Cancun as people anticipate an agreement on REDD+ or the process of reducing emissions through deforestation and forest degradation.

The program, if agreed here by next week, plans to give performance-based payments to encourage developing forest nations to preserve their forests and keep the carbon in.

Perhaps all that talk about REDD+ and the financing package that goes with it has kept much of the talk within the confines of a forest price. The allocation for forest countries will much depend on how much greenhouse gas emissions will be avoided if a forest of a certain size is conserved.

But Myna Cunningham, chair of the Center for Autonomy and Development of Indigenous People, put it best when she stood at the plenary podium and told everyone that for the indigenous groups who live in the forests, a forest is quite simply, priceless.

Elaborating on a forest’s value, Cunningham also mentioned health, livelihood. But speaking from an innate understanding of forests, she said that for indigenous people the forest is also very much tied to their spirituality and collective identity.

“The value of forests is reduced to monetary terms when for us, it also means our spirituality and our collective identity. It is priceless,” she said.

Expanding forest value to include the intangibles may seem a weak argument in all this talk about REDD+ but, as successful community forests in Mexico would show us, it is the more effective way to go.

When people have a sense of ownership to their home, they protect it with their lives.

The argument too is not lost in the negotiations particularly because – as many sectors are pushing – any agreement on REDD has to adhere to international environmental and human rights standards.

The REDD will not be operating on a vacuum, nor will it deal with just trees. Forests host ecosystems and indigenous people.

Cunningham said she fears a focus on the carbon that forests keep in might eventually move economic markets. The incentive to earn more will then shift the focus towards carbon markets and forget that tribal groups thrive in the area.

“We fear carbon markets might evict indigenous peoples from their patrimony,” she said.

Speaking about community forests in Mexico, Cunningham said it has been proven time and again that giving the residents of a forest area a sense of ownership of their land will encourage them to take care of it.

REDD is fraught with good intentions and it is not at all bad to put a value on forests if only to encourage forest countries to preserve them.

But how will a verdant forest continue to grow for the long-term if its resident protectors are eventually forced out of the area?

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