‘Selling the oxygen to the gringos’: Attitudes change toward REDD+

SAO PAOLO, Brazil _ Public support is growing in Brazil for a global climate change scheme that could see the country paid not to turn the Amazon into farmland, experts said, after years of derision by nationalist critics who described the plan as “selling the oxygen to the gringos.”

“There is a growing and large support for the concept of REDD, which did not exist not too long ago. I see that both in government agencies and the civil society,” said Virgilio Viana, director-general of Brazil’s Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS), which manages a project in the Amazon that pays local inhabitants not to cut the forests.

REDD+ stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. The global mechanism could see rich countries pay poor countries billions of dollars to protect their forests. Proponents say it offers one of the cheapest ways to slow the rate of climate change.

“The issue of sovereignty is one that is very important for Brazil. I think there is a need to change and this change is taking place in terms of how to view sovereignty and the Amazon,” Viana said.

He said there is a growing understanding that the Amazon is not only important internationally because of its role to store carbon, but also internally in Brazil, “especially for water cycles where rain received in other parts of Brazil may be significantly related to land-use changes in the Amazon. This is important for agricultural production, which is a very important component of the Brazilian economy. It is also essential to energy production because we are mostly hydro-based in terms of our electricity grid. And in terms of direct water consumption, 70% of the water used in urban areas is captured from rivers.”

He said this was a message provided by a task force under Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – and it has now resonated downward.

“On the basis of these conclusions, the task force sent a very strong message through all levels of government saying that we should think of this as a Brazilian agenda, in Brazilian interests, which also happens to be line with the interest of the rest of the world,” Viana said. “So, if there is a mechanism such as REDD that promotes forest conservation, this is not something that is preventing Brazil from developing, which used to be the old view. I see a very important change in paradigms taking place in Brazil. Of course, this is not done yet. It is a process. But I see this is becoming the mainstream thinking.”

Sven Wunder, a Brazil-based scientist for the Center for International Forestry Research, said this change is reflected across many other countries in South America.

“Countries are starting to see REDD as an opportunity for funding that comes in for forest conservation, but also for reaching poor forest dwellers in marginal regions that would otherwise have few possibilities for receiving government funding. It is both these motives that are driving governments,” he said.

Perhaps the loudest critic of REDD+ in South America has been Bolivia’s leader, Eva Morales, who says the scheme will lead to the “commoditization” of the forests. His government was the only one in the world to oppose an international climate change agreement in the latest round of U.N. talks in Mexico in December 2010.

In a letter to Bolivian indigenous leaders in September 2010, he wrote, “Through this mechanism (REDD+), developed countries will have handed their obligation to reduce their emissions to developing countries, and the South will once again fund the North.” He went on to say that companies in rich countries would “have saved a lot of money by buying ‘certified’ carbon from the Southern forests. However, they will not only have cheated their commitments to reduce emissions, but they will have also begun the commoditization of nature, with the forests.”

“Nature, forests and indigenous peoples are not for sale,” the letter said. “For us the forest and rainforest are not objects, are not things you can price and privatize. We do not accept that native forests and rainforest be reduced to a simple measurable quantity of carbon.

Despite the strong rhetoric, Bolivia is moving ahead with REDD+. In April last year, the UN-REDD Programme Policy Board approved US$4.7 million to help get Bolivia ready for REDD+. At that time, Bolivia’s REDD+ team leader, Edgar Arias, said, “the approval of funding for implementing the UN-REDD Programme in Bolivia represents a significant contribution to the process of preparing the country for implementing a future REDD+ mechanism,” according to the UN-REDD’s website. Approximately 50 percent of Bolivia is covered by forests.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrzRXZl1ZNA