Climate Change Accords, Tree Plantations & Human Rights

Andrew Burger

With organizations and representatives around the world gearing up for key international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen this December, the experience of industrial tree farming in South Africa highlights the perils and pitfalls associated with hammering out a more comprehensive, multidisciplinary and integrated accord.

With the pivotal 15th session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's Conference of Parties less than 200 days away, various UN agencies are working to craft a more comprehensive, integrated and multidisciplinary approach to climate change that incorporates issues as diverse yet interrelated as agriculture, deforestation, desertification, land use and land use change, and the oceans in a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

South Africa's Gasophere seeks to raise awareness and slow the practice of unsustainable high-impact, fast rotation forestry

Given the ongoing loss of our largest land-based carbon sinks--tropical rain and other forests--no one initiative has been as prominent or as urgent as the effort to craft the international environmental policy known as REDD--Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

Perils, Pitfalls & Assuring Success

Valid and sensible as it is, broadening the scope, and scale, of a global climate change accord is fraught with risks and pitfalls. Our knowledge of ecology and the sciences as they relate to the environment have advanced a lot in a relatively short time span, but nature retains its ability to surprise us on a regular basis, especially when we seek to apply that knowledge in any one specific situation. Or rush recklessly into large-scale actions based on cascading hype from vested interests or overly emotionally charged messages.

Moreover, one need only look at recent financial and political events as a reminder of how much time, money and effort people and organizations will devote to skirt, if not outright abuse, the best intended regulatory frameworks for their own short-term financial gain and self-interest.

If REDD and other international measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change can be agreed--and that would be quite a feat in itself--their success will hinge on having valid assessment and verification methods, not to mention more than adequate, and uncorrupted, organizational infrastructure and resources in place.

Industrial Tree Farms

Geasphere, an internationally supported South Africa-based environmental non-profit group, is striving to raise awareness, and curtail high-impact, fast rotation forestry while advocating for and helping develop a model more in tune and respectful of the natural biodiversity found in the region.

Industrial tree farms have spread to the point where they cover millions of hectares across some of South Africa and surrounding nations' higher rainfall areas. You can argue that these industrial tree farms, in which grasslands are cleared in order to plant alien, deep-rooted evergreen species--typically eucalyptus and pine--capture a lot of carbon and provide timber for construction and other uses. And that would be true.

Watch these two videos and you'll see the other side of the ledger, however--how intensive, high-impact, fast rotation forestry has decimated rich grasslands, water resources, and biodiversity, while making them much more prone to fire and drought and depriving the ability of rural folk to subsist in the areas surrounding them. The bottom line--for residents and the environment--is a decidedly negative one.

Earth Matters, Part 1

Earth Matters, Part 2

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