REDD in the Amazon? On the need to go beyond the standard debate…

Visitors of this week’s World Social Forum 2009 in Belém (Eastern Brazilian Amazon) will hear a lot about the good and evil of conservation payments as a means to achieve Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD).
Passionate opponents of conservation payments fear that nature’s wonders will be put on sale once international negotiations have paved the way towards including REDD as a mitigation option in a Post-Kyoto regime. Fierce promoters of such payments praise its superior economic efficiency and potential for poverty alleviation as opposed to conventional approaches to halt deforestation in the Amazon.
Both are most likely wrong. What we need is a shift of paradigms in the debate about environmental policies. Too often, the debate centers on what the right choice of policy instrument could be when it should focus on how policies could be better designed and implemented. Too often, policy instruments seem to become mere placeholders for the political ideologies of those that promote them. In fact, virtually all policy instruments will most likely do more harm than good if poorly designed and implemented without recognizing institutional, political, and socio-economic particularities of a given context.
A sober debate on how to fix the environmental, social and economic ills in the Amazon should remain open for all potentially effective options. This includes incentives or compensations, where conservation implies unbearable opportunity costs, disincentives where greed is the cause of environmental degradation, and enablement where individuals lack alternatives to resource overuse.
While conservation payments or Payments for Environmental Services (PES) are relatively new in the environmental policy tool box, the underlying concept of conditional cash transfer is a common component of policies in other sectors, e.g. social assistance. Researchers from the Amazon Initiative Consortium have recently finished a report for the Brazilian Ministry of Environment, which analyzes the potential of PES in the context of the Brazilian Amazon. The results confirm the above notion that REDD in the Amazon will not come about as a result of either carrots or sticks. With over 90% of private land tenure being poorly defined and numerous overlaps of incompatible public land tenure categories, recipients of payments for REDD will be hard to identify. Moreover, ambitious, but un-enforced environmental legislation means that few PES options are legally additional, at least from a national perspective.
Hence, the good news for all worrywarts: Only few investors may end up being interested in buying environmental services from the Amazon unless the basic conditions for such investments are in place. Let’s make best use of our time in the meanwhile and figure out how to make sure that local dwellers in the Amazon are not loosing out when we compensate the emissions from our long distance flights to the World Social Forum.

Debate on the food crisis: Good or bad?

Since the 29th July 2008 and lasting through to August 8, The Economist is hosting an online, Oxford-style debate on whether or not rising food prices can have an upside for humanity. Since food prices are related to the discussion on agriculture and farming we thought Ecosystems and Poverty readers would want to know about the debate and participate.

The proposition is: “There is an upside for humanity in the rise of food prices.” According to the Economist:

Although we can never overlook the grave situation posed by rising food prices, we hope to dissect the issue and view it from fresh perspectives to see if it can have a positive impact. For example, do rising food prices benefit farmers? Can they lead to development of safe, genetically modified foods which in turn can help developing nations with marginal farmlands become self-sustainable? And are the shorter-term pains of creating biofuels worth the longer-term gains of reduced transportation costs?

Moderator John Parker feels that “there is always some sort of upside. The question for the audience is how big, and whether it is big enough to be meaningful.”   Pro and Con experts, Homi Kharas, Senior Fellow at the Wolfensohn Centre for Development at the Brookings Institution and Joachim von Braun, Director General, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) spar off in opening posts followed by rebuttals (August 1) and closing statements (August 6). A winner will be determined by popular vote and announced on August 8.

My take on this?  There are always winners and losers.  The question is which shade of grey is it, rather than a straight yes/no answer.

I lean towards the cons.  For middle-income farmers in developing countries (and there are many millions of these), if they play it right they can benefit greatly from rising food prices, but they really do need to play it right.  Unfortunately, and I have seen this first hand, food prices have increased massively at the global and national scale, but locally the price at farm-gate for some products has not changed much.  In some cases it has even gone down (e.g. sugar in Colombia – 7% reduction in price for producers).  Potential is there in most cases, but farmers need to be agile and adapt to a new production system – higher input costs, and for many products, higher prices at the farm-gate.  On the whole, middle0income farmers stand to benefit in the mid- to long-term.

However, there are still large percentages of the population in some cases who are very poor (see dollar per day indicators).  They typically have small farm sizes, lack of access to markets, technologies and information, and have no money to invest.  They also, as Joachim von Braun points out, are in many cases net consumers.  These people, the poorest of the poor, find it hard to adapt, and face severe barriers to capitalise on increased food prices.  This portion of the population will no doubt suffer, while the rich are largely unaffected, leading to an increase in inequality.  My personal opinion is that high inequality is almost worse than high net poverty in a country.  It leads to civil unrest in many cases.  So I don’t see a net benefit here – I think the world is worse off with the rise in food prices, especially thanks to the speed at which they rose.

But enough from me.  Check it out and participate!

Check it out and participate!

Environmental Capital Blog

I apologise for the silence of late.  Been a busy few weeks, and as regular readers will know, we’re coming to the end of our project and are scrambling to get the final report in order.  We’ll be posting the draft version to this website hopefully in about a week.

But just to keep the blog alive in the meantime, thought I’d link to an interesting blog from the Wall Street Journal entitled Environmental Capital.  Many of the stories are US-centric, but there are some posts about international issues such as carbon financing, poverty vs. environment trade-offs, and surprisingly, biofuels.  Check it out.  Thanks Mark for the link.

Illegal loggers and the law enforcers

The ever enlightening Polex alerts have just produced their latest storyline, this time on the problems of enforcing forest protection around illegal loggers:

When asked to name the worst part of his job, the district-level forestry official quickly answered, “Going out on patrol”. Poorly equipped, at risk of violent encounters, and resented by local communities, his attitude towards forest law enforcement is probably typical of many foresters, especially in developing countries. Without adequate support from higher levels of government and local communities, their efforts to stop forest crime are both thankless and ineffective.

In Illegal Logging: Law Enforcement, Livelihoods and the Timber Trade, Luca Tacconi and his colleagues identify several causes of illegal logging which help to illuminate the district forester’s predicament. Local communities often do not perceive illegal logging to be harmful or illegitimate, and their position may be supported by local governments. In Indonesia following decentralization, for example, the distinction between legal and illegal logging became blurred as district governments began issuing permits for timber extraction considered illegal by the central government.

And while there may be real resource and capacity constraints on the ability of forestry agencies to tackle illegal logging, Tacconi suggests that lax government attempts to control forest crime may reflect the priority given to other objectives. “Collusive” corruption – in which government officials and private actors work together to steal state timber resources – is particularly difficult to root out. Tacconi asserts that efforts to strengthen the capacity of forestry agencies to overcome forest crime will be ineffective without strong government commitment to that objective.

While acknowledging that illegal logging is driven by social and political factors beyond the control of the individual forest manager, William Magrath and his colleagues nevertheless see value in strengthening efforts to prevent timber theft at the level of the forest management unit. In Timber Theft Prevention: Introduction to Security for Forest Managers, they argue that forest crime is largely predictable, and therefore preventable, up to a point. Even though the underlying causes of burglary may be complex, it doesn’t make sense to leave your doors and windows unlocked. The study provides a number of practical measures that can be applied in a wide range of situations faced by forest managers.

Borrowing concepts from the fields of asset protection and industrial security, the authors illustrate how managing the risk of theft can be integrated into forestry planning and operations. Success depends on clarity regarding what is “legal” and what is “illegal”, and engagement with local communities to ensure that their incentives are aligned with increasing forest security. “Social fencing” can help control criminal trespass in forest areas, in addition to such simple measures as blocking or decommissioning access roads. The study also provides a list of “red flags” to alert authorities to fraud in timber-related transactions.

So, is it worth investing in forest law enforcement in light of the complex underlying causes of forest crime outlined by Tacconi et al? In his concluding chapter, Magrath says that forest security begins with public policies for good governance, and that development aid should target governments that are prepared to take proactive steps to prevent illegal logging. Our district forester needs both government commitment and practical tools to do his job. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Can’t get enough of biofuels

If it isn’t about climate change, it seems it is about biofuels.  One of the questions about biofuels, aside from the obvious environmental concerns, is the extent to which it can provide benefits to the poor.  Up till now the biofuels market seems to be cornered by large-scale agriculture, with a few exceptions.  A paper by John Mathews from Macquarie University calls for a biofuels pact to ensure that biofuels are not produced on newly cleared land, but also to ensure that developing nations can compete in global markets to achieve triple-bottom line outcomes, contributing to environmental sustainability and poverty alleviation.  Sounds like perfect sense to me.  But then the whole issue of capping carbon emissions 10 years ago also made perfect sense and look at the progress one decade later.  Call me a cynic, but…

And while we are on the subject of biofuels in developing nations, the oil palm industry seems to be cleaning up its act.  Or at least that is what the literature shows.  Edgar Turner and colleagues from Cambridge reviewed 30 years of oil palm research, finding that there has been a steady increase in research on environmental issues, and massive increase in biofuel-related research (what a surprise!), but almost nothing on biodiversity.  They call for more emphasis on biodiversity issues in and around oil palm fields.

And finally, we blogged about Virgin’s plan to fly a 747 across the English Channel on pure biofuels.  Well, they’ve done it, and there are mixed reactions out there.  But they certainly achieved something with the stunt – CABI Blog used it as an excuse to contribute quite a long article on the biofuel debate.  Well worth reading.


Turner EC, Snaddon JL, Fayle TM, Foster WA (2008) Oil Palm Research in Context: Identifying the Need for Biodiversity Assessment. PLoS One 3(2): e1572. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001572

Mathews, J.A., 2008, Biofuels, climate change and industrial development: can the tropical South build 2000 biorefineries in the next decade? Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining, Early View, doi:10.1002/bbb.63.

Health, infectious diseases and deforestation

A few stories have come up over the past week related to health and ecosystem services.  First, a study blows common-knowledge about the occurrence of American Cutanous Leishmaniasis (ACL) in forest environments out of the water.  The authors examined patterns of the disease throughout Costa Rica, and related disease prevalence with socio-economic and biophysical factors.

Surprisingly, their index of social marginalisation based on data such as income, literacy, level of education, distance to health center, correlated most with diseases prevalence.  And the word on the street that less forest means less disease?  Blown out the water – the relationship didn’t seem to exist, although a complex interaction with ENSO was shown to impact, whereby highly deforested areas suffered more from the effect of El Niño and in turn had higher levels of disease prevalence.

A second story did a fairly impressive mapping of emerging infectious diseases across the globe.  They conclude greater prevalence in wildlife areas, though Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog overlaid the data with livestock atlases and found little agreement.  This is definitely a paper that merits further analysis to further understand the drivers, but the fact that the map now exists is very encouraging.

And finally, I’m sure they are talking about all these issues in Ireland this week, where the 2nd International Conference on Health and Biodiversity is going on.


Chaves LF, Cohen JM, Pascual M, Wilson ML (2008) Social Exclusion Modifies Climate and Deforestation Impacts on a Vector-Borne Disease. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 2(2): e176. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0000176.

Kate E. Jones, Nikkita G. Patel, Marc A. Levy, Adam Storeygard, Deborah Balk, John L. Gittleman & Peter Daszak. Nature 451, 990-993 (21 February 2008); doi:10.1038/nature06536.