Will Programs to Off-Set Carbon Emissions Fuel Further Conflict in Bolivia's Forests?
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Six years ago Bolivia caught the world's attention as, for the first time, it elected an indigenous president -- Evo Morales, the head of the country's Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party. In the last week of September this year, the country was in international headlines again, as the same government's police force violently intervened in an indigenous march, tear-gassing and dispersing protesters. The protesters marched for over sixty days against a highway, to be financed largely by the Brazilian government and built by a Brazilian company. The proposed route was to run through the middle of a forest that is both indigenous territory and national park. When the march finally arrived in the capital, president Morales was forced to back down, signing a law stating that the road would not be built through the reserve.
The struggle over the highway represents a dilemma faced all across the global South: should governments shield forests and the people who live there? Or should they allow roads to be built, oil to be drilled, timber to be sold and land turned over to agriculture, in the hope that these activities will raise living standards among long-deprived populations? The country's social movements fall on both sides of this struggle in Bolivia -- as the protesters marched towards La Paz, they were confronted by blockades of small-scale migrant farmers and other groups who support the highway project. In the period after agreement was reached and most of the marchers returned to their communities, coca growers' unions, another organization representing indigenous groups in the reserve, and members of the governing MAS party continued to voice support for the highway, indicating that the conflict is not in fact over. Both sides have been talking about more mobilizations.
Over the past few years, a proposal claiming to solve the 'forest vs. economic development' dilemma has gained ground in the climate debate: REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. Advocates of this proposal argue that forests are destroyed because the 'service' they provide to the world by storing carbon is not compensated. They say that the only way to stop forest destruction is by providing economic incentives, so that forests are 'worth more alive than dead' to those who receive the incentives (these could include governments, indigenous groups, logging companies and farmers, to name a few possibilities.)
But there's a catch -- where will the money to fund these incentives come from? Powerful forces in climate politics want it to come from trading carbon credits, or 'offsets.' This would mean that polluters could count a swathe of protected forest as an 'emissions reduction' -- that is, as though they had reduced the pollution coming out of their smokestacks. The decision linking forest conservation to carbon markets may well be finalized at the UN climate negotiations in Durban at the beginning of December, unless it is blocked by dissident countries.
The Bolivian government, mirroring the position of climate justice groups across the world, has been a prominent voice rejecting carbon markets. Though it has argued for countries in the South to be compensated for the carbon stored in their forests, it has argued against Northern polluters being able to be able to use Southern trees as offsets, thereby allowing continued pollution from factories or power plants. Bolivian government representatives have also objected to a market-based system on the grounds that it represents a dangerous ' commoditization of nature.' This position -- radical, by the standards of the UN climate debate -- has made the Bolivian government a high profile player in climate politics, and a thorn in the side of those attempting to build a new market in forest carbon.