Massive corruption undermines forest protection plan

Published Wednesday, 27 October 2010
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John Vidal: UN's forest protection plan hasn't even started yet but already we are seeing massive fraud, bribery and backdoor deals across the world

Tropical forestry is dominated by big companies close to some of the most corrupt governments on earth, who treat people like dirt after promising them "development" in return for cutting the trees down. Now they are being joined by a new breed of entrepreneur, ranging from carbon cowboys, bogus lawyers and even environment groups all offering riches to people who leave the trees standing.

The lure is the potential billion of dollars to be made from buying and selling the carbon rights to forests. If you hold the rights and can prove that "your" forest is in danger, you can - after you've been through qualifying hoops - sell the carbon not released to rich consumers or companies who cannot offset their own emissions.

So far, this nascent carbon capitalism has all been in the voluntary carbon market and is worth a few billion dollars a year to companies and individuals; but if the UN comes up with a global climate change plan in Cancun, Mexico, next month the floodgates will open and over a few years there could be $35bn a year flooding into forestry protection from country to country.

The great green hope is the UN's Redd (Reduced emissions form deforestation and degradation) programme, which is fine in theory but proving a legal nightmare in practice. Redd hasn't even started yet but already we are seeing massive fraud, bribery, backdoor deals, and corruption from Asia to Africa and all points between. Developing countries are hungry for new forestry funds; rich countries want a deal because it will allow them to carry on polluting as before; environment groups can see a way to broker conservation and protect the forests; politicians see influence. Win, win, win?

Perhaps but you can see the legal problems a mile away. A minute Australian company working from what appears to be a shopping mall in an Australian suburb claims to have grabbed the carbon rights to the entire Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); a three-man Kenyan company reckons it can earn $10m a year from the rights to a stretch of Cameroonian forest; the family of Papua New Guinea's prime minister has been accused of pressuring remote villagers to sign away their land, one of the lead negotiators for Indonesia's climate delegation, and the architect of its Redd programme, has been named as a corruption suspect by the country's anti-corruption agency. The list goes on.

Everyone agrees with Interpol that the potential for criminality with Redd is vast, ranging across ownership of the rights, who collects the money, how it is distributed; how the forests and the money are monitored and how the carbon in them is assessed.

Meanwhile, the big companies are confident they can continue logging as normal.

The warnings have come thick and fast in the last few weeks:

Liberian president Ellen Sirleaf Johnson has began extradition proceedings against a British businessman, for allegedly negotiating a closed-doors deal with a group of corrupt Liberian officials to purchase one-fifth of Liberia's rainforest; Greenpeace has declared that Papua New Guinea is not ready to implement Redd and Global Witness has warned that the whole scheme will be undermined by corruption.

There's a common perception among development groups that forestry is best left to environment groups, and need not be tackled by people involved in poverty reduction. The danger here is that a badly thought through Redd deal is shovelled through by eager countries in Cancun and leads not to untold wealth and resource protection, but to more poverty and more corruption. Its effect on development prospects then would be enormous and tragic.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2010
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