Bolivia gets clean by staying green

Project pays Bolivia for the forests it does not cut - a potential model in the battle against climate change.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    ‘Lost World’: The Ahlfeld Waterfall (shown) and the Arco Iris Waterfall are highlights of the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park in Bolivia. The falls may have inspired Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel.
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From the air, this 3.7-million-acre national park in northeastern Bolivia seems a vast carpet of lush timberland, cloaking jaguars, howler monkeys, and giant anteaters beneath. Outside the tiny window of a three-seat plane, the terrain rises from rainforest to flooded savannah. There is not a person in sight.

But in the distance is a trail of lighter, younger canopy the width of a road, a remnant from when logging paths carved this forest into pieces. That was before The Nature Conser­vancy, its Bolivian partner Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza (FAN), the Bolivian government, and three international energy companies devised a plan to protect 1.5 million acres threatened with deforestation and degradation. The idea was simple: This national park in the Amazon basin, perhaps the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World,” would do its part to fight climate change.

It is perhaps the best current example of how poor countries and rich countries can come together in the fight against climate change. It is a model of research and monitoring; it’s a lesson in the benefit of involving the central government; and it’s a cautionary tale about the need to include the local community as a full partner.

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The Noel Kempff Climate Action Project is a prime global case study. As negotiators work this week and next in Bonn to craft a new climate agreement to take effect in 2013, a consensus has emerged on the crucial role forest protection plays in re­ducing greenhouse-gas emissions, and en­­vironmentalists are looking at an international carbon-trading model as an incentive to save forests. It is called REDD: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

Now countries are looking to devise two-year pilot projects, in which rich nations pay poorer ones to conserve their forests. Not everyone agrees this mechanism is valid, mainly because its track record is so short.

But here in Bolivia, a REDD program that’s been under way for more than a decade has lessons for some of the concept’s more controversial features, including measurement impediments, the role that indigenous communities should play, and the support required from national governments.

Today the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project is the largest of its kind and the only one in the world to be independently verified: “Noel Kempff is the first project in the world that comprehensively included every type of deforestation and degradation in a full-blown carbon accounting scheme,” says Joerg Seifert-Granzin, head of the environmental services unit of FAN in Bolivia.

“It was meant to stimulate scientific development,” Mr. Seifert-Granzin says. But as REDD has become central to the debate on how to bring developing countries into a new global climate treaty, “people realize that there is an amazing experience in this project on how to deal with carbon accounting, how to generate benefits for biodiversity preservation, and how to generate benefits for sustainable development of indigenous communities.”

Environmentalists were wary of REDD

In December in Bali, Indonesia, at a United Nations conference on climate change, world leaders agreed to establish a timeline and road map for future negotiations. There, the World Bank announced it will use $100 million to help 20 nations prepare projects for their eventual participation in REDD systems.

Environmentalists didn’t always like REDD. Many criticized the concept as an easy way out for polluters. And the principle behind it – getting credit for what existing forests already are doing – was rejected as a ploy that developed nations could use to say that they were meeting emissions targets under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. But REDD is now seen as a leading solution to deforestation, which accounts for 20 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions – more than the transportation sector, according to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Only a handful of REDD projects exist, including those in Belize, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Madagascar, says Zoe Kant, manager of carbon finance for The Nature Conservancy. Indonesia has designed project-based approaches that are not yet operating; Papua New Guinea is developing a national REDD scheme.

In Bolivia, the idea has been tested at the widest scale: The project bought out four timber concessions, nearly doubled the national park’s boundaries, and set up a carbon-monitoring system by which offsets are awarded to three participating energy companies (American Electric Power, BP, and PacifiCorp.) and the Bolivian government – offsets that could be traded on the voluntary carbon-trading market, and (in the case of the Bolivian government) the money reinvested in the communities affected.

In 2005, the park became the first forest emissions-reduction project to be verified by a third party. The British firm SGS, using international standards developed under the Kyoto Protocol, showed that between 1997 and 2005 the project kept more than 1 million metric tons of CO2 from being released into the air.

Skeptics of REDD question whether reducing emissions in one area just shirt polluters to another – called “leakage” – negating any benefit. This is especially true for REDD schemes that are project-based, like that of Noel Kempff, instead of those carried out at a national level.

Here, this Massachusetts-size forest of mahogany and oak seems limitless. But its boundaries do end – at forests where logging is allowed. So the project studied the market influence nationwide of having bought out timber concessions here, for $1.6 million. Their results found a 16 percent leakage rate.

Determining leakage wasn’t easy. Diane Fitzgerald, managing director for governmental and environmental affairs for American Electric Power, says that some environmental groups initially had concerns about REDD because they doubted how well benefits could be monitored. “Noel Kempff has shown that you can develop the technology,” she says. “That project was the proving ground for remote sensing and monitoring.”

Villagers’ livelihoods rebound

Science is one concern in REDD schemes, but the role of indigenous communities and forest peoples must be central, leaders agree. In April, representatives of rain-forest peoples across Latin America met in Manaus, Brazil, to demand a greater say in REDD schemes. Peter Cronkleton, a scientist in Bolivia with CIFOR, says that REDD could boost such communities, since, for example, it should clarify land rights. “There is a lot of potential in REDD schemes for involving local people, which could have a [positive] impact on poverty,” he says.

Stretching across a grassy field along the banks of the Paragua River, the community of Florida consists of 30-some families living in thatched-roof homes. The 150 residents are among the most affected by the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project. Their livelihoods, directly and indirectly, revolved around the logging that was banned when the project was put in place. At that time, most in the community rejected it. “It was a sudden slump,” says Manuel Arias, Florida’s cacique, or tribal leader, as he walks through a wooded path to the river’s edge.

The community has rebounded with ecotourism and microcredit enterprises – ranging from chicken farms to rustic bakeries – supported by the project. A hotel with neat, wood-plank floors and screened windows is open to visitors, who arrive via private plane or by taking an arduous 12-hour ride down a dirt road. Villagers trained as tour guides take visitors into the park, where they might visit the Arco Iris Waterfall that pours over the Huanchaca Plateau – a sight that must have been, if anything was, the paradise described in “The Lost World.”

Villagers have running water and electricity now. But the logging trucks that provided transportation to the nearest city, 300 miles away, are gone. Mr. Arias says that, to some, life has improved. For others, life will never be as good.

Most significantly, residents were not treated as partners in the process. None of the 1,000 people living in the seven communities around the park sits on the project’s board of directors. As a consequence, says FAN’s Seifert-Granzin, the community still hasn’t received payment from the 2005 verification process: a one-time payment of $400,000, based on the price of carbon offsets sold on the voluntary market, and about $150,000 annually from 2006 onward.

Promised cash has yet to appear

The money hasn’t arrived yet because the Bolivian government – a full partner in the project with a right to 49 percent of the carbon offsets – has yet to cash in its shares. Staff turnover, political uncertainty, and structural changes have also affected the project, leaders say.

Detractors of REDD question the ability of a developing country to oversee a multimillion-dollar project, given corruption and a weak legal system. Above all, says Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, the former environment minister of Costa Rica (he now works for Conservation International), nations need to demonstrate “good environment governance.”

As countries move forward, with lessons learned from one another, some wonder whether, inadvertently, the scheme rewards the wrong people.

Mr. Cronkleton says some at CIFOR argue that the ranchers or loggers are the ones who will reap the benefits, because they are the ones destroying the forest. But rubber tappers and brazil-nut gatherers, who eke out a subsistence living and have a clear stake in preserving the forest, will be left out of a payment scheme.

Here at Noel Kempff, the program also has an unintended benefit: The economics of the scheme, if plotted on a chart, might be a wash, says Arias. But a sense of environmental responsibility, of the need to preserve the forest, the river, and the creatures that inhabit both, has blossomed where it never was before. “We never had a culture of conservation,” says Arias, looking out at the Paragua River, his nephew playing in the grass at his feet. “I feel proud to be a part of this.”

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