CANCUN, MEXICO -- The prospect of a deal on forest protection at the Cancun climate talks has galvanized pressure groups at either end of the ideological axis to take common aim at keeping the UN out of the rainforests.
On the one side are indigenous groups, who say the pact would add up to a privatization of their natural resources.
On the other side is an industry-backed think tank named World Growth International (WGI) that is fighting to protect logging interests, even though WGI likes to frame its arguments inside leftist rhetoric of concern for the poor. Slowing deforestation stifles economic growth in forest-dependent communities, they say, and will increase poverty.
Derailing REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, is a rare issue around which these strange bedfellows are seeing eye-to-eye.
"The ideological spectrum is more of a circle than a line," said Rolf Skar, a campaigner for environmental group Greenpeace.
Forests are responsible for 17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to UN estimates. Under REDD, which is seen as a critical component of a possible Cancun package, rich nations would dispense billions to poor states to reduce rates of forest loss.
But such promises of aid have failed to dissuade indigenous groups from condemning the plan.
"In whatever is determined on the UN level, there are numerous and consistent human rights violations against indigenous peoples in their own countries," said Jihan Gearon, lead energy and climate organizer, for the Indigenous Environmental Network.
"It would be hard to trust any UN-reprimanded safeguards."
Gearon and her fellow activists want indigenous people put in charge.
"The forests that have been the most protected in our world are protected because the indigenous peoples have right to protect that forest," she told SolveClimate News.
'No REDD' in Cancun
"REDD is not ready," Gearon continued. "We do not want a REDD agreement to come out of Cancun."
Alan Oxley, the Australian chairman and director of the Washington D.C.-based WGI, reluctantly admits to having parallel talking points to indigenous activists. His organization, which campaigns online aggressively, has alleged ties to logging companies.
"[Indigenous groups] do say similar things," he told SolveClimate News, "but we tend not to work in that space."
In a report released this week in Cancun, WGI attacked REDD as a "road to serfdom" for rainforest nations, such as Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Oxley said that the report dispels a "myth" that razing trees is driven by commercial forestry or palm oil plantations. According to WGI, the need to grow crops for food and fuel is "most often" the cause of forest loss in poor states, and restricting access would choke economic growth.
Skar said the whole concept that "deforestation equals riches for local communities" is "absurd from the start."
It's a model of development that's outdated; it has "been shown not to work" and is "not relevant to the debate," he said.
He points to Indonesia's announcement last May to impose a two-year deforestation moratorium. "The Indonesia president would not be talking this way if it was going to impoverish millions of people."
Scientists Slam WGI
Environmental advocates are not the only ones questioning WGI's claims.
"WGI frequently lobbies public opinion on the behalf of Sinar Mas holdings, a conglomerate of mostly Indonesian logging, wood-pulp, and oil palm companies that includes Golden Agri Resources, a Singapore-based firm," the authors wrote.
Oxley said he does not disclose funders but conceded that WGI is "sympathetic to the industries, which create jobs." On global warming, he said: "World Growth does not contest the science ... We don't get into that."
Oxley continued: "In my opinion, for anybody who expresses a dissenting position to that of groups like Greenpeace, there's a tendency to label them a skeptic."
WGI has repeatedly targeted Greenpeace in its communications. Oxley said the reason for this is that the green group has "no regard for poverty" in its push to end deforestation and spouts "fabricated" data.
Skar and others chalk it up to something else: "It's because we've been successful," he said, citing progress in getting Nestle and other corporate giants to commit to forest preservation.
Alistair Graham, global affairs adviser for the Australia-based Humane Society International said: "What they fear is that any success that we might have will reduce the amount of resources available to industrial logging."
REDD Watered Down
The 194-nation Cancun talks entered the high-level segment on Tuesday. More than 30 heads of state and 100-plus ministers now have four days to hammer out the building blocks of a new deal to replace the 1997 Kyoto treaty.
REDD maintains broad support from rich and poor nations and could be one of few agreements to emerge, observers say.
Oxley said it is being used as a pawn by UN negotiators "to save the day" in the flailing talks, and questions deforestation's role in global warming.
For advocates, REDD is a way to both slash heat-trapping gases and empower local communities — though Skar admits there is potential for adverse effects.
The concerns of indigenous people are "valid," he said. "REDD can imperil indigenous peoples' rights," adding that the Dec. 4 proposed negotiating text took a "big step backwards" on this issue.
Long-fought safeguards protecting the rights of indigenous people were changed from "principles" to "guidelines" — meaning they've gone from being binding to optional.
But "to throw out the concept of REDD" because of imperfect text is "the wrong way to go," Skar said.
"REDD can exist in a variety of forms ... Even if things are screwed up here, there's nothing stopping bilateral agreements or initiatives or multilateral initiatives to help indigenous people."
UN Photo/Shaw McCutcheon