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Community forests show the way forward at Cancun climate talks
As written by Louise Gray for The Telegraph on 7 December 2010
What is a tree worth? To some it is shelter, to others food and to many of us a commodity.
To Mayan communities it is all of these things, plus a source of chewing gum.
The village of Betania relies on the forest for agriculture, building materials and medicine. It also extracts resin from the bark of the trees to make ‘chiclet’.
Fifty years ago many of the movie stars first seen chewing gum would have got their fashionable habit from these forests.
Today Wrigley’s is made from petro-chemicals but men still haul themselves up trees hacking the bark with a machete to extract resin.
The white liquid that oozes out is then boiled and turned into authentic ‘natural’ chewing gum for health food shops.
The trees bear livid diagonal scars but at least they are still alive, thanks to a traditional method of management that has sustained these forests and these people for hundreds of years. Even the ancient ancestors relied on the trees, as evidenced by the Mayan pyramids scattered thought the forest.
It is a model that could become much more common as the world begins to realise the importance of community forest management.
More than 190 countries are gathered in Mexico for United Nations talks on climate change. One of the main aims is to reduce global deforestation, which is responsible for 20 per cent of emissions.
The question is how to make trees worth more alive than dead.
The most obvious answer is money and the UN broadly agrees a new fund should be set up that pays forested countries to stop chopping down trees.
The only question is how do you raise and use that money? It is estimated it will take around £19 ($30)bn a year to halt deforestation.
Richer countries like the US are in favour of a market mechanism that would ask polluting companies to pay for forests in return for ‘offsetting’ carbon emissions.
However more radical nations like Bolivia oppose the “commodification of mother nature’ and would prefer the money to simply be handed out to those that need it most.
Then there is the tricky question of how to use the money to protect forests. Again countries are split down the middle with one side advocating a more free market model that allows any method – as long as it protects the trees – while the other calls for strong safeguards to make sure only projects that protect biodiversity and the rights of indigenous people are included.
As countries battle is out in two weeks of talks, they are looking for case studies to show the best way forward.
One on the doorstep of the talks is Betania. Here more than 11,000 hectares of forest sustains a community of 700. People might be living in basic thatched homes with outdoor toilets but thanks to good management of the forests they are relatively well off.
Some 70 per cent of Mexico’s forests are run by local communities or ‘ejidos’ but few are managed well, meaning that trees are cut down and the people remain poor.
Betania is doing better thanks to an organisation dedicated to helping community-owned forest prosper, Organizacion de Ejidos Productores Forestales (OEFP).
Over more than 20 years, OEFP has helped the community structure a plan so that the forest is able to continue providing food and goods – as well as sucking up carbon for the rest of the world.
The forest is divided into plots of agriculture, where the community grows colourful varieties of maize, a forestry area where trees are selected and taken out for timber and a permanent protected area.
The recent purchase of a micro-sawmill and a workshop to make furniture also means that the community is making more money from the valuable tropical hard wood timber, rather than just selling logs to timber companies.
Victoria Santos, the local representative of OEFP, said just a little funding has enabled the community to not only keep the trees standing but better themselves. Other projects are already sending local children to college using the revenue from managing trees.
“It is in their interests to protect the trees,” she says.
Around Mexico similar projects are helping communities especially in the dry tropical forests of southern Chiapas and Yucatan, which are some of the country’s poorest areas.
Hector Magallon, of Greenpeace Mexico, thinks it is a model that could be rolled out across the world.
But first he wants the Mexican Government to get its own house in order.
He claims that 500,000 hectares of forest are lost in the country every year, making Mexico one of the five worst countries in the world for deforestation.
Felipe Calderon, the President, made great promises to plant 250 million more trees but reportedly only ten per cent have survived because the planting was done so badly.
Mr Magallon said the government should be funding communities instead to protect the forests that they still have.
“It is hypocritical to talk about tackling climate change without taking action to stop deforestation on your own doorstep,” he says.
It is not an easy solution. Studies have shown that community projects make little economic sense and are beset by corruption.
But as negotiators in the air-conditioned rooms of Cancun try to work out a better solution, at least these communities know what their trees are worth.
Posted By Adam Houston at 4:56pm on December 09, 2010
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