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This guest post comes from Leina Ley, a third year law student at Berkeley Law and a 2010 legal intern in ERI’s Washington DC office. Leina is Native Hawaiian and is interested in indigenous rights, civil rights, and environmental justice.

As the latest round of climate talks resume this week in Cancun, issues of equity and distributional justice continue to plague many of the proposals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One proposed mechanism which has garnered significant attention over the past year is REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). At its most basic level the idea of REDD, first proposed by a group of developing countries, is for richer countries to pay poor countries to help them preserve their forests. Yet despite some attention to the regulatory pitfalls of REDD there has been little critical attention paid to the potential impact of REDD on indigenous populations – already among the populations most vulnerable to climate change.

The political appeal of the original REDD proposal is clear. An estimated 15-20% of greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to deforestation not including the concurrent loss of the forest as a “carbon sink” for future emissions. Developing countries are in dire need of assistance in adapting to the impacts of climate change. Forests are environmentally valuable not only in the climate change context but also as hot spots of biodiversity.

Yet while the basic REDD proposal presents a viable solution to deforestation, the law of unintended consequences often seems to govern, most prominently when local communities are not included in the design and implementation of projects related to their lands. A recent historical example is the disastrous impact that the establishment of protected areas had on many indigenous communities.

Similarly, a number of perverse incentives are included in the proposed details of REDD+ that could negatively impact indigenous peoples living in forest areas. (REDD+ refers to the program as it is likely to be incorporated in a post 2012 climate change agreement). For instance, future national REDD+ projects will be required to show that the funded areas are in addition to forests that would have remained untouched without funding. In other words, only threatened forests will be eligible for REDD+ funding. This means that national governments have an incentive to allow logging and other activities in indigenous areas in order to make those forest areas funding-eligible. Furthermore, the program assigns no value to the non-polluting practices of indigenous communities, redistributing conservation “wealth” from the local communities practicing conservation to the national government which has threatened the forest through its own development policies. Most significantly, the recentralization of forest policy from local communities to the national government could result in the alienation of indigenous communities from their lands as governments move to limit activities in “carbon protected” areas.

The best solution, proposed by indigenous communities themselves, is that UN-REDD and related programs recognize the right of indigenous communities to free, prior, informed consent in the funding of projects related to their traditional lands. (The World Bank has established the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility to build regulatory capacity in nations likely to receive REDD+ funds and the Forest Investment Program to influence national forest policies). Promisingly, the most recent version of the negotiating text issued by the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperation (the UN body tasked with negotiating a post-2012 climate agreement) makes specific reference to the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, incorporating by reference the right to free, prior and informed consent.

As the UN-REDD Programme pilots the viability of a future REDD+ program it remains to be seen whether the international body will follow its own best practice on consultations with indigenous people. While early indicators were not positive, there is time – and hopefully the political will – to accommodate the realistic aspirations of indigenous communities. While almost everyone agrees that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are vital to progress on climate change mitigation, the distributional impacts of political and technological solutions should not be ignored in this conversation.