Indigenous peoples have always had others making decisions about their lives; where they should live (wherever we want them to), what they should be called (primitive, criminal, scheduled, backward), how they should look (colourful, noble, bare-breasted) and which Gods they should pray to (Jesus, Hanuman, Mao, Capitalism, Marxism). And they have had enough of this shit. So, instead of pretending I know how they feel about being screwed by all and sundry, I give you the Dehradun Declaration of June 2009;

“We, the forest people of the world – living in the woods, surviving on the fruits and crops, farming on the jhoom land, re-cultivating the forest land, roaming around with our herds – have occupied this land since ages. We announce loudly, in unity and solidarity, that let there be no doubt on the future: we are the forests, and the forests are us, and our existence is mutually dependent. The crisis faced by our forests and environment today will only intensify without us.

This is no ordinary crisis. Not merely a climate crisis – or in your words, this magnified self-created monster of a financial crisis. We believe it is a Crisis of Civilizations. It’s no ordinary clash but a fundamental clash between our knowledge systems; of being, of nature and your wisdom, technology, and demonic tendencies. Your world rests on ideas of power, territories, boundaries, profit, exploitation and oppression and you try to own everything, including Mother Nature. This is what drives your civilisation. You need this world of oppression and exploitation; to survive and feel good. If you want to include us in your world by ‘civilising’ us, we will happily choose to remain uncivilised. Call us savages, we do not care! We have learnt amidst these trees, this water, this air, and other forest beings – a life of freedom, of being without boundaries, and yet never forgetting the boundaries of nature. You need your legal monoliths and your structures of governance to attempt to tide over this crisis, but for us the laws of nature, learnt and assimilated over generations are sufficient.

You talk of attaining Independence on August 15 1947… What is that? We, the forest people and the forests have been independent since ages. You tried enslaving us; by trapping us in your illusion that believes in converting living beings into slaves – hollow occupants of servile bodies – a life of death; by capturing our forests, establishing your false laws of oppression and exploitation – contradicting the fundamental laws of nature. We know the way you exploited and enslaved our native American comrades in other parts of the world. Let us remind you that you behaved no differently than those feudal and imperialist ancestors of yours. We, therefore, reject your unnatural law, your civilization of tyranny and cruelty. What freedom? We see no freedom, in being driven out of our forests, separated from water, land, fields, trees, air, and friendly animals, to the ecosystem to which we belong. What freedom, which doesn’t forget to chain its own brothers and sisters. False Freedom! We see no truth in a society that remains haunted by the prosperity of a few capitalists, whilst, never forgetting to oppress the workers, adivasis, dalits, women and poor of the world! We reject you!

Forest Rights Act, you need it more than us. If you think you are bestowing rights on us, then you are wrong. We have lived with these forests for ages. Our ancestors, gods, goddesses, friends and life lived in this and will continue to live here. We don’t define rights, we know what is ours and to whom we belong. We are the forests, the forests are us. Out of necessity, if you want to talk the language of rights, we are ready for it. It’s your need to recognise our rights over the forests and correct the historical injustices and exploitation. However, if by granting pattas (land titles) over a portion of forest you conspire to control, commodify, and sell the rest of the forests, then you are wrong. We understand your vested intentions and are determined to save the forests from your corrupt desires of exploitation, developmentalism, ill-sighted conservation, and technological fixes.

If you think the ghosts of commodity capitalism are going to chain our minds and souls for eternity, then you are mistaken. From the forests, the nature we have learnt that power is not infinite, exploitation is not infinite too. We, the labouring workers, adivasis, and dalits don’t treat the forest a resource to be exploited but as something which lives and supports life.

There is a climate crisis around and no amount of free trade, capital, or technology will eliminate the roots of this crisis. You forget that the crises has emanated from the way your society is structured – an edifice based on an unending desire for resources and a way of life that sees nature as an object of exploitation and extraction. Fools! You are doomed to bear the brunt and suffer the pains of your actions, but we ask you – Why must we suffer? You have intruded in our lifestyle, in the rhythm of Mother Earth. You have corrupted the environs by your vehicles, industries, arms, and development and your actions have created a crisis in our homes. You have sinned against the essence of our being, and amidst our rage and tears, we reject the basis of your being: a thought – of mistrust, of control, of vicious self-interest, of injustice, and blame.

How dare you blame us for a climate crisis? It is the product of un-natural practices, and it has devastated our lives. How could you cut our trees unthinkingly? The temperature is increasing, rainfall is diminishing, and the forests are burning – consuming themselves in pain. Now you want us out of our habitats in the name of conserving our forests! You kill, unsparingly, relish in “terrorizing” busts of tigers, decorating your mantelpiece – all pointing to your moral sensibility – and yet you have the audacity to tell us to leave the forests so that you can protect the Tigers! What law do you know? Who are you to teach what is legal? You are illegal – contradicting the very law of nature – of coexistence. You have no solutions – you only destroy.

You may not care of our times, but spare a thought for the coming generations, their inheritance. Do you wish to present to them a world of chaos and destruction? Are you so blinded by your greed? At least, now – in this crisis – we need to unite, all civilizations, and forest people of the world, to resolve the crisis, to restore our relationship with nature.

Today, at Dehradun, we call for and welcome the solidarity and harmony of all world’s forest people – workers, adivasis, and fellow travellers – on this journey to realizing the fulfilment of our existence, in communion with our forests. We warn your civilization that we are a people, united in struggle against the structure of capitalism – of greed, thievery, and profiteering. We warn the nations of the world, that you must not forget to honour our existence, or else – from deep within our hearts – we shout out loud: NO MORE SILENCE! We will rise from the ashes of your devastating fire! To resist your order, undeterred by your traps. We will rise – a united forest people – together, in strength and solidarity, to challenge the very fabric of your civilization, and become one with nature, again!”

Show me the money

June 22, 2009

Everything on earth costs money or can only be obtained at the cost of someone/something else. The conservation sector woke up to this reality and started calculating the cost of ecosystem services and livelihood opportunities  from forests. This, they believed would serve as a valid argument for protecting forests from destructive alternate land use. All very fine and noble. But they went a bit too far and started placing a price on forests as well. In boom time, conservation organisations vied with each other to buy leases to a gazillion acres of forest concessions as an alternative to logging. These leases were by no means cheap. Millions of dollars were raised in record time to secure them, as they were guaranteed to generate publicity and in turn more funding.

The flip side of this forest real-estate boom was that cash-strapped governments were let off the hook and absolved of all their responsibilities to safeguard their own natural heritage.  All that they had to do was give the developed world an ultimatum to pay up or face the chainsaw. In their view, the only other option to logging their forests is to sell them to eco-bidders. This sudden influx of ‘green money’ resulted in years of conservation education programmes being flushed down the john. These education campaigns worked on the ‘slow but sure’ model of helping communities restablish the link between forests and people. In one clean sweep, the conservation and forest carbon market has nullified the hard-won gains with a short-term cash influx. Now with the recession, conservation groups and carbon financiers are finding it increasingly difficult to pay governments the asking price for their forests. For example, Cameroon has given Wildlife Works, 30 days to cough up $ 10 million for almost 2 million acres of forests or see it opened to logging and mining leases who are willing to pay to plunder.

In a world experiencing climate change, it is only too easy to assume a global stewardship of the world’s forests as our shared, common life-raft resource. In reality it is far from the truth. The first right to any forest can only be claimed by the local indigenous people and communities living beside/in them, followed by citizens of the State and countries that have a legal jurisdiction over them. Equally, the responsibility for protecting those forests also follows the same chain of claims. A Brussels banker has as much claim on a rainforest patch in Borneo as an Irula adivasi elder has on a Citibank branch in Tokyo. Global solutions to local problems is akin to selling hybrid Hummer trucks to combat climate change.

Many developing countries with significant forest cover are waiting with bated breath for the climate change meeting in Copenhagen in December. They will be trying to push for the inclusion of the REDD (Reduction of Emissions of Deforestation and Degradation) scheme into the new climate framework. This would mean that developed countries will pay them for ‘avoided deforesation’ and in exchange will be entitled to forest carbon credits to offset their emissions at home. Tropical forests are saved, global emissions fall, emission targets are met and guilt consciences assuaged. Everyone is a winner. Or so it seems…

A major spanner is this dream sequence is Brazil, the ‘Saudi Arabia of green assets’. Its President Lula, has announced an ambitious commitment to reduce deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by 70% over a 10 year period (2006-2017). To pay for this, Brazil has set up the Amazon Fund, which seeks funding to the tune of $ 21 billion from developed countries. So what’s new, you ask? Well the big difference is that unlike REDD schemes, donors to the Amazon Fund WILL NOT BE ELIGIBLE for carbon credits from ‘avoided deforestation’. The message is clear; “If you are so concerned about deforestation in the Amazon, be prepared to pay for its role as  global carbon lifeline instead of a cheap source of carbon credits. An expert summed it up nicely, “Brazil is not interested in giving industrialized countries cheap carbon credits from protecting the Amazon if they are not going to stop building coal-fired power plants”. In short, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Brazil’s offer is not to be taken lightly. If it does manage to meet its 10 year commitment, it would reduce emissions equivalent to that of Canada and E.U (annual emissions) combined. The Amazon Fund also takes us back to pre-climate change enlightened times, when people were prepared to pay to protect forests without any payback in the form of emissions reductions. Must forests only be viewed through the narrow lens of carbon capture/finance providers?

Yes, we know that forests are exploited during conflicts, serving as hideouts for rebels, staging grounds for guerilla warfare, currency for weapons and as rewards of the spoils of war. However, there are some forests who have not only benefitted from the need of our species to kill each other but whose very existence is dependent on it. These are the ‘Forests of War’ (though most prefer the more genteel sobriquet of ‘Peace Parks’). Now, I am not advocating that we embark on starting war campaigns to protect forests, but the fact remains that in some cases forest ecosystems fare better in war time. In some twisted circumstances, peace can actually spell devastation of previously undisturbed wilderness. Some notable examples;

1. The Demilitarized Zone, North/South Korea: This unwitting 4Km wide, 250Km long forest has been left relatively undisturbed since 1953. More than 20,000 migratory waterbirds use the forest wetlands and it is probably the last intact forest ecosystem in the region. The only threat to its survival; Peace.

2. Forests of Colombia: The forests of Colombia are HQ for armed groups, guerillas and paramilitaries. While they are responsible for converting forest tracts  into Coca and Poppy fields for the cocaine and heroin that pay the bills, their presence has simultaneously discouraged migration and organised exploitation of these frontier regions. Because of years of  ‘gunpoint conservation’, Colombia has more forest acerage than several decades ago.

3. Forests of Aceh Province: The Aceh province contains the largest remaining blocks of rainforests on the island of Sumatra. Most of the forests in Sumatra has been cleared by loggers or converted into oil palm plantations. The conflict in Aceh protected the forests by deterring such activities. The province now wants to earn carbon credits for its 3 million hectares of forest from ‘avoided deforestation’ carbon financing schemes.

4. Borneo: When Indonesia and Malaysia were fighting over border claims on the island of Borneo, very little damage was done to the wilderness. But in the 1990s they peacefully competed to cut down and sell Borneo’s forests. Businesses and the military raced to start forest fires to clear them for cash crop cultivation.

5. North Laos forests: Laos is paying part of its war debts from the Vietnam/American war to Vietnam and China with timber concessions in Northern Laos. Timber merchants from China and Vietnam are able to operate without consideration for logging bans or protected area boundaries. In August 1999 the state-run Vientiane Times reported that 90,000 cubic meters of timber went to cover ‘debt repayment,’ 12.5 percent of the total national timber quota for 1998/99.

Rocket launchers are expensive, especially when taxpayers are not footing the bill. It has now been revealed that the Taliban is paying for its killing hardware with timber from the Swat and Dir provinces through its ‘government approved’ occupation of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan. It now joins the list of conflict timber beneficiaries such as the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, Charles Taylor of Liberia, the Burmese Junta and other dogs of war for whom sustainable forest management meant converting timber depots to ammunition depots.

Timber has always been a much favoured currency among the lawless kind as it is a high demand product that is very difficult and expensive to trace. So are forest carbon credits if you ask me. A World Bank administered Forest Carbon Partnership Facility worth over $200 million is in place for funding REDD (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) schemes in developing countries as felling and burning forests accounts for up to 20% of global CO2 emissions. With potential income from carbon credit schemes through ‘avoided deforestation’, terrorists, rebels and mercenaries could hold forests to ransom in return for a cut  from developed countries. Developing countries, alarmed at the prospect of  ‘leakage’ of their forest carbon would strike dodgy ceasefire deals with terrorists in return for leaving their forests alone.

Worst-case-scenarios aside, control of forests translates to control over the 1.2 billion people who depend on them for livelihoods. Countries with State controlled forests could deny access to forest dependent communities as they would have mortgaged their national forests for some carbon scheme. Indigenous peoples are not happy and have protested against the exclusion of the word ‘rights’ from the Draft Declaration Text on REDD at the climate change meeting in Poznan in December 2008. There is also growing concern about the World Bank positioning itself as a broker for forest carbon credits. In short, there is great scope for abuse of forest carbon financing schemes by vested interests. These vested interests could be your government, greedy carbon speculators, polluting countries, lending institutions or your not-so-friendly neighbourhood terrorist.