Monthly Archives: March 2011

Surinamese government, indigenous groups and NGOs join together to protect forests

As EDF’s Amazon Basin Project coordinator, I spend much of my time working in Latin America with our non-governmental allies to discuss REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) with indigenous groups.

REDD+ has come so far since conceived two decades ago; the general framework has been approved by the United Nations, and now countries will be spending time in the UN meetings hammering out the details at the international level.

In the meantime, EDF is partnering with groups like the Coordinating Body of the Amazon Basin Indigenous Peoples (COICA), the Amazon Institute for Environmental Research (IPAM), and U.S.-based Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) to help tropical rainforest countries and local governments with preparing for REDD+ policies to go into effect – what’s called “REDD+ Readiness.”  (Read about our REDD+ training workshops in Ecuador).

Suriname: a young country with a great opportunity for REDD+

The smallest independent country in South America, Suriname is covered mostly by tropical forests, which are threatened by logging, mining and new development. (photo credit: Wayne Walker, WHRC)

COICA recently organized a REDD+ training workshop in the small South American country of Suriname to educate their fellow Indigenous leaders.  (EDF, IPAM, and WHRC were there to help with presentations on REDD+ Readiness information and logistics.)

Suriname is a densely forested country that’s home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, and for its size one of the most ethnically diverse in the world.  Its topical forests, which cover most of the country, and biodiversity stand to benefit greatly from REDD+ policies as the country faces a growing interest in logging, mining, and new development, which would further contribute to the country’s deforestation and threaten the forests’ biodiversity.

Suriname is also a young country – having only gained independence from The Netherlands in 1975, it still has many basic issues to work through before REDD+ could be implemented.

Government participates with indigenous groups to conserve forests

Surinamese workshop participants participate in “REDD+ Readiness” training sessions to learn how to reduce deforestation in their country. (photo credit: Wayne Walker, WHRC)

These REDD+ training workshops are typically conducted by non-governmental organizations and attended by a number of indigenous group leaders, but this one was unique: for the full five-day workshop, the Surinamese government participated side-by-side with the indigenous leaders to learn the most effective ways to preserve the country’s forests.

During the workshop, various government officials presented how their respective ministries are developing policies related to REDD+.  The government officials’ involvement is important because policy development for the REDD+ programs requires a great deal of collaboration between indigenous groups, who will be most affected by the policies, and the government, which is designing the policies.  It’s a common problem in REDD+ countries for the government and indigenous groups to have only limited dialogue, so the earlier these conversations take place in Suriname’s REDD+ process, the more constructive the conversations will be.

A big challenge facing Suriname that is also a basic tenet for any potentially successful REDD+ program is determining the country’s laws on ownership of land and resources.

There are still many areas of the country and indigenous groups that lack “titles” to their lands, which means indigenous groups don’t have official ownership of the land they’re living on, and consequently don’t have the legal ability to decide whether potential deforestation activities such as logging and natural resource extraction can happen.  Indigenous groups are pushing for full ownership rights for REDD+ activities, which would allow the groups to reap the benefits of activities they choose to allow on their land.

Since the government is still in the process of determining how to address the land-titling, the workshop sparked spirited discussions between the indigenous leaders and government officials, addressing both sides of the challenges of determining the land-titling.

A government official works with Surinamese indigenous leaders to measure the circumference of trees during a REDD+ Readiness workshop. (photo credit: Wayne Walker, WHRC)

But by the workshop’s end, the indigenous groups understood very well that before REDD+ could work for them and their lands, the government first needed to determine their rights to their land and resources.  Government interest in REDD+ finance can help indigenous groups win recognition of their land and resource rights when governments realize that these will be crucial to accessing REDD+ markets.  Another potential way of addressing this issue is to define REDD+ as an “environmental service” and ensure that those providing the service, including indigenous communities, are the beneficiaries.

A resolution for the land rights in Suriname (and thus full REDD+ policies) is likely still years away, but it’s critical for all parties to continue a constructive dialogue like this throughout the process. The recognition of rights and new dialogues and cooperation between governments and indigenous leaders will ensure successful REDD+ programs.

Posted in Deforestation, Indigenous peoples, REDD | 2 Responses

Fast-growing India confronts pollution, but optimism not clouded

Foul-smelling air, soot pouring out of smoke stacks, and a blinding fog of pollution.

Thick pollution clouds a street in Delhi (photo courtesy of Flickr user Daveybot)

That’s how EDF columnist Dominique Browning found Delhi when she visited and witnessed for herself the environmental challenges India, ranked the seventh most environmentally hazardous country in the world, is facing.

But with such vivid exposure to pollution in the country, she turned to EDF’s India Program Director, Richie Ahuja, for context.

Richie was born in Agra, home to the Taj Majal, whose pollution-yellowed white marble prompted the Indian Supreme Court in the late 1990s to order 200 nearby factories to stop using coal fuel.

When I told Ahuja that India's pollution was overwhelming, he surprised me by his optimism. "I'm actually feeling very heartened these days," he said. "People used to say, ‘Oh, the pollution, you get used to it.' But now, there are many rumblings in the press, and in city streets, about how serious a problem it is. Even in tiny, isolated villages, people, especially women, are beginning to understand how pollution is connected to their children's health."

Read more from Browning about her visit to India, EDF’s work to address global warming there, and how her trip made tangible the benefits of the U.S. Clean Air Act at home in her post Fast-growing India Confronts Pollution.

You can also read more about EDF's work with partners to help rural households switch from traditional, polluting wood-fired stoves, to cleaner, methane-burning cook stoves in Jennifer Haverkamp's post Picturing low-carbon development: Methane cook stoves in rural India.

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Picturing low-carbon development: Methane cook stoves in rural India

A picture is worth a thousand words – and in this case, what you don’t see is the key story: what isn’t in the picture is black soot coating every wall.

Cook stoves powered by methane generate far less soot than those fueled by wood.

That’s because this resident of rural India is cooking on a two-burner stove powered by methane rather than wood. The methane is produced by a small-scale “digester” located just outside her home. (In the digester, manure from the family’s livestock, stabled nearby, is broken down by bacteria and converted to methane.)

And because she is cooking with methane, not only are her walls cleaner – so are her lungs, and those of her children and husband.

At least as importantly, she no longer needs to spend three to four hours every day – seven days a week, 365 days a year – gathering wood.

That means that instead of her having to collect firewood, build a fire and get it hot enough to cook, she can make the family’s breakfast with the flick of a switch on the methane stove. This time savings in the morning allows her children to get to school as classes begin, rather than several hours into the school day.

Those “extra” hours in her day also allow her to earn outside income, through activities like sewing or making biofertilizers and biopesticides for sale to local farmers – or simply to rest and have a modicum of leisure time. In addition, the digester generates enough fuel that she can cook more than once daily, providing her family with a more varied and nutritious diet.

Improving Indians’ standard of living while not harming environment

The methane digester that powers the stove provides remarkable benefits compared to the traditional wood-fired stove; it:

  1. Digests manure that otherwise would have released methane directly into the atmosphere. Although burning converts methane into carbon dioxide (CO2), methane itself is 23 times more powerful at trapping heat than is CO2.
  2. Allows trees and shrubs to continue storing carbon, rather than being cut down and burned as cooking fuel. Those avoided emissions, once tallied and verified, can be sold as offset credits that pay for the digesters.
  3. Boosts families' standard of living without any increase in carbon emissions.

Villagers show Steve Cochran and me their record books verifying each stoves' methane consumption. The villagers were extraordinarily hospitable, welcoming us with garlands of fresh flowers.

These photos were taken on a recent trip to India with my colleagues Richie Ahuja, Director of EDF’s India Program, and Steve Cochran, our Vice President for Climate and Air.

Richie spends a significant portion of his time in India, working closely with the five innovative nonprofits with whom we are partnering on projects in rural communities. (See Richie’s blog post from International Women’s Day about how EDF is using film to teach rural women about climate change.)  For Steve and me, though, this was the first time we’d seen any of the projects in action.

The methane digesters initiative is a project of the Agricultural Development and Training Service (ADATS), a comprehensive nonprofit rural development organization that since 1977 has worked on sustainable agriculture as well as adult literacy, children’s education, community health and related issues in southern India. Our other partner groups are working on a variety of additional rural technologies, including solar lanterns, more-efficient wood-burning stoves, and low-carbon farming.

EDF is exploring how carbon markets can help provide funding for these locally based initiatives that help significantly improve living standards for the rural poor.

With more than half of India’s nearly 1.2 billion residents having annual incomes under $500, economic development is essential. It’s starting to occur, and with astonishing speed – indeed, India is projected to be the globe’s third-biggest economy by 2035.

For too long, it’s been assumed that development will lead inexorably to massively greater carbon emissions. Our work in India seeks to help create an alternate path – one consistent with avoiding dangerous climate change even as the world’s most populous democracy continues its vital task of lifting its poorest citizens out of poverty.

Posted in India, Other | 1 Response

On International Women’s Day, a look at rural women in India fighting climate change

With 400 million people living below the poverty line, and an agriculture sector that is heavily dependent on the Monsoon, India is on the frontlines of climate change.  But with such a rapidly developing country and signs of climate change already manifesting, how can both development and climate change be addressed?

The world’s largest democracy will play a crucially important role in answering this question,  and we will learn a lot from the process. This is why Environmental Defense Fund began engaging on the ground in India nearly two years ago.

EDF produced a Bollywood-style movie to address women's roles in managing climate change in rural India.

Since half of India’s population lives in villages and rural areas, one branch of EDF’s work focuses on sharing information about climate change in rural India.  And with a law requiring at least one-third of Indian representatives be women, locally elected women leaders are at the center of our outreach.

It can be challenging to explain how global warming is affecting the women’s lives, so EDF had to think creatively about how to contextualize the risks from climate change, like poverty, risk of hunger, and water security from events like changes in rainfall and rising temperatures.

As a first step, we produced a film starring an Indian soap-opera actor with our partner organization in India, The Hunger Project, which seeks sustainable solutions to world hunger and helps to empower women in rural communities.

The film “Aarohan”, which in Hindi means “A New Beginning”, is designed to prompt the kind of discussion that ultimately may lead to active engagement from women in working to alleviate rural poverty and adapt to climate change.  It’s already been shown in more than 400 villages in three separate states at climate “workshops”, where the women leaders watch the film and share stories about the impact of climate change in their communities.

What follows is a blog piece written by Caroline Howe, a young entrepreneur deeply committed to addressing the issue of energy poverty in India. Caroline was kind enough to be present as an observer during one of the meetings in the Himalayan state of Uttaranchal, which hosted 100 community leaders from 30 villages.  Through the post below, she shares her experience.

Sustainable development in India: reflections from a young entrepreneur

In Delhi, it’s easy to lose hope in the fight for environmental protection and climate mitigation – a thousand new cars every day; thousands of tons of garbage that make their way to the landfills coming from millions of homes, industries, and street sides; constant new construction of flyovers and widening of roads; and the sensation that it is too big for any individual, even any well-intentioned local politician to make a difference.

An overnight train ride away from Delhi, though, there exists another world. One that is full of enormous challenges in a rapidly changing climate, but also one full of Himalayan hope. Environmental Defense Fund, in partnership with The Hunger Project and local NGOs in Uttarakhand, are giving female political and community leaders the tools they need to be able to engage in the development decisions happening every day.

One cold but warming day in mid-January, I had the honor to join Richie Ahuja to visit a leadership program, bringing together more than 100 of these female leaders from throughout the Kumaon district.

These rural women traveled for hours to a small town in the Himalayas to learn about climate change.

Some of these women (and three generations of their family members) travelled by bus for more than 2 hours to reach this workshop, through winding mountain passes from their villages. Many of these women were Sarpanches (elected heads of villages) or members of their panchayat (an elected board of community representatives), while others were community leaders of other kinds, working with Self-Help Groups in their village.

While we waited for the last of the buses to arrive, several women led the group in a song that many of them learned by listening to the first group singing. Describing the interconnectedness between people and the environment, they spoke about how you can’t change one thing without changing the world around it. They sang other songs about the need for action, the need to fight to protect their communities, nature, and the beauty of the Himalayan mountainsides.

The majority of these community members had already seen EDF’s powerful climate film, a drama which unfolds along with the stories of community members in an area with serious environmental challenges directly impacting the lives of the main characters.   (Film is a wildly popular medium in India; India’s own Bollywood now releases in excess of 1000 films a year.)

Conveying as impactful a message as An Inconvenient Truth, but in a format that is easily digestible and appealing to its target audience, the film obviously had sparked dialogue and action in these women. The Hunger Project had conducted surveys of the women who saw the film to discuss the impacts of climate change in their own communities. After a few more songs, the training program began with a review of the survey’s results, while the women present shared their specific stories of impacts in their areas.

Shared experiences from climate change challenges

People shared a common sense of the changing water availability – the lack of snow in Nainital for the past 10 years after centuries of snowy winters, increase in cloudbursts and intense rainstorms, springs running dry – and common impacts from these changes.

One woman observed:

We used to find water nearby; now we walk for 2 hours to find water, and the children do this before they can go to school. The further they walk, the less school they attend.

Women described the effects of climate change they were already seeing in their villages.

Another woman described the impact on the soil: with less water, and less rain, she said, “The soil is getting loose.”

Soil erosion came up as a common theme because of deforestation as well. One woman said

This area used to be all forests, you could look over this valley and see only trees. Now you can see, we’ve cut down the jungle to build these villages and these cottages.

Some women didn’t know who was cutting their forests, but everyone knew it was happening – the best and biggest trees were disappearing.

Another woman described,

Without these big trees, and without the rains there are bigger and bigger forest fires.

Disappearing forests made medicinal herbs hard to find and harder to find fodder for cattle, as well.

It wasn’t just changes in forests and precipitation, though, that these women described. They talked about changes in consumption – with one female leader passionately describing the rise in packaged foods.

We are eating food from plastic instead of food that helps our children and our farms grow.

They talked about the rise in polythene on street corners, on hillsides, all along the village roads.

Other women described the increase in chemical consumption, in farms and in their homes. Instead of using dung or compost, farmers were using chemical fertilizers, and these women recognized that this was an increasing problem for the long-term fertility of the land.

Rural Indian women said they're noticing changes in their environment, like more severe forest fires, less rain and less available drinking water.

But in the midst of these stories of significant changes, women shared the stories of what they had done to change things – what they had done to improve these conditions. One woman spoke of how her community was able to keep people from drawing from their remaining spring so that they could preserve it.

Another woman lay down in the road when someone was trying to take trees out of her village.

You can roll over me, but you won’t take trees out of here.

This delay gave the police enough time to arrive, confirming that these particular men had no permit for logging.

Another community leader had recognized that their village didn’t have a need for a 40 foot wide road as much as they had a need for the trees that would be cut to build it, and so stopped the state government from the road-widening project. They preserved their 10 foot road, and hundreds of trees along the way.

From stories of climate change challenges, hope and inspiration

These stories left me with hope, but the way they responded to questions about why they did this gave me even more inspiration. One participant said:

People from our cities, people from Nainital, have said ‘Why should we do anything? Let Delhi sort it out.’ But if we are the ones feeling the impacts, if we are the ones being impacted, then if we don’t take any action, how can we expect others to?”

Building on this, a woman added:

This is a global problem, but many of these challenges are in our hands, within our control. We can’t wait for others to solve it, we should do what we can with these problems. Polythene here is our problem, the polythene in the city is for them to solve.

One woman concluded by talking about transportation. More cars and more trucks in the mountains, she said, were leading to more pollution and more heat in their area.

I’m not saying don’t drive, but that we need cars that pollute less, and more thoughtful development of our regions’ transportation.

Performances during the workshop allow participants to act out how they plan to combat climate change, along with other environmental challenges they face in their communities.

After this discussion, a group of young people from a local NGO performed a street play set in the future, using the same tools of drama and humor, building intriguing and captivating characters that were being impacted by changes in their communities.

In some ways, this street play brought to life the same dramas and dilemmas facing the characters in EDF’s film, demonstrating again the power of engaging people on an emotional level before asking them to engage intellectually or physically in combating these challenges in their communities.

It was wonderful watching women laugh as young men played characters of grandmothers and as their friends and neighbours made both comic and real the challenges they had been speaking about.

It was even more wonderful to watching the understanding wash over the crowd as these characters faced the extreme challenges that may well face these communities in 10 or 20 years, certainly within the lifetimes of the women present, and to watch the discussions that were generated afterwards.

The group concluded on a powerful, inspiring, empowered note, recognizing that the challenges they could face could also be solved.

They spoke about solar energy – “You may have to pay upfront, but from then on, it’s absolutely free!”– and water conservation – “There is enough, if we use it well.” More importantly, though, they addressed the mindset change that would have to occur within each one of them, and within their neighbours.

Prompting a round of applause, one gentleman said:

If man can make a ton of metal fly in the sky, then we certainly can solve these problems on the ground.

For these men and women who have seen so much change – technological and environmental – in their lifetimes, they know that they do have the power to make these changes possible.

Before getting back onto the ton of metal taking me back down the mountain, I looked back to these women who were facing so much with so much courage and strength, and were able to do so because they were together. They were able to share their stories and learn from each other, as human beings, with emotions and needs, with courage and confidence.

I took some of this with me and re-entered Delhi with a heart and head full of Himalayan hope.

Follow EDF's India Program Manager on Twitter @richieahuja.

Posted in India, Uncategorized | 7 Responses

People, plots and pixels: both high- and low-tech skills needed to measure carbon in forests

This post was originally featured on the World Bank's Development in a Changing Climate blog.

If you are in a forest in Ecuador and see indigenous communities standing with an android phone, a measuring tape and a good pair of boots, don’t be surprised. These ‘indigenous forest carbon monitors’ have been trained to collect field data by measuring a 40m x 40m sample plot. They align the center of the square plot with a GPS coordinate associated with the center of a satellite footprint, and measure the diameter of the trees in the plot. Once the measurements of the trees are determined, they are sent via phone to scientists who use satellite images – and now even images available on Google Earth – to estimate the amount of carbon stored in forests.

Indigenous forest carbon monitors practice using a GPS device, whose readings will be used along with satellite imagery to determine the density of forests. (photo credit: Max Nepstad, WHRC)

These communities can efficiently traverse terrain that is typically inaccessible to foreign technicians. The result is better forest carbon density maps that can determine changes in the amount of forest carbon present over time.

With the cutting and burning of trees contributing to about 15% of global carbon dioxide emissions, any realistic plan to reduce global warming pollution sufficiently – and in time to avoid dangerous consequences – must rely in part on preserving tropical forests.

A critical part of ensuring that the rate of deforestation is decreasing – and the part where skeptics are most vocal – is monitoringreportingand verifying (MRV) the area and density of forests. The MRV process measures the amount of carbon stored in a forest, and also helps make sure that further deforestation and degradation do not occur. It also requires both modern technology and old fashioned boots on the ground.

Modern technology, boots on the ground both needed for good forest monitoring

On the technical side, scientists analyze thousands of different satellite images, developing sophisticated algorithms to estimate the amount of carbon stored in forests based on what they see in the pictures.

However, accurately translating what they see to actual carbon estimates requires large amounts of “field data” – the boots on the ground.  This presents a great opportunity for indigenous communities to play a leading role in helping to reduce deforestation.

Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have partnered with the Coordinating Body of the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Basin (COICA) to host a number of training workshops in Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador, where measuring forest carbon was one of the most popular portions of the workshop that introduced them to REDD+ – reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

WHRC, COICA, and EDF have identified many opportunities for Indigenous Peoples with proper training to contribute to the MRV of REDD+ policies. There is increasing interest and demand by local communities to be involved in the development of national forest carbon MRV systems, and a lot of potential for the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) program, for example, to help stimulate demand for indigenous involvement in MRV through programs at the national level. The next couple of years are crucial for many countries who are now developing forest carbon MRV systems on a national level, and it is important to ensure that these plans include Indigenous Peoples.

REDD+ policies are currently being negotiated at international climate talks, and MRV will be a particularly hot topic at this year’s meetings, particularly given that its design – and role for Indigenous Peoples – was left undetermined at the 2010 U.N. climate change negotiations in Cancun, Mexico.

But groups aren’t waiting for the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to act. For example, as part of its Pan-Tropical Mapping Project, WHRC coordinates the technical skills of scientists, government technicians, and nongovernmental organizations throughout the world. Their capacity building efforts (through REDD+ workshops) with COICA are gaining international attention and have been the focus of a recent presentation to the World Bank.

With training, local indigenous peoples are using their familiarity with the forest to do the same job, but with a few added benefits. While they gain a marketable technical skill, they are able to collect more field data and across larger areas. They also tend to have a greater stake in the process and design of national deforestation policies, resulting in better policies. The process provides them with better information about the state of their forests, leading to better land management and prepares them for negotiations with government and private investors.

Learn more about EDF's work with indigenous peoples protecting forests and livelihoods in the Amazon Basin.

Posted in Deforestation, Indigenous peoples, REDD | Leave a comment