Climate change and land grabbing: The example of the Mekong region
Gaby Allheilig, Micah Ingalls
Protecting and expanding forests has emerged as a key global policy aim. In 2015, an important related milestone was reached with the Paris Climate Agreement, reinforcing the programme to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, plus foster restoration, protection, and sustainable management of forests – known as REDD+. Special compensation mechanisms are intended to reward developing and emerging countries that protect and restore their forests.
REDD+ underway at different speeds
Numerous countries have begun developing national REDD+ programmes. However, not all are doing so at the same pace. This presents a major challenge for the ability of REDD+ to decrease carbon emissions attributed to forest degradation and destruction.
Displacement to other countries
Indeed, countries and investors whose production or trade relies on significant land and forest consumption increasingly have difficulty finding available land and forest resources. In practice, this typically leads these companies and commodity sectors to relocate their activities: from countries that are advanced in protecting and restoring their forests – and already receive REDD+ payments – to countries whose efforts towards forest protection are (still) in their infancy.
Mekong region illustrates the challenge
This dynamic can be seen in the Mekong region (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). Here, scientists led by CDE have researched exactly how and why land use and deforestation shift locations. Vietnam responded very quickly to the REDD+ programme. Laos, by contrast, a country with 40% forest cover in 2010, stands to lose an estimated 67,000 hectares of forest each year through 2020 – on behalf of forest plantations for rubber production and other land-intensive systems of resource use such as agriculture.
Forests under pressure
On the one hand, the rising pressure on forests in Laos and Cambodia is the result of exponentially growing exports of raw commodities and semi-finished goods from the primary sector. On the other, Vietnamese companies are major sources of resource pressure due to the large-scale land concessions they acquire from their neighbours. For example, observers estimate that over 405,000 hectares of Cambodia’s rubber plantations are in Vietnamese hands.
Forest destruction or poverty alleviation?
The researchers have shown that both developments – rising trade of forest-degrading or forest-destroying products and land deals with foreign investors – are closely related. Moreover, there is a clash between policy aims: Commercial agriculture and plantation forests are indeed leading causes of deforestation and carbon emissions in Cambodia and Vietnam. But they are also the engine of economic growth in both countries. The two countries have adapted their development strategies accordingly, for the stated purpose of fighting poverty.
Development still in early stages
The degree to which deforestation in the Mekong region moves across borders presents a problem for REDD+ and corresponding climate goals: On the one hand, Vietnam is just beginning with its forest protection and reforestation programme. In 2016, China—the largest regional consumer of commodities known to drive deforestation—imported USD 33 million in goods and raw materials from Vietnam. That same year, China announced that it would no longer harvest wood from its own natural forests, signalling a potential increase in its demand for foreign wood imports, especially from the Mekong countries.
There remain some reasons to hope. With appropriate changes, REDD+ may yet be able to tackle deforestation and halt forest carbon emissions, especially if it can address what is driving the harms: forest-risk commodity flows, land grabbing, and the global market economy. But the road ahead looks to be long.
REDD+ and Switzerland
Like most other industrialized countries, Switzerland assumes it will be unable to achieve the greenhouse-gas reduction targets it has committed to solely with efforts at home. As a result, it has earmarked funds, inter alia to support preparation and implementation of measures in REDD+ countries.