Of Wood and Trees

November 29, 2012

Despite the understandable interest shown by the British press in the release of the Leveson Report, other things have been happening in the world of politics and the environment, and they deserve a little attention. For example, today saw the release of a strategy by the Department for Energy and Climate Change dealing with “UK plans to tackle global deforestation.”

Coming from the government which sought to privatise huge swathes of British forests, this may not seem promising, but there are some positives to draw. In this case, the Leveson furor may provide the coalition with a chance to bury good news, or at least news that it doesn’t want to have to follow up on any time soon.

For instance, the report is upbeat about the potential for silvio-pastoral systems to store carbon in forested or sem-forested areas, particularly in the tropics (and more specifically, in Colombia, where the UK government is doling out £15 million to “smallholder farmers” to plant trees on grazing lands. As the FAO explained in a useful recent report, when properly applied, SPS could well offer an effective means of protecting vulnerable forest lands, increasing the productivity of ruminant animals and locking carbon within the soil.

This is potentially a laudable development intervention, although whether the UK government can (or wants to) ensure that smallholder farmers benefit rather than savvy large ranchers remains to be seen. Additionally, while SPS might dissuade cattle farmers from obliterating tropical forests entirely, leaving parched grasslands, it is nevertheless a kind of middle ground between healthy rainforest and desolation – and you don’t really tend to get that many cows in actually existing rainforests. So there may be an incentive to keep on hacking away, or browsing away, at forests if the SPS alternative is more productive and can be framed as “sustainable.”

Such are the complexities of making ecosystems and economies coexist.

Regarding the report, however, that is sadly where the good news ends. In fact, it is where the report ends. The British government’s plans to tackle global deforestation, as outlined by Ed Davey, don’t actually amount to £15 million for smallholder cattle farmers in Colombia, but the scale of support for such schemes is not much larger. The funding for the project is derived from a project run by DECC, DFID and DEFRA called the International Climate Fund. The ICF is supposed to be in the process of distributing £2.9 billion to lower income countries in order to aid their climate mitigation efforts (and handily deflect attention away from the flaws in Britain’s own emissions reductions strategies). But today’s report makes clear that only £300 million of that £2.9 billion has been allocated to projects which counter deforestation.

Support for forestry measures is supposed to be a priority for the ICF, but it seems that some of the funds have wandered elsewhere. There is a real danger that the ICF will end up spending large amounts of crucial funds on PR exercises. As its own launch site stressed, the ICF would be looking to fund projects that could “that building low carbon, climate resilient growth at scale is feasible and desirable” or which worked to support the “building [of] an effective international architecture.”

Much of this reeks of spin, rather than substance. But in reality, there cannot be much substance behind a climate change policy which assumes that patterns of consumption (such as mass beef production, fast food etc…) are not up for contestation, and that the onus must be upon how producers in lower income countries manage the ecologies that we all depend upon. So we get soundbites like supporting “sustainable growth in forest countries”, as if “forest countries” is actually a meaningful geographical term, and that these countries require a different agricultural paradigm, while we do not.

The main story behind this document is disappointment – that the UK government is not committing more to revolutionising global forest management, but it is also delusion – that current diets and food markets can be greened “sustainably” and assist smallholder farmers in the process.

Interestingly, the document begins with a mention of the fast approaching and “important international negotiations in Doha” referring to the latest round in ongoing UN negotiations around climate change. WTO trade talks which began many years ago in Doha are also still ongoing,  but there is no mention here of agricultural supports and subsidies in the higher income countries, or how globalised commodity markets can affect small farmers, or of landholding patterns, or the activities of multi-national companies (for good and bad) in the global food economy.

It is, of course, hard to see the wood for the trees (or cows, as it may be). Still, we need to place pressure on DECC and DFID to fund such efforts and continue to stress alternative ways of organizing the way the world farms and eats.

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