19 July 2013 | Amigos de la Tierra México, the Mexican affiliate of Friends of the Earth, sent a ripple of confusion through the environmental community on Thursday when its Chiapas office posted an error-riddled story that implied the Mexican state had “cancelled” its plans to develop a statewide regulatory regime for generating carbon credits by saving endangered rainforest.
The story was especially perplexing because it came one day after indigenous leaders from around the world had joined environmental NGOs and "green" corporates in endorsing the recommendations of the REDD Offsets Working Group (ROW), a scientific advisory panel that was highly positive towards the Chiapas program.
The errant document, entitled “REDD+: Crónica de un fracaso anunciado” (“REDD +: Chronicle of a failure foretold”), showed up on the Friends of the Earth Chiapas affiliate's web site on Thursday and was quickly echoed by the US affiliate in a piece called "Chiapas cancels 'disastrous' forest plan linked to Calif. cap-and-trade program". Friends of the Earth International is a global network of environmental organizations with a common secretariat in Amsterdam, but regional affiliates have a great deal of autonomy. Both the US and Mexican affiliates built their pieces on a story in the newspaper El Heraldo.
That story quoted environment minister Carlos Morales Vázquez as saying the state had cancelled a program that used the acronym "REDD", which is generally accepted to mean Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation and to refer to programs that harness carbon markets to save endangered rainforest using agreed-upon carbon standards and methodologies. The state government quickly released a bulletin (see "Chiapas State Response", right) reaffirming its commitment to jurisdictional REDD, and Friends of the Earth says it had confused REDD+ with the cancelled program, which sources describe as an unsuccessful and controversial effort that funneled money from car licensing fees to indigenous communities of the Lacandon Jungle to conserve forest lands.
"After receiving the initial news article from El Heraldo, we put in several calls to the Chiapas Secretary of the Environment at the phone number listed on the agency’s website, to corroborate the information, and received no response," says Jeff Conant, who is the director of Friends of the Earth's international forests program. "We therefore chose to go ahead and issue the press release after waiting a reasonable period for a response."
Although built on the same "polluter pays" principle that spawned REDD, the program that is being cancelled is not a rigorous compensation-for-performance program designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but a simple mechanism that funnels some auto-emission payments to forest protection. It has been roundly criticized by REDD advocates, and it employed none of the methodology or safeguards that are cornerstones of jurisdictional REDD as outlined in ROW. Adding to the confusion was the fact that Friends of the Earth used the acronym REDD-plus, which refers to a very specific set of activities tied to the carbon markets.
"Until we received formal notice, on Friday July 19, of the Chiapas administration’s plan to cancel the former REDD effort and move ahead with a program more fully integrated into the ROW process, our understanding was that the REDD program of the state of Chiapas was the self-same program instituted by Governor Juan Sabines in 2011, and which we have documented and strongly criticized," says Conant. "This program was frequently referred to as REDD+ by the Chiapas administration, including in the El Heraldoarticle we cited. Until this point there had been no public disavowal of the program instituted by Governor Sabines, either by the current Chiapas administration or by members of the REDD Offsets Working Group."
Josefina Braña-Varela, Policy Director of WWF's Forest & Climate Initiative, said she supports the Chiapas government’s decision to shut down the subsidy program and to focus its efforts on capacity-building for jurisdictional REDD, but she also wishes Vázquez had chosen his words better.
“It’s not very specific,” she says of the El Heraldo article. “In my opinion, that’s why it’s creating the confusion.”
Braña-Varela said that she believes Chiapas is moving in the right direction in terms of capacity building and developing its REDD structure.
“That doesn’t mean they are ready for a market and ready to sign a deal with California,” she says. “I do believe that is not going to be happening soon.”
Toby Janson-Smith, Conservation International's Senior Director of Forest Carbon Markets and a member of the ROW, agreed.
“It’s hard to pin down, but in two to three years I would expect Chiapas to be in good shape in having a robust REDD program that is generating emissions reductions that could be verified,” he says, citing a project called MREDD+ as an example of efforts aimed at developing a robust REDD framework in Mexico. The project aims to assist the country in establishing and strengthening public policy, institutional and technical capacities and the development of the financial architecture necessary to achieve a sustainable implementation of REDD+. MREDD+ began in September 2011 and is expected to continue to July 2016. It is being sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Alliance MéxicoREDD +: TNC, Woodshole Research Centre, Carnegie Institute of Science, Rainforest Alliance, and FMCN.
The national and state governments in Mexico still have a lot of work to do in addressing the concerns that the indigenous populations have about REDD projects, Braña-Varela says.
“The issue of markets is very contentious still in Mexico,” she says. “Chiapas has a very strong indigenous presence and you have to find ways to communicate with them.”
If the ROW recommendations are acted upon, then the Chiapas program will have to have a robust reference level and monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) guidelines in addition to a strategy to reduce emissions, Janson-Smith says. He adds that the work on the reference level is “coming along pretty nicely” and the MRV data is reasonably available, with the heavy work to be done on developing an emissions reduction strategy, building on the site work done at the pilot projects.
California will also have an extensive rulemaking and public comment process on how REDD projects can be eligible for the cap-and-trade program, with a huge issue being the inclusion of strict safeguards to guarantee the integrity of the program, Janson-Smith says. Realistically, that means linkage between the programs is several years away, but California acceptance would be a critical step for REDD because it would be the first REDD compliance market, he says.
The next steps for Chiapas are to continue to work on better alignment of its policies and incentives, draft a climate change plan that includes REDD and improve its communications on REDD to dispel any negative perceptions about the program and distinguish it from the failed and now cancelled program, says Josefina Braña-Varela.