As a child of rubber tappers in the Brazilian Amazon, Chico Mendes saw how quickly the life-sustaining forest could disappear if soy farmers and cattle ranchers wanted the land for themselves. They didn’t harvest the trees for rubber or nuts, but chopped them down, burned them and scraped them away.
Cattle ranching and soy farming, he concluded, didn’t create wealth; they merely shifted it from hundreds of forest people to a dozen or so ranch hands, over and over again, until hundreds became millions and the forest was no more.
He also concluded that indigenous people and rubber tappers, who’d long competed for territory, were natural allies — defenders of the forest — and he began reaching across the bitter divide.
By the time Steve Schwartzman met him in 1985, Mendes had unified these once-bitter foes and begun expanding the alliance to include environmental NGOs such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), who Schwartzman worked for.
Cattlemen assassinated Mendes in 1988, three days before Christmas, but his legacy lives on: in the extractive reserves developed in his name, in the expanded rights of forest people under renewed threat across Brazil, and even in the creation of financing mechanisms embedded in the Paris Climate Agreement — mechanisms that could provide billions of dollars for forest conservation in the coming years under the rubric REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, plus the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks).
REDD+ uses carbon finance to protect endangered forests in the tropics, in part by supporting the forest people who long have been among the most effective stewards of the land. It exists today because a coalition of developing nations embraced the work of scientists such as Schwartzman and pushed for its inclusion in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the global treaty within which the Paris Agreement nests.Schwartzman, who now heads EDF’s work on both tropical forests in general and economic incentives for large-scale forest protection in particular, says Mendes inspired him to make this his life’s work.
“Conceptually, I remember him saying, in about 1987, that since the rubber tappers were protecting resources of global importance, there should be some way for them to be compensated,” he says.
In this, the third installment of the series Forests, Farms, and the Global Carbon Sink, we revisit a critical moment in the evolution of global climate talks to see how that protection, which had been left out of the Kyoto Protocol, found its way back into global climate talks.
The rich/poor divide
Chico Mendes was assassinated just two weeks after the United Nations formally launched (PDF) the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide a global compendium of known climate science. It was the start of a period during which the world seemed to be addressing greenhouse gasses the way it had ozone-depleting substances in 1987.
In 1989, 24 heads of state, meeting in The Hague, formally recognized the reality of climate science, the need to create a global response to it and that developed countries had generated the bulk of industrial emissions.
The resulting Hague Declaration on the Environment sought to build on the success of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which eliminated the chlorofluorocarbons that were depleting the ozone layer. Referencing that success, it explicitly noted that “most of the deleterious emissions originate in industrialized nations.” (…)
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