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REDD and Land Tenure: the Rights Issue

In Panama, where many land-tenure issues have gone unresolved for a long time, the nation’s indigenous communities are closely watching the climate-mitigation plan REDD (“Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation”).

According to most interpretations of the documents involved, REDD’s role in a carbon market in Panama would undermine sovereignty, mostly by providing incentives for the state to wrest control of land and carbon value from indigenous communities, including those that have fought for land tenure. Quoting a host of national environment and forestry laws, the fine print of REDD-related documents includes language like: “The forest heritage of the State [is] in the public domain” and “authority to the State [for] carbon capture.” Translation: “Yes, according to the constitution, the indigenous communities own their forests; but the government owns the trees in the forests.” In anticipation of the carbon market back in 1998, Panamanian legislators recognized carbon sequestration as an “environmental service,” giving the state authority to manage it.

By declaring eminent domain — or the loosely defined “common good,” which the state has the right to equate with national development strategy — the government could not only cut the Kuna out of the carbon market but also sanction clear-cuts for any number of purposes, from plantations to dams. REDD doesn’t abrogate that right at all, nor empower indigenous communities to defend themselves against such infringements. And it could increase the value of some lands, which in turn could increase “exploitation of local communities,” as James Mayers of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) recently put it to the New York Times.


Return to the story: Will a UN Climate-Change Solution Help Kuna Yala?