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9 December 2010

Remarks by Pablo Farías on International Forest Day

Quintana Roo, Mexico

It's wonderful to be here today in Quintana Roo where I had the privilege to work in the 1990s. For me, today is a bit of a homecoming. But for those venturing here for the first time, a journey to the forest communities of Quintana Roo and the rest of Mexico should be an eye-opening experience about how we can protect and preserve the world's forests.

In fact no country better exemplifies the potential of community forestry to both fight climate change and reduce poverty than Mexico. And it hasn't been the fencing of forests, but giving local communities ownership rights and an opportunity to take responsibility for the sustainable stewardship of these vital resources, that has made this possible.

All too often even those of us who care most about the world's forests forget that they are home not only to hundreds of millions of people, but are also the key source of these people's livelihoods. For these communities (many of which are indigenous, tribal peoples), forests are a source of food, energy, medicine, housing and income. These communities have a powerful natural incentive to manage forests sustainably, to ensure a steady and stable livelihood for themselves, their families, and their communities.

Mexico's experience in community forestry—while not perfect or complete—is certainly showing that with the right policies in place, local communities can be outstanding and sustainable stewards of forests. Thousands of communities in this country now own between 60 and 80 percent of Mexico's forests. Approximately 600,000 hectares of these forests have been externally certified "sustainably managed" by the Forest Stewardship Council.

This has resulted in an array of successful forestry enterprises that have created tens of thousands of jobs and provided a burst of new economic activity. With more than 2,300 community enterprises that harvest timber legally from their forests and close to 200 community enterprises that even have their own sawmills, the vast majority of wood products in Mexico today come from community forests. And with profits being reinvested into social programs, these initiatives are also strengthening the communities and ensuring their long-term viability. Of course, this also helps to limit the flow of economic migrants and minimize the illegal activities that plague unmanaged forests.

Fortunately, more and more we are seeing Mexico's experience with community forestry replicated elsewhere. In Latin America, forest dwelling communities own or have long-term management rights over more than 230 million hectares. That's an area larger than all of Mexico. In Guatemala, community-owned forests are bucking a larger and troubling trend of deforestation across the country.

In fact, local communities now own or have long-term management agreements for 26 percent of the forests in developing countries. That's good—but we need to increase the number. After all, local forestry management does more than help local economies in the long run—it is integral in the fight against climate change. This is why it is so important that we come out of these meetings with a renewed focus on not only community forestry but on REDD (the United Nations collaborative program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) as a cornerstone of those efforts.

It is vital that the nations gathered in Cancún ensure that future REDD initiatives respect and promote community stewardship. Doing so will motivate other developing countries with large forest tracts, such as Indonesia and Central African nations, to follow Mexico's lead. The simple truth is that we need to get this right now, because community forests, like rural areas in general, remain under threat. As forest carbon becomes more valuable, governments and powerful groups may be less willing to recognize forest dwellers' rights over their resources.

Moreover, any REDD agreement negotiated here in Cancún must have adequate safeguards that protect the rights of indigenous peoples and other forest dwelling communities and must explicitly adhere to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is also important that the agreement includes measures to promote agro-forestry and natural regeneration.

Perhaps above all, the ultimate success of REDD is predicated on directing substantial private investment into forest-conservation activities. Investors are simply unwilling to make investments in areas where land rights and resource tenure claims are weak, insecure, or absent. There's just too much reputational risk for the investor in such situations. So one of the ‘new frontiers' in the development of REDD will be to link safeguards for indigenous groups and forest-dependent communities to investor principles. Governments that are serious about scaling up REDD must be equally serious about defining and defending land rights.

In the end, the very fact that sustainable economic development can be done in concert with preventing deforestation represents an all too rare win-win for both the rights of indigenous peoples and the fight against global warming. At a time when the struggle against climate change seems more daunting than ever, Mexico's experience with community forestry shows that we have within our means the ability to turn the tide.

The philanthropic sector is committed to supporting this agenda. Just two days ago here in Cancún we presented a new effort, the Climate and Land Use Alliance, which brings together four foundations in a commitment to catalyze the potential of forested and agricultural landscapes to mitigate climate change and deliver economic, social and ecological benefits. Philanthropy is ready to leverage its resources to assure that innovative experiences are recognized and supported and that forest dependent communities have a seat at the table of decision making. We have a social justice imperative to ensure that REDD mechanisms preserve and expand the natural assets of forest communities and promote their participation in economic opportunity.

Let's work together to make sure that the biggest takeaway from Cancún is a renewed global commitment to preserve and protect the world's forests all the while ensuring the long-term viability of the communities that call them home. The time to act is now! Thank you.

Spanish version

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