New study highlights need for REDD+ to look beyond carbon

Global use of rubber has risen 6 percent each year since 1900.

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A rubber plantation in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Ryan Woo/CIFOR

BOGOR, Indonesia (21 February, 2012)_A new study on rubber plantations highlights the need for the REDD+ climate change scheme to further consider biodiversity and rural livelihoods.

Agricultural policies worldwide have traditionally favoured the conversion of rotating crops to homogenous, permanent rubber plantations because they are often perceived to be more beneficial for local development and better sequesters of carbon. However, this needs to be reconsidered – especially if REDD+ is to be mainstreamed, says the study involving the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“Inclusion of agroforestry systems such as rotating crops into REDD+ schemes is essential because, beside their value in terms of carbon storage, they can retain about half of the biodiversity of dense natural forests and provide an essential livelihood basis for poor rural households,” said Jean-Christophe Castella, a scientist with CIFOR and France’s Research Institute for Development (IRD).

The stuff of erasers and tyres, rubber is one of the world’s hottest commodities – global use has risen by almost 6 percent annually since 1900. As synthetic rubber substitutes cannot withstand as much wear and tear as their natural counterparts, synthetic rubber production is predicted to decline in the short-term future to less than half of the rubber market.

To meet this growing demand, more than a million hectares of land in China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar have been converted to rubber plantations. The governments of all these nations are looking to expand rubber agriculture even further: Cambodia’s government alone looks to increase the amount of land covered by rubber plantations by eight times, from 100,000 hectares to 800,000. Overall, in these countries the land dedicated to rubber could quadruple by 2050.

While swidden systems traditionally can sustain small self-sufficient populations, rubber is a cash crop and thus its cultivation has proved an effective means to alleviate rural poverty in tropical countries and contribute to international development.

This widespread expansion of cash-crop plantations is one of the issues addressed by REDD+ (Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Degradation and enhancing carbon stocks in forest areas), a scheme that could see rich countries pay developing ones to preserve their rainforests. REDD+ is widely perceived to be a “win-win” solution for both reducing atmospheric carbon and improving the living standards of people worldwide.

Studying the proliferation of rubber plantations in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia, researchers demonstrated how the global application of REDD+, to what are highly variable local situations, can have unintended consequences for both climate and development.

“At first, people were very enthusiastic about REDD+ – but now that it ‘hits the ground’ and people have started implementing it, they realise that characterising and monitoring degradation in shifting forest situations is a very complex task,” said Castella, co-author of Swidden, rubber and carbon: Can REDD+ work for people and the environment in Montane Mainland Southeast Asia?

The extent to which land can absorb and retain carbon varies highly depending on elevation, microclimate, past land use, and other factors. Shifting agricultural systems come in different forms, with different crops and soil rest times (fallow). At some locations and with some soil histories, a rubber plantation may be able to store more carbon than a rotational system – but in other locations the opposite can be true.

Because of this, it is impossible to verify whether permanent rubber plantations would have an overall beneficial impact on the climate higher than long fallow rotational cultivation, said Castella. In fact, in many cases, regions currently under shifting cultivation would be able to retain more carbon in the biomass and soil than a rubber plantation would. 

“The risk is that we would wipe out a swidden area from the landscape and then realise in a few years that this was a very good system for everything we wanted the land to be able to do,” he said.

In addition to carbon absorption and retention, shifting agricultural areas have greater benefits for biodiversity, water cycling and other ecosystem benefits than rubber plantations.

“We may find ourselves in a situation where we will not be able to recover those systems due to lack of indigenous ecological knowledge.”

Moreover, rubber plantations come in various sizes – from large-scale monoculture plantations to smallholdings, and even in combination with shifting agricultural systems. Under some circumstances, such as in regions of China where small independently managed rubber farms have proliferated, policies that favour the adoption of rubber cultivation can indeed create wealth and improve livelihoods for the rural poor very quickly.

But if the legal needs of the local population are not protected with relevant national policies and institutional structures, local populations may find themselves subject to “land grabs” by multinational companies, said Castella.

So can REDD+ policies actually be designed to improve food security, raise developmental standards, and reduce carbon emissions as well as improve farmer livelihoods worldwide, as hoped? Possibly, says Castella – but only if it is implemented in a locally adapted fashion.

“There is no silver bullet in terms of policy – we are going to have to be context sensitive,” he said. “Researchers are going to have to work hand in hand with local people in order to produce solutions that are adapted to the local situation.”

The new publication is sponsored by the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) and the Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)

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