Sierra Madre de Oaxaca. Creative Commons Flickr photo by user mammal.Call it guilt money, a long-overdue environmental debt payback, or a smart investment in a hurting planet. Whatever it’s called, climate-change repair funds are on the way.

One leading funding program discussed at climate change deliberations in Copenhagen is Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD). It’s a pity that the program sounds like a policy wonk snoozer and remains virtually unknown. REDD will affect millions of families worldwide.

The idea here is that we ought to pool resources globally to preserve and restore the planets’ tree cover. Such action will absorb CO2 and provide other essential environmental services such as maintaining healthy groundwater supplies. USAID and other agencies are already using this strategy in overseas development. But under consideration now after President Obama’s Copenhagen pledge to mobilize a $100 billion developing country mitigation and adaptation fund is significantly increased collaboration and dollars to a multi-donor trust fund administered by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Climate and energy bills currently working their way through the U.S. Congress will also direct these resources. How these funds are spent is subject to a contentious and high stakes debate.

One practical and philosophical controversy is whether rural communities that live in and around the forests ought to be removed from sensitive ecosystems or aided in living among the trees. If they stay, should they be required to leave off traditional extractive livelihoods or be supported in their accustomed way of life, including in agriculture? What’s the fair way to compensate indigenous and rural communities for their help in stabilizing the climate?

Scapegoating the Indigenous and Small Farmers

Colonialism and its more modern forms haven’t been kind to rural communities and their ecosystems. Globalization and trade agreements have tended to steamroll rural enterprises by opening borders to imports and making it cheap and easy to extract natural resources. With their land and water gobbled up by energy, mineral and crop exports, communities’ forests and soils have been transformed into hydroelectric dams, gold mines, and farm plots for baby carrots.

Adding insult to injury, the development community partially justifies this style of extraction by accusing communities of being lousy stewards of their natural resources through the reckless planting of cornfields on steep hillsides or the burning of too much wood for cooking fuel. Instead of being lousy business-people and unsustainably growing food for family consumption, according to this neoliberal logic, small farmers and foresters should cash in on their comparative advantage and grow melons for export or lease land to transnational timber companies.

Yet consensus is building that the gains for poor countries following this development advice have been few or negative. Enter a new revenue scheme.

Market for Mitigation

The global market in climate-change mitigation is still taking shape through environmental service payment instruments like carbon sequestration credits and the REDD program. Rural communities are on the verge of receiving a large volume of foreign investment, the likes of which may even surpass centuries of coffee plantations and gold mines. These new development mechanisms not only offset the carbon footprint of unsustainable economic growth but will purportedly chip away at rural poverty.

In preparation for the rain of resources, some countries are legislating how monies will flow — from environmental ministry to forest agency to landowners. Intra-governmental agency competition for the monies is shaping up to be fierce. Watchdog organizations are on the lookout for corruption. The misuse of funds has already been alleged in Mexico’s Pro Arbol reforestation program, in which up to 90 percent of planted trees have died and politically connected landowners received large cash payments.

International environmental NGOs are presenting their programs as Chambers of Commerce and their equivalents draw up their plans. It seems likely that farm and forest organizations will be secondary beneficiaries after governmental, business, and non-governmental intermediaries decide what activities and which actors qualify for the funding. Grassroots associations and their federations of foresters may get scraps — but not before the big boys get fat.

Many hurting communities — bleeding from failed farms, broken ecosystems and their youth migrating away to find work — are happy to take investment dollars to plant eucalyptus trees on their farmland. Faced with tough choices, communities may have to exchange traditional livelihoods — which previously put feeding the family or the nation first — for something different, such as working for a wage at a biofuel or carbon sequestration plantation. Autonomy and food sovereignty may rapidly disappear as communities become integrated into this new economy.

An Indigenous-Led Alternative

According to the latest conservation research, rural communities that live in and around forests are the best stewards out there. Instead of turning rural communities into carbon-capture plantations, we should provide rural communities with the technical and financial tools they need to better preserve both their livelihoods and ecosystems. Climate payments should compensate communities for what they do and know already, more or less. More or less because technological improvements are clearly essential — ones that many farm and forest organizations would be eager to make if they had the support.

And there’s no reason to count only on the forest sector for its contribution, even as environmental payment programs tend to be singularly focused there. Greening the food system through agroecology can make a substantial contribution to mitigating climate change — advances that land reform networks like the Via Campesina seek to make the norm. Inter-mixing annual crops with trees, reforesting watersheds, supporting local markets, reducing tillage, and backing off of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers all diminish agriculture’s substantial contribution to global warming. The same technologies that are good for climate stabilization are good for the soil.

Likewise, managing our water as a permanent commons and public trust — an ethos and practice ensuring that water is both everyone’s and no one’s — will have a profoundly stabilizing impact on the climate. Maude Barlow proposes declaring not only water, but watersheds themselves as a commons so that property rights don’t undermine ecosystem health and a water-cooled planet.

These more thoughtful resource management systems and sustainable technologies might have been standard if the green revolution, water privatization, and successive U.S. farm bills hadn’t provided such perverse incentives and turned things so topsy-turvy. This more holistic repair would be a costly but beneficial use for the REDD climate stabilization fund. Ensuring stable land tenure, including collective titles, is part of the repair. Implementing land reform programs, often discarded as failed and anachronistic, is a friend to climate stabilization.

This then is one scenario in which climate change monies could help rural producers and the environment — without pushing forest and farming families off the land or turning them into forest rangers for a transnational plantation.

Daniel Moss is coordinator of Our Water Commons. He has just returned from working for over a year with indigenous organizations in Mexico.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.