INDIGENOUS AND LOCAL peoples have inhabited tropical forests for thousands of years. Now, as the world shifts its attention to the critical role of tropical forests in regulating climate change, many of these peoples stand to be reconsidered as the last stewards of the world’s most important greenhouse-gas sinks.

At the close of 2007, the governments of the world accepted the key role of ‘standing carbon’ in the form of healthy forests in curbing global CO2 emissions through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. As a result, a new international trading scheme was created to protect global forest carbon sinks through Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD).

The launch of the REDD concept corresponds with a recent surge in interest in policies and mechanisms to assign value to ‘ecosystem services’ driven by the urgent call for action to quantify the role of the world’s forests in the regulation of the biosphere. A range of international institutions, including the World Bank and the United Nations, are now in the process of designing ambitious new programmes and approaches to implement REDD and begin to trade in carbon credits.

To its advocates, the pricing of the world’s forests (and the biodiversity contained within) offers the best option to limit the uncontrolled destruction of the planet’s natural resources. To its detractors, the act of commodification, or the ubiquitous assigning of monetary value to all manner of goods, services and intangible intellectual creations, may be as much part of the problem as part of the solution.

Since before its inception, averted deforestation has been beset by controversy and debate. For bankers and economists, the risk and scale of the investments required, as well as the complexity of the carbon calculations, presents uncharted territory for conventional markets. On the other hand, for national governments, in particular members of the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, the potential for global compensation for avoided deforestation may represent new opportunities to mobilise international assistance for sustainable development priorities.

For international development agencies, previous experience suggests, however, that the drivers of deforestation are intimately connected with some of the most thorny problems of development including land rights, illegal logging, governance, and the everyday needs of the world’s poor and vulnerable people. For the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, REDD raises fears and concerns that the proposed commodification of ‘standing carbon’ presents an all-too-familiar scenario for powerful vested interests to potentially curtail their livelihoods and evict them from their ancestral lands and territories.

COMMODIFICATION OF NATURE can be traced to the evolution of barter systems in early agricultural societies. Over time, with the gradual move beyond subsistence production, the value of natural resources produced and harvested needed to be exchanged, stored and traded. For many ancient cultures, gold and precious metals thus came to represent the ‘embodied labour’ of exchanged goods and services.

Classic texts in economic anthropology, most famously The Gift by Marcel Mauss, suggest that many complex traditional societies were formerly based on the principle of an inalienable relation of gift exchange. Embedded in this worldview, any relation involving an exchange of value is imbued with an inescapable social force, given different names by different cultures, demanding a reciprocal relation.

In the case of the Pacific, wealth and power historically circulated between islands in many different forms: both mundane goods tied to everyday needs and uses, and exalted and ritual objects. Many Melanesian cultures have thus traditionally been at pains to distinguish between the use value of common ‘commodities’ and the ceremonial value of ‘inalienable property’ such as sacred cultural objects, which can never be bought or sold.

With the gradual spread of commodification, however, social and cultural ties which underpin trade and exchange have been severed in favour of ‘depersonalised’ economic relations. When money was first introduced to the Andes, many Indigenous people purportedly viewed banknotes and coins with suspicion and as inherently dirty on account of the many unknown social relations implied in the transactions.

Over the course of history, commodification has thus been associated with social corrosion and rapid ecological change in traditional cultures the world over: when trade in stone axes based on kinship ties across northern Australia was confronted with manufactured steel axes, this led to massive social dislocation in the long-distance reciprocal Aboriginal networks of barter relations; systems of shared value based on the celebration of the salmon migration for the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast in the United States (the famous ‘potlatch’) collapsed in the face of settler trading posts selling industrially produced and manufactured goods.

How much has changed today, and what lessons can be drawn for the proposed commodification of the world’s last great forests? Gathering together in Japan ahead of the G8 meeting of world leaders in July 2008, Indigenous peoples reminded the governments convened that “it is in our values of reciprocity, mutual respect, regard for the Earth as our mother and all creation as our relatives, collectivity and solidarity; in our indigenous cosmologies and philosophies; in our traditional livelihoods, lifestyles and sustainable consumption practices that we can find the most effective paths to a sustainable world.”

“We, the Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change reiterate that the meeting on Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) convened in the city of Accra, Ghana is held at a time when the climate negotiations are at an absolute crossroads in terms of the future of our planet… we recognise that Indigenous rights are but a part of the necessary mechanisms that we must all undertake to fight climate change and we wish to signal that we, as Indigenous Peoples are prepared to play our part in that fight but that this must be done as equals.”

Statement by the International

Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, Ghana, September 2008

RESPONDING TO THIS call by Indigenous peoples, how far can the complex social, cultural and economic relations involved in negotiating a shared global understanding of global ecosystem services and Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation be rehumanised?

Indigenous peoples’ territories, affected by ill winds in the Arctic, melting permafrost, snow in the Amazon basin, and increased forest fires, are some of those most immediately at risk from climate change. Yet, can the changing temperature of the planet act as a new imperative to force nations, cities, companies and individuals to rethink their collective decisions and global responsibility?

At the heart of this argument lies the potential rediscovery of relations of carbon exchange in terms of mutual global reciprocity. Increasingly, consumer movements such as Fair Trade, Slow Food and organic certification are looking to reassert, and in some cases

literally repersonalise, the faceless social relations of commodities within a system of globalised trade. Nobody, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, is exempt from the challenge of responding to this shared and universal problem.

Citizens of all countries are ultimately accountable to the balance sheet for global carbon emissions. Indigenous peoples will nonetheless remain deeply unconvinced by attempts to ‘buy’ CO2 credits from their well-maintained forest lands if the decisions emanate from a faceless and alienated global marketplace trading through frenzied stock


In order to gain the trust of Indigenous and local populations for payments for avoided deforestation, it will be necessary to ensure that reciprocal efforts are made by the rich world to address the root problem and shift to more energy-modest lifestyles. Indeed, speaking alongside the UN Secretary-General, the Prime Minister of Norway made just such a promise of global reciprocity at the launch of the UN-REDD initiative as part of the General Assembly on 24th September 2008.

NATURE, OR MOTHER Earth, is often viewed by deep ecologists and Indigenous peoples as inherently sacred. Whilst the last great forests should continue to nurture life and provide spiritual sustenance to many, such forests will also continue to produce services such as clean water, biodiversity protection, and all manner of products to be traded in our global marketplace. For the inalienable gift of this sacred Nature to remain intact, profane carbon credits may perhaps remind us of the many reciprocal ties that continue to bind us together.

Terence Hay-Edie is a Programme Specialist (Biodiversity) with the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme based at the United Nations Development Programme.