A proposal being considered at the climate change talks in Copenhagen would put a cash value on standing forests that help soak up atmospheric carbon dioxide. The plan could provide a powerful new incentive to those who protect their forests in order to trap greenhouse gases. But some advocates are concerned the forest plan could trigger a land rush, and threaten the rights of the indigenous peoples who call the forests home.
One of the world's largest forests, the Brazilian Amazon, could be worth a lot of extra money under a proposed deal that pays forest landowners to preserve trees. Indigenous peoples living in the Amazon Basin would make effective use of the funding that forest credits could generate, says Beto Borges with the conservation group Forest Trends.
"It brings resources in the hands of those who have been the stewards of this land for generations," he says.
The indigenous tribes of the Amazon Basin have been protecting that land for free. But now, Borges says, they face loggers, farmers and ranchers who seek to make money from cutting the forests down.
"The amount of pressure from economic fronts, it is just enormous," he says. "Without some form of market incentive, we believe it will be very hard for them to keep conserving these forests."
Carbon credits from a climate deal could provide that incentive.
But Borges says as preserving the forests becomes more valuable, conflicts could arise over who owns the rights to the carbon credits. Forest Trends sought to prevent those conflicts by commissioning an international law firm to look into the rights of one tribe, the Surui.
Constitutional right to carbon credits
The legal opinion, released at the climate talks in Copenhagen, says indigenous peoples have the rights to the carbon credits under Brazil's constitution.
"The constitution clearly says indigenous peoples have exclusive -- and that's the word, exclusive -- rights to the economic benefits coming from the natural resources -- especially forests -- within their territories," Borges says.
And those territories are substantial. The constitution set aside up to one-eighth of the country for indigenous peoples.
The opinion is not legally binding. Borges says there could be opposition from those who say granting so much territory to indigenous peoples is inhibiting the country's development.
How Brazilians finally decide on the most economically and environmentally sensible use of the Amazon forest will have a lot to do with agreements that emerge from the climate negotiations in Copenhagen.