December 1, 2011

It’s All About the Admin- World Bank Sitting on Cash while Rainforest Burns

Frank Field MP, the founder of Cool Earth discusses the World Bank’s failure to protect the rainforests.

“The annual UN Climate Conference inspires a mixture of fatigue and déjà vu. Having promised so much in the run-up to the Copenhagen in 2009, every subsequent jamboree seems to have ratcheted-down expectations.

This year, barely any world leaders will attend. At best, environment ministers will turn up for the closing speeches in Durban, watched by a diminishing number of journalists.

It is easy to blame this apathy on the North Atlantic recession or the renaissance in climate scepticism. No doubt both contribute. But is it is also time to recognise that the UN and World Bank have played a part in putting climate change on the back boiler.

In 2008, at the height of climate change activism, fourteen governments did at last put their (taxpayers’) money where their months were. They committed £4.2 billion to be spent over four years on tackling climate change in the developing world. The World Bank was put in charge of the money and everyone breathed a sign of relief. At last, something would be done. Even amidst the failure to agree binding emission reductions or an emboldened Kyoto Protocol, every interviewee could at least point to this glimmer of hope.

Almost four years on and with the funds drawing to a close, 95% of the money continues to sit in the World Bank’s coffers.

This astonishing inaction seems to have no explanation. Even more astonishing is that not one of the fourteen donor countries seems to be that worried. Instead they regard it as “business as usual.”

For me, the most egregious example of this missed opportunity is in the rainforests. With tropical deforestation generating a fifth of societies’ carbon emissions, these four wasted years have witnessed 21 billion tonnes of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere. Put another way, magically reducing the entire USA’s emissions to zero would not have achieved more.

This should be especially galling to the British taxpayer who was the biggest contributor to the Forest Investment Programme. Another World Bank administered fund with a mandate to tackle deforestation, the Forest Investment Programme had £390 million to be spent by 2012. Spending to date has been £10 million, and every penny on administration or advisers.

The same is pretty much true of every UN or World Bank effort to halt rainforest destruction. Whether it is the Congo Basin Fund, the Forest Carbon Facility or any one of the numerous multi-national forests initiatives, there is virtually nothing to show for all the press announcements.

Why can’t money that is pledged to specific programmes be spent effectively? Is the World Bank just too risk averse or are the places they are trying to spend it just too corrupt? Or is the whole top-down model that is hard-wired into every World Bank programme and, it seems, much of the conservation movement, the wrong approach for keeping trees standing?

Four years ago I helped set-up a small charity called Cool Earth with the aim of turning this model on its head. Rather than create huge reserves by drawing lines on maps, Cool Earth works with indigenous communities to protect the trees they rely upon. It focuses only on the most endangered forest, makes sure all the land titles are owned by the communities and spends 90p in every pound on its projects.

At launch, the modest ambition was to protect 4,000 acres with an Asháninka village in Peru. Four years on, Cool Earth has saved over 200,000 acres on the arc of deforestation that has formed a protective shield for a further 2.5 million acres. All of this has been through giving vulnerable communities an alternative to selling trees to loggers.

What is even more remarkable is that Cool Earth has been achieved this for less than £2 million. By funding conservation from the ground up and supporting villages’ legal claim to forest, Cool Earth has achieved what the World Bank has found impossible; creating sustainable shields around the world’s most threatened forest.

The plan is now to scale-up Cool Earth’s work. With the help of supporters like Vivienne Westwood, we are today launching ‘No Fun Being Extinct‘ – a campaign to create a new protective guard to halt the advancement of deforestation in the Western Amazon.

With new projects taking shape in the Congo, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, Cool Earth has a workable plan for saving rainforest and giving us a chance in the battle against climate change. I hope the UN bears this in mind at the cocktail parties in Durban. And I hope our government gives some thought to the Cool Earth model when they decide what is to be done with the World Bank’s unspent forest funds.”

By Rt. Hon. Frank Field MP


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