LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations' scheme for preserving forests has said it will learn lessons from disagreements with indigenous forest communities in Panama, which have left the Central American nation's programme in disarray.
The U.N.-backed initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD) launched an independent investigation and evaluation after the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples in Panama (COONAPIP) announced it would pull out of the programme in March.
The group accused the government and U.N. agencies of not including indigenous groups in decision making, nor offering enough funding to support their participation and gain legal security for their territories.
Two investigators - an anthropologist and a lawyer - carried out a fact-finding mission in Panama for two weeks starting in late May and will return for a second visit in July. They said in a preliminary report, seen by Thomson Reuters Foundation, that clear procedures had not been put in place to involve COONAPIP in consultation, dialogue and decision making, and funds of only around $300,000 were offered to help the group, compared with the $1.78 million requested for its activities.
"All this has resulted in a situation where the dialogue has failed both institutionally and personally, and apparently there is no confidence in the good faith of the parties involved," the report said.
Relations between COONAPIP, UN-REDD and the Panama government were harmonious when the three-year, $5.3 million programme was launched at the beginning of 2011, but they subsequently deteriorated to the point where the indigenous body withdrew this year, causing new activities to be suspended, according to the report.
The Panama REDD programme is being implemented by the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the United Nations Environment Programme, together with the Panama National Environment Authority. In 2000, Panama had almost 45 percent forest cover, down from about 70 percent in 1947, according to UN-REDD. Losses to logging, ranching and infrastructure development highlighted the need to conserve forests, it said.
Betanio Chiquidama, COONAPIP president and chief of a reserve that is home to more than 33,000 people in the east of the country, said the report demonstrated that "UN-REDD is a programme with problems, and that it has been rejected with reason by indigenous peoples".
"(The report) makes clear that in the future there must be a system in place that allows for the comprehensive, effective and meaningful participation of indigenous peoples, in accordance with the rules and laws that protect our rights," he said in a statement released at the weekend.
"More than half the country’s forests are on the lands of indigenous people in Panama. How can an effective plan to save these forests be negotiated if the indigenous leaders are not at the table?" he added.
On a more positive note, the report indicates that COONAPIP might be willing to restart dialogue with UN-REDD if certain conditions are met, and calls on the U.N. Resident Coordinator in Panama to convene a high-level meeting between the two sides to explore how they can better collaborate in the future.
'THINGS MAY HAVE GONE WRONG'
Mario Boccucci, head of the Geneva-based secretariat for the UN-REDD Programme, said he could not comment on the report's specific findings as he had not yet seen it, and the investigation was ongoing. The report is due to be presented to the UN-REDD policy board in late June.
But Boccucci said his office had taken "very seriously" the issues raised by COONAPIP, and wanted to ensure "a proper and thorough investigation of what has happened", as well as a mid-term evaluation of the programme.
"We want to really understand what worked and what did not work, then find a way to ensure that the programme fully delivers on its commitments," Boccucci told Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We will build on (the investigation's) recommendations and the lessons that have been learned, and apply them in Panama and everything else we do in every other country."
UN-REDD was not "discounting the fact that things may have gone wrong, may go wrong, will go wrong in the future, but it's important that we have really totally committed to learn and see what went wrong so that we can find a way to better deliver," he added.
Chiquidama said COONAPIP respected "UN-REDD's speedy response to our call for help".
"We have great hope that the agency will act on the results of the investigation," he added.
Boccucci described the REDD+ programme and its activities in forest-rich countries as an experiment in sustainable development, where economic growth must be accompanied by social and environmental benefits. And he emphasised the initiative's commitment to bringing such benefits to the indigenous communities who manage many forests on a day-to-day basis.
"The UN-REDD programme is based on and adheres to a human rights-based approach and is committed to promoting the rights of indigenous peoples," Boccucci said.
TEST OF U.N. RIGHTS DECLARATION?
COONAPIP believes its complaint against Panama's REDD programme marks the first major test of a key provision in the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, under which they have the right to refuse projects and investments affecting their natural resources.
COONAPIP said the programme had so far excluded them from full participation in planning activities in Panama, and failed to guarantee their rights would be respected.
The investigation team's report noted, however, that the programme had not had a "significant negative impact" on indigenous people's collective or individual rights, as no legislative or administrative measures had yet been adopted. But it had added to the pressures on indigenous peoples and their resources in an already difficult environment, the document said.
Susan Kandel of the Salvadoran Programme for Research on Development and Environment (PRISMA), which has recently completed a study on the impact of REDD+ in Panama, said its findings echoed those of the U.N.-appointed investigators.
"Our research suggests that despite the development of laudable principles for safeguarding the rights of indigenous people and forest communities in the UN-REDD Programme, there are very few concrete measures that have been put into place that would ensure that these safeguards would actually be respected,” she said. "The absence of such measures turned out to be critical in Panama, and we hope that this experience can help REDD processes correct this critical flaw."