Colloquium on Forests and Climate

New Thinking for Transformational Change

24 September 2014, Alfred Lerner Hall, Columbia University, New York

Colloquium on Forests & Climate: Discussion on Forests & Climate

Watch this panel discuss fresh ideas and debate the future direction of climate research, from the Colloquium on Forests & Climate.


Christine Padoch
Research Director, Forests and Livelihoods, CIFOR


Carlos Nobre
National Secretary for R&D Policies, MCTI, Brazil

Pushpam Kumar
Chief, Ecosystem Services Economics Unit, UNEP

Eduardo Brondízio
Professor of Anthropology, Indiana University Bloomington

Daniel Nepstad
Executive Director, Earth Innovation Institute

Cheryl Palm
Director of Research, Agriculture and Food Security Center, Columbia University

Colloquium on Forests & Climate: New Thinking for Transformational Change, Columbia University, New York. #forestsclimate


Forests & Climate Discussion:

Christine Padoch:

Well, thank you very much and good afternoon. I’m Christine Padoch and I direct CIFOR’s research on forests and livelihoods. And I, together with you, heard six really exciting presentations from each of our six panelists. I do need to say that John Holdren needed to leave us because of urgent business I assume – more urgent than sitting on our panel. But we have heard, I think, all six of these talks, I think you all found very informative, very exciting. Each from a different viewpoint, each based on distinct experiences, using different tools, different approaches, and I think that would be enough. I think that was very enriching to all of us. And if we were to end there, it would be enough for all of us.

But, as many of our speakers have actually pointed out, we can’t afford in trying to really affect policy on something as complex as sustainable development, as improving livelihoods, as contributing to the health of landscapes that include forests – we can’t afford to be just a single voice. We can’t afford to use one viewpoint. We can’t afford to base our work on just one set of experiences. And actually, many of our speakers here are those who have been – who have already done that. Who have learned to integrate many experiences, have learned to integrate many people in their science and in the policy relevant science that they do, and in the recommendations that they can make.

So let’s just continue this a little bit now, and join in a conversation. And not only a conversation between, among our panelists, but also a conversation with you. So I expect that pretty soon we’ll get the questions that we’re going to pose to our panel, and that we’re going to discuss among ourselves as a panel. But first I’d like to give each one of our panelists a very short time, maybe two to three minutes, to give us a little bit of their reflections on what their other, what their colleagues, have said. And what has actually come out from the integration of the various things that we heard? So I guess maybe beginning with Carlos, since you’ve been sitting here and hearing most of this for the longest. Please, we would appreciate, but very brief – two to three minutes – because we are running a bit over time.

Carlos Nobre:

Yes, thanks a lot. Yes. It was illuminating to hear different perspectives. Let me just say, I’ve known some of the people here, and Eduardo for many years – decades actually, to tell the truth. And it’s interesting because, I guess, if I put together, there are two talks. It shows, really, the dilemmas that we are facing in Brazil. On one hand, yes, innovation is central. In fact, the ministry I worked in 2011 put in the I. It’s now Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. Innovation is recognized to be a very important element of this, the development strategy. And I could not disagree with one thing that Dan mentioned about the ways of constructing a sustainable future for the Amazon. Yes, those good success stories can be translated to other tropical countries. Intensification, as Cheryl, this is the way to go about tropical agriculture.

On the other hand, if you listen to Eduardo, then you saw that there are a lot of mismatches. This only innovation driven development, and intensification, agricultural productivity, more profits to farmers, does not lead automatically to reducing poverty and inequality. And this is a major challenge for developing countries. It is a major challenge for Brazil. Inequality was being reduced slowly, but too slow. So the equation is not a simple one, and I guess Eduardo very well put that question. That even though the well known success story of the Acai palm fruit, which is bringing in two-three billion dollars into the Amazon economy, not necessarily is causing a tremendous change in equality and income. And that has all to do with human capital, and that’s why I said in my third point, it’s the education revolution. If we fail tropical countries, and even within tropical countries poorer regions of tropical countries – if we fail in the education revolution, I’m pretty sure we are not going to reach development in the Amazon and other tropical countries.

So although I will stop my comments, saying I really liked all those elements, but putting them together we need to reduce inequality and poverty. And this is perhaps much more difficult than we might anticipate.

Christine Padoch:
Thank you very much. Perhaps another comment from our next panelist? Again, very brief. Sorry to be such an enforcer.
Cheryl Palm:
So, I also enjoyed the talks a lot, and I must say I was encouraged by the amount of discussion around agriculture, and not from such a negative perspective. So we are moving forward. I think this discussion would have been very different 10 years ago. So there is progress and we need to bring more and more people into these discussions. And I think it does have to be not so much at the global level, although we need to recognize that, but it’s really these local, regional conversations and policies and governance issues that I think will really move us forward in the right direction.
Christine Padoch:
Right. Thank you. Pushpam, any reflections?
Pushpam Kumar:

Three things, basically. I mean, I liked all the presentations. That was very rich. One thing which clearly emerges, and that also gives me a strength – to see that we really need integration of conservation. Whether it is change in the forest stock, or biomass, or emission of the greenhouse gases. We need to bring then this bio-geo-physical changes into our social and economic planning. So that is one, integration is needed. Secondly, from my own presentation, what I said, I wanted to reiterate. That there are some estimates and economic values, but there has been serious effort in the last 20 years or so, starting from the Stern Report or the economics of ecosystems of ecosystems and biodiversity. But, economic estimate must be socially, you know, credible. If they are not socially credible, then it becomes another video game that nobody is going to pay attention to.

Third, we talked about changing the basic compass of the progress. That is, the GDP or national income. It is not going to happen in one day, because it is nicely institutionalized and the first step should be that we have to improve them. But, in the long run, we have to think about a really better indicator which has a strong scientific basis. At the same time, they are easy and easy to comprehend by the policymakers. So I will stop here and will wait for some more questions before I go into further discussion.

Christine Padoch:
Thank you. Eduardo?
Eduardo Brondízio:

Thank you. Very are many entry points here that I’d like to talk about. I’ll pick up on Dan’s push for what we call a polycentric approach. It means several initiatives that, in themselves, would sort of help to emerge larger solutions. There are limits to that, too, and I think that is the balance that we need to look for. You know, what are the structural, large-scale adjustments that are needed to facilitate the integration of these locally scaled solutions? Now, I’ll use my example of the poverty of municipalities as one example where important structural adjustments done at the national level could go a long way. So there are no incentives nowadays for the transformation of resources at the local level, in which the fiscal and the tax results of that would revert into urban infrastructure.

And I’ll bring with that the piece that I see indirectly or directly was discussed here, which is employment. One of the biggest transformations that we see in rural areas, you go in the Amazon, you go in Japan, you go Sweden, you go here, is that there are significant intergenerational changes in the way the youth engages with agriculture and engages with economic activities. And the lack of opportunities, the lack of creative industries that offer a perspective to the youth to stay in rural areas, to engage with production systems and not leave for cities is one of the key problems that we have to deal with. And that has a lot to do with, I think, reforms that are needed to promote value aggregation in forest areas around the world. Where employment and other things would come forward and will offer a different perspective to the youth population that now sees very little future production.

Daniel Nepstad:

Yeah, I love the Acai story. If you fly into Belem, the islands around Belem are all forested. And they’ve been managed for Acai for decades. And I’ve always wondered, you know, how could Brazil have been jumped out in front on Acai, done the marketing, been the entrepreneurial agents so more of that value could have come to Brazilian companies and Brazilian producers? I think there’s really fantastic examples of policies that are getting it wrong today, that could be easily changed. And since so many of us are talking about Brazil, I’ll just cite a few examples. For example, there’s a ceiling on the price of gasoline in Brazil that has basically knocked the wind out of the sugarcane ethanol business. And it’s a retracting industry that should be expanding ethanol production. It’s one of the most efficient types of biofuel. Yes, I said the controversial word biofuel. It’s one of the most efficient ways to get fuel off the land, and Brazil’s fleet is almost all Flex Fuel or moving towards in that direction.

But this policy for containing inflation basically has gutted that industry. Another is – and this gets to your point on poor counties. Most counties, their budgets come from an allocation of the ICMS tax. And that tax is there on circulating merchandise, and it has killed the soy crushing industry in Brazil. So that has migrated to Argentina, so raw beans go from Brazil to China. The downside of that is that Brazil has now vertically integrated to do more poultry and pork, and so it’s sort of these missed opportunities – huge missed opportunities – that with a little bit of policy tweaking we could fix.

And Carlos, I share your dream of really exploiting commercially and sustainably the biodiversity, and Pushpam, I think the challenge with GDP is enormous. I still don’t know the answer, but it seems like it needs to be sort of a – Manhattan may be the wrong example to us here. But a massive influx of incentives and ingenuity and entrepreneurship. But we’ve been talking about it for decades and it hasn’t happened.

Christine Padoch:
That’s great. Thank you very, very much. Actually, quite a number of our questions that we go were related to these ideas of how to increase the value aggregation in these areas. But specifically – and I think that perhaps we’ve already dealt with these since we need to deal with all the questions quite quickly. One specific addition to that might be to talk about actually local rights and indigenous rights in the context of value aggregation and international trade. I don’t know, perhaps Eduardo would like to speak a little more about that? Briefly again about that?
Eduardo Brondízio:

Well, I’ll start to highlight the diversity of indigenous situations that you find throughout the world, and how that relationship needs to pay attention to the context. And so that, I’d say that, you know, there is not a single solution to that. Because the relationship between local communities, indigenous communities, in different kinds of markets is very context specific. So it would be a mistake, I think, to think about magical bullets that cut across that. So that’s the first thing. The other thing is that there has been too little attention, I think, to investments in the intensification of local production systems, and to limit the bottlenecks in which those production systems work. And a lot of the problems in economic return that local communities have, have to do with very basic infrastructure in which the cost of transportation and other things eats the labor, the sweat of their labors.

So, the two points is the context specific nature of that – the other one is that a lot of the issues have to do with basic infrastructure needs that allow them to reap the benefits at different scales.

Christine Padoch:
And the question goes on to ask, and how does that actually – how does that affect the idea that has been quite powerful of local people or indigenous people being stewards of the forest? If what we’re promoting is more communication, more international trade? Would anyone care to comment on that?
Carlos Nobre:
I don’t think – it’s not, it’s compatible. I mean, I don’t think why we should not think of as those indigenous populations wish to join in. Because some populations, they prefer to be isolated, and we should respect, of course, that. But most, at least in Brazil and Amazonia, they want to join in. And I don’t see any barrier for them to be integrated through information highways, through trade, into producing goods that they feel opportunities to produce. They will be their goods, their services, not necessarily different than what they’ve been doing. But with value added. At least in my context, I’m not an anthropologist. I don’t deal directly in my work with indigenous populations. But in my context, I see tremendous willingness for them to join in this new world, but keeping their culture. They are very strong in keeping their culture. And a very important element, all of us know, of their culture, is the forest. So I think you can put those two things together. I don’t see, they are not – they are compatible. It is a myth to think they are incompatible, in my opinion.
Christine Padoch:
Thank you. We also have a number of questions that address the green economy, and also what kind of research may be needed in order to inform this process of moving towards a green economy, and what actually might motivate, might move governments to move in that direction. It’s, I think, largely a question for you, Pushpam.
Pushpam Kumar:
Yeah. I mean, we have been able to identify the research gaps and needs in order to use the tools and approaches of green economy. But, as a researcher myself, I would like to highlight two, three major research gaps. When we talk about valuation, economic valuations, or accounting – valuations are used for various purposes. One is a typical cost-benefit. Sometimes people use it to design a payment between the beneficiary and the providers, what is known as the payment for ecosystem services. And many of the REDD+ schemes are based on the spirit and the theory of PES. There are many other tools, like biodiversity offset, or wetland banking. You need valuations. So they come from microeconomic theory. While the questions at the national or global level are purely macroeconomic in nature. Like, as one can see, those of you who are from economic science, that valuations done on an experimental plot or a site-specific value, is probably no good for the macro questions, which is for example national income accounting, or asset pricing in the economy, or aggregation of natural capital with the mainstream accounts, existing accounts at the national or regional level.So, valuation in macro settings is probably the first research agenda I want you to think of. Somehow we have done a lot – we in the sense, not only the UNEP, but all UN agencies and the research institutions – on valuation in microeconomic setting. But the macroeconomic setting, even in the university research departments, the research is very, very basic. And there are a few good macroeconomists, but they know macro variables, they know macro – they don’t know natural capital well. And there are some good, you know, ecologists. They know ecosystem or nature, but their understanding of macroeconomics, the structural model, is probably very, very basic. So that is one area.

Second is something which – how to make the valuation a social process? And whenever we talk about economic value it looks like, no, you use market based or constructed market based, or those kinds of methods. But sometimes it has been found that they become a statistical juggle area. And to go to the policymakers, politicians, the prime ministers, the ministers, with those numbers, who know public purse probably better than anybody else – they find it reluctant to accept them. The reason is not that the valuation is wrong, but we lack confidence, we lack clarity. I’m talking about the economists. How to make our valuation clear, and how we should be confident where you have 10 minutes time with the president? And if you say that, oh, this happened, then that happened, then this happens, they are interlinked – there are also, you know, this system, that system? They are very good discourse. Do it in the classroom. But to take it to the policymakers who have the discretion and clout to influence the public at large, you have to be very clear. And there are not many good valuation experts who are clear in their message. A lot of research has to go into that. There are many more, but I will stop here.

Christine Padoch:
Thank you very much. I think Dan wanted to add something there, too.
Daniel Nepstad:
Yeah. I think it’s such a fascinating question, and I think we have to be extremely pragmatic to make these transitions towards green. And I think that we need to take it down to the ground. I agree with you that there’s a huge issue with how you measure ecosystem services and the valuation piece. But there are some things that everyone can agree on, and quite quickly. And, as you said, socialize it. We need to grab those opportunities. I think forests is particularly amenable to that sort of convergence and consensus. And let’s just figure that out for forests. We can measure it. And if we can measure it in a way that it’s going to reduce risk for investment, maybe that’s as good as we can do right now to really take ecosystem services to scale.
Christine Padoch:
Eduardo, you?
Eduardo Brondízio:
I just want to make – I’m not an economist. I’ll use the voice of a friend of many of ours here, [Unclear 22:25]. Said that the missing link is the mesoeconomics. And I know that has very little value of academics, stuck between the micro and the meso. But that’s where the regional economics has to play a role. It has to be valued, I think, to understand the interconnections between these global chains and local processes.
Pushpam Kumar:
Maybe one more thing, just a quick point. One thing, up-scaling the values from the micro to the macro, there are a large number of caveats. How to make those caveats and assumptions plausible and practical, again, I repeat. In up-scaling the values from the local to the regional or the national scale, what are the assumptions and how to make those assumptions more practical and defensible? That is another research thing which we should be thinking of.
Christine Padoch:
Actually, Dan, there’s another question that’s sort of along those lines, but talk about your reference to commodification of tropical landscapes as a vehicle for poverty alleviation. And asks the question whether this really is desirable, but also whether this is actually conducive to increased food production. And I would like to add a little bit to that, a bit based on what Lou said as his last comment. Referring to the real enthusiasm that people had, especially hearing yesterday that so many companies had pledged to, as you said, to take deforestation out of their value chains. But, several months ago the – I believe it was the Vice Assistant Director for Sustainability of Unilever said that they indeed, they’re one of the early pledgers and a real pioneer. But said that, in order to do that and in order to guarantee traceability of that value chain and the guarantee that there was no deforestation, they would actually have to sort of slough off 80 per cent of their smallholder producers because it’s just too difficult, just impossible to do. So again, would you care to comment? And I can see that more than one person wants to comment on that. And exactly what is the future for smallholders under these – under this new regime of no deforestation?
Daniel Nepstad:

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think smallholders are the vulnerable element of society, as – and first of all, I think it’s inevitable. I think the expansion of commodities into the tropics, it’s going to happen, and we have to deal with that. It’s not every country. It doesn’t dominate most tropical landscapes. Most tropical landscapes have a much greater diversity, other types of crops, but I think we’re seeing a lot of movement on this because this is where you get the leverage. When a few big companies can influence supply chains on palm, on soy, on beef, that’s where you get action. And that’s been where a lot of the focus has been. With smallholders, I think they tend to – they run the risk, because it’s so expensive to do farm by farm auditing, to see if they’re deforesting or not. The Dayak farmers of Kalimantan would love to have a patch of palm, but they do not want to abandon their swiddens. And so when a big company like a Wilmar announces a zero deforestation, that it’s not far enough into the future to allow the systems to adjust or something less than perfect but probably very good, which is a reduced deforestation target. And not to take anything away from Wilmar’s very sort of courageous announcement, but there is the risk that there’s going to be increased poverty and exclusion of communities through this sort of initiative.

And I think – we come back to, you have to increase the scale. Look at the entire landscape as Peter was talking about. Look at the entire district, the entire province. That’s where we should be measuring success and make sure that smallholders are not being excluded.

Cheryl Palm:
Yeah, I just wanted to also reiterate the issue of smallholder farmers. I think it’s similar to the whole issue about indigenous peoples of the Amazon, or smallholder farmers. and I refer to Africa where every farm size is less than five hectares, and so it’s a very different situation from the Amazon. But it is a similar situation. How do you aggregate those farmers? How do you link them into any market system? And I think that’s going to be the key as you see people are still looking at Africa. There have been very few large investments. I think Unilever has been one of the first, but how is that going to happen? Is there a way to leapfrog? Are there lessons? And I think some of these south lessons could be very, very important. How to aggregate? It’s the smallholder, it’s the whole poverty, livelihoods at the forest-agriculture transition.
Eduardo Brondízio:

Well, the topic is very dear to me, I think. In part, that’s one of the topics that will get stuck in a polarizing discussion very often. In small farmers, I think they have a double exposure kind of scenario, a double pressure kind of scenario, which is very general. One is internal. I mean, the long lack of infrastructure, service, recognition, has created a situation where you have very little expectations among young farmers, you know, to continue on that route. On the other hand, you have openly in Brazil and elsewhere a criminalization of small farmer activities, such as swidden cultivation and others, in ways that are very unfair and very simplistic. So you have that sort of dilemma in which we live.

Now, on the other hand, I think it’s very difficult to imagine a future, an urban future, without a very active small farming economy – being localized or not. But if we do not think about the small farmer in the context of the employment need and in the context in which it can absorb an enormous amount of contingency that is now moving to the city, you know, it’s not a problem that will be solved with intensification without other things.

Christine Padoch:
I’m afraid that I’ve been given the symbol that we need to end our discussion. And it’s not just because Eduardo is an anthropologist and I’m an anthropologist and I’m giving him the last word. But we’re under a considerable amount of pressure. In any case, I’d like to thank every one of you and I’d like to thank all of you who contributed. And I’d also like to apologize to those of you who didn’t get your questions in. We have many more questions. I’ll be happy to both distribute them to the panelists, and also please feel free to grab these panelists as they come off the stage and ask the questions. And there are a number of very, very interesting questions here, so again, thank you. Or through email, yes. And now I think we’ll all stay here and we’ll have the closing.