Climate Change and REDD+: Integrating Customary Fire-Management Schemes in East Malaysia and Northern Australia

By Niall, Stephanie; Godden, Carly et al. | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, November 2013 | Go to article overview

Climate Change and REDD+: Integrating Customary Fire-Management Schemes in East Malaysia and Northern Australia


Niall, Stephanie, Godden, Carly, Tehan, Maureen, Godden, Lee, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


Globalized frameworks for environmental protection have progressively subsumed many forest and savannah areas through the adoption of neo-liberal mechanisms, such as ecosystem services. International climate change laws exemplify this process, with top-down offset mechanisms pursuant to which nations are to institute local measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through bio-sequestration and land-use change-management measures. In Southeast Asia and Australasia, there is increasing pressure to absorb the significant forest and savannah lands of these regions into emissions-reduction schemes such as REDD+. Tropical forest and savannah areas, however, are not just environmental spaces to be seamlessly incorporated into schemes to benefit the global "commons". These lands often hold significant cultural value for the indigenous peoples and local communities that have long occupied them, largely but not exclusively on a subsistence basis. Environmental measures thus map globally oriented programmes into forest and savannah areas in which traditional knowledge and customary practices constitute the historical forms of land use and vegetation management.

Malaysia, particularly Malaysian Borneo, has a high proportion of tropical forest and pockets of savannah vegetation, while there are extensive areas of savannah in northern Australia. (1) Both areas are characterized by lands occupied by indigenous peoples and by local communities whose cultural heritage embodies a close association between traditional knowledge, custom and land-use practices. These practices include the use of fire to manage the land in the maintenance of a subsistence lifestyle. Environmental protection measures that fail to encapsulate this rich heritage risk displacing or undervaluing customary forms of land management, such as swidden agriculture.

Prominent among the measures designed to address climate change by altering forest-management practices is the "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation" scheme (REDD). It was developed under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and it is an approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through avoiding deforestation and forest degradation; the conservation and sustainable management of forests; and through the enhancement of forest carbon stocks (Zahar et al. 2013, Chapter 6). Initially focused on environmental outcomes, the scheme was later modified to incorporate "co-benefits" (2) for communities living in forested areas. It is now termed REDD+ or REDD-plus (UNFCCC Conference of the Parties 2008, p. 8).

The REDD+ model seeks to provide co-benefits to communities. It also seeks to achieve environmental protection by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, although the two outcomes may not always be compatible. Therefore, the position of indigenous peoples and customary landholders that inhabit or use forest resources can be problematic within the REDD+ model.

Indeed, many communities have expressed concern about whether their interests, including the protection of traditional knowledge and cultural heritage, can be effectively included within this scheme (Indigenous Peoples' Global Summit on Climate Change 2009, p. 2). Alternatively, advocates of REDD+ suggest that it offers a means of incorporating traditional practices into commercially viable projects that can operate in global markets, while retaining effective cultural and environmental outcomes (AIPP and IWGIA 2010, p. 13). (3) The use of traditional fire-management practices to generate emissions credits in savannah lands is a more recent phenomenon, but it shares many of the opportunities and challenges presented by the REDD+ schemes. This article examines two case studies--one from the Malaysian state of Sabah and one from northern Australia--to explore the involvement of indigenous peoples and local communities in climate change bio-sequestration and emissions-reduction schemes in tropical forests and savannahs. …

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