COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Saving tropical forests is crucial to fighting climate change but efforts to halt deforestation could go awry without safeguards to protect and compensate local communities, officials and academics said on Sunday.
Forests act like "lungs" of the atmosphere, soaking up large amounts of mankind's greenhouse gas emissions. Billions of people also rely on them for food and livelihoods.
Paying developing nations to preserve forests is a central issue at U.N. climate talks in the Danish capital aimed at securing the outlines of tougher global deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions from 2013.
"Forests and climate issues have never been higher on the political agenda," Gro Harlem Brundtland, U.N. Special Envoy for Climate Change, told a meeting on the sidelines of the talks.
Yet forests were still being destroyed at an alarming rate, with no observable decrease in the pace of destruction since 1987, she said.
"We are still on our way to destroy an area the size of India by 2017," she said.
Tropical forests from equatorial Africa to Brazil and Indonesia contain some of the world's richest reserves of carbon and species but are under increasing threat for their timber and for the land to grow food for an ever-expanding human population.
Indigenous groups in the vast Amazon basin and deep in the jungles of Borneo island fear losing more of their lands to cattle ranchers or to palm and soy oil plantations.
Delegates at the talks are close to finalizing the framework of a U.N.-backed financial scheme that would allow developing countries to earn carbon offsets in return for saving, rehabilitating and improving the management of their forests.
The scheme, called reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, could potentially earn poorer nations billions of dollars annual in offset sales to rich nations.
It would, for the first time under the United Nations, put a price on the carbon saved from being emitted by keeping forests standing with some of the money flowing back to communities.
Speakers at the conference said enshrining the rights of indigenous people was crucial to the scheme's success, along with a transparent payment scheme that would help fund alternative livelihoods and promote forest protection.
"If local people and indigenous people in the developing world are not recognized and assigned clear rights, we could end up with more deforestation," said Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University and 2009 winner of the Nobel Prize in economics.
There was a risk of violent evictions of communities and corruption in preservation schemes unless safeguards were enforced, she said.
Greens at the conference say the language of the draft REDD text is weak because it does not require nations to comply with the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, although it does refer to the treaty.
Conservationists also say the current draft fails to set a final date or target to halt and reverse forest loss in poor countries and has not finalized a funding amount or timeframe to deliver that money from developed nations.
But it does promote steps to avoid the conversion of natural forests and to enhance social benefits of the scheme.
Brundtland said REDD in practice should not create incentives for converting natural forests into agricultural plantations, such as palm oil estates.
Millions of hectares of forest has been cut down in Indonesia to plant palm oil estates. While providing jobs, the spread of palm oil plantations has also displaced large numbers of people reliant on forests.
She said 1.6 billion people relied heavily on forests for their livelihoods.
Editing by Angus MacSwan