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Strategic Development, Extra-Sectoral Activities and Emerging Issues

Formal procedures for strategic social and environmental assessment are intended to guide decision-making on development priorities so that negative impacts are mitigated. The seven countries have various plans that cover environment and natural resources; however there is little evidence to suggest that they are well-integrated or consistently applied. The most positive signs in 2011 were from Peru, where the approval of the national environmental plan strengthened the assessment procedures already established through territorial planning guidelines and regulations for ecological and environmental zoning. Ecuador also issued further guidance on the formulation of public policies in 2011 and has an established national methodology for tracking and assessing impacts.

In practice, the report cards have found that extra-sectoral activities such as mining, oil and gas, agricultural plantations and infrastructure projects are often prioritised in favour of vested interests even though they are to the detriment of forests and communities. Contradictions between the legislation for different sectors, poor coordination between different arms of the government and predominance of macro-zoning of land uses over micro-zoning, compound the situation in different countries. For instance, in DRC the law clearly indicates the primacy of oil and gas resources exploitation over forests, which is manifested in practice by examples such as prospecting being granted in a national park. Similarly, in Cameroon the Mining Code opens up forests to exploitation irrespective of how they are managed, and the government has taken the first tentative steps in setting up a ministerial commission to look at the issue of competing land uses. An increasing threat in 2011 was that large-scale concessions for palm oil plantations allocated in areas of Liberia will almost certainly significantly reduce land available to subsistence farming, and may also result in deforestation. The Latin American countries also face similar threats; for instance the partner in Guatemala reported that mining, energy and agro-industrial projects have received operating permits from the government even though they conflict with the principles of sustainable land management set out in government plans.

The predominance of decisions to convert forests to other land uses is likely to cause huge disruption to those who depend on them for everyday needs, and thus shift the burden of providing food, shelter, medicine, water supplies and many other necessities, to the state. This will happen not least through increased rural - urban migration, with consequent impacts on the consumption of concrete, steel, and other energy-intensive materials, as well as socio-political impacts. At the same time, the global value of forests in terms of their essential role in storing carbon, sustaining biodiversity and maintaining water and climate systems, is much discussed in international forums and cited in some national plans in principle, but barely recognised in actual laws and regulations in the countries as yet. The development of forest-carbon schemes under the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) continues to have the potential to increase the value of intact forests over degraded or destroyed ones and during 2011 there were continuing preparations of varying quality in terms of transparent information sharing and decision-making. Benefit sharing of REDD+ projects still remains largely unresolved, and this policy vacuum could result in difficulties. For instance, in Ecuador the constitution establishes that environmental services are effectively owned by the state, which contradicts that indigenous peoples own large areas of forests that store carbon. Anticipated reviews of forest laws and regulations in several countries will need to address these issues, together with specific climate laws such as one that has started to be drafted in Peru, but there risk that vested interests could dictate carbon policies, resulting in short-term financial gain at the cost of long term environmental and social costs.

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