Land-use change, including deforestation and forest degradation, is estimated to account for between 12 and 29% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Bringing emissions from land-use change under control is essential if we are to tackle climate change, and that is why REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing countries) was first negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change back in 2005. Since then REDD has been modified to REDD+ but significant challenges still remain when it comes to implementing this initiative.

Camille Dezécache from the Université de la Guyane in French Guiana and his colleagues have monitored the deforestation occurring in the tropical forests of the Guiana Shield in South America since the early 2000s. Using deforestation data for Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana and the Brazilian state of Amapá, they have been able to show a strong relationship between global gold prices and deforestation due to gold mining.

The researchers used their data to model potential deforestation leakages from French Guiana, which has high levels of law enforcement against illegal gold mining, to neighbouring Suriname, which has comparatively low levels of enforcement. While French Guiana's strict policies had most likely resulted in a decrease in deforestation due to gold mining of around 4300 hectares, the team found, the demand for gold had spilled over into Suriname, with around 12,100 hectares of deforestation occurring there over the same time period.

“Our model suggests deforestation leakages between French Guiana and Suriname due to the stricter French regulation, and even an amplification of gold mining in Suriname compared with what would have happened in French Guiana in the absence of repressive policies,” said Dezécache, whose findings are published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL). "Thus this tends to show that although the French policy is efficient in French Guiana, by limiting the expansion of gold mining, its effect is neutral or negative at the regional scale.”

Currently, carbon credits are calculated by looking at a country's actual carbon emissions and a hypothetical reference scenario – what would have happened in the absence of REDD+. But Dezécache and his colleagues believe that this approach is flawed.

“In the case of gold mining, as well as many commodities, the basic idea of formulating a reference scenario is questionable, as gold-mining activity and associated deforestation is critically dependent on gold prices, which are themselves unpredictable,” he said. Instead the scientists stress that regional co-operation is necessary, in addition to implementing REDD+, to ensure a strong positive effect across multiple national borders.

“Although control and repressive policies are necessary and urgently needed to avoid more environmental disasters, a focus should be given to the preservation and enhancement of the livelihoods of local populations, taking into account their preferences while ensuring sustainable alternative jobs creation,” wrote the team in ERL.

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