Delivering REDD+: can past lessons help in tempering optimism and making headway?

09 May 2011

The International Year of Forests is celebrating the importance of forests and raising the profile of challenges and opportunities. The perceived value of forests has been raised by the recognition of their role in mitigating climate change. But the International Year of Forests is a momentous reminder that there are still unresolved issues.

Drivers of deforestation and land degradation mostly originate from outside the forest sector — factors such as increasing populations and living standards require forest conversion to make space for more crop and livestock production, energy, and infrastructure development to meet burgeoning demand. For example in Tanzania, the population has increased threefold since 1970. To meet the needs of these extra 30.1 million people an additional 9 million hectares are needed, assuming average requirements of 2,000kcal per day or 0.3 ha per person, given cereal productivity levels in Tanzania. It is ultimately local people’s needs that determine forest cover. Unless agricultural productivity can be increased, setting priorities between forests and agriculture will be a balancing act. The associated tradeoffs present a challenge for policymakers and local decision makers.

Cross-sectoral coordination could not be more urgent. Local people are most aware of what an acceptable balance between forests and agriculture is. Policy reforms have therefore often attempted to:

(i) devolve resources and power to local levels to improve livelihoods while conserving biodiversity and watersheds;

(ii) set stringent requirements for protected areas and sustainable commercial management of resources that preserve national and global environmental goods, for example insisting on management plans and environmental impact assessments; and

(iii) encourage market incentives such as certification (FSC) and carbon payments to offset the opportunity costs of degrading forest harvesting or conversion to agriculture.

But evidence suggests that such policies have not fully succeeded in changing practices. Deforestation and degradation of natural forests has been unabated in many countries around the world.

So why the low success rate? And what can this tell us about the best way forward for REDD+. Undoubtedly there has been tremendous progress during the past year in terms of the number of approved REDD readiness plans. And REDD+ negotiations had a boost in Cancun with the milestone agreement that included the establishment of the Carbon Fund.

Furthermore countries such as Tanzania, DRC, Indonesia and Brazil are taking the lead on field pilots to learn the intricacies of delivering REDD+. Both the UN and World Bank report progress on some of the key technical issues such as monitoring reporting and verification as well as broader awareness and exchanges of lessons between stakeholders at various levels. But, significant challenges remain: tenure (who owns the carbon rights?), benefit sharing (how will they get paid and for what?), and alignment (how can societies broader needs be met at the same time?). The first of these is discussed here.

Tenure to land, forests and carbon determines who participates and who merely spectates in REDD+ finance flows. Yet both claimants and non-claimants of payments ultimately determine reductions of emissions from land use and land use change. Identifying the right claimants is critical. While indigenous and forest-dependent communities, private sector actors and the State need to play a role, there is a high risk (yet again) that the powerful will secure land resource rights, including carbon, ahead of communities. Past experience has shown that relinquishing rights to communities is a bitter pill for governments to swallow. Decisions have tended to favour large investments models, perceived to deliver quicker economic development.

Failures in implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) over the last 17 years have been attributed to lack of clarity about ownership of land resources, and hence the responsibility for conserving biodiversity on them. Unless carbon rights are clear, REDD+ too is likely to fail to deliver the much needed emissions’ reduction and co-benefits.

REDD+, like the CBD before it, needs to seize the opportunity to ‘clean the house’ first. That is, give priority (with technical and financial resources) to existing legislation and new reforms in land resources tenure that favour indigenous and forest-dependent communities while equally developing policy and legal instruments to enable company-community partnerships that reduce emissions (especially in agricultural intensification). It would also be wise to suspend plans to allocate large plots of land to the private sector, allegedly for REDD+ contribution.

If these issues aren’t addressed there is an imminent risk of further marginalising the indigenous and forest-dependent communities that are critical to maintaining forest cover — progress is slow even when their rights are clearly recognised. In Mozambique for example, the government approved progressive land and forestry laws in the late 1990s that acknowledge customary rights and allow community land registration. But more than a decade later, only a handful of communities have secured the rights (just over 300).

There are reservations about devolution of resource rights to communities as it is seen as a potential impediment to economic development. But is it? In countries as diverse as Gambia, Guatemala and Nepal, devolution of forest resource rights to communities has brought widespread livelihood and environmental benefits, for example leading to the reforestation of most of the middle hills in Nepal. With rights, comes organisation, and with organisation comes economic opportunity. Locally controlled forestry is paramount to delivering REDD+ benefits globally as well as ensuring local gains.

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