GBM Blog

Will REDD Conserve Natural Forests and Protect Local Livelihoods?

September 14, 2011 - 02:45AM
Published by Francesca de Gasparis

This blog was written by an intern in GBMI’s Europe office, Antoni Michael

In July I attended a public debate in London on the potential for REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) to make international forestry more just. The debate brought together a wide variety of stakeholders in REDD in order to assess its possibilities and its frailties. The panel leading the discussion included John Vidal from the Guardian and representatives from DFID, ODI, and FERN among others. What became increasingly clear during the debate is that although the international community appeared to be pushing on with REDD, it remains a highly contested and confused idea.

For those still unsure of what the initiative is, REDD is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests. It offers incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. However, the discussion highlighted fears that REDD may perpetuate, or even deepen, forest people’s historical dispossession from their forests.

The discussion focused on the concept of justice within REDD and the focal point of the evening turned out to be “local justice”. The question was - what is happening to the local people on the ground where these initiatives are implemented? It became increasingly clear, by hearing arguments from members of FERN and from those on the ground, that it is forest people that often are the ones who are most negatively affected by these projects. There is an overriding fear that REDD may not be dissimilar to other big money projects affecting the forests. For instance, a member of the audience, who had worked on a REDD project in Peru, stated that it was seen as more dangerous than palm oil plantations. The fear is that these projects can potentially, and almost by nature, take over entire forests, leaving indigenous people to lose the land earmarked for these REDD projects.

During the evening, several other members of the audience stated it was governments, and not large corporations, who were taking control of the forests. The ODI representative feared that REDD projects will reaffirm the ownership of the forests by the state. For example, as the government controls the carbon it trades, the forests fall under their control. This will go on to reinforce highly centralized, top down decision-making, something GBM works to move away from.

The panel was in agreement about what must be done, forest peoples and local communities must be included and able to make decisions for the future of forests in all REDD projects. Increasing evidence from Brazil and elsewhere indicates that tenure reform, that is placing control of forest resources into the hands of indigenous and other forest-dependent communities, contributes to local well-being and forest protection.

Although, even if REDD could benefit the local communities, for the majority of cases the appropriate institutions and governance are simply not there on the ground. This was continually reaffirmed by some of those who have been involved at ground level. The consensus was that they could have all the money in the world given to them with no idea how to spend it. Indeed, large sums are being thrown at these projects, especially from Norway, who were repeatedly referred to by the panel as “game changers” due to their heavy investment in REDD. Yet recklessly throwing money at REDD without stipulating conditions could create even more problems. Rushing when it comes to complex matters such as rights to resources and land use could be a recipe for disaster. In our dash to reduce carbon emissions from tropical deforestation we should be aware that if we rush to meet self-imposed deadlines without due process we would likely fail to avoid deforestation. The DFID representative constantly reminded us that we need to take the time to get this right and invest significant energy in supporting countries to be ready for REDD.

Despite all the issues raised, the consensus appeared to be that REDD is here, the wheels are in motion so let’s make the best of it. With so much being invested in the initiative and with few alternatives, it seems likely that REDD and REDD+ projects will continue to grow. As to whether it can ever be truly fair or indeed affordable, as the evening showed us, the jury is still out.