A primer on REDD+ and indigenous peoples

Katy Clark and I studied the issue of REDD+ and its implications for indigenous rights as we evaluated a joint project currently being implemented by the Coordinator for the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the Environmental Defense Fund and the Woods Hole Research Center.

Deforestation, conversion of forests to other uses, and forest degradation currently cause about 15% of annual global carbon emissions. REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) is a program under negotiation at the COP that is a mechanism for wealthy countries to pay for efforts in developing countries to reduce rates of deforestation. REDD appears to offer one of the few good chances for agreement at Durban that most countries would be willing to support to achieve emissions reductions.

Some of the reasoning behind why REDD should work includes: payments can replace the economic benefit of cutting the forest (pay the logger to stop); it can finance long-term sustainable forest management practices that would not otherwise be viable; it can improve enforcement and monitoring in protected areas to reduce illegal logging or incursions; and money can also be used to fund reforestation (replacing lost forest) or afforestation (planting trees where there were none previously).

Therefore, the money paid to carry out these activities should result in some extra amount of carbon stored on the site (e.g. in the trees and soil) that is additional to the carbon that would have been there without those payments. If we can measure that baseline carbon trajectory and compare it to the additional carbon that results from REDD, we should in theory be able to determine the cost per ton of storing that carbon on the site. In a global market for carbon credits, wealthy countries would like the option of paying for those extra tons of carbon because it likely would be less expensive to keep carbon stored in tropical forests than it would be to reduce emissions in developed countries (e.g. through renewable energy, new regulations on power plants & automobiles, or efficiency standards).

However, such a program risks funneling money to the land users and governments most responsible for deforestation, while leaving nothing to parties that have conserved their forests well. It might provide an incentive to cut down forests with high biodiversity and replace them with exotic monoculture plantations, if the only goal is to put more carbon in the ground. Safeguards are being negotiated that are meant to prevent these perverse possibilities from happening. REDD has officially become REDD+, the “plus” denoting the goal of rewarding existing forest conservation, sustainable forest management, and enhancement of carbon stocks, even if fewer “additional” tons of carbon would be gained in such projects.

The plus is particularly relevant to indigenous forest-dwelling peoples, who have an exceptional track record in protecting their forests that often exceeds the record of their governments. They have contributed almost nothing to carbon emissions, yet by and large suffer higher rates of poverty, threats to their livelihoods and traditional lands from development interests, and because of their close dependence on their natural environments, are at greater risk of suffering from changes in climate that affect the ecosystems, species, and seasonal patterns that they rely on.

Many indigenous rights groups also argue that through REDD, rich countries are attempting to impose a neo-liberal/colonial mechanism that tries to partially absolve themselves of the responsibility to reduce their emissions, and allows them to capture and profit from the future monetary value of forest carbon. They argue that indigenous peoples have been left out of negotiations and have played no role in designing the dozens of pilot projects currently taking place around the world. They are concerned that governments will maintain centralized control over forests in order to receive REDD funding, rather than grant indigenous peoples the territorial rights they have fought so hard to obtain.

How can these issues be addressed in a REDD+ project? Can REDD+ actually be implemented in a way that benefits indigenous peoples, respects their rights, and avoids these unintended consequences? Or are the problems simply too difficult to overcome? We will describe our findings and recommendations in an upcoming post!