Thin REDD Line: Making Forest Payments Work for Poor People

Student Group: 

While the birth of the Durban Platform, the possible renewal of the Kyoto Protocol, and the controversy over the unfilled Green Climate Fund have dominated most of the headlines, I’ve been keeping an eye on the Reducing Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation program, or REDD.

REDD, for the uninitiated, is a program that theoretically incentivizes countries to conserve their forests rather than destroying them and thereby releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere. The idea is pretty simple, and intriguing: local and indigenous communities manage their forests to sequester carbon, and get paid for every ton of carbon by actors from the World Bank to the UNEP to someday private investors. In theory, it’s a win-win-win for communities, the environment, and the world (tack on an extra “win” for the private investors, if they ever materialize).

But in his Society and Environment course last year, YCEI Deputy Director Michael Dove repeated the phrase “Whenever you hear the phrase “win-win”, somebody’s losing,” like a mantra –– and forget about win-win-wins. All too often, well-meaning integrated conservation/development projects achieve one of their goals, or neither, harming both communities and environment due to poor implementation or a lack of consideration for social factors.

Regional REDD programs already operate in 16 countries, and the UNFCCC resolved to include an international program in a climate deal back at COP13 in Bali. Here in Doha, the REDD negotiations have not, by all accounts, made much progress. As the negotiations enter their final hours, it sounds like agreement is held up by several issues, primary among them the holy trinity of Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification. Unsurprisingly, the countries who will be paying for sequestered carbon have a different take on what constitutes appropriate MRV standards than the recipient countries do. Whether this concern will get resolved here at Doha is anyone’s guess.

While the challenges inherent to MRV get most of the attention, REDD has created its share of moral hazards, perverse incentives, and inadvertent consequences in its brief but controversial lifetime. Perhaps the biggest problem is finance: much of the money that developed countries have promised to regional programs has never shown up, and, due to the low market price of carbon, it’s unclear that private money ever will either. With its sometimes-myopic focus on carbon, REDD may also fail to consider and account for other ecosystem values, prioritizing projects based on carbon storage rather than biodiversity. The program often forces rural communities that had heretofore escaped centralization into close, and sometimes destructive, contact with national government. And getting villagers their money can be a challenge, as funds slip through bureaucratic cracks rather than winding up in the hands of the people who need it most.

For these reasons and more, some NGOs (and Yale professors) believe REDD is a lost cause, a tool of centralization, and the capitalist bane of indigenous people’s existence. Sure, folks say, they slapped a plus-sign on it a few years ago to symbolize social values, turning REDD into REDD+, but that was just putting lipstick on the proverbial pig –– REDD+, they aver, is functionally no better than REDD was. 

Those people might be right, but I’d like to believe that REDD really can help poor communities. For all the burgeoning rhetoric about ecosystem services and market-driven conservation, there are precious few examples of market-driven conservation (besides ecotourism, I suppose) working in practice. Now, there are powerful moral and practical arguments for leaving markets out of conservation altogether. But –– and I hate to say “let’s be realistic,” since that logic can be very self-fulfilling, but, still, let’s be realistic –– the world seems pretty committed to market conservation right now, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I’d rather see the world develop a set of protocols for helping ensure that equity and environmental justice are incorporated into green capitalism than futilely try to overthrow market-driven conservation completely. Yes, I know, I’m a tool of the system.

With all of that in mind, I attended a couple of REDD+ side events, called REDD+ and Poverty Reduction and Making REDD+ Pro-Poor, during my first day at the COP. Was anybody making REDD+ projects work for local communities? And if so, how were they doing it?

What I discovered was that most REDD+ projects are still too nascent to properly assess: these things are meant to be long-term propositions, evaluated for their impacts on rural livelihoods and conservation on a multi-decadal scale. So it’s hard to draw too many conclusions. Still, here are a few Best Management Practices that I gleaned from the events; if REDD+ is gonna work for local and indigenous people, here’s how it might do so. Not saying that all these things will succeed (indeed, nobody knows what works when it comes to REDD), and many are quite unrealistic. They’re worth considering, though.

  • Let the people lead the project… This one is pretty obvious: a survey of Nepali villagers found, by a wide margin, that they would rather REDD+ projects be led by an elected council of villagers than by a government official or an outsider. Shocking!
  • …but don’t ask too much of them. For rural villagers, spending time in endless meetings when they could be tending crops and animals poses pretty serious opportunity costs. Don’t overburden communities’ time.
  • Make sure adequate funds are earmarked for vulnerable people. Bhaskar Singh Karky, an economist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, described a pilot project in Nepal in which a full 60% of the REDD payments went to poor households, women, and a low-caste minority called the Dalit. This prevents dominant social groups from seizing control of the funds.
  • Pay communities based on their actions, not the carbon results. This one might be a little tougher to swallow – the whole point of REDD is that it provides money in exchange for carbon storage. Why pay for carbon that isn’t stored? But that’s not always a fair system for the people doing the conserving: if they bust their butts to preserve their forests but, say, the forests are ravaged by wildfires, locals should still get comped for their efforts. That’s what they’re doing in the pilot project in Nepal, anyway.  
  • Encourage equity across communities of different sizes. Let’s say one village has 1000 hectares of conserved forest, and the one next door has only fifty. The village with more carbon-storing hectares should get a lot more money, right? Well, not necessarily. When international agencies come in and lavish cash on one community but not another, they’re effectively picking winners and losers, granting one village a competitive advantage over another. Dr. Karky advocates decoupling (at least partially) payments from physical area. 
  • Give the people what they want. Not every community just wants cold hard cash in exchange for conservation. In Tanzania, for example, people preferred other forms of compensation, such as capacity building or schools and clinics. Communities in other countries have received help setting up fish farms and purchasing livestock.
  • Don’t let REDD stand alone. One of the big challenges that REDD faces is that the market price of carbon is so low (and, of course, there are so few extant carbon markets).  Consequently, REDD payments are often too small, compared with the money communities could receive from clearing land, to influence them to conserve. REDD payments can be more influential when bundled with other conservation schemes like Payment for Ecosystem Services programs, which exist in some of the same countries as REDD+ schemes.

Again, I have no whether these solutions will make REDD+ effective; maybe the program really is fatally flawed. But to my very inexpert mind, these ideas at least seem worth trying. If market-based conservation and climate change mitigation is truly the road we’re gonna go down, let’s do our darnedest to make it work for everyone.