Making REDD a tool for development

Patrick Behrer is currently a Masters Candidate in Environmental Management at Victoria University of Wellington, where he is a U.S. Fulbright Fellow.  His research focuses on REDD programs, environmental markets, and integrating conservation and development.  He has worked on projects in each of these areas in Vietnam, Mongolia, and Chile.  

Two weeks ago the UN-REDD program released new draft social and environmental principles and criteria for REDD programs for comment.  Reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) is a program, first formally recognized in the Bali action plan, meant to reduce the rate of tropical deforestation by paying nations to leave their forests standing.   Because deforestation accounts for as much as 17% of global carbon emissions—more than the global transport sector—slowing or stopping tropical deforestation is a critical aspect of the fight against global climate change.  REDD has thus dragged an issue that used to be the purview only of conservationists and a few tropical countries into the global limelight.  This has brought a number of opportunities to improve forest conservation but also new, and significant, challenges.

Prime among these opportunities is increased funding.  Norway alone has devoted more than $500 million a year to REDD programs, and CIFOR estimates that global flows for REDD could reach $30 billion annually.  In a field that sees even dominant players historically operating on budgets on the order of a few hundred million, this is an astronomical sum of money.  But with this money comes challenges.  As players who have historically had no connection with actions to prevent deforestation move into the field there is concern that REDD might have a negative impact on forest communities.  Paradoxically, much of the opposition to REDD comes from some of the very people that it is intended to help most.

Much of this conflict stems from the two competing goals of REDD programs.  Their first goal, and primary reason for existence, is the reduction of carbon emissions from deforestation with the aim of limiting climate change.  Their second goal, and the means to achieving the first, is the reduction of deforestation and support of forest communities. This seemingly semantic distinction is important because the choice of prioritization between these two goals determines the structure of the programs.  The first goal suggests that control of the programs be vested at national or international levels in order to ensure all of the technical requirements of a REDD program are met.  In contrast, the second goal suggests that control be vested at local levels to ensure that REDD actually benefits the communities that reduce deforestation.  While these competing structures are not irreconcilable, the balance of power certainly favors those who promote control at a higher level.

It is against this background that the new environmental and social standards should be viewed. These principles and criteria are intended, according the UN-REDD program, to “enhance the multiple benefits of REDD and reduce risks from inadequate planning and implementation.” These standards provide a concrete framework to encourage countries developing REDD programs to structure them to ensure that the communities involved receive tangible benefits.  By explicitly recognizing that REDD programs should strive to achieve MDGs and “ensure the full and effective participation of … indigenous peoples and other forest communities,” the standards will help equalize the power relationships between communities who wish to develop REDD projects and the international donors who fund them.

Despite their non-binding nature, the acknowledgement by the UN-REDD program that the equal participation of these communities is important is critical and late in coming.  In conversations with REDD practitioners I’ve consistently heard the sentiment expressed that “there seems to be a disconnect between folks who are super obsessed about leakage, national accounting, … and people who are trying to think about the practicalities of actually reducing deforestation.”  While only a non-compulsory framework, these standards show that the UN-REDD, a large, international organization—of a type that are typically guilty of ignoring local deforestation dynamics—is trying to bridge that disconnect.

Bridging that gap will take more than just writing standards.  It’ll be up to everyone involved to see that they are obeyed and prevent abuse of REDD.  But a problem must be acknowledged before solutions can be developed.

Generating development benefits from environmental programs has always been a difficult challenge.  Successful programs negotiate a delicate balancing act between the environmental and development goals for the program area in order to ensure that both are met.  Unfortunately, too often, this balancing act is not well negotiated and programs, at best, only accomplish one goal.  The very first REDD projects are critical because of their potentially enormous sources of funding.  If this funding is to materialize in the future, REDD projects must demonstrate from the beginning that they can strike the right balance.  These new standards are a promising first step in that direction.

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