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Left UN-said: the flawed analysis behind UN-REDD

Left UN-said: the flawed analysis behind UN-REDD

In September 2008, the United Nations launched its UN-REDD programme. According to information released by the UN “Nine countries have already expressed formal interest in receiving assistance through the UN-REDD Programme: Bolivia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Tanzania, Viet Nam, and Zambia.”

A “Framework Document” dated June 2008 provides more detail about the programme. The analysis presented raises several concerns with UN-REDD, but what is far more worrying is what is excluded from the Framework Document.

According to the UN, some of these countries, including Indonesia, PNG, and DRC will be helped to “quick start” their efforts through developing national strategies, establishing robust systems for monitoring, assessment, reporting and verification of forest cover and carbon stocks, and building necessary capabilities-with support to others to follow in due course.” Describing the longer-term vision for the plan, the UN explained that “In subsequent phases, pilot projects will be rolled out to test ways of managing existing forests in order to maintain their ecosystem services and maximise their carbon stocks while delivering community and livelihood benefits.”

One week before the UN-REDD programme was launched, a meeting took place in Washington DC which developed a REDD “Roadmap” on Monitoring and Verification. But before we explore where the roadmap may or may not take UN-REDD, it’s worth looking in more detail at the Framework Document.

The purpose of the Framework Document is “to set out how FAO, UNDP and UNEP intend to work together to support countries’ efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD).” It is not just the Food and Agriculture Organisation, UN Development Programme and UN Environment Programme that will be working together, but the World Bank, Global Environment Facility and other members of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests. The Framework Document does not specify which members.

The Framework Document runs into trouble early on, because it fails to differentiate between industrial tree plantations and forests. The Document notes that “Tropical forests are continuing to disappear at an alarming rate: between 1990 and 2005, the rate of deforestation averaged about 13 million hectares a year, occurring mostly in tropical countries.” The next sentence tells us that “in some countries” there has been a “decrease in the net loss of forests”. But this apparently good news is in fact the result of the fact that the definition of forests that the UNFCCC is currently using includes industrial tree plantations.

This loose definition of “forests” creates the possibility that a country could replace native forest with eucalyptus monocultures and still claim to have reduced the rate of deforestation. Another possibility is that a logging company could log a forest, sell the timber and then get carbon credits for “reforesting” it.

The causes of deforestation, according to the Framework Document, are the conversion of forests to agricultural land “which in turn is closely connected to the conditions of rural livelihoods, the increasing demands for food, feed and fibre and the overall economic development.” The Framework Document makes no mention of the increasing demand for agrofuels in the North, which is driving massive forest destruction in many countries of the South.

The Framework Document refers to an FAO study on the underlying causes of deforestation.

The data is from 1980 to 2000. The vast areas of forests destroyed to make way for the agrofuels boom of the last few years are simply not there.

The Document does not mention that an important driver of deforestation in the global South is over-consumption in the North. Analysis of the North’s demand for timber, paper, agrofuels and agricultural commodities is missing. Instead, according to the Framework Document, forest degradation is caused by mis-management in the South: “[The causes of forest degradation] include, among other things, poor forest management practices in production forests, forest fires, overgrazing, overharvesting of fuelwood and other non-wood forest products, illegal cutting of timber, forest pest outbreaks and forest disease.”

The Framework Document notes that despite the “concerted efforts” of developing countries and the “international community” to “reduce unplanned deforestation, stem forest degradation and implement sustainable forest management” over the past two decades, “the challenges have proven to be considerable”. Translated from UN-speak to English, this might read: “Deforestation has continued despite (and in some cases because of) the millions of dollars of aid poured into the coffers of some of the most corrupt forestry departments in the world.” It is not clear from the Framework Document how the UN-REDD programme will be different from these past failures – except for the fact that amounts of money involved and the scale of the programme itself will be much bigger.

The Framework Document provides the following list of risks associated with REDD programmes:

The Framework Document notes that “Delivering emission reductions adds a significant layer of complexity and risk.” Nevertheless, the UN-REDD programme is in favour of including forests in carbon markets. UN-REDD will run “Targeted campaigns, involving non-governmental organizations, media, etc. to enhance general understanding of REDD as part of the carbon market as well as to push other non-market options.” It will no doubt come as a surprise to a number of states such as Brazil – which is opposed to forest carbon trading – that a UN institution is talking about the mobilisation of NGO support for forest carbon trading when the international discussions on this have yet to be held and are likely to be highly delicate.  

The Framework Document notes that “If there are doubts about the ability to deliver actual, lasting, achievable, reliable and measurable emission reductions, REDD investors will remain risk adverse.” What is more likely is that investors will look to some of the “innovative market risk solutions” described in the Framework Document, including the use of “structured financial mechanisms, such as the sale of options for REDD credits or the issuance of government-backed bonds, to raise up-front cash streams.” While the Framework Document refers to these financial mechanisms, there is no hint that it was this sort of market innovation that led to the sub-prime fiasco, the credit crunch and the current meltdown of the world’s financial system.

The Framework Document notes that “Elite capture is the main risk for legitimate beneficiaries. This risk can only be reduced through strong democratic processes in local institutions and placing conditionalities on payments, such as transparent audit procedures.” The fact that “strong democratic processes in local institutions” simply do not exist in many countries in the global South (particularly relating to valuable resources such as timber or commodities such as palm oil or soya), seems to have escaped the authors of the Framework Document.

The Framework Document does note that many forestry departments are incapable of measuring the area of forest in their countries, let alone measuring the carbon stored in forests and soils or measuring changes in the carbon stored over a period of time. Of course, the Document doesn’t say this in so many words, and instead discusses “insufficient technical capacity and resources” in many countries to establish “national reference scenarios against which to assess REDD emissions reductions” or for developing and implementing REDD strategies and field activities”. Many developing countries, the Document notes, “may need assistance to set up systems to assess carbon emissions and removals on forest land” so that “future results could be demonstrable, transparent, verifiable, and estimated consistently over time”.

The Framework Document acknowledges that REDD payment systems could have the following impacts for local communities and their forests:

  • REDD will lock-up forests by decoupling conservation from development
  • Asymmetric power distribution will enable powerful REDD consortia to deprive communities of their legitimate land-development aspirations
  • Hard-fought gains in forest management practices will be wasted
  • Commercial REDD may erode culturally rooted not-for-profit conservation values

The Framework Document does not describe how the UN-REDD programme will attempt to avoid these impacts. Instead it points out that “An estimated 60 million indigenous people are completely dependent on forests, while 350 million people are highly dependent, and 1.2 billion have some dependence on forests for their livelihoods.” Precisely why, in other words, the potential impacts listed above are of such concern.

The UN-REDD programme appears to be based on wishful thinking rather than a careful analysis of the risks to people and forests: “REDD activities could enhance biodiversity, enhance soil and water conditions, help ensure sustained supplies of timber and non-timber forest products and help sustain or improve livelihoods and food security for local communities.”

The Framework Document returns immediately to the risks. “Weak governance and institutional capacity in some countries, as well as inadequate mechanisms for effective participation of local communities in land use decisions, could seriously compromise the delivery of both local and global benefits and the long-term sustainability of REDD investments. If REDD programmes are not carefully designed, they could marginalize the landless and those with informal usufructual rights and communal use-rights.”

The Framework Document notes a serious problem with making payments for REDD projects. The projects could last for more than 100 years, but as the Framework Document notes, “It is probably not feasible to spread payments over the full duration of REDD interventions.” Governments in the South would be contractually obliged to protect their forests for, say, 100 years, but the payments might stop after, say, 20 years. “Such a mechanism would only be viable if REDD policies and measures are effective in altering local development paths to those that permanently reduce pressure on forests without the need for additional and sustained cash incentives.” The emphasis on “local” development paths illustrates how UNEP, UNDP and FAO are incapable of taking into account the impact that the North has on the forests in the global South – for example through demand for agrofuels, paper, agricultural products like palm oil, soya and beef.

Having noted the potential problems with its proposed REDD programme, the authors of the Framework Document give a collective shrug of their shoulders and get on with their task: to implement the UN-REDD programme. There are to be scoping workshops, joint missions, briefings, regional and subregional training programmes and capacity-building workshops. Awareness is to be raised and professional capacity built, through communication, education products and technology transfer. Models and scenarios will be developed, consultations will take place with “expertise at international level”. National REDD Officies are to be created. Baselines and a verification systems will be developed. Local stakeholders are to be identified. Once identified, they will subjected to consultation, awareness raising and will participate. Principles, guidelines and indicators for the accounting process are to be drawn up, “including agreed methods for reporting on deforestation/forest degradation”.

The Framework Document suggests that a budget of US$35 million would cover these “Quick Start actions” in six countries for the 18 month period up to the UNFCCC COP in Copenhagen in December 2009.

“UNDP, UNEP and FAO can provide critical assurances necessary to establish a REDD regime,” claims the Framework Document. “As neutral bodies, the organizations would work as ‘honest brokers’ to support country-led development programmes and to facilitate the informed involvement of national stakeholders, particularly forest-dependent local communities.” All the problems of aid agencies’ intervention in the forests of the South will simply melt away when faced with the UN’s new REDD experts.

Perhaps the most serious omission from the Framework Document is its failure to look at the record of the institutions that will be involved in running the UN-REDD programme. The World Bank, in particular, has an appalling record of forest destruction in the South. Unless it addresses these past failures, UN-REDD is doomed to repeat them.

Observers have informed REDD-Monitor that tensions are already emerging within UN-REDD between the various UN agencies involved. As the lead UN agency on forestry, the FAO is jockeying for a key role in the new initiative, but it has been widely discredited for decades of failed forestry interventions, and its continuing promotion of forest industrialisation. Other critics point out that, despite known problems with its methodologies, the FAO has continued to publish global forestry and deforestation data that are almost certainly highly misleading[*]. One of the major problems facing any REDD scheme is going to be that there is still no accurate and agreed data even on where forests are and what is happening to them, and the FAO will no doubt face some of the blame for this.

As yet, UN-REDD is supported entirely by funding from the government of Norway. REDD-Monitor hopes that the authorities in Oslo will carefully note what appear to be some serious gaps in the initiative’s founding documentation, and ensure that these are corrected. We hope the Norwegian government will also ensure that the FAO’s antiquated view of forestry and how to tackle deforestation will not be allowed to prevail.


* ^ Alan Grainger’s full paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which explains the problems with FAO’s deforestation data, is available here.

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