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India’s first REDD project in the East Khasi Hills: A response from Mark Poffenberger, Community Forestry International

 
On 29 November 2011, REDD-Monitor posted a critique of a watershed conservation project in the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya in northeast India. The project is run by Community Forestry International in association with local communities and organisations.

Yesterday, Mark Poffenberger, the Executive Director of CFI, sent a response. It is posted in full here. On its website, CFI has a film about the project, made in 2005, when CFI’s project started: “Sacred Forests of Meghalaya: Wisdom from the Mother’s Hearth”. REDD-Monitor looks forward to further discussion about this project (and similar projects in other parts of the world).

CFI is a small non-profit that has been supporting efforts to strengthen community forest governance and tenure security in northeast India since 2003. Much of the hill forests in the region are under community control supported through the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of the Government of India. Forests have been under considerable pressure for over a century resulting in degradation and deforestation. In 2005, CFI was asked by the indigenous government in Hima Mawphlang in Meghalaya to assist the communities to improve forest management and facilitate restoration. Community members participated in hamlet council discussions (durbar) to identify drivers of deforestation as well as actions they could take to mitigate the impact and ensure forest regrowth. CFI agreed to provide support for this effort in recognition for the important environmental services they were providing. Over the next four years, the forests in the project area regenerated rapidly as the community controlled ground fires, adopted fuel efficient stoves, and shifted over to higher value stall fed livestock. The success in the early pilot activities generated requests from neighboring indigenous governments (hima) to extend the project to their areas. Over the last year, 9 hima have joined together to form a Federation to manage and restore their community forests. In order to provide financial support for meetings, mapping of their forests, developing watershed management plans, and implementing fire control and assisted natural regeneration, the Federation is now considering the formulation of a REDD type project that might allow them to generate income from carbon credits. Whether the 9 hima and the 60 odd hamlets ultimately move forward with the project will depend on the outcome of ongoing consultation through village durbar meetings. Federation representatives and the Bethany Society (a local NGO) are assisting communities by providing technical and financial support to allow them to assess local forest conditions and develop resource management plans.
 
During Federation meetings hima and village representatives have expressed a strong desire to conserve and protect their sacred forests as well as to restore degraded community lands. CFI believes that they should have the option to participate in REDD+ programs if they so desire. The current project may seek certification under Plan Vivo, if the Federation decides to move forward with the project. The Plan Vivo system was selected because it is NOT carbon centric and values all environmental and socio-economic benefits emerging from community forestry efforts. It is not subject to the constraints imposed by other REDD+ frameworks. Under this project, all revenues from carbon sales would be channeled to the participating communities. The project would be administered by the community forestry federation and they would be responsible for establishing utilization rules and developing mitigation activities that they find appropriate. As such, this would be one of the first REDD+ Type projects to be entirely controlled and operated by indigenous communities.
 
This project has no connection to the World Bank, the Forest Carbon Facility, the Carbon Finance Unit, or any UN sponsored REDD initiative. It has been endorsed by the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council and the Meghalaya State Government.
 
The project support team is assisting the federation to determine current forest cover and rates of change based on satellite images donated by the French Foundation – Planet Action, as well as through forest inventories conducted by community members. This data is still being analyzed consequently it is premature to estimate at present the amount of carbon credits the project might generate or their value. It is also important to note that any payment for carbon storage or sequestration is a relatively minor aspect of this project. What is significant from CFI’s perspective is that this is one of the first cases where indigenous institutions in the northeast have united to develop a landscape level approach to forest management and a proactive initiative to restore their forests, rivers, watersheds, improve agricultural techniques and improve their livelihoods. The Khasi’s communities are expressing concern over deforestation and a commitment to improving the situation with or without REDD+. To prematurely discredit this effort is a disservice to the participating Khasi communities, local NGOs, and participating local governments and reflects a lack of understanding regarding the innovative processes underway. It also underestimates the sophistication of the Khasi people who are making their own decisions regarding whether REDD+ mechanisms are helpful in their forest conservation efforts or not.
 
Many of us share concerns about the viability of REDD+ initiatives including CFI that has worked on several community-based REDD+ projects over the past five years. CFI believes that if REDD+ does not directly respond to the needs and rights of forest dependent communities, it will fail to achieve its goals.
 
At the present time there are literally tens of thousands of “experts” flying to meetings and blogging about the positive and negative aspects of REDD+. At the same time, there are few examples and little funding for grassroots REDD+ type initiatives. It is unfair and counter productive to prematurely judge the outcome of sincere efforts to address complex problems that require site specific trial and effort learning processes. Our request is to allow forest-dependent communities all over the world some time and space to explore whether some form of REDD+ might be helpful in reducing the poverty levels of some of the poorest people on the planet who are struggling to protect and restore the world’s forests. Is that too much to ask?

 

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  1. Mark Poffenberger writes at length about what CFI has been doing in the project area. The point of my report which REDD-Monitor quotes was not to doubt CFI’s veracity or cast any kind of aspersion on the good work they say they have been doing. I am aware of Mark’s long connection with Indian forests, and read many of his articles on JFM. The report was not trying to target CFI as CFI, but the concept of forest governance that this or any other REDD/REDD+ project embodies.

    The problem/s with the project(and Mark’s response) lie elsewhere:

    1. Mark says:

    ‘Over the next four years, the forests in the project area regenerated rapidly as the community controlled ground fires, adopted fuel efficient stoves, and shifted over to higher value stall fed livestock. …Over the last year, 9 hima have joined together to form a Federation to manage and restore their community forests. In order to provide financial support … the Federation is now considering the formulation of a REDD type project that might allow them to generate income from carbon credits’.

    As I tried to say in the report, I couldn’t visit the hamlets in the Mawphlong Hima, because the Hima secretary told me very clearly that people know nothing about REDD. The forests may indeed regenerate because of the CFI eco-restoration project, but how can anyone be sure that the typical JFM-style ‘support activities’ like fuel-efficient chulahs have played a role in that? The forests can indeed regenerate because of community efforts\ and I have seen it happening in many areas in Bengal even in JFM regimes, but the chulah and stall-feeding kind of ‘support’(no dearth of that because of world bank and other funding) did not bring that about. In fact, the moment the forest officers came with their rule books and JFM guidelines, the initial euphoria over JFM vanished in Bengal, despite the ‘support money’ streaming in.

    The federation in Mawphlong area and elsewhere may try to get carbon credits. But how much the subsistence-level forest users know about the extremely complex and severely challenged mechanism that results in carbon credits? Do they know or are aware of what’s been happening in other REDD areas across the world? ‘Our request is to allow forest-dependent communities all over the world some time and space to explore whether some form of REDD+ might be helpful in reducing the poverty levels of some of the poorest people on the planet who are struggling to protect and restore the world’s forests’. Mark says towards the end of his post. Does he seriously want us to believe that forest-dependent communities are knowingly pursuing REDD, and it’s not a few of ‘advanced’ ones eyeing a fast-buck? I say this knowingly and in spite of the danger of sounding ‘derogatory’, but the forest-dependent communities of India have seen this happening in the name of so-called participatory forest governance in JFM all these years. Communities are not homogenous constructs in most places in India, and my humble question is, who from within the communities are taking recourse to REDD? Even if we talk about the community leaders, are they also aware of the ‘offset’ angle in REDD? Do they know that the carbon their forests will sequester will be used by dirty companies elsewhere to keep up their present emission levels?

    2. ‘During Federation meetings hima and village representatives have expressed a strong desire to conserve and protect their sacred forests as well as to restore degraded community lands. CFI believes that they should have the option to participate in REDD+ programs if they so desire. The current project may seek certification under Plan Vivo, if the Federation decides to move forward with the project. The Plan Vivo system was selected because it is NOT carbon centric and values all environmental and socio-economic benefits emerging from community forestry efforts. It is not subject to the constraints imposed by other REDD+ frameworks. Under this project, all revenues from carbon sales would be channeled to the participating communities. The project would be administered by the community forestry federation and they would be responsible for establishing utilization rules and developing mitigation activities that they find appropriate. As such, this would be one of the first REDD+ Type projects to be entirely controlled and operated by indigenous communities’.

    And again: ‘The project support team is assisting the federation to determine current forest cover and rates of change based on satellite images donated by the French Foundation – Planet Action, as well as through forest inventories conducted by community members. This data is still being analyzed consequently it is premature to estimate at present the amount of carbon credits the project might generate or their value. It is also important to note that any payment for carbon storage or sequestration is a relatively minor aspect of this project’.

    All my quotes about the carbon trading aspect of the Mawphlong project have been lifted from the documents that the project developers placed in the public domain. I won’t say anything about Plan Vivo, because the Report nowhere tries to value-judge it. The point is that CFI’s own concept note makes elaborate mention of the carbon sales aspect; and(isn’t is a pity?) Mark’s present post above says 1. The Plan Vivo system is not carbon-centric, and 2. All money from carbon sales will be channelized to the communities.

    That’s precisely the problem with all groups who desperately try to discover and invent good REDD+ plus projects. The REDD and REDD+ are typical market-linked ‘products’, and if one takes away the carbon trading, there’s no longer any REDD. As our report tried to show, the Indian government’s position on REDD+ is as dubious as possible; on one hand, it kept on harping on ecosystem services and less carbon-centricity, and on the other, left all options for carbon trading open.

    Despite the goodness of intention displayed by the Mawphlong project, and the low-carbon Plan Vivo, the fact remains that the project has been promoted and publicly displayed as a REDD+ project. Unfortunately, while assessing REDD/REDD+ projects and what they can or can’t do, we have to go by what has been happening around us in the name of REDD, which includes governmental submissions to UNFCCC and other policy documents. If the Mawphlong project abides by government rules and policies(which the project developers say it will), then that limits to a great extent what the project can or can’t morph into in future. When one sees all the hallmarks of JFM-style project designing in a REDD+ project (it can’t be incidental that retired forest bureaucrats are listed among the project-coordinators), and when the Indian Government’s stated position on REDD+ places JFM at the center-stage, what inferences one can reasonably make?

    We tried to show in our report that attempts to impose even a partial JFM-style regime upon the indigenous forest-dwellers in the Khasi Hills are not likely to succeed. Despite Mark’s clarification that communities are the decision makers here, the smell of JFM and carbon trading cannot be just wished away. And that’s what we, the forest movements of India, object to: JFM and Carbon Trading make a dangerous disaster recipe for all forest communities of the country(see the critique of Green India Mission in the Report). If the Mawphlong project hasn’t declared it as a REDD+ project, there would have been simply no need for the Report.

    3. This is for information: In India’s forests thousands of community groups have been protecting and conserving their forests for a long time, without any kind of outside help. New community governance processes have taken off since the passage of the historic Forest Rights Act. Many such groups came together recently in Delhi, and they conveyed to the Tribal Affairs Minister(who attended the meeting) very clearly that they do not want REDD/REDD+/GIM or any kind of market-linked sham solutions. With all due respect to Mark(we sincerely do not doubt his intentions) and the work Khasi groups have been doing, that’s what the forest communities will say every time, given a real ‘choice’, and they won’t ‘explore’ carbon income avenues.

    Mark asks for some time and space. The Indian forest movements in turn request him to stop looking for that. There won’t be any space for REDD/REDD+, at least not from forest communities’ sides.

  2. REDD+ has served its purpose. Should not dictate with a a bunch or huge entities and NGO or Highly rateds qualification oriented well funded organizations.Dictsted by the Government of course in along with REDD+ UN and added set of usual banking infrastructure, as key decision makers a zillion bytes away from ground zero. And all control freaks.

    Hand over to local small communities or assist in the empowerment rights of local entities,small,fast & flexible operations with intent to stick with local communities in alternative forms of revenue generation to subsist.

    As the famous saying, Think Global & Act Local, Big Bro.

    If there is a