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REDD+ for the poor or the poor for REDD+?

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“REDD+ projects can be expected to have poor social and environmental outcomes unless they use substantially different approaches, which build on the capabilities of the wide range of local natural resource managers to undertake efficient resource management and conservation in the Amazon.”

That’s the conclusion of a recent paper published in Ecology and Society, written by Benno Pokorny (University of Freiburg), Imme Scholz (German Development Institute), and Wil de Jong (Centre for Integrated Area Studies of the Kyoto University). The paper is part of a special feature in Ecology and Society, titled “Beyond Carbon: Enabling Justice and Equity in REDD+ Across Levels of Governance”.

The paper looks at past strategies to save the Amazon rainforest, including regulatory reforms, forestry concessions, land use planning, forestry projects, and the use of safeguards and environmental standards. In each case, the authors analyse how these strategies attempted to generate co-benefits for rural communities, whether the co-benefits materialised, and the reasons for possible failures.

Pokorny et al. found that past strategies had “a rather limited success … in achieving the twin goals of environmental protection and local development”. They found, for example, that in practice environmental regulations are too complicated, and the processes involved too bureaucratic, for smallholders to use regulations to their benefit. Even worse, the regulations do little to stop the expansion of industrial agriculture, which replaces forests with monocultures of sugar, soy, cattle ranching and so on.

Pokorny et al. point out that part of the problem is that governments promote development through economic growth, with a focus on industrial development. They list four processes resulting from this that have detrimental effects on both local rural incomes and forests:

    (i) the expansion of the agricultural frontier driven by large-scale investors that aim at producing cash crops and cattle for domestic or foreign markets,

    (ii) the construction of roads and ports for the connection to international markets,

    (iii) large investments in hydropower plants as a relevant source of renewable energy in order to implement national low-carbon development strategies, and

    (iv) the exploitation of oil, gas and minerals.

The authors note that many environmental and development projects follow “market-oriented approached that widely ignore local management practices, local ways of organizing work, and other local capacities and limitations”.

The majority of sustainable forestry development projects, for instance, demand that Amazonian rural dwellers adopt working routines and commitments which require attitudes that are essentially alien to their culture.

Projects try to adapt communities to externally defined models of development and conservation and, as a result, any benefits from the project finish when the funding runs out.

“Can REDD+ change the picture?” Pokorny et al. ask towards the end of the paper. At the local level, REDD looks much like past efforts to halt deforestation. Issues such as rights to land and forest, or carbon remain serious problems that inhibit local development. The authors note that “immense transaction costs” mean that “effective payments to the individual families will remain marginal”.

Instead of basing development in the Amazon on “a stylized interpretation of the very specific experiences of industrialized countries”, the authors suggest that a better approach would be to start with the richness of local production models and cultures.

If governments are to achieve lasting results with their REDD programmes, “they have to drastically change their public policies for the Amazon,” Pokorny et al. write, adding that REDD readiness programmes “indicate the risk of repeating the errors of past external policy interventions”. Based on the evidence in their paper, the authors argue that the benefits of REDD would go primarily to market-integrated economic actors with secure land titles rather than to smallholders. And the authors note that carbon cowboys such as David Nilsson are “luring communities into signing carbon deals with false and detrimental promises”.

Pokorny et al. point out that debates about REDD, especially on social safeguards, have helped raise awareness about the “linkages and trade-offs between social and environmental issues”. The final sentence is optimistic:

Considering that REDD+ is still in the early stages, there might be possibilities to re-adjust the framework and thereby turn it into a real contribution to the sustainable development of the rural Amazon.

But the paper is not an optimistic view of REDD. It argues that unless REDD changes fundamentally from the market-based trajectory it is currently on, it will be doomed to repeat past failures. True, REDD could change. But since many of the actors promoting REDD, including the World Bank for example, are the same actors that promoted the past strategies of environmental protection and environmentally and socially destructive industrial development in the Amazon (and elsewhere), the chances of a re-adjustment of the REDD framework are slim.


PHOTO Credit: Leo F. Freitas.

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  1. Chris, do you really mean “Denis Nilsson” or are you referring to “David John Nilsson, the Carbon Cowboy” who has publicly threatened you on this blog. I sure hope there are not more Nilssons out there scamming the indigenous people out of their land and encouraging them to deforest the Amazon, all in the name of a REDD project. In any case, thanks for your insight about the article.

  2. @Anonymous (#1) – Thanks for this. That was a typo. I did mean David Nilsson – I’ve corrected it.