REDD+: missionaries, conservation fortresses and the politics of carbon landscapes in Africa

As a new book warns that carbon forestry in Africa is heading for failure, representing little more than "green grabbing", Isilda Nhantumbo argues that we need to urgently learn the lessons about what works and what doesn't when it comes to forest (and carbon) management.

Slash and burn, pictured in the Mopeia district, Zambezia province, Mozambique, has a noble motive – feeding families - but it is not sustainable (Photo: Isilda Nhantumbo/IIED)

Scholars, researchers, policymakers and practitioners from across the public, private and voluntary sectors have been contributing to understanding Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) and how it can be implemented effectively. A new book from Melissa Leach and Ian Scoones highlights the risk of ignoring these lessons in Africa. I argue that there is an urgent need to apply the lessons more widely. 

'Carbon Conflicts and Forest Landscapes in Africa' reviews carbon projects in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, asking whether these bring the expected impact (a win-win for environment and people) in conserving or managing trees for carbon sequestration to offset emissions from elsewhere.  

For the best part of a decade, opportunities, challenges, and experience on the ground have all been highlighted with a view to informing the debate on land use, particularly with a view to protecting the climate and nature.

Of course the key is to also safeguard the interests and needs of local people and benefits to local people, both producers and consumers, as well as the interests of investors and intermediaries in the value chains of products linked to deforestation and forest degradation.

Learning from experience

Many remind us of the need to learn from past experience: for example that protected areas can serve nature and people well when the latter are an integral part of conservation. This means embedding local institutions, from CAMPFIRE (PDF) in Zimbabwe, to conservancies in Namibia, in local forms of democratic governance that enhance collective decision making, transparency and accountability. 

We have learnt the fundamentals for successful participatory natural resources management such as participatory forest management (PFM), community-based natural resource management (CBNRM), and inclusive protected areas management. These are that resources must be owned by local people; that developing enterprises can improve livelihoods for local people; that investment in adding value is essential, as is understanding financing and markets; and that devising inclusive and fair benefit sharing mechanisms, with strong local rules that are reflected in behaviour and practice, all take time. 

More recently payment for ecosystem services (PES) has been trialled in African countries, bringing rewards that are conditional on delivering ecosystems services such as protecting watersheds or carbon sinks (e.g. forests). Various national REDD+ strategies include CBNRM and PFM as well as other options seeking to reduce carbon emissions from land use. 

But are we learning these lessons?

The big question is: did we (government, practitioners, private sector and so on) really learn from the failures? Did we learn how to avoid them, and how to capitalise on what worked well?

Have we now understood how to manage forests as part of complex landscapes – recognising various resources (not only forests), interests and drivers? And is action on the ground reflecting these lessons? 

Are people being empowered by guidelines, or other mechanisms to demonstrate how REDD+ projects should be designed and implemented? Have we learnt how to safeguard the interests of the local people?  

A warning from Africa

In 'Carbon Landscapes and Forest Conflicts in Africa', Leach and Scoones remind us that we do not seem to have learnt that fire, soil and vegetation have a life of their own; that their ecological functions do not follow linear patterns or have predictable responses.

The question is whether these fluctuations can sustain local needs and demands from the growing population. I agree with the authors that we have not learned enough or we have not fully used the knowledge we have gained in the past three or so decades. There is still famine, poverty is rampant in both rural areas and on the peripheries of cities, and the biggest suppliers of food are small-scale farmers who see their production dwindling and their livelihoods becoming increasingly insecure. 

REDD+ offers space for refocusing priorities and delivering more productive and climate-smart solutions on both the agriculture and energy fronts. But we have to want to use past knowledge and experience.

The book provides a fascinating and insightful analysis of a number of carbon projects in Africa that send clear warnings: we are once more heading for failure.  

The authors assert that carbon projects in Africa are a form of "green grabbing", using climate change mitigation as a conduit, while profit making is the overarching aim. The market for carbon credits is not yet robust or stable enough to secure adequate demand to absorb the existing supply, let alone the levels should all countries take up the challenge. 

The risk they highlight is that the promised benefits might not be realised. I do not think we can afford this. 

Their recommendations are clear: abandon carbon forestry and pursue traditional livelihood and integrated rural development approaches, including climate smarter CBNRM, PFM and agroforestry.

Of course this must be entrenched in tenure arrangements that support rather than alienate local people, in socially informed interventions based on inclusive and deliberative decision making by men and women. 

Addressing the drivers of deforestation

Perhaps the issue is not so much about abandoning carbon forestry as addressing the issues elsewhere.

Developed countries surely have to address climate change through smarter industrial processes and energy consumption patterns. Developing tropical countries can also play a role in shifting the development paradigm towards economies based on sustainable land uses.

The message from various discussions at the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris in December was that REDD+ is not about forests and the forest sector, but about addressing external drivers of forest loss in the context of wider integrated low emission development framework. A series of presentations from the Paris event can be found at the bottom of this blog.

The drivers of deforestation and forest degradation will not all be addressed through PFM or CBNRM alone. Commercial agriculture, biomass energy, mining, infrastructure, spreading urbanisation are the real drivers of forest loss.

These must be tackled by the actors and agents of unsustainable resource use. Following the privatisation model to create protected carbon sinks (ie forests) is unlikely to deliver emission cuts. 

Optimism from Paris

But the Paris Agreement provides optimism. It binds countries to set targets to reduce emissions and raises ambition to help drive demand for reduced emissions. 

But perhaps we also need to look at how the missionaries (private sector, NGOs and others) on the ground can more effectively address the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation without creating conservation fortresses that will disenfranchise local people, drive leakage and send us back to square one. 

Communities in the  Zambezia province, Mozambique, must not be disenfranchised when deforestation and forest degradation issues are addressed (Photo: Isilda Nhantumbo/IIED)

We must further interrogate the design and delivery of REDD+ projects. Above all, addressing deforestation and forest degradation is about dealing with the drivers of land use change: agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and mining. Fencing off people from forests will not deliver results. 

Notes of hope

The scenario is not all gloomy, with several inclusive models of REDD+ delivery even within the countries reviewed.

I am currently in Mozambique where attempts are being made to address the drivers of deforestation in the Beira Landscape Corridor, working with producers and small and medium enterprises along the value chains of charcoal as well as timber and non-timber forest products.

While the book argues that it is wrong to blame farmers for shifting cultivation, my experience suggests that this is a problem – and encouraging farmers to adopt more sedentary farming methods, including conservation agriculture, can reduce damage to the forest.

We need to improve management of carbon projects and revisit the aims and the process where necessary. The case studies reviewed in the book provide some pointers.

Isilda Nhantumbo ( is a senior researcher in IIED's Natural Resources Group.

Further resources:

  1. IIED senior researcher Isilda Nhantumbo opened the event by introducing the 'REDD+ and gender', 'Testing REDD+' and 'Private sector REDD+' research, and outlined the objectives of the meeting
  2. IIED consultant Arnela Mausse presented the methodology and findings from the socioeconomic baseline study on land use and land use change in Manica, Sofala and Zambezia, Mozambique
  3. Forest Action researcher Rahul Karki presented one of a series of national studies on REDD+ and gender. His presentation looked at the findings and policy implications in Nepal
  4. Anthony Sangeda, lecturer at the Sokoine University of Agriculture, presented the national REDD+ and gender findings from Tanzania
  5. Adeline Dontenville, REDD expert at the European Forest Institute, presented on the private sector in REDD+. A case study from Mai Ndombe, DRC was used to illustrate engaging logging concessions in REDD+
  6. Almeida Sitoe, professor at Eduardo Mondlane University, presented on forest carbon, biodiversity and fire emissions in the Beira Corridor Region in Mozambique
  7. Farai Muchiguel, from the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), spoke about sustainable agriculture and whether it can halt deforestation
  8. Hamid Taybo, director of ADEL discussed Sustainable Biomass Energy, discussed tackling the supply and demand
  9. Executive director of MICAIA Milagre Nuvunga presented on sustainable value chains from non-timber forest products
  10. Chris Stephenson, head of operations at Plan Vivo, presented a perspective from the voluntary carbon market: supporting project-level PES and REDD+ initiatives
  11. Marisa Camargo, researcher at the University of Helsinki, presented 'Greening the supply chain', using case studies from Ghana and Brazil's cocoa sector
  12. Robert O'Sullivan, of Winrock International, spoke about the potential for the private sector to close the REDD+ financing gap
  13. Casey Ryan, from the University of Edinburgh, presented on land cover change and creating baselines
  14. Delia Catacutan, senior social scientist and country representative at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), presented REDD+ and gender findings from Vietnam
  15. Saadia Bobtoya, project officer for IUCN Ghana, discussed the Ghana experience in mainstreaming gender into REDD+
  16. Consultant Andrea Quesada Aguilar presented on gender and equity in REDD+ and the challenges faced
  17. Raymond Achu Samndong, from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, spoke about private sector engagement in REDD+ using the case study of Mai Ndombe, DRC, and
  18. Nemane Momed from UT-REDD presented the national REDD+ strategy of Mozmambique.