REDD+: What is needed to make it work for the poor?

While REDD+ is aimed at reducing emissions from forests, its effectiveness will depend on how much the benefits trickle down to those living closest to the forest. These same rural households are also best placed to provide local evidence of what works and what doesn’t, to influence decisions on REDD+ architecture at the national and international level. 

A man stands by a tree stump in Mozambique.

An international mechanism that aims to provide incentives to conserve and restore forests and to sustainably manage forests and enhance forest carbon stocks called REDD+: Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, faces challenges that go beyond saving or planting trees. Yes – the ultimate goal of any REDD+ programme is to attempt to mitigate climate change by curbing the vast deforestation that has occurred in recent history. But without tackling the social issues, REDD+ will not go very far. As Prof. Dr. Niels Elers Koch highlighted at Cifor’s Forest Day, the inclusion of socioeconomic goals upfront will increase the likelihood of achieving carbon and biodiversity goals.    

A first step is to find out what has the potential to work and where – and this includes whether it will reflect what people want. Last Thursday, IIED held a workshop [PDF] at the 18th UNFCCC in Doha, to explore the challenges and potential  of a pro-poor REDD+ approach. One big issue is the costs. If REDD+ is going to work for the poor and genuinely compensate them for lost opportunities, what sort of price are we talking? It turns out the answer is very different, depending where you are looking. 

Take Vietnam: REDD+ will never be able to compete with high value crops in the country. But Adrian Enright from SNV Vietnam showed that in some areas of low return smallholder agriculture in Lam Dong province, REDD+ compensation wouldn’t have to be high to work. Restricting further expansion through forest clearing could be adequately compensated, and bring improvements to the livelihoods of the communities there.  

We also heard from Gene Birikorang of Hamilton Resources, Ghana, who showed how the ‘plus’ activities of REDD+, in this case, treeplanting on farms, could in theory be attractive for cocoa farmers. This comes with a caveat, however. Without support to cover the upfront costs of planting the trees this would be out of reach of the majority of farmers, as the initial tree planting costs would be over 90% of the average annual household income. In such circumstances, it would have more chances of working if combined in the initial years with alternative livelihoods, such as beekeeping, to help finance the transition.

And yet these opportunity costs are only part of the considerations to be taken into account. These analyses assume that benefits from REDD+ will be channelled to those who are bearing the costs. Supporting structures and safeguards are needed to make sure this happens, and they can be costly. SNV have been working on preliminary estimates of a benefit distribution system, designed to ensure that the livelihoods of the poor are not compromised. These early results suggest that the upfront costs will be high but that, once running, operational costs would be much lower. Over time, costs could come down as experience is gained and economies of scale achieved.  

But even where it is clear that a REDD+ intervention can be financially attractive for small farmers and forest-dependent communities, it is critically important to design the intervention in ways that respond to their concerns and wishes when it comes to things like the type of compensation or who will manage the funds. 

For example, researchers at Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania, found that households in the area of the Kilosa REDD+ pilot project prefer other forms of compensation, such as increased employment and better social services, over direct payment. Researchers at Makerere University, Uganda studied the preferences of people in another proposed REDD+ pilot project, the Ongo Community Forest, and found that the government was the least-favoured organisation to manage the REDD+ compensation scheme.

IIED’s workshop highlighted some different models for pro-poor REDD+ in practice. The Bolsa Floresta (which means Forest Allowance), run by the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation in forest reserves in the Amazonas state Brazil, rewards communities who are not deforesting by distributing payments to families and  community associations. The scheme combines cash payments to each household with  support to community level investments in social services and development of local income-generating activities.   

The Micaia Foundation in Mozambique pursues an inclusive business approach in which communities have a share of the equity in an ecotourism enterprise and a honey business. Micaia intends to build on this experience to apply to REDD+ in Mozambique as a more sustainable approach, as it does not rely on payments in the long term.

REDD+ was conceived to respond to market failure and to improve decisions about forest and land use. But decisions on the design of REDD+ also need to be adequately informed to ensure that social goals are taken into account. The challenge is that there are many layers of decision-making. Decisions taken at the international and national levels can constrain the choices at the local, community and household level, and determine how much REDD+ can help improve the livelihoods of poor households. There is often a lack of knowledge among policymakers at the higher levels of decision-making about the wishes, interests and concerns of the local communities, households and minorities living at the local level.

For REDD+ to work for poor forest-dependent communities, the voices of rural households and local evidence of what works and what doesn’t, need to influence decisions on REDD+ architecture at national and international level. And the interests of the urban poor, who often depend on forest resources for their energy needs, should also be considered.  

What is it critical to keep researching these two key questions: what do people want from REDD+, and, if they get it, will it work?

The workshop and research formed part of a Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) funded project on poverty and sustainable development impacts of REDD+ architecture: options for equity, growth and the environment. Read the baseline survey results from the project.

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