Reinventing REDD+

Sabaheta Ramcilovic-Suominen

One policy that attracted a record popularity, international talks and criticism in policy fora and scientific debates is the “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” (REDD+). As the title indicates, the policy aims at reducing global carbon emissions via limiting deforestation in localities in the ‘Global South’. In addition, the policy suggests that the polluters in the ‘Global North’ will “offset” their carbon emissions by purchasing the so called ‘carbon credits’, the profit from which will be paid as a compensation to those restraining from deforesting.

It is important to highlight that the countries in the ‘Global North’ within this policy instrument do not restrain from consuming and importing the tropical wood from the ‘Global South’. This means the profit from timber and other industries thriving on deforestation is ensured, suggesting therefore that these large-scale profitable industries are not likely to be affected, but that the reductions of emissions will need to come from addressing other sources of deforestation. The large-scale profitable industries will also not be affected because of the uncertain and low payments for carbon at the global market, rendering REDD+ payments uncompetitive compared to the large-scale industries driving deforestation. For example, rubber, palm oil, or any other kind of tree and agricultural plantation, produced mainly for consumers in the ‘Global North’ and other rich countries, is much more profitable than the payments REDD+ would generate by selling the carbon in today carbon treading markets. The same holds for timber industry producing timber for the rich countries, which are generating profits way larger than selling carbon would generate via REDD+ payments.

The governments in the ‘Global South’ realized the lack of financial incentives of REDD+, soon after the policy kicked off in 2010. Yet, no government has refused to participate in REDD+. Instead REDD is being reinvented. Thanks to the donor aid for ‘readying countries for REDD+’ financial incentives to engage in REDD+ are high. Public and private finance from 2006 to 2014 are at more than US $10 billion. The ‘readying for REDD+’ donor funding comes in handy for international development agencies, as well as for the national governments to continue the ‘development as usual’ practices. These actors do what they have been doing in the past few decades, but now with new funding and new justifications – the justification of tackling climate change.

Studying REDD+ pilot projects on the ground, I find that the government, along its international development partners, address small-scale forest activities practiced by the villagers, many of which are the key and often the only livelihoods to those villagers. An example is the practice of shifting cultivation, which is the only farming practice possible in the mountainous areas in the norther regions. The practice include burning vegetation – forest included – to farm crops for a few seasons and then shift to another forest patch; however returning to the old patch once the vegetation has recovered and soil regained nutritional value. REDD+ prgramme in Laos is placed exclusively in the northern part of the country, where the government have been trying to eradicate shifting cultivation, since its independence in 1975.

REDD+ pilot projects in Laos are implemented as traditional forest conservation projects, which include activities such as: i. forest and land allocation and demarcation (a strategy limiting local population from using and entering certain forest areas), and ii. setting and strictly implementing regulations to limit hunting, fishing, tree-felling and shifting cultivation to certain areas only. At the local level, REDD+ donor funding provides support not only for implementing those interventions, but also it provides a narrative needed to legitimize these interventions. Climate change is used as an additional problem to blame the communities’ way of life. Climate change is presented as a direct consequence of the way in which communities use the forest, as well as the primary reason for all the calamities happening to them – from draughts and flooding, to frosts and pests.

While the international community proudly presents the REDD+ as the most “cost efficient” way of reducing global carbon emissions, I argue that it might well be cost efficient for them, but not for the local farmers who are pushed further to the edge of their existence, without any certain benefits from REDD+ policy payments. The REDD+ payments – when and if achieved – are not only insufficient to address the large-scale industries, but also to generate income at the local level. REDD+ feasibility study in Laos find that administrative costs, costs for building institutions and technologies needed for REDD+ are already reaching over the REDD+ payments to be generated from the entire area planned to be under REDD+ programme in Laos. They suggest that the payments when split per household in those areas are around 1 USD per household per year, which is evidently insufficient to compensate individual farmers for the lost benefits. Instead, REDD+ funds are being set up, which as their predecessors – the timber extraction funds – will be used for the so-called ‘community development projects’. I wonder thus, what if anything makes REDD+ different from any other forest conservation programme, which has helped the nation states to protect forest and alienate communities from the forests? It appears as the only difference is in the discourse and justification – with REDD+ they are doing it in the name of fighting climate change.

A shorter version of this blog post has been published as a column in Karjalainen, 22.7.2018