A network for all who care about the conservation of our world and who want to see it achieved with justice, compassion, dignity and honesty.

2013: A Great Year for Forest Fairy Tales

Why REDD+ Safeguards will contribute little to defending communities against Green Land Grabbing

A contributed essay from Simone Lovera - Executive Director of the Global Forest Coalition, a worldwide coalition of 56 Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations from 40 different countries striving for rights-based, socially just and effective forest conservation and restoration policies. She also works as a forest campaigner for Sobrevivencia/Friends of the Earth-Paraguay

Sometimes it is fascinating to see how fairy tales get spread around the world. The night the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed on a package of methodological guidance for policies and incentives to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and to enhance forest carbon sinks (REDD+), Reuters published a jubilant piece claiming that “The UN Agreed on a Multi-billion dollar framework to tackle deforestation.” 1


The funny thing is that the REDD+ package2 agreed upon at the climate talks in November 2013 included a lot of inexplicably vague guidance on how to implement and more especially report on REDD+ activities, but it explicitly did NOT include a clear agreement on who was going to pay for these activities. Rather, the text produced suggests that the main funding source for REDD+ should be the Green Climate Fund, which is as yet tragically empty. It also became crystal clear during the past months that forest negotiators are more interested in finance than finance negotiators are in forests, as the latter did not prioritize REDD+ at all during the climate talks. Rather, they highlighted adaptation as the main priority for climate finance in the coming years. Of course, forest conservation and restoration can play an important role in adaptation to climate change as well, but sadly, the REDD+ framework itself does not incentivize such holistic policies, which are supported through a separate stream on “joint mitigation and adaptation approaches.”


Admittedly, some donor countries announced continued or even increased support for REDD+ at the Warsaw Summit. But these contributions concerned millions, not billions. And experiences in the past years have taught us that the gap between donations promised and donations actually delivered to REDD+ schemes is about the same as the gap between REDD+ supply and REDD+ demand on the voluntary forest carbon offset market: 3 to 1.

 Deforestation in Sarawak, Malaysia by Miguel Lovera


Having that said, it is clear that millions will continue to flow into REDD+ schemes after the adoption of the REDD+ package decision. The question is whether these millions will benefit Indigenous and other forest peoples as well. Proponents of REDD+ have claimed that the safeguards adopted by the UNFCCC in 2010 provide a guarantee that Indigenous Peoples’ rights will be respected and benefits will be shared under REDD+. But alas, these safeguards are non-binding, and the guidance adopted in November 2013 on so-called safeguards information systems allows countries to produce any kind of fairy tale they want on how safeguards have been respected in their country. In the past, countries have already demonstrated a great talent for fairy-tale telling in this respect, inventing totally non-existent indigenous organizations that would have approved their national REDD+ proposals, and claiming significant “net reductions” in deforestation when the loss of precious primary forests was being compensated for by lifeless monoculture tree plantations.


Benefit sharing” is another favorite subject for fairy tales. Sure, some REDD+ funds have arrived at the bank accounts of Indigenous organizations, and some communities here and there are nowadays receiving a measure of financial compensation for leaving their forests untouched. Moreover, in a number countries where there was an existing social protection scheme for rural communities like Brazil, green conditionalities have been added to these schemes so that it can now be claimed that communities are “paid” for the “environmental service” of protecting forests. But the amounts communities receive for their actual activities in forest conservation are minimal compared to the funds absorbed by the thousands of very well-paid consultants and brokers involved in the development and administration of such programs. It has been estimated that up to 60% of all REDD+ funds will have to be dedicated to administration, monitoring, reporting and verification rather than implementing REDD+. Needless to say, this is good news for the professional administrators, monitors, reporters and verifyers on this planet, few of whom can be found living in indigenous or non-indigenous rural communities. Moreover, countries like Costa Rica and Mexico are already facing a significant challenge financing equitable payments to all forest-based communities, as a full-fledged nation-wide payment for environmental services scheme requires billions of dollars per year. And as mentioned above, REDD+ support currently concerns millions, not billions.


Millions of dollars are not enough to pay decent compensation levels to every local community for not using their forests. Moreover, these PES schemes have been severely criticized for discouraging sustainable customary use of forests and other traditional community practices that, if properly implemented, have proven to contribute to the conservation and restoration of forests all over the world. The famous Green Belt Movement of the late Wangari Maathai, for example, ran into serious problems a couple of years ago when it started to accept payments for carbon sequestration and subsequently had to explain to communities that they could no longer use the trees they had planted for their own subsistence purposes. In remote Indigenous villages in Peru, people receive forest carbon offset payments linked to a strict condition of not entering their forests. Yet, the nearest alternative store to purchase food is an 11 hour boat ride away, so these payments basically provide people with the option of leaving or starving. Such phenomena are rightfully defined as “green land grabbing”, and current safeguard systems have provided very few tools to fight them.


The saddest thing of all is that hundreds of millions of dollars could be more than enough to conserve the world’s forests if they were spent on integrated, holistic approaches that took into account not only the role of forests in climate change mitigation and adaptation, but also what is euphemistically called the “non-carbon benefits of forests” – the simple fact that forests are the home, livelihood and cultural identity of the thousands of Indigenous communities who have successfully conserved and restored them for many centuries. Many of these communities are totally happy to continue conserving their territories and areas provided their rights and governance structures regarding these areas are officially recognized. As their conservation efforts are, per definition, not additional, REDD+ can provide only limited support for these initiatives. But with the millions that are now being made available for forest conservation, nation-wide initiatives to clarify and map customary land tenure could be financed, as Indigenous Peoples in Indonesia are currently demanding. Subsequently, some modest support could be used to facilitate bottom-up processes that enable communities to clarify their own land rights and governance structures, and formulate their own proposals to politically and otherwise support their conservation efforts.


Of course, such bottom-up approaches will provide less benefits for professional administrators, reporters and verifiers, which is why the formal forestry sector and institutions like the World Bank will not be very inclined to promote them. However, Indigenous organizations have already made amazing progress in demanding respect for their territorial and governance rights in countries as varied as the Philippines, Indonesia and Peru, so there is hope they will continue to use the current attention for their role and rights in forest conservation as a leverage point to defend their customary rights.


Only that way, the forest fairy tale of 2013 might still have a happy ending.3