in Brazil, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Mexico, Vietnam

Interview with Andy White, Rights and Resources Initiative: “The global market for forest carbon is not going to establish itself anytime soon”

Interview with Andy WhiteInterview with Andy White, Coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative, Washington DC, by email.

REDD-Monitor: Please describe the organisation Rights and Resources Initiative and the role RRI plays in the REDD debate.

Andy White: RRI is a global coalition of organizations working to encourage forest land tenure and policy reforms and the transformation of the forest economy so that business reflects local development agendas and supports local livelihoods. We work at the country, regional and global levels, collaborating on research, advocacy and convening strategic actors. Our 120 plus Partner and Collaborator organizations are now directly engaged in land and forest policy reforms in close to 20 countries, including the review and design of REDD initiatives in 10 of them. We have a secretariat in Washington DC that leads the global-level analysis and advocacy, catalyzes new strategic collaboration and advisory groups, as well as coordinates the Initiative.

REDD-Monitor: Many observers declared the REDD text that was agreed in Cancun as a success, or at least a step in the right direction. What is your opinion of the agreement on REDD that came out of Cancun?

Andy White: The opinion across the RRI Partnership is mixed. We are a diverse coalition and our common denominator is that we are all convinced that local land rights and livelihoods deserve respect and that REDD and other conservation initiatives won’t work unless they are respected. We’re all definitely committed to the goal of reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, and achieving that goal in a manner that strengthens rights and governance. My own opinion on what happened in Cancun, and I think the majority view, is that the REDD text was major step in the right direction, but that its importance and chance for success were undermined by the lack of an overall agreement. On the other hand, there’s an argument out there that says that without a global treaty and without a global market REDD now has the breathing room to “get it right” – if it addresses the tenure and governance issues necessary, and governments stop encouraging deforestation with policies and subsidies.

REDD-Monitor: In a recent article in Nature magazine you wrote that, “the ensuing experience [i.e. since Cancun] has convinced me that it is time from some mid-course corrections” on REDD. Please explain what experience you are referring to and the sort of corrections you are suggesting.

Andy White: REDD is now 3-5 years old, depending on how you count, and I am sure that all involved have learned a lot over this time. Norway is convening a meeting in late June, the “REDD-Exchange” to take stock and share views on lessons and directions forward – a very timely and welcome exercise. My own sense is that there are at least four major areas of learning and “mid-course correction” – not in order of importance.

The first is that there’s greater recognition that governments, and their industrial logging and agricultural policies, are the greatest cause and instigator of deforestation, and that the original, limited thinking around opportunity costs distracted REDD designers from a realistic sense of who makes these decisions and what it will take for them to change their mind. REDD was misguided by McKinsey’s cost curves and we’re still extracting ourselves from that trap. This lesson leads to much more attention to changing government policy, and recognizing that REDD must deal with politically-embedded vested interests – far more difficult than paying a landowner to keep trees.

The second is the growing awareness of what it takes to actually achieve forest conservation and encourage forest restoration. Brazil and other countries in Latin America have made very clear the effectiveness of conservation by Indigenous Peoples and other forest communities and the key role their tenure reforms have had – not only in bringing some justice to the forests, but providing a relatively inexpensive way to prevent a lot of emissions. Mexico’s public payment system for the ecological services produced by communities, along with their financial and technical support for community forestry is demonstrating how government programs can encourage communities to keep their forests and make money from them. At the same time, there’s growing evidence from around the world of governments actually encouraging restoration, long before REDD was created – either with subsidies or tenure reform – which give forest owners incentives to plant. Global demand for wood, fibre, and NTFPs are growing, so unless production is increased outside of natural forests the pressure for conversion will remain great, and so will leakage. REDD won’t work if protection in one place enables harvesting in another. We’ve got to grow the total stock of forests and global biomass to meet both our ecological and market demands.

The third is that the global market for forest carbon is not going to establish itself anytime soon, and perhaps never will. This was the “big idea” that would bring in the private money to make REDD work at a global scale. It has collapsed both because of the lack of demand (without globally significant caps – from either the US or Cancun – there’ll be no globally significant trade) and because, as the Munden report makes clear, there is just too much uncertainty around the commodity itself for the market to take it seriously. All this means that there is clearly more action needed in the short and near term to help establish and finance public payment schemes and national-level funds. The upshot is that national REDD strategies should not be oriented to setting up the scientific and institutional infrastructure for carbon counting and trading – not investing nearly so much in the MRV systems and carbon-focused market machinery. Rather they need to be analyzing and dealing with their drivers of deforestation, investing in tenure and governance reforms, and helping governments set up the national payment schemes to get money to communities for conservation and restoration. This too costs money, and is far from fully funded.

Fourth, the booming global demand for food, bioenergy, and fibre, and the ensuing land-grab, has reminded us that REDD is a relatively small fish in a big, and dangerous pond, and for REDD to work it’s got to very cleverly leverage change in those larger sectors. The notion that REDD will make “forests worth more alive than dead” is wishful thinking in most cases, and worse, builds upon the misguided notion that money and finance is the solution, and that policy measures will not work and should not even be considered. The value of forest land and the prices of all of the other commodities that forest lands can produce keeps going up – and with increasingly scarce land and water available there’s no indication that this trend will end soon. To decrease emissions in forests we need to address the agricultural drivers, and that again comes down to government policy – since it is still governments that claim ownership over most of the forests that are being cleared and degraded. It’s not likely that REDD can compete on the open market – so again, unless the forest owners want to keep forests, and unless the governments want to help them do that with supportive regulations – then REDD won’t work.

The tragedy in all of this is that underneath all of these complicated arguments, sophisticated plans and complex international arrangements – the early evidence from the REDD strategies being developed around the world is that the most obvious and perhaps cheapest ways to reduce emissions (the goal of REDD programs) are usually either overlooked or discarded. And that is – no surprise coming from me – suspending the industrial concessions for logging and conversion for agriculture and launching the tenure and governance reforms that will put forests into the hands of people who really own them and most often want to keep them forested. It’s doubly disappointing that the tenure reforms are also required for attracting private investment deemed necessary to achieve REDD at scale and running public payment schemes – so unless the reforms happen even those options won’t become available to us in the future. All this said, it’s critical to keep in mind that there are exceptions to this general picture – Brazil and Mexico for example have made great gains in securing tenure and have the institutional bases for protection, sustainable use and investment.

Overall, we’ve learned that REDD isn’t quick, easy, or cheap, as it’s conventionally conceived at least – but that doesn’t mean it’s bad, or finished. It has generated more consultation and understanding than has probably ever happened in the forest sector and a much stronger role by Indigenous Peoples and other communities in shaping forest policy at the country and global level than ever before. Of course there’s also been abuse by unscrupulous carbon sharks, and opportunistic profiteering by some private firms, and that’s likely to continue, but the possibility for great, and positive, impact remains – if we jointly review the experience and make some mid-course corrections. I am looking forward to learning the opinions and lessons from others at the upcoming meeting in Oslo.

REDD-Monitor: What is RRI’s position on carbon trading and the carbon markets?

Andy White: We don’t have a position as a Coalition. Some of our members are more positive than others. All recognize the risks and agree that it’s got to work for communities to be effective and that tenure reform is essential to its success.

REDD-Monitor: The recent report by the Munden Project highlights serious problems that are emerging with establishing carbon markets to trade REDD credits or forest carbon offsets, such as lack of clearly defined property rights, asymmetry of information, large transaction costs and the difficulties of measuring how much carbon is stored in forests. Given these problems why do you think so many organisations continue to promote carbon markets as a way of financing REDD?

Andy White: The carbon market is a seductively simple mechanism that promised to solve lots of big, complicated problems, and do so in a way that would bring “wins” to the North, who were looking for a cheap way out, and “wins” to the South, who were looking for investments. It’s attractiveness and durability is in part due to its elegance: saving, or making, money for everyone while reducing emissions in a quantifiable manner, but also, in part because an entire industry has grown up around it now, high-tech CO2 measurement, private consultancies and conservation NGOs who now have a vested interest in making it work.

REDD-Monitor: In your article in Nature magazine, you state that, “national and international data show that deforestation is declining,” and that “South Korea, China, Vietnam and Nepal have increased their forests in recent years.” These figures are based on the forest statistics produced by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, which has for decades produced unreliable statistics that fail to differentiate between forests and industrial tree plantations. While the situation is somewhat different in each country, in China the increase in the area of plantations (including a small, but unknown, area of genetically modified trees) explains why the FAO’s figures show an increase in forest area. Certainly China needs to find a way of supplying wood raw material, but that does not make these plantations into forests.

Andy White: This is a good point. I certainly agree that plantations and natural forests are not the same and that the FAO statistics are weak for many, if not most, countries. And it is certainly true that many countries protect their forests and import their wood from other countries, driving deforestation; China and Vietnam are great examples of this (and another example of the global leakage problem for REDD). But these issues do not diminish the overall point – that there are many governments that have decided to protect their forests, or plant trees (which sequesters more carbon, and is likely to be better than a field of soy) before REDD was ever conceived.

REDD-Monitor: In your concluding paragraph, in the Nature article, you introduce a new acronym: GREEN – Growing Restoration, Employment and Energy, Now. You explain in the article that there are more than 1 billion hectares of degraded forest – that “if restored, could produce more food, wood and bioenergy.” This sounds interesting, but I think this statement raises at least two concerns.

First, is the word “degraded”. How is degraded forest defined and by whom? Villagers’ community forest may well be described as degraded – for example by a pulp and paper company looking to convert the land to eucalyptus plantations as Oji Paper has done in Laos.

Andy White: That’s a good question, and this is an area where civil society and the whole REDD machinery should be putting more attention. The current debate underway in Indonesia on this very issue is a good example of the major implications of different definitions. We need to work on these definitions and develop new standards. These “degraded” areas are already under increasing pressure (as your Oji example illustrates) from industrial investors, when the first task should be to straighten out the property rights and establish FPIC as a required standard for all investments so that local people’s rights are respected and they can make choices that fit their needs and desires.

REDD-Monitor: Second, bioenergy can mean a range of things, from villagers growing their own fuelwood to tens of thousands of hectares of industrial tree plantations to feed large scale wood chip power plants in Europe. Could you please explain further what you mean here?

Andy White: Yes, bioenergy does have this range of definitions. All of these could be legitimate land uses – but it all depends if the particular use is consistent with local land use rights and preferences, and then of course ecological conditions. The world is going to need a lot more energy, even if we conserve and promote other renewable aggressively, and all things equal I’d prefer biomass over nuclear – for risk, cost and ecological reasons. There are also about 1.5 billion rural people without electricity and biomass-based generation might be a good solution for them: bringing not only electricity to their homes but also possibly jobs and additional incentives to plant and keep trees. So bioenergy will remain part of the answer in some places and we shouldn’t deny local people this opportunity when it makes sense. For me it comes back down to respecting local land rights, FPIC, and standards.

REDD-Monitor: An article in Science magazine in March 2011 highlights research by the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) Research Program, that shows that when forest users have a formal right to participate in making rules over the management and use of the forest, there is more likelihood that the forest will provide higher livelihood benefits and have higher levels of biodiversity. This seems to support RRI’s position on REDD. Could you please explain why focusing on the rights of communities to manage their own natural resources is so important for REDD.

Andy White: I addressed this earlier, but let me put it a bit differently here. I think that reforming the public domain (lands claimed by governments) is essential in most developing countries – in the agriculture areas, if not already done, and in collectively-owned and managed forest, dryland and wetland areas. Recognizing and strengthening these collective property rights is essential to advance resource governance and democratic development – and is also necessary to avoid major conflict, continued social exclusion, etc. This goes far beyond REDD and is not just limited to “communities” and their interests. Of course, we believe in the primacy of human dignity and rights – and for these reasons we see recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ and other local community property and civil rights as a necessary first step in this larger development project.

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  1. thank you for this excellent article and interview

  2. I agree with the prior comment — excellent interview, very interesting.