in Brazil, Indonesia, Uganda, West Papua

Missing the Poorest for the Trees?

“In order to be both effective and equitable, REDD+ will require large areas of land with clear tenure arrangements. Yet many developing countries suffer from conflicts over land ownership and continue to exclude local communities from land use decisions. How will REDD+ impact peace and security in these countries?”

The question is from a new report titled, “Missing the Poorest for the Trees? REDD+ and the Links between Forestry, Resilience and Peacebuilding”, written by four students at the London School of Economics: Tobias Dorr, Adriaan Heskamp, Ian Madison and Katherine Reichel. The report can be downloaded here.

The authors cite a 2012 report in the International Forestry Review about forests in Asia that notes that the vast majority of conflicts related to forests take place at village level. Three related issues are involved:

  • overlapping statutory and customary tenure;
  • the exclusion of local communities in land use decisions and economic development policies; and
  • poor coordination between state agencies

The authors point out that “Companies involved in logging, agroforestry, or other forest-related activities can be exposed to conflict, even exacerbating it in certain circumstances.” Such conflicts can be expensive and damaging to company’s reputations, particularly if the conflict results in consumer or legal campaigns against the company. This has implications for REDD, especially if REDD is going to rely on private investment.

The authors refer to a report produced earlier this year by The Munden Project that points out that most investors are unaware of the financial risks involved in projects with insecure land rights or conflicts over land. Yet as The Munden Project’s report states,

“property rights in many emerging markets are dysfunctional to the point that ownership of land can be granted to an investor without the tens of thousands of people living on, or dependent on, the land knowing about it.”

The authors of the “Missing the Poorest for the Trees?” report note that even where land tenure is secure, risks remain:

In cases where tenure is clear and secure, the risk remains that ill-informed or corrupt local leaders could sign away land rights without understanding the consequences for, or obtaining the consent of, those who live on the land. Because REDD+ will potentially increase the value of standing forests, the tensions outlined above could be aggravated in the ensuing ‘carbon rush’.

The authors produced case studies of three countries: Indonesia, Brazil and Uganda. The case study findings are summarised in the report:

Indonesia, one of the earliest supporters of REDD+, is experiencing a surge in conflicts related to land rights across the country. Confusion over land tenure will be a critical challenge, and legal recognition of customary land rights differs among state agencies. This is exacerbated by financially attractive alternatives to REDD+, such as mines or oil palm plantations. These land use decisions often lack local participation and continue to be at the centre of land disputes.

With a long history of indigenous and local struggles over land rights, Brazil has recently seen an increasing amount of violence associated with land and forest conflicts. Legal loopholes relating to the ‘productive use’ of land have played a major role in deforestation by encouraging both landowners and squatters to clear forests. Though a land reform programme is underway, questions remain over whether it will be adequate to ensure the peaceful widespread implementation of REDD+ projects.

Finally, Uganda is one of the most enthusiastic proponents of REDD+ in Africa. It also has one of the continent’s highest rates of deforestation and, due to unclear tenure arrangements, has been the site of recent forced displacements related to carbon-offset tree plantations. Considering that wood fuel makes up 90% of the country’s energy consumption – even more among rural communities – the potential for negative impacts on livelihoods from displacements or increased restrictions resulting from REDD+ will need to be addressed.

The report points out that REDD could help resolve conflict. But one of the examples they choose to illustrate this is unfortunate. The Kalimantan Forest Carbon Partnership was recently shut down – before meeting its goals. Although the project did provide technical advice to rubber farmers, helping them improve yields, it failed to address the land tenure issues in the project area. Deddy Ratih of WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia) says the project, “created conflict in local communities and confusion about the status of their land”. KFCP also failed to implement the principle of free, prior and informed consent.

(The report was published a few days after Indonesia’s Constitutional Court returned customary forests to indigenous peoples, overturning the 1999 Forestry Law. As a result, the discussion about land rights in Indonesia in the report is somewhat eclipsed by this decision. How the Constitutional Court’s decision will impact REDD remains to be seen.)

Nevertheless, the report is a useful contribution to the REDD debate. Addressing land rights is crucial to addressing deforestation and reducing forest conflicts.

PHOTO Credit: Landless farmers protest in Jakarta, by Jonathan McIntosh.

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  1. In the context of Papua (which Indonesia has occupied for 50 years), what are the implications of the ruling of the Indonesian Constitutional Court concerning customary forests and indigenous peoples?