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Paved with good intentions: REDD’s road to oblivion

“The Tropical Forestry Action Plan is fatally flawed. Far from curbing forest loss, the Plan will accelerate deforestation.” That’s Marcus Colchester and Larry Lohmann writing about another plan to save tropical forests.

In 1990, Colchester and Lohmann wrote an article in The Ecologist. The title of this post is borrowed from their article, I’ve just replaced the initials TFAP with REDD. It’s both fascinating and depressing to re-read Colchester and Lohmann 24 years later. Here are the first two paragraphs:

In 1985, when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Bank unveiled their $8 billion Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP), the first reaction of many environmentalists was to breathe a sigh of relief. At last, it seemed, official development agencies had recognized the crisis of tropical deforestation and were set to do something about it.

As the details of TFAP became known, however, some independend observers began to criticize the plan as being both unrealistic in its approach to forest problems and dictatorial in its formulation and implementation. They accused the Plan of failing to come to grips with many of the main causes of tropical deforestation, including international development financing, industrial logging, commercial plantations, landlessness and unjust national land use policies. In addition, TFAP had been developed in almost complete isolation from local peoples, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the general public, and was strongly biased against ordinary people in the rural areas of the Third World, incorrectly blaming them for the forest crisis.

In an article in the most recent issue of the World Rainforest Movement Bulletin, Jutta Kill looks in detail at some of the predecessors of REDD and at where REDD is now heading: Landscape REDD.

She notes that just as TFAP planned increased logging, REDD includes “sustainable management of forests”, or the logging industry’s euphemism for the destruction they have wreaked on the world’s forests. TFAP planned to increase the area of industrial tree plantations, and REDD includes “enhancement of forest carbon stocks”, another euphemism, this time for monocultures of fast growing trees.

REDD is continuing the TFAP tradition of failing to address the causes of deforestation. This was inexcusable back in the 1980s. It is even more so now, after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (now the UN Forum on Forests, UNFF) initiative on the underlying causes of deforestation and forest degradation.

Here’s one of the conclusions from a five-day UNFF workshop held in Costa Rica in 1999:

To overcome major obstacles when addressing the underlying causes of deforestation and forest degradation, IFF stressed the importance of policy consistency inside and outside the forest sector. Furthermore, it emphasized the need for effective policy coordination for addressing underlying causes of deforestation, which are often interrelated and social and economic in character, and include poverty; lack of secure land tenure patterns; inadequate recognition of the rights and needs of forest-dependent indigenous and local communities within national laws and jurisdiction; inadequate cross-sectoral policies; undervaluation of forest products and services; lack of participation; lack of good governance; absence of a supportive economic climate that supports sustainable forest management; illegal trade; lack of capacity; lack of enabling environment, at both the national and international levels; and national policies that distort market and encourage forest lands conversion to other uses, including in low forest cover lands. It was further noted that the underlying causes of deforestation and forest degradation as well as the approaches to deal with them are often country specific and therefore vary among countries.

In her WRM article, Kill renames the World Bank’s “learning by doing” approach as “doing without learning”, particularly relating to its new idea of landscape REDD and the BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes.

Kill highlights a 2012 US government report that links REDD with sourcing “more sustainably-produced commodities at scale”. An imaginary example from the report gives an idea of what this might look like:

Complementary financing might be sought from the IFC to support the large plantations in the region in achieving certification and improving access to export markets.

Landscape REDD is supported by Unilever, a company responsible for massive areas of deforestation for oil palm plantations. At the launch of the BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Landscapes in December 2013, Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO, said:

“This is exactly the type of initiative that we are delighted to support. We need to find new forms of public-private partnership to address global challenges such as deforestation.”

While Unilever has promised to remove deforestation from its supply chain in the future, that does not relieve it of the responsibility for the deforestation it has caused in the past. For obvious reasons, Polman is delighted to support an approach to deforestation that ignores Unilever’s destructive record.

The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International are also getting in on the landscape REDD act. Together, of course, with their corporate friends, Marfrig, Walmart, Cargill, and Monsanto.

Landscape REDD is in contrast, Kill writes, to “the effective approach the government of Brazil used to reduce deforestation before REDD came along – law enforcement and strengthening enforcement agencies while linking access to agricultural credit to demonstration of compliance with the law.” Instead, landscape REDD provides an alternative. One that is much more to the liking of the corporations responsible for destroying the forests in the first place. One that aims to “transform environmental legislation into tradable instruments”, as Pedro Moura Costa puts it. He’s the founder of Brazil’s Bolsa Verde Rio de Janiero, Brazil’s market for environmental assets. Costa made his fortune when JP Morgan bought EcoSecurities, the carbon trading firm he founded.

Kill concludes that,

The outcomes of landscape REDD will therefore likely not differ much from those of TFAP or REDD. The approach remains as top-down and condescending towards forest-dependent communities and collaborative with the corporate associations of the agriculture and logging sectors as the FAO and World Bank’s failed Tropical Forestry Action Plan in the 1980s. Deforestation and the related emissions will continue, and in the process will cause a lot of harm by vilifying forest-dependent communities and those who provide the staple foods that feed the world – small scale farmers.


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