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Everybody knows how not to cut down trees, so why is REDD so difficult to implement?

Since 2009, CIFOR has been carrying out research into 23 REDD projects around the world, as part of its Global Comparative Study on REDD+. Three years into the research, CIFOR realised that REDD was “barely moving ahead”, as William Sunderlin, principal scientist at CIFOR, puts it.

CIFOR’s researchers decided to carry out a survey of the 23 REDD projects to find out more about the problems they were facing.

A year ago, Sunderlin gave a presentation about a report based on this survey at CIFOR’s headquarters in Bogor, Indonesia. The report is titled, “The Challenge of establishing REDD on the ground: Insights from 23 subnational initiatives in six countries”, and can be downloaded here.

In his presentation, Sunderlin summarises the results of the survey as follows:

“There is serious ground for concern about how and whether the REDD concept can persist and evolve.”

CIFOR’s survey revealed that the two top challenges that REDD proponents were facing related to land tenure and the “disadvantageous economics” of REDD, or as Sunderlin puts it in economic terms, “REDD is simply unable in most cases to pay the opportunity costs of forest land conversion.”

Since the survey came out, CIFOR has published a series of case studies on the 23 REDD projects it has been studying since 2009. More on these case studies in future posts.

The following is a transcript of Sunderlin’s presentation:

William Sunderlin on the challenge of establishing REDD+ on the ground

CIFOR, 15 April 2015
In 2007, after decades of failure in various approaches to stopping deforestation and forest degradation, there was much excitement about REDD. Implicitly it held a lot of promise. As the Norwegian prime minister at the time said, “Everybody knows how not to cut down trees.”
The key to the approach was to give conditional, performance-based rewards to stakeholders entrusted with protecting, and enhancing, and restoring forests. Different from past efforts, a very substantial amount of funding would be mobilised, first through bi-lateral and multi-lateral aid, and eventually through the marketing of verified forest carbon credits.
Since 2009, module 2 of Global Comparative Study on REDD has been doing research at 23 initiatives in six countries, those being Brazil, Peru, Cameroon, Tanzania, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Our aim has been to collect two rounds of data at 170 villages and 4,600 households, half of them within the sphere of REDD, half outside. The first round of data collection was done in 2010 and 2011, before the presumed introduction of conditional REDD incentives, and the second round has been collected now.
Our aim has been to measure the impact of these conditional incentives in REDD with regard to the three Es: Effectiveness, Efficiency, and Equity, and the co-benefits specifically as regards well-being, rights, and biodiversity.
Yet in 2012, in the midst of the research, we realised that five years after the onset of REDD, it was barely moving ahead. A very small number of initiatives had begun to market forest carbon offsets and informal communications with our proponent collaborators revealed that they were experiencing a wide range of difficulties.
And it’s in this context that we decided to conduct an in-depth survey of the challenges that they were facing.
The approach of the survey was to interview representatives of all 23 organisations to assess their experience in protecting forests in the five following areas of inquiry:

  1. Background on forest pressures and the nature of interventions, both before REDD and during the period of REDD.
  2. Measurement of the level of satisfaction of the proponents about what they were doing.
  3. An in-depth assessment of the challenges experienced in setting up REDD with answers quantified on a Likert scale.
  4. Discussion of the problems encountered and solutions attempted by proponents.
  5. The proponent views on policy solutions at various governance scales.

And now to the results. The overarching result is this: There is serious ground for concern about how and whether the REDD concept can persist and evolve based on the following four findings:

  • Conditional incentives might not be as central as it was once assumed that it would be in REDD. 18 of the 23 proponent respondents have or will implement conditional incentives. However, only nine of them, when asked to identify the single most important type of intervention for saving forests, only nine of them identified conditional incentives as key. Now this all could be explained relatively easily. It’s partly a function of timing, with multiple factors causing delay of effective implementation of conditional incentives. Relatedly, many proponents have hesitated to talk with local stakeholders about conditional incentives for fear of raising expectations unnecessarily. Adding to the need for caution is that conditional incentives are experimental so people want to go carefully. And very importantly, some proponents have decided to move away from conditional incentives at the site level to individuals, but instead go up the scale of governance.

  • There are indications that some initiatives are evolving away from REDD. When asked the percentage chance that in the year 2015 they would continue to function as REDD, 11 of the respondents said there was a 90 to 100% chance, five said it was a 50 to 70% chance, three said zero, but in fact in all three of those situations it’s because they were transferring responsibility to another organisation, and four already viewed themselves as not being REDD.

  • Initiatives are operating as a hybrid of integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs) and REDD, and this has both advantages and disadvantages. At 15 of the 23 sites, forest protection activities began 10 or more years ago, meaning long before REDD. Most of the sites involved implementation of ICDP in the sense of a combination of negative incentives, which is to say restrictions on forest access and conversion and positive incentives, mainly in the form of non-conditional livelihood rewards. The positive side of this approach is that it gives proponents an ability to move ahead while waiting for the conditions for REDD to fall in place. But the negative side of this is that in as much as ICDP is deemed to have failed in the 1980s and 1990s, that it’s clearly a liability.

  • The fourth finding has to do with the proponents’ perceptions of the main challenges they are facing and we single out two, the top two in the list. The top one is tenure and security. And tenure is a big problem for REDD for the following reasons. REDD is unfolding in a landscape where quite often land tenure is contested and therefore insecure. From the point of view of the proponent there’s an absolute need to identify the legal right-holder to the planned stream of benefits in REDD as well as the bearer of responsibility for conditional outcomes. Other research that we’ve done has shown that external claims on local REDD forests are a major threat to future REDD stability.
    And proponents are faced with tenure problems not just locally but nationally, as exemplified by the effect of the agricultural lobby on the Brazil Forest Code and on the Indonesian Forest Moratorium. With the exception of Brazil, all proponents in our study have limited leverage trying to resolve within their boundaries tenure problems that are national in origin or in scope.
    The second problem is the disadvantageous economics of REDD. And this is a huge problem because in many cases REDD simply cannot keep up with alternative forest converting land uses, such as soy or livestock in Brazil, or oil palm in Indonesia. In the language of economics, REDD is simply unable in most cases to pay the opportunity costs of forest land conversion. To pay the opportunity costs of forest land conversion it is estimated will require anywhere anywhere from US$5 to US$12.5 billion per year. Yet until now, the total amount of public sector funding has been US$6 billion. Not per year, but across all the years to date. And the main reason for that, we assess, is the inability to date to forge a binding international climate change mitigation agreement necessary to create the regulatory environment that would in turn serve to propel a robust forest carbon market.

In closing let me turn to our recommendations, that are at the international level and the national level. At the international level, consistent with what we found in our book, our last book on REDD, we argue for a turn away from the policies and interests that support deforestation and degradation, as well as those that support continued reliance on fossil fuels.
We recommend acceleration of efforts towards achieving a global climate change agreement.
At the national level, we suggest policies targeted at the tenure and security problem. In regard to that, we recommend following the example of Brazil which has a direct linkage between forest tenure reform and targeted environmental outcomes. We recommend following the example of Indonesia where there’s integration of national forest land-use planning among ministries and sectors in their One Map Policy.
We propose incorporation of participatory tenure mapping into national tenure institutions, resolution of contestation between statutory and customary claims, enforcement of existing rights but exclusion for local stakeholders, clarification of forest carbon tenure rights, and enabling as in Brazil collaboration between proponent organisations and government institutions in resolving tenure issues.
In addressing the disadvantageous economics of REDD, we recommend decoupling agricultural growth from agricultural area expansion, development of sustainable agricultural supply chains, improved forest land use decision-making through reduction of corruption and cronyism, and enforcement of laws against illegal logging, among other legal reforms.
Very lastly, our study points out that although the current circumstances are weighted heavily against success for REDD we need to bear in mind the following fact that might or might not be a basis for optimism: Overall, Brazil in the last nine years has had dramatic success in reducing its rate of deforestation in spite of the fact that enabling conditions for REDD are not yet in place. And in fact it has delivered the single biggest national contribution to climate change mitigation around the world.


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  1. Generally, to take-up reforestation funding is not necessary. Majority of policy makers(Politicians)fund themselves and clean the forest up to ground level for their vest interests/to amass wealth.

  2. Bla bla bla another Cifor study with result we already know but the author fails to differentiate between national and project scale REDD+, and calculating opportunity costs like this makes totally no sense. consider national REDD+ where you pay the government to enforce regulations, the income (tax/informal tax) on the common practice (say conversion to oil palm) for the government is much lower, these are the real opportunity costs that need to be matched, not the one of the company or farmer that wants to establish a farm.