David Takacs is an Associate Professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. In December 2012, he carried out a pro bono legal consulting trip to Vietnam and Cambodia for “an international NGO that was planning REDD+ projects in Southeast Asia.” One of the REDD projects that Takacs looked at was the Oddar Meanchey REDD project in Cambodia.
Takacs wrote up his findings from the trip in a research paper titled “Environmental democracy and forest carbon (REDD+)”, published in Environmental Law in 2014.
While Takacs is optimistic about REDD (at least as a theoretical idea), his visit to Oddar Meanchey reveals serious problems with the project on the ground. Since Takacs’ visit, these problems have become more and more serious, and in January 2018 Virgin Atlantic announced its decision to stop buying carbon credits from the Oddar Meanchey project.
Takacs research paper asks, “How are (or aren’t) prinicples of environmental democracy being manifested in REDD+ in developing countries?”
He defines environmental democracy (ED) as the right of local communities,
“to participate in environmental decision-making; the right to access to information on environmental decisions; the right to redress and remedy when environmental rights are violated; and the right to Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) when decisions are made that will affect vital resources and lands.”
Takacs writes that his field work suggests that, “even the best intentioned REDD+ schemes fall short of fulfilling ED requirements, likely to the detriment of all actors, including local people and the ecosystems that sustain them.”
He also points out that, “If REDD+ constrains traditional use of land, or even dispossesses people of their customary land, its implementers will violate basic human rights.”
Takacs met the “charismatic” Venerable Bun Saluth, the monk who set up the Monks Community Forest, in 2002. Saluth told him that,
community involvement, including community patrols, predated the REDD+ project, and thus villagers were informed about threats to, and protections for, their forests before the project began.”
Here’s a summary of the positive aspects of the project paraphrased from Takacs’ report:
- 80% of people living in the Oddar Meanchey REDD project community forest sites joined community forest management organisations. Elected Community Forestry Management Committees represent the communities and give feedback to the project developers.
- Project developers support a Community Forestry Network that shares information between government officials, project developers, and villagers. Leaders of the Community Forestry Management Committees take part in the Community Forestry Network.
- Project developers held “awareness raising” workshops at the start of the project in more than 50 villages. They also held workshops for government officials, military officials, and police.
- Representatives of all 13 communities that would be taking part in the Oddar Meanchey REDD project took part in a one-day provincial workshop in the Khmer language.
- Community members were involved in demarcating the boundaries of the community forests.
- Community members selected sites for assisted natural regeneration.
Takacs notes that the Community Forestry Network had recently put out a petition, with 2,000 thumbprint signatures from community members. The petition asked the Ministry of Agriculture, Fishery, and Forestry to address military incursions into the community forests.
Project developers fall short
“Despite all these efforts,” Takacs writes, “project developers fall short of fully realized Environmental Democracy.”
In 2014, when Takacs wrote up his research paper, the Oddar Meanchey project was five years old. But no carbon credits had been sold. Takacs paraphrased a common theme he heard in villages as follows: “We are told we can sell carbon, but we were told that a long time ago. We are investing time and effort in forest patrols and reforestation, yet we see no financial returns. When will the money come?”
The project developers had promised, but had not yet produced, a community monitoring plan.
Legal documents were only available in English. Project documents in Khmer require an understanding of obscure legal and technical language. (And the fact that the the Community Forestry Network’s petition included 2,000 villager thumbprints suggests a high level of illiteracy in the project area.)
Takacs refers to a Pact report that states that,
Recent research has indicated that local awareness towards the project remains quite limited, illustrating the challenges of explaining REDD+ to local communities and the need for even more extensive awareness raising efforts over time.
Takacs’ interviews in Oddar Meanchey confirmed that villagers’ knowledge of the project ranged from “sophisticated” to “uncomprehending”. One villager asked, “does harvesting carbon from forests hurt the trees?”
Takacs writes that,
[E]ven some CF [community forest] elected officials and those participating in forest patrols showed little understanding of how the project is expected to work and what the risks and benefits of the project might be.
Project developers had not designed a benefit sharing mechanism, or a grievance procedure. Takacs points out that, “Villagers have ‘consented’ to a project, invested time and money, and foregone other opportunities, all with no guarantees of what their investments will yield.”
“REDD+ is done to them”
Takacs highlights the difficulties of achieving genuine free, prior and informed consent for REDD projects. Too often, he writes, “partipation” means that local communities show up to trainings, but just sit and listen.
Based on his interviews with local villagers in Vietnam and Cambodia he concludes that, “Local people find out what is being planned, and either may consent or not: REDD+ is done to them.”
Takacs writes that for a REDD project to go ahead, local communities must give their express consent, once they have been given timely, full information about the proposed project. He adds,
But it’s almost impossible to provide timely, full information in REDD+ schemes. Increasingly demanding guidelines and safeguards don’t change the fact that genuine, sustained FPIC may be impossible.
Part of the problem with achieving genuine free, prior and informed consent is that REDD projects can change during the development process. Projects go through complicated validation and verification procedures that can result in changes. “REDD+ implementers are building the bicycle as they’re riding it,” Takacs writes.
Even the most rigorous, inclusive, culturally and linguistically appropriate FPIC process cannot fully explain what the project will be, what local citizens will be required to do, and how, when, and what manner of benefits will accrue. Local people may have access to the forest, but they lack access to both the capital and the capitol: Fully informed consent is not possible. And if local people simply do not want a REDD+ project, they may not be able to refuse—although they can subvert the process later on. Thus, local people cannot fully participate in REDD+ decision making, cannot access information they do not understand, that does not yet exist, or is rapidly changing, and cannot truly offer informed consent when the details of what they are consenting to are not yet formulated.