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‘Actually existing’ REDD: Social tensions, ongoing deforestation, local confusion, financial benefits not delivered

“Early evidence from REDD+ projects suggests major challenges, including: ongoing weak enforcement of domestic laws on forests and land, leading to limited effectiveness; contestation or conflict over property rights and community benefits; as well as securitisation and violence, often perpetrated by government agencies.”

That’s from a recent paper published in Conservation and Society. The paper is titled “Learning From ‘Actually Existing’ REDD+: A Synthesis of Ethnographic Findings”. The authors are Sarah Milne, Sango Mahanty, Phuc To (all three from the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University), Wolfram Dressler (School of Geography, University of Melbourne), Peter Kanowski (Fenner School of Society and Environment, Australian National University), and Maylee Thavat (also from the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University).

The authors’ research was in two stages. First they developed a comparative analysis of their own ethnographic research on REDD in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam over the past five years. Second, they conducted an extensive review of similar REDD studies globally, and tested how common and relevant their key findings from Southeast Asia are.

The authors write that,

Our review and synthesis reveal that there are fundamental constraints to REDD+, which must be addressed if UNFCCC aspirations under the Paris Agreement are to be realised. These constraints relate partly to practical difficulties in meeting high expectations around REDD+, and how they have led to local expressions of discontent. They also relate to the dominant technical framing of REDD+, which has been crucial for its wide appeal among international and national policy actors, yet detrimental for its ability to tackle entrenched political-economic drivers of forest loss.

Local communities “confused” about REDD

In their research, in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, the authors found that despite the process of free, prior and informed consent that was carried out, local communities “typically remained confused about REDD+ objectives or unaware that REDD+ projects were underway”.

They write that FPIC “did not facilitate informed local decisions about REDD+”, and suggest two main reasons for this:

  • inherent challenges in conducting FPIC in socially diverse and politically contested environments, and
  • an over-emphasis among REDD+ actors on producing evidence for safeguard or standards compliance rather than substantive local engagement.

The authors found that in the global reference cases that discussed local views, 55% reported local confusion or lack of awareness of REDD, among communities affected by REDD projects.

Financial benefits not delivered

Financial benefits were not delivered to local communities in any of the authors’ case studies in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Several co-benefits were either unrealised or resulted in unanticipated negative outcomes.

In Vietnam, villagers obtained land titles through the REDD project, but used them to extract timber and expand cash crop production, leading to ongoing forest clearance.

In Laos, farmers involved in a REDD project found the livelihood co-benefit schemes (such as agro-forestry or livestock production) failed to compensate for the restrictions on forest use under the REDD project. The result was more forest clearance.

In the global reference cases, local financial benefits were unrealised in 56% of cases that discussed this issue.

The REDD anti-politics machine

The authors look at the processes of land-use classification, mapping, carbon accounting, and demarcation in REDD projects. They explain that these processes are needed to produce evidence that the project complies with international systems of carbon accounting and safeguards.

The authors refer to Tania Murray Li’s work in Indonesia and James Ferguson’s work in Lesotho. Ferguson and Li describe the “anti-politics” that takes place when complex socio-political processes are reduced to technical problems with technical solutions.

One of the hoped for benefits of REDD is clearer tenure and more secure land access. But the authors write that,

the simplification of tenure claims and boundaries through codification can also exacerbate social tensions and restrict local access rights, particularly where land claims overlap and/or where projects assist in the demarcation of state territories.

In the Oddar Meanchey REDD project in Cambodia, for example, indigenous communities were issued with communal titles. But the area of land covered by these titles was much smaller than the area customarily used. Also the communal titles came with new conditions for access to the state-owned protected forest.

Social tension and ongoing deforestation

The authors found there was strong evidence that REDD was not achieving its social and environment goals. In more than 90% of the reference cases that discussed local REDD outcomes, there was social tension and conflict due to REDD, and ongoing forest clearance in the target area.

The authors found that in their own research, and in the reference cases, “social tensions appeared to emerge when REDD+ intersected with historical tenure claims or contests, as well as ongoing demands for land.”

Forest clearance at REDD project sites followed a similar pattern. In Cambodia and Vietnam, the authors found that new migrants and existing communities “often violated REDD+ boundaries”, to grow cash crops.

REDD funding goes to state bureaucracies

The authors conclude that substantial REDD funding has flowed, but it has gone mainly on the development of REDD bureaucracies, rather than to forest dwellers.

The technical demands of complying with international carbon standards has meant that many REDD project activities are focussed on classification, mapping, box-ticking, and data collection.

For example, the “safeguard information systems” for REDD emphasise indicators, methodologies, and reporting frameworks for FPIC implementation. The result is a narrow project focus on evidence production to demonstrate compliance.

But as the authors’ research shows, “such evidence can be produced even when FPIC processes fail to address the fundamental problems of knowledge translation and collective consent in communities targeted by REDD+”.

They also found that REDD tenure interventions can strengthen and centralise state control over forests:

One of the key risks of increased state authority, apart from weakened local resource rights, is that it does not necessarily help to achieve REDD+’s intended goal of reversing forest loss and degradation…

The authors’ highlight the risks of state-driven REDD implementation, arguing that it “provides no guarantee of emissions reductions, given potential issues with corruption, elite-backed resource grabbing, and new or exacerbated land conflicts”.

PHOTO Credit: Clearing of Community Forest in Beng Commune, Oddar Meanchey, Cambodia, by Shalmali Guttal, Focus on the Global South.

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