in Cambodia, DR Congo, Tanzania

How the poorest of the poor end up paying for REDD

I wrote this post in June 2018, for iz3w (Informationszentrum 3. welt), an organisation based in Freiburg, Germany. A German translation of an edited version is published in the May/June 2019 issue titled, “Klimawandel” (Climate change). The following is the unedited version.

“Reducing emissions from deforestation and increasing forest restoration will be extremely important in limiting global warming to 2°C. In fact, forests represent one of the largest, most cost effective climate solutions available today. Action to conserve, sustainably manage and restore forests can contribute to economic growth, poverty alleviation, rule of law, food security, climate resilience and biodiversity conservation.”

Statements such as this have become common in the past ten years. This version comes from the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, launched at the UN Climate Summit in New York.

Such statements are often accompanied by a complaint that forests do not get enough attention as a potential solution to climate change. For example, Francis Seymour and Jonah Busch, write on the World Resources Institute website that,

Like the deadpan comic Rodney Dangerfield, forests “don’t get no respect” when it comes to their potential as a solution to climate change.

There’s straightforward question to ask to test whether this is true: Are forests mentioned in the 2015 Paris Agreement?

The answer is that yes, forests are included in two paragraphs of the Paris Agreement. A third paragraph is devoted to finance for protecting forests. And another paragraph discusses a new carbon trading mechanism, which, as we will see, is of crucial importance to all this talk of forests in the UN climate negotiations.

A more interesting question to ask, particularly since the Paris Agreement is supposed to be about addressing climate change, is whether fossil fuels are mentioned in the Paris Agreement.

And the answer to that question is no. There is no mention of how we are to keep fossil fuels in the ground, which is the only way that we can prevent climate chaos.


The context of all this, of course, is REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. The basic concept of REDD is simple: governments, companies or forest owners in the South should be rewarded for keeping their forests instead of cutting them down.

But this simple concept quickly becomes very complicated. In 2009, Marc Stuart, the co-founder of the carbon consulting firm EcoSecurities, described REDD as,

“the most mind twistingly complex endeavor in the carbon game. The fact is that REDD involves scientific uncertainties, technical challenges, heterogeneous non-contiguous asset classes, multi-decade performance guarantees, local land tenure issues, brutal potential for gaming and the fact that getting it wrong means that scam artists will get unimaginably rich while emissions don’t change a bit.”

Stuart nevertheless supports REDD – not least because he hopes to get unimaginably rich in the process.

In terms of addressing climate change, REDD faces four fundamental problems: leakage, additionality, permanence and measurement.

  • Leakage refers to the fact that while deforestation might be avoided in one place, the forest destroyers might move to another area of forest or to a different country.
  • Additionality refers to the impossibility of predicting what might have happened in the absence of the REDD project.
  • Permanence refers to the fact that carbon stored in trees is only temporarily stored. All trees eventually die and release the carbon back to the atmosphere.
  • Measurement refers to the fact that accurately measuring the amount of carbon stored in forests and forest soils is extremely complex – and prone to large errors.

Forests were excluded from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol because of these problems. More than 20 years later, the problems have not gone away.

REDD also creates an entirely new commodity called forest carbon. Exactly who owns that carbon, and the forest and land in which it is stored, is crucially important. In 2009, Tom Goldtooth, the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, told me that,

“A centrepiece of this whole concern is preventing the biggest land grab of all time within the forested lands of Indigenous Peoples. The debate must be about property rights; customary land rights and land tenureship; and how this is defined within the discussions of REDD and forested lands.”

This debate is still far from resolved. In March 2018, the Rights and Resources Intiative published a report looking at how the legal rights to forest carbon are defined in 24 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The report found that,

Results show that there is still considerable ambiguity surrounding carbon rights and the legal basis for trading carbon credits, despite the fact that most of the countries analyzed are now involved in some form of carbon trade…

Trading forest carbon

From the start, REDD was intended to be a carbon trading mechanism. The idea was that avoiding emissions from deforestation could offset continued emissions from burning fossil fuels. At the launch of the World Bank’s the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility in 2007, Benoit Bosquet, a senior natural resources management specialist at the World Bank, said that,

“The facility’s ultimate goal is to jump-start a forest carbon market that tips the economic balance in favour of conserving forests.”

The obvious problem with trading the carbon stored in forests against continued greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels is that carbon trading does not reduce emissions. At best it simply transfers emissions reduced in one part of the world, to continued pollution somewhere else.

To prevent climate chaos, we need to reduce greenhouse emissions and stop deforestation. We cannot trade off one against the other.

The price of forest carbon

Kevin Conrad is one of the key proponents of REDD. The son of US missionaries, Conrad grew up in Papua New Guinea. He then studied finance in California and worked in investment banking.

According to Conrad, REDD was born on a beach in Wewak, Papua New Guinea. In 2003, Conrad and PNG’s then-prime minister, Michael Somare, were walking along the beach talking about forests.

The World Bank had offered PNG a US$17 million loan if the country closed down its notoriously corrupt logging industry. Conrad agreed with the Bank’s idea, but thought more money was needed.

After his chat with Somare, Conrad moved back to the USA, to do an MBA at Columbia University in New York. Part of his studies included looking at whether the money from carbon credits could equal the revenue from logging in Papua New Guinea. He concluded it could.

Conrad and his supervisor at Columbia University, Geoffrey Heal, persuaded Somare to start the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, and in November 2005, Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica presented an 11-page proposal to the UN climate meeting in Montreal: “Reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries: approaches to stimulate action”.

In his MBA studies, Conrad had assumed a price of US$25 per ton of CO2.

But in 2014, the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility announced the price rich countries were prepared to pay for REDD carbon credits – no more than US$5. Clearly, this leaves REDD in the lurch, unable to compete financially against industrial logging, cattle ranching, soya plantations, palm oil plantations, or industrial tree plantations for the pulp and paper industry.

Enter Norway

As a market mechanism, REDD has failed. The price of carbon is too low to make forests worth more standing than cut down. So why has REDD not died?

The short answer to that question is that REDD has been massively subsidised, supported, and funded by the Norwegian government.

The New York Declaration on Forests, mentioned at the beginning of this article, was funded by Norway. The largest donor by far to the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility is Norway. Francis Seymour and Jonah Busch wrote a book promoting REDD called “Why Forests, Why Now?” published by the Center for Global Development. The funding came from the Norwegian government.

Since 2007, Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI) has thrown billions of dollars at REDD.

NICFI was the result of a letter written by two men called Lars. On 27 September 2007, Lars Løvold, then-director of Rainforest Foundation Norway; and Lars Haltbrekken, then-chairman of Friends of the Earth Norway, sent a letter to Norway’s then-prime minister Jens Stoltenberg and other politicians. The letter was headlined, “Not too late: Save the rainforest – save the climate!”.

When he launched NICFI, Stoltenberg said that stopping deforestation can be done “quickly and at low cost”.

Norway’s interest in REDD is obvious. Norway’s riches come from oil. The country has no intention of stopping drilling oil. Instead, Norway hopes to distract the world’s attention from its contribution to climate chaos by funding the protection of rainforests.

But the reality is that REDD has turned out to be neither quick nor cheap. Despite the enthusiasm for REDD when it was launched, the reality is that deforestation continues. REDD has failed.

Ellysar Baroudy, the coordinator of the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, recently inadvertently acknowledged as much. In an interview marking 10 years of the FCPF, she said that,

We’re all aware that deforestation rates continue to rise. And they’re rising for various reasons. They’re rising because agriculture is needed, and so people are cutting down trees to make space. It’s rising because people need energy, so they’re cutting wood for fuelwood.

Baroudy focusses on people as the drivers of deforestation. She could have pointed out that corporations are clearing forests to make way for oil palm plantations. She could have described the destruction caused by corporations involved in industrial logging. Or industrial tree plantations. Or soya plantations. Or cattle ranching. But she doesn’t. People, then, are the problem, according to Baroudy.

The impacts of REDD on communities

Jesse Ribot is a Professor of Geography at the University of Illinois. He has been studying the impacts of forest projects on local communities for several decades.

In the 1990s, Ribot studied democratic decentralisation in Senegal’s forest sector. Ribot invented the word “facipulation” – facilitated manipulation – to describe how project developers used participation to implement their ideas about how the forest should be managed.

In December 2017, Ribot wrote the foreword to a book edited by Emmanuel O. Nuesiri, “Global Forest Governance and Climate Change”. Ribot’s contribution to the book is a blistering critique of REDD.

Ribot writes,

Carbon sequestration is important, but will never be worth the facipulated subordination of forest-dependent people. It does not justify imposition. It does not justify fascism — carbon fascism or any other kind.

Ribot concludes that we should be angry.

It is time to be angry about the abuses of rural communities, the structural violences that take place in the name of environmental protection, climate adaptation and mitigation, or development.

As reflected by Baroudy’s comments about people cutting down forests, the reality of REDD is that it has little or no impact on the corporations destroying the rainforests. Instead, it impacts some of the poorest people on the planet.


Academics Hanne Svarstad and Tor A. Benjaminsen have been carrying out research into REDD in Tanzania for several years. Their research into the Norwegian-funded Kondoa Irangi REDD+ Project in Tanzania reveals that the project caused extra hardship for villages.

People living close to the forest were particularly affected, especially those who did not have access to alternative areas of forest. Villagers with small farms or no farmland at all were more affected. Women were more affected than men, particularly because they were prevented from collecting firewood for cooking.

Some villagers continued to graze their livestock inside the forest because they had nowhere else to go. But if they were caught the fines are very high in relation to their income.

Villagers also reported increased crop damage by wildlife, especially warthogs.


Timothy Frewer of the University of Sydney wrote his PhD on the Oddar Meanchey REDD project in Cambodia. Frewer found that the project had utterly failed to benefit local communities:

[I]f we measure REDD in terms of providing people with a humble income stream that can act as a disincentive to clearing forest, then the project has failed miserably.

The project was unable to stop the Cambodian military and corporations from clearing forest land. Meanwhile, villagers have to pay the price for the unsuccessful REDD project. Frewer told me that,

People at the village level have invested serious amounts of labour and energy into the protection of forests even when it offers them very limited financial or other gain. People in Oddar Meanchey are not forest dependent – the vast majority are low income agriculturalists struggling to earn a living on less than two hectares of rice and cassava land. By foregoing the opportunity to expand into forest land many have made a major sacrifice – and one that is unlikely to ever be compensated.

Democratic Republic of Congo

In 2016, the World Bank approved DRC’s Emmissions Reduction Program, covering the 12.3 million hectares of Mai Ndombe province.

In March 2018, the Rights and Resources Intiative published a report that finds that REDD risks harming the people living in Mai Ndombe, while failing to stop deforestation.

RRI’s report is written by Marine Gauthier, a Paris-based expert on REDD and indigenous peoples’ rights. She has been working with local communities and indigenous peoples in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2012.

The report finds several problems with the implementation of REDD in Mai Ndombe province. The rights of the 73,000 indigenous people living in Mai Ndombe are routinely violated. New migrants arriving in the province are looking for work and arable land. Confusion over land rights contributes to an increasing number of land conflicts and increased food insecurity. Discrimination against rural and indigenous women continues, despite legal protections.

Widespread corruption and poor governance add to these problems. Pouring money into Mai Ndombe for REDD would only exacerbate land conflict, Gauthier notes.

Andy White, Coordinator of RRI comments that,

“Our findings show that DRC is not yet ready for REDD+ investment. The report analyzed 20 existing and planned projects in DRC, and concluded that projects already underway are not respecting the rights of local peoples or delivering on their goal of protecting forests.

Criticism within Norway

On 15 May 2018, the Office of the Auditor General completed an investigation into Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative. The report is critical. Despite US$3 billion of Norwegian funding, the Office of the Auditor General finds that,

progress and results are delayed, that current measures have uncertain feasibility and effect, and that the risk of fraud is not well-managed.

The report finds that Norway is by far the main financier of REDD. Few other countries are paying for REDD.

An important finding is that “There is not good enough follow-up of social and environmental safeguard mechanisms, such as indigenous peoples’ rights, poverty alleviation and conservation of natural forests.”

Countries receiving REDD money carry out little reporting into indigenous peoples’ rights and poverty alleviation as a result of REDD finance. And Norway’s Ministry of Climate and Environment does not carry out sufficient research to address this lack of reporting.

Despite all these problems, Ellysar Baroudy, the coordinator of the World Bank’s FCPF recently said,

“I am totally an optimist in this space. I think it behoves on us all to really push the barriers and keep going, and to me there’s just no other option than to make it happen.”

This is an extraordinary statement. As Svarstad and Benjaminsen point out, there is an increasingly large amount of peer reviewed research pointing at the impacts of REDD on the ground.

To ignore that research and claim that there is “no other option” is pure ideology. And the people paying the price for that ideology are among the poorest people on the planet.

Leave a Reply

  1. It is much easier to critisize and indentify scandals than finding solutions and promote good examples. REDD-monitor is obviously permanently on the easy side and follows its own ideology

  2. @Peter Prokosch – Thanks for this comment. My concern, which is backed up with research in Tanzania, Cambodia and the Democratic Republic of Congo in this post is that REDD is having a serious impact on the livelihoods of some of the poorest people on the planet.

    As Jesse Ribot, Professor of Geography at the University of Illinois, puts it,

    “It is time to be angry about the abuses of rural communities, the structural violences that take place in the name of environmental protection, climate adaptation and mitigation, or development.”

    Can you give any good examples of REDD projects?

  3. @Peter Prokosch – The Kariba REDD project is the focus of a chapter written by Vupenya Dzingirai, an Associate Professor at the University of Zimbabwe, and Lindiwe Mangwanya, a doctoral candidate at the University of Zimbabwe in the 2015 book “Carbon conflicts and forest landscapes in Africa”.

    Dzingirai and Mangwanya write that,

    [I]n practice, the project undermines livelihoods, forbidding access to foraging, agriculture and hunting across large areas that were traditionally used. All this makes the KCRP [Kariba Carbon REDD Project] strongly opposed by migrants – mainly Karanga – who need land for petty commodity production, and women and hunters who forage and hunt in the forests for household food security. The KCRP is also opposed by squatters wanting land and who wish to avoid intervention that would entangle them with the state and the private sector.

    It’s a carbon trading project, which means at best it’s not reducing emissions. The companies behind the project are registered in a series of tax havens.

    I wrote a post about the Kariba project last year:

  4. The main issue is the comparison of Voluntary Carbon Markets (like the one you have been listing) -which are more like Carbon cowboys – with the UNFCCC REDD+. Easy to confuse both systems as is done in this article (I must admit your opinions are interesting)

    The REDD+ mitigation in most of countries is in last stages of readiness phase. Just few of them are under real implementation, that include the implementation of Safeguards systems and other non Carbon activities and to be honest is not directly linked to Carbon Payments but to benefits.

    However, I do agree that many tropical countries are not mature enough to handle REDD+. DRC is a clear example where the system messed up. However, It is not fair to says that the rights of 73K IP are constantly violated because of REDD+ in a country with limited respect for H.R. and in constant civil wars since 2004.

    Otherwise, come and see the project of WCS in Cambodia, which is wonderful or the project of Socio-Bosque in Ecuador lead by the government (not directly REDD+ but linked with). Both are inclusive and well managed, but I am sure you will find spots for more articles ;)

  5. @Carlos Riano – Thanks for this. You’re right, the examples I give of REDD projects impacting the poor are aimed at voluntary carbon markets. This is “actually existing REDD” – which, as a recent paper published in Conservation and Society found, is not a pretty sight:

    “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.”

    As you point out, after more than a decade, UNFCCC REDD+ is still in the readiness stage. I’ve not come across any papers looking at the impact of UNFCCC REDD+ on local communities and indigenous peoples. My concern is that the impacts of jurisdictional or national scale REDD will be even more severe. Especially since the World Bank has effectively fixed the price of REDD carbon at not more than US$5.

    I’ve written several posts about REDD Safeguards. I’m worried that they are extremely weak, and extremely unlikely to be implemented in a meaningful way.

    I didn’t write that the rights of 73,000 indigenous people are constantly violated because of REDD, as you suggest. The point is that the rights of indigenous peoples in Mai N’dombe are routinely violated – which makes the implementation of REDD extremely difficult. (In the same vein, migrants are not coming into Mai N’dombe because of REDD, and land rights are not a problem because of REDD.)

    I’ve written three posts about the Seima REDD project in Cambodia (click on the images below to read the posts):

    I’ve not written a post specifically about Socio Bosque, but it appears in passing in several posts on REDD-Monitor.

    In 2015, Indigenous Peoples in Ecuador put out a statement in which they resolved, “To reaffirm our strong rejection of the Ecuadorian state’s policy on oil developments, mining, logging, hydropower and Socio Bosque activities in the indigenous territories of Zamora Chinchipe, Morona Santiago and Pastaz.”