By Chris Lang
In 2009, Norway launched Guyana’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation programme. Back then, it was an amibitious US$250 million scheme. Ten years later Guyana’s REDD has been almost completely abandoned.
That’s the finding of a recent paper by Andrew Hook of the University of Sussex, published in Nature and Space. The paper is based on fieldwork in 2016 and 2017 in Guyana and a “deep review of the theoretical and empirical literature on REDD+ policy processes and the Norway-Guyana agreement”.
Hook points out that environmental policy in Guyana was not “a disinterested search for a rational, scientific solution”. Instead, he found that “decisions governing REDD+ policy in Guyana were rather shaped throughout by the political objectives and calculations of a small number of opportunistic elite actors”.
Hook also describes how changes in the world gold price led to an increase in mining, and a key investor pulled out of the REDD-funded Amaila Falls hydropower project. Meanwhile, a hung Parliament in Guyana led to legislative gridlock.
Hook is not arguing that REDD can never work, but explains that his research shows “the ways in which political objectives and unforeseen events can overwhelm substantive policy efforts towards fighting climate change”.
In addition, Hook’s findings show, “the dangers of prioritizing short-term ‘success stories’ over longer-term and more consultative environmental policy processes”.
REDD projects failed to meet expectations
Hook estimates that since 2008, about US$10 billion has been spent on about 350 REDD projects and programmes. “In many cases,” Hook writes, “these projects have failed to meet initially high expectations.”
In 2009, Norway promised to pay US$250 to Guyana over the next five years, provided Guyana kept the deforestation rate below 0.275% per year.
Guyana agreed to use part of the Norwegian money on its Low Carbon Development Strategy. This included the Amaila Falls hydropower dam, an Amerindian land titling programme, and alternative livelihood projects aimed at reducing mining and logging.
The Amaila Falls dam was scrapped in 2013 after Sithe Global, one of the main investors, pulled out. Many of the other projects under the LCDS are “in various stages of decline, having failed to meet their targets”, Hook writes.
Most importantly, Guyana’s deforestation rate has actually increased in several years of the programme’s operation. These disappointments broadly reflect REDD+ policy experiences elsewhere.
Hook’s paper describes and explains, “the disconnect between the near-ubiquitous celebrations of REDD+’s ‘success’ in Guyana with the minimal attributable or observable impact on the ground.”
Hook writes that the unwarranted raising of expectations associated with REDD will be “perhaps the most serious long-term effect of the gulf between the exaggerated rhetoric … and the minimal delivery”.
Artificially high baselines
Hook notes that,
[S]ome states have attempted to set their ‘historical’ baseline deforestation rates artificially high, thus ensuring that current and future rates always fall below these apocryphal ‘high’ historical rates. Such a manipulation would enable these countries to access higher ‘avoided deforestation’ payments and to demonstrate ‘project success’ even while pursuing ‘business-as-usual’ forest use and presiding over increases in their actual deforestation rates (Karsenty and Ongolo, 2012). If uncritical auditors are prepared to overlook such dissonances, they may also enable donors to be able to claim project success, thus helping them to reinforce the ‘credibility’ of their climate mitigation strategies (Svarstad and Benjaminsen, 2017: 482). Overall, and ‘epistemic community’ is then established around REDD+ whose aim is simply to ‘promote(s) and extend(s) the model by means of alliance building’ (Lund et al., 2017: 126).
Hook interviewed a wide range of people during his research, including several from civil society. Here is a small sample of quotations from his paper:
- Civil society actor, 31 May 2016: “I think Jagdeo didn’t care whether he got carbon, leaves, logs or gold… Whatever was paying the better rate!“
- Civil society actor, 30 May 2016: “[REDD+] happened because Jagdeo went out there kind of selling the country, right?!“
- Civil Society actor, 3 June 2016: “You can’t hand Amerindian communities $25,000 and say ‘build a two-bedroom hut and tourists will fall through the sky like manna, right!’”
- Civil Society actor, 13 June 2016: “All we want is a pretty story… REDD+ has been a high-risk strategy for the Norwegians… they’ve contributed US$250 million… For a high-risk strategy to succeed, you need compliant consultants, who are going to give you that pretty story. And so… unless you have external consultants who value their own reputation more than the Norwegian contracts, you’re going to get more of the same…”
Hook describes in detail how gold mining increased in Guyana following the increase in the price of gold. Guyana managed to agree a baseline rate of deforestation that was significantly higher than the historical rate of deforestation, and subsequently made little or no effort to reduce the impact of mining on the forests.
REDD “limps on”
A new government was elected in 2015. The new government was keen to distance itself from Bharrat Jagdeo and his Low Carbon Development Strategy. Hook writes of the new government’s “ideological rejection of a neo-colonial international agenda on forests”.
In 2017, there were rumours that the new government was deliberately trying to sabotage the Low Carbon Development Strategy to drive the Norwegians away.
Hook writes that several of the people that he interiewed told him that,
government officials had deliberately sent a Norwegian delegation to the Amerindian village of Muritao … on a monitoring visit even though they knew that the village was engaging in small-scale bauxite mining. The suggestion was that the government was attempting to cause the Norwegians to lose patience with REDD+ in Guyana so they would unilaterally withdraw.
REDD in Guyana “limps on”, Hook writes. The government launched a round of REDD consultations and readiness exercises with key communities, in 2019, 10 years after REDD was launched in Guyana.
In his discussion and conclusion, Hook writes that,
Because of their politically motivated nature and the overall lack of broad-based input into the policy process, projects that did emerge invariably lacked impact (e.g. ADF [Amerindian Development Fund] and MSE [Micro and Small Enterprise] projects), while more substantive policy changes (that may, for example, have challenged underlying patterns of mineral-based land use, potentially shifting power away from powerful incumbent actors) have been deferred altogether.
Hook summarises what went wrong with REDD in Guyana as follows:
[E]ven in the absence of the external events which later contributed to the derailing of the REDD+/LCDS programme in Guyana (such as the collapse of the Amaila Falls project, the loss of REDD+ payments following the gold prices rise, and the non-emergence of further REDD+ funds through carbon markets), the programme would always have fallen short of the kind of paradigmatic shift implied by the grand policy rhetoric because it was never equipped to re-fashion the socio-ecological relationships underpinning Guyana’s resource-based economy.
Hook notes that with the recent discovery of offshore oil in Guyana, the importance of REDD funds has faded into the background.
PHOTO Credit: South Rupununi District Council press release September 2017: Wapichan people expose rights violations and growing threats to their forest and communities from mining and illegal resource use.