Indigenous groups voice support for REDD+, despite flaws

Indigenous groups voice support for REDD+, despite flaws

  • A letter published May 9 and signed by a group of Indigenous-led organizations backs a mechanism for providing compensation in return for forest protection efforts known as REDD+, which is short for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.”
  • The aim of REDD+ is to provide results-based funding for economic development tied to those protection efforts, with financing coming from credits sold to companies and individuals to account for their carbon emissions.
  • But critics question how carbon credits are calculated, and others have concerns about the lack of consent and participation by Indigenous and local communities most affected by REDD+ work.
  • The letter argues that REDD+, in despite its shortcomings, is one of the few direct funding flows to communities for climate-related work, and they call for greater inclusion in the broader conversation about REDD+ and carbon credits and offsets.

A group of Indigenous-led organizations released a letter May 9 supporting forest protection efforts known collectively as REDD+ projects.

They argue that REDD+, short for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation,” provides much-needed funding for economic development and climate-related work. They also note that Indigenous and community views on the mechanism have been largely absent from the current debate about climate action and payment for results related to climate change.

REDD projects aim to encourage communities to keep forests standing, providing payments in return for meeting specific metrics. (The plus sign was added after REDD’s inception by the United Nations in 2005 to draw in more focus on conservation, sustainable forest management and carbon stocks.)

The goal is that credits from the additional carbon kept out of the atmosphere as a result of this work are sold to companies and individuals, often to compensate for emissions from activities like manufacturing or travel. That, in turn, provides a stream of funding to these organizations and communities.

But the processes by which those amounts of carbon are calculated have come under scrutiny recently. A series of articles published in early 2023 by The Guardian newspaper in the U.K., the German weekly Die Zeit and the nonprofit journalism outfit Source Material have raised questions about whether these credits actually help address climate change. The journalists’ own analysis, combined with scientific research, suggested that many credits may be based on dubious calculations.

A farm with a forest in the distance near a REDD+ project in Cambodia. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.

Their reporting also revealed that communities in Peru have been forced off their long-held lands in apparent connection with REDD+ projects touted for the reductions in deforestation they have brought about. The concerns raised add to those of NGOs that have called for more stringent requirements for incorporating the viewpoints of communities whose ancestral land is likely to be affected by REDD+ projects, in line with the principle of free, prior and informed consent as acknowledged in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Those criticisms have further spurred on the debate in the conservation community and Indigenous rights sector about the sale of carbon credits, at times extending to questions about whether carbon markets and structures like REDD+ should continue.

Many observers welcome the opportunity to improve accounting for carbon and increase the integrity of credits available for purchase.

“Constructive conversation can only be good for the sector, given that there is a huge requirement and need for community-based conservation,” Sandeep Roy Choudhury, co-founder of VNV Advisory Services, which works with organizations in Asia and Africa to access climate finance, said in a press briefing ahead of the letter’s launch.

But, Choudhury added, “What has been missing are the voices from the Global South, or from practitioners or people who have been part of this journey, have seen the ups and downs of this journey, and who really faced the brunt of what goes on within the deforestation and degradation circles.”

A REDD+-supported school.
A REDD+ project-supported school in Cambodia. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.

Four Indigenous-led groups signed the letter: the FSC Indigenous Foundation, the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee, the Peoples Forest Partnership, and the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests, known by its Spanish acronym, AMPB. Other organizations, including VNV Advisory Services, co-signed the letter in support of its message.

Its authors say the current conversation among conservation experts, consultants and Indigenous rights NGOs is incomplete without the voices of community members who have direct experience with REDD+ projects. Their perspectives are particularly relevant, they add, because many of their communities are already facing the dangerous impacts of climate change while paradoxically having had much less of a hand in causing these global changes.

“Those interested in knowing the impacts of REDD+ projects should be incorporating our knowledge and observations into their analysis if they want an accurate picture,” they wrote.

Indigenous and local communities are responsible for managing at least half of the forests earmarked for climate-related work such as restoration, according to a 2020 report from Rights and Resources Initiative, a global coalition of organizations. Scientific research has consistently demonstrated that forests and other landscapes are healthier when these communities’ rights are recognized. A recent study on the Amazon found that deforestation was lower in Indigenous territories than even in protected areas, and that protected areas and Indigenous territories lost only about a third of the primary forest compared to declines outside them between 2017 and 2021.

“Indigenous peoples have been conserving the land for a very, very long time,” Choudhury said, “and I think it’s time that we recognize that.”

Members of Indigenous communities and groups, including the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests, participating in climate negotiation in the COP23 sessions.
Members of Indigenous communities and groups, including the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests, participating in climate negotiation in the COP23 sessions. Image by Jochen Tack via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Other research has revealed, and community leaders have confirmed, that very little of the financing intended to help Indigenous and local communities with land security and climate work reaches them.

By excluding input from these groups about REDD+ and climate-related projects, “We are going to reduce … one of the solutions that we could have to value the contribution of the Indigenous people,” Francisco Souza, managing director of the FSC Indigenous Foundation, said during the briefing. Souza is also a member of the Apurinã Indigenous people of the Brazilian Amazon.

The letter notes that REDD+ is one of the few channels for directing money to these groups. But even that funding can be slow and hard to come by, according to a recent op-ed by Robert Nasi, the acting CEO of CIFOR-ICRAF, and Pham Thu Thuy, a CIFOR-ICRAF senior scientist. The Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry, or CIFOR-ICRAF, is a nonprofit, scientific group headquartered in Bogor, Indonesia, and Nairobi, Kenya.

“REDD+ countries and communities have shouldered much of the cost of putting REDD+ into practice but their contributions are not recognized,” Nasi and Thuy wrote in the op-ed on Mongabay, citing a 2016 study by CIFOR.

The concerns about getting more funding directly to Indigenous and local communities are important. Still, REDD+ has also served as “a space for dialogue between governments and Indigenous peoples,” said Levi Sucre Romero, the coordinator of the AMPB, in a voice message to Mongabay. Sucre is also a Bribri community leader from Costa Rica.

The projects have also brought tangible benefits, alongside “a demonstrable impact on reducing deforestation,” the letter’s authors wrote.

Evans, a ranger for the REDD+ project Wildlife Works in Kenya's Kasigau Corridor.
Evans, a ranger for the REDD+ project Wildlife Works in Kenya’s Kasigau Corridor. Image by Geoff Livingston via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Increased funding flows as a result of the Kasigau REDD+ project in southern Kenya have led to better access to clean water and tens of thousands of scholarships, Joseph Mwakima, a community relations officer for the Kasigau project with the Wildlife Works Foundation, said during the briefing.

Now, those investments since the start of the project more than a decade ago are beginning to pay dividends for the communities, Mwakima said: Some of the young people who left for school have begun to return “as teachers, as doctors, as nurses, as businesspeople.”

Remove these types of projects, and deforestation would increase, according to the letter’s authors.

“If you take REDD+ projects out of the equation of forest ecosystem preservation, you will leave a very, very big gaping hole in finance flows,” Choudhury said.

Such a loss would discount the work these communities are doing to help address climate change, Deborah Sanchez, coordinator of forest, climate and biodiversity with the AMPB, said at the briefing. “I don’t think that that’s fair,” she added.

Critical to including these communities is listening to and respecting their wishes, Mwakima said. Regarding decisions in the Kasigau REDD+ project, “If they say yes, it is a yes. If they say no, it is a no,” he added.

At a recent debate held by the Skoll Foundation on carbon markets, Sucre said, “All climate action must be about justice.”

He pointed out that, in the push for higher-integrity carbon credits, consultants, who are often from the Global North, are called in to evaluate communities’ work and “to tell us how to take care of a forest, when they have never lived in one!”

“On this planet, we cannot afford to let some people live at the expense of other people’s death,” Sucre said. “Let’s try to deal with [climate change] together, not by saying, ‘I give you money, and [you] fix my life for me.’”

Banner image: The Bungule Women’s Group, where women engage in entrepreneurial activities like producing arts and crafts sold in the U.S. through the auspices of REDD+ Project manager Wildlife Works. Image by Geoff Livingston via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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