Report finds projects in DRC ‘REDD+ laboratory’ fall short of development, conservation goals

  • The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) released a new report that found that 20 REDD+ projects in a province in DRC aren’t set to address forest conservation and economic development — the primary goals of the strategy.
  • The Paris Agreement explicitly mentions the role of REDD+ projects, which channel funds from wealthy countries to heavily forested ones, in keeping the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius this century.
  • RRI is asking REDD+ donors to pause funding of projects in DRC until coordinators develop a more participatory approach that includes communities and indigenous groups.

The camera follows the men through the forest as they arrive at the splintered stump of what looks to have been a massive tree.

“For me, the forest is a legacy of our ancestors,” says one of the unnamed men. “We have no gold or diamonds. Our heritage is the forest. We do not like it when people come to destroy it.”

He and his companions are from the community of Bayeria, in the province of Mai-Ndombe in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The short film “Sanctuary” captures their struggle to hold on to the forest that they see as vital to their existence and survival. A few years ago, a logging company came in. With the alleged backing of the police and the military, crews began clearing the forest. Meanwhile, the people from Bayeria who protested what they characterized as an intrusion say they were harassed, beaten and even raped by policemen and security guards for the company.

More recently, communities in Mai-Ndombe have had to wrangle with a new challenge to their lives and livelihoods, they say. Paradoxically, it’s come in the shape of a set of projects aimed at both ensuring their economic development and protecting the forest.

The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a global coalition that advocates for the forest and land rights of communities and indigenous peoples, released a new report on March 14. In it, the group claims that a set of conservation and development projects known collectively as REDD+ are sidelining local communities in Mai-Ndombe and infringing on their rights to control what happens to their forest homes.

“Instead of empowering Indigenous Peoples, communities, and women in the forest communities, the REDD+ programs in Mai-Ndombe are not adequately respecting the rights of local peoples and are failing to protect forests,” said Andy White, the RRI coordinator, in a statement.

Until the government formally recognizes the land rights of communities, RRI is imploring donor countries to put off REDD+ project funding to the country “or to cancel it altogether if DRC does not correct course,” White added.

But officials in DRC have recently signaled they are trying to end a longstanding moratorium on the issuance of new timber concessions in the country — a step that conservation groups argue will further endanger the success of REDD+. On March 7, a group of conservation and human rights organizations issued a letter calling on donors to stop funding REDD+ pending a pledge from DRC to keep the moratorium in place until it cleans up the corruption that plagues land-use deals in the country.

A map showing the communities in Mai-Ndombe province. Image courtesy of RRI.

“If the country’s forests are suddenly opened up to much larger-scale logging, then it really does pose a lot of questions about whether REDD+ is going to be viable in DRC,” said Simon Counsell, executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK, in an interview. Rainforest Foundation UK was one of nearly 60 signatories to the letter.

Short for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries, REDD+ is a strategy through which mostly wealthy countries channel funding to heavily forested countries like DRC in the name of keeping forests standing — and thereby locking away the carbon dioxide they store. At the same time, it also aims to encourage economic development for people living in these countries. Mai-Ndombe has become a laboratory for REDD+ projects, thanks to the high levels of forest the province contains and its proximity to Kinshasa, DRC’s capital and largest city.

REDD+ is seen as a way to compensate those countries, giving them an alternative source of funding for economic development to turning their forests over to industrial agriculture or timber plantations. The global public benefit is that the trees remain standing and continue siphoning climate-warming carbon from the air. Many global organizations, from the United Nations to the development agencies of countries like Norway, have backed the push, and it figures prominently in the Paris Agreement to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius through the end of this century.

A second report finds that many forested countries don’t have a legal system that will promote those goals. RRI sees the clear establishment of communities’ rights to the forest, as well as to the carbon contained in its constituent trees, as a critical precursor to the success of REDD+ projects.

A man stands in his field in DRC. Photo by John C. Cannon.

Land rights

DRC has embraced REDD+ as a national strategy for forest conservation, and after several years of preparing for projects, proponents of the strategy in DRC are ready to move into the implementation phase of REDD+ projects. But the author of the RRI report, Marine Gauthier, said there was still work to do to ensure that “REDD+ actually answers to its first goals, which are halting deforestation and fighting poverty.”

“REDD+ right now is conceived in the old-fashioned development approach of development aid, and this transition toward a bottom-up approach is needed,” she said. “The decisions are made in Kinshasa or elsewhere by people who have actually never been to Mai-Ndombe and have never spoken with the people there.”

As a result, people from Mai-Ndombe living closest to the forest, who often depend on it for their survival, often aren’t aware that REDD+ exists.

“They don’t even know what it is,” Gauthier said. “They don’t even know the risks associated, or the potential benefits they could get from REDD+.”

The report suggests that REDD+ projects could incorporate participatory mapping, a strategy to integrate the perspectives of all of the people who depend on the forest, including women and indigenous peoples, as a way to reduce conflict and more concretely establish community claims to the land.

Mai-Ndombe province has become a laboratory for REDD+, with 20 projects covering nearly 100,000 square kilometers (38,610 square miles) of forest. Image courtesy of RRI.

“Women’s rights to land are important because women are the providers for their households,” said Chouchouna Losale, vice coordinator and program officer for the Coalition of Women for the Environment and Sustainable Development, an NGO in DRC. “The forest is important for women in these communities because it’s their supermarket, their pharmacy, their store, their bank, and their spiritual site.

“Recognizing their rights to land thus encourages the development of women’s rights more broadly,” Losale added.

Indigenous pygmy groups also struggle to have their perspectives included, according to the report. About 73,000 live in the province, so they’re a small minority among a total provincial population of between 1.5 million and 1.8 million people. Despite international and national protections in DRC, discrimination often confines them to the sidelines of discussions about land use.

But right now, REDD+ projects aren’t oriented toward these possibilities, in part because they represent a shift in the way development projects are traditionally run.

“Using participatory approaches, working with communities, working with indigenous peoples actually takes time,” Gauthier said. “I don’t think there’s a culture of such community-based approaches in international organizations and in the DRC government right now.”

Instead, approaches may sidestep the participation of forest-dependent communities altogether. Gauthier looked at 20 different projects in Mai-Ndombe province. They’re funded by groups like the World Bank and WWF, and they include plans for activities that range from planting cassava and acacia trees on degraded savannas, to reduced-impact logging. Collectively, they cover 98,000 square kilometers (37,840 square miles) of forest. In most of these cases, RRI reports that the projects aren’t likely to address the root causes behind deforestation and that they could harm local communities in the process.

The report found that REDD+ projects don’t always take the perspectives of marginalized groups such as women and indigenous peoples into account. Photo by John C. Cannon.

Does REDD+ cause conflict?

Alain Karsenty, an agricultural economist at the agricultural research organization CIRAD in Montpellier, France, said he didn’t agree with the characterization that REDD+ projects marginalize communities. Karsenty, who was not involved in the research or writing the report, said the organizations supporting these projects would not risk the stain of bad publicity that would no doubt follow allegations of community conflict.

If a project does cause conflict, “Greenpeace [or other NGOs] are just going to name and shame the project, and people are going to lose their certification,” Karsenty said. “If they lose that certification, they lose opportunities to trade and to sell their carbon credits.”

But to date, the only project in DRC that’s been certified to sell carbon credits on the voluntary market is a conservation concession controlled by a private Canadian company called WWC, and Gauthier unearthed claims of discontent within local communities about the concession. They said that, as recently as July 2017, a community member was arrested for “illegal logging” within the concession boundaries. But according to the report, communities weren’t consulted when the concession was formed in 2011, and there’s little community understanding of the specifications of the concession.

Similarly, Gauthier found that a related system, created by the conservation NGO WWF to compensate communities for efforts such as restoring the savanna, isn’t well understood by community members. Only one of the four payment contracts “seems to work properly,” she wrote.

The report points out that more participatory approaches through the use of community forest concessions could be a more effective way to get communities involved in REDD+. DRC’s Forest Code gives communities the chance to secure legal rights to a block of forest as large as 500 square kilometers (193 square miles). Right now, however, the governor of Mai-Ndombe has only approved concessions of 3 square kilometers (1.2 square miles) for each of 13 communities that have requested them, even though they requested a total of more than 650 square kilometers (250 square miles).

The WWC conservation concession is the only REDD+ project certified to sell carbon credits on the voluntary market in DRC. Image courtesy of RRI.

Stewards of the forest

To Gauthier’s mind, REDD+ coordinators could be using that legal basis as a way to secure land rights.

“They’re overlooking the opportunity of having community concessions being involved in REDD+,” she said, “giving communities the opportunity to be REDD+ holders themselves and to be the first to benefit from REDD+ money.”

Karsenty agreed that conservation concessions like the one run by WWC seemed to run counter to the aims of REDD+ in that they required the removal of people’s rights to the forests. What’s more, they could spur what economists call “leakage” — in this case, perhaps shifting deforestation from the cordoned-off area to another area of forest.

“I would prefer to incentivize farmers based on the recognition of their land rights,” he said. Karsenty said he is involved with payment-for-ecosystem-services, or PES, projects in Burkina Faso, and securing land rights was critical to the investment in getting farmers to change their behaviors, for example, to increase the productivity of their fields.

To Gauthier, it’s about empowerment of the local people — what she called “the key to a successful process.” And that means two-way communication between REDD+ project coordinators and communities, whom research continues to show can be superlative stewards of forest ecosystems if given the chance.

Research shows that local communities and indigenous groups can be among the best stewards of forests. Photo by Kelby Wood © If Not Us Then Who?

“It’s a matter of listening to them,” she said. “Communities, especially indigenous peoples, have developed traditional forest management systems for thousands of years, and if, instead of imposing solutions on them, you actually go and listen to their solution, this could be a good way of protecting the forests.”

At this point in DRC, “all is not lost,” Andy White of RRI said in the statement. In the view of RRI and others, REDD+ still offers the potential to protect forests. But the approach needs to change if REDD+ is going to avoid the problems that other forms of land development have caused in Mai-Ndombe.

“It is not too late,” White said. “Recognizing community land rights and engaging local communities would ensure that this grand experiment underway in the world’s remote rainforests can succeed, unlocking all of the benefits that come with strong forests and forest protectors.”

Banner image of farmers in DRC by Kelby Wood © If Not Us Then Who?

Correction (Mar. 16, 2018): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that RRI includes governmental organizations. We regret the error.

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