REDD: A window of opportunity to protect forests in developing countries? Or a threat to multi-functional landscapes?

Even since I first heard about the REDD concept (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) I have been concerned about the potential negative impacts of the use of this financial mechanism on forest-dependent communities and the provision of a broad range of ecosystem services in developing countries. As a student of both international development and environment management I could see that this concept (as it was originally conceived) was very naïve in regards to both the realities of forestry in developing countries and the complexity of ecosystem services provided by forests.

Like many ideas conceived by theorists and researchers in developed countries, this approach seemed to be based on a poor understanding of the function, usage and management of forests in developing countries. It also subordinated the multiple environment services and benefits provided by forests by focusing purely on carbon storage. Moreover, it seemed as though this mechanism was, at least in part, designed to enable developed countries to offset their carbon emissions through the purchase REDD based carbon credits rather than taking direct action to reduce emissions in their own economies.

Over time the REDD concept has been refined in response to these concerns and other important considerations. The latest version of this concept, REDD+, now seeks to incorporate participatory forest management approaches and a larger range of environmental services within projects that are funded through this mechanism. There is also a push to minimise the use of this mechanism by rich countries to purchase carbon credits to offset their own emissions.

But taking a step back. Why was this idea naïve to begin with?

Seemingly this concept was conceived in a developing country paradigm/context in which forests are viewed as distinct, stand-alone landscape features with clearly demarcated boundaries and ownership structures, and where forestry activities, whether commercial or recreational, are largely well-regulated. Moreover, it is also assumes that forests are largely unoccupied by humans.

In the developed world this is a relatively accurate representation of reality because land-use planning and forest management systems are well defined and regulated, for the most part at least. This makes it easy to define and identify specific areas as ‘forests’ (whether natural or plantations) within regional land-use planning systems.

However, in the case of many developing countries the situation is essentially the opposite. Forests generally do not have clearly defined or effective governance structures and mechanisms. Forestry activities are usually unregulated or poorly regulated, and there is a much greater exploitation of a broad range of forest resources, such as firewood, medicinal plants, bush meat, and resins. The boundaries of forests may not always be obvious due to the absence of governance mechanisms or even when boundaries do exist on paper, in practice may be ignored or poorly defined without fencing or signage. Moreover, the exploitation of the forest by different users may have reduced the forest cover or its edges may be integrated with farming systems or other local land-use practices, thus blurring the distinction between the forest and agricultural land.

Most significantly, forests or forested areas in developing countries are often populated and/or frequently used by local people, whether to exploit its resources, to perform cultural activities, as a place to feed livestock, or to travel through to reach water access points, markets or towns. Ethiopia is a prime example of this situation as many of its forests, including designated protected areas and national parks, face encroachment from small and large scale agriculture and livestock which is largely unregulated. While in some parts of the country forests hold important cultural value and significant and are managed by traditional indigenous governance mechanisms such as the Sheka Forest.

‘Monotypic Masses’ versus ‘Multi-functional Mosaics’

A useful categorisation of these two different landscape typologies was recently developed by the IIED, namely Monotypic Masses and Multi-functional Mosaics. The first category, Monotypic Masses, is where large packages of land are used to produce a single product or service, whether food, fuel, fibre, biodiversity or carbon sequestration. The focus of this type of land-use system is on scale, efficiency and identifying the most suitable and profitable areas for these purposes, as well as providing public ecological goods and services to the global market. An example of this would be the identification of a forest with high carbon storage and the removal or regulation of any activities that would impact on the carbon storage capacity. Under this approach displacement of people and the prohibition or removal other land-use practices is essentially mandatory in order to protect the investment and to maximise the production of the designated ecological good or service. This category typifies the land use practices and systems of the developed world and increasingly large parts of the developing world, particularly emerging economies such as Brazil and China.

The second category, Multi-functional Mosaics, is where a range of different land-use practices are applied in an integrated fashion on smaller parcels of land in order to produce multiple ecological goods and services. The focus of this type of land-use system is on meeting the social and economic needs of local communities by maintaining the local community’s access and rights to land and natural resources, as well as providing global public ecological goods and services. An example of this would be the use of agroforestry practices that produce food and other products for local consumption but also enhance carbon sequestration and soil protection that has local and global benefits. Under this approach the displacement of people should not be required, although some local land-use practices may need to be changed or phased out in order to maximise the provision of the ecological goods and services. This category typifies the land-use practices and systems in much of the developing world (and some small areas of the developed world where permaculture and other ecologically-based mixed-use agricultural methods have been adopted).

It should be clear from the two categories above that the REDD+ mechanism was designed to fit within the Monotypic masses category. This means that the mechanism faces a number of challenges and potential issues if attempts are made to implement it in countries or areas where the conditions associated with the Multi-functional Mosaics category are predominant.

REDD readiness or REDD relevance?

Ethiopia is an interesting case study for assessing the suitability of the REDD+ mechanism as it a country where the majority of land-use practices sit within the Multi-functional Landscapes category. It has also incorporated REDD+ as a key component in its Climate-Resilient Green Economy strategy and is in the process of building its ‘REDD readiness’ capacity. Based on my observations in Africa and my understanding of this concept, I believe the following challenges associated with the implementation of REDD need careful consideration before countries such as Ethiopia commit themselves to the use of this mechanism on a large scale:

  • REDD+ requires the imposition of clearly defined and effective forest governance, ownership and management mechanisms. In many countries, including Ethiopia, this would represent a radical shift from existing structures and practices, and more than likely would involve the displacement of existing forest-dependent communities and/or heavy restrictions on forest activities and restricted access to forests. In Ethiopia, governance structures in the forestry sector have historically been very weak and the sector has only just recently been elevated to its own Ministerial portfolio from its subordinate position within the Ministry of Agriculture. This suggests that Ethiopia has a long way to go when it comes to enhanced governance structures at the national level, let along improving implementation and monitoring capacity at the local level which would be critical for the effective implementation of REDD+.
  • The technical capacity and financial resources required to undertake carbon monitoring and accounting to meet international standards is not likely to exist in developing countries for some time. Therefore, REDD involves a built-in dependency on external technical and financial assistance. This raises serious questions about the sustainability of REDD-funded projects and the possibility of shifting government resources and efforts away from poverty reduction initiatives or the delivery of other basic services in order to meet its REDD monitoring and verification requirements. In addition, questions are being raised about the scale of funds that will be available through REDD+ and how those funds will be distributed in a equitable fashion.
  • REDD+ may result in a higher value being placed on the carbon storage capacity of forests over and above other ecological goods and services, which might deliver some global public benefits but severely disadvantage local communities.This relates to the Myopic Masses category described above. By providing financial incentives that are directly linked to the volume of carbon storage of forests the other ecological goods and services provided by forests may become undervalued and marginalised. This could result in a situation where forests that provide critical ecological services, such as watershed protection or biodiversity, but have a low carbon storage capacity are not seen as having the same value, at least in financial terms, as forests with a high carbon storage capacity.
  • The signing of a large number of REDD based funding agreements and contracts may severely limit the ability of local communities and governments to adapt and respond to future changes, whether economic or climatic. The long timeframes and stringent conditions associated with REDD+ based financial contracts means that the forest resources included under these agreement would essentially become a form of sunk capital. This is because the usage of the forest resource would be limited to carbon storage any other activities agreed upon at the outset. While understandably this is important for maintaining the carbon storage levels of the forest, it may make it very difficult for communities or governments to take advantage of new economic opportunities or implement new regional land-use and climate change adaptation strategies that may necessitate incursions or changes to the forested area included in the REDD contract to be successful.

But what then could be the alternative to REDD?

In the case of Ethiopia it would seem more appropriate to focus on the concept of sustainable agriculture and food systems rather than pursuing the REDD approach. This would require less of a dramatic shift away from its current agricultural-led development strategy and would likely be more aligned with existing local capacity. This would involve continuing its efforts to support small holder farmers to increase yields and improve the environmental condition of their farms and watersheds through the development and implementation of appropriate agroforestry techniques and other such approaches. If these methods were scaled up effectively they would potentially provide the same or higher levels of carbon storage as well as a range of other ecological goods and services with local and global benefits.Although it must be noted that under this approach it would be more difficult to calculate carbon storage levels and attribution within such multi-functional land-use systems. This would also require the development of innovative and flexible funding arrangements which most major donors generally have a strong aversion to because they prefer large-scale projects that are considered easier to negotiate and administer. However there are examples of where such flexible funding mechanisms have been successful, such as the Asian Coalition for Community Action program.


The above analysis seeks to demonstrate that the REDD+ mechanism is not likely to be a good fit in many parts of the developing world due to the absence of the necessary preconditions for successful implementation. This is not to suggest that REDD+ funded projects might not be appropriate in certain contexts, but that careful consideration needs to be given to whether the right conditions exists before a significant amount resources are committed to this approach. In particular, developing countries should assess which type of landscape typologies, myopic masses or multi-functional landscapes, are predominant in their countries and whether they wish to pursue policies and strategies that encourage one or the other.

In the case of Ethiopia, the local context suggests that REDD+ may not a good fit in many parts of the country and therefore the position of REDD+ as a key pillar in the Ethiopian government’s Climate-resilient Green Economy strategy should perhaps be reconsidered. As an alternative, it may be more effective for the Ethiopian government to continue to build upon its agricultural-led development strategy and pursue REDD+ projects in a limited fashion where the appropriate local conditions already exist or could be established relatively easily without displacing or disadvantaging forest-dependent communities.

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