A climate mitigation scheme aiming to protect the world's forests must work through local democratic institutions or risk leaving communities and indigenous groups open to exploitation from powerful international actors seeking access to the world's shrinking land and resources, say experts.
"The history of development projects and especially forestry projects circumventing local democratic institutions and undermining democracy is clear enough. We must take measures to ensure that REDD+ does not follow suit," said Jesse Ribot, Director of the Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy Initiative at the University of Illinois, and co-author of Reducing REDD risks: Affirmative policy on an uneven playing field in a special journal issue on Multi-Level Governance.
Any development intervention can promote or undermine democracy, explains Ribot. When a powerful outside organisation of any sort (development agency, environmental organisation, donor or government agency) comes into a new place it has an effect on local institutions such as user groups, customary chiefs, NGOs, corporations, or local government.
REDD+, a global scheme to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation, will see funds from developed countries channelled to national governments, local communities, indigenous groups and individuals to keep their forests standing.
In many countries however there is a fear that without enforceable safeguards and strict regulations, governments could channel millions of dollars into REDD+ projects run by powerful businesses and forestry elites that override local land claims and fail to respect indigenous and community rights to forest resources.
In the same way that revenues from oil, gold, diamond and other mineral reserves have fuelled corruption and bad governance in many tropical countries, they worry REDD+ could exacerbate existing inequalities, widening the gap between rich and poor.
"REDD+ has to choose local partners and it is in a unique position, where it has to power to reshape people's entitlements to land and resources. It can either strengthen or undermine democracy depending on who it chooses to work with," said Ribot who is also a director of the Responsive Forest Governance Initiative.
Local forest communities already have restricted access to land and resources, labour, credit, markets and technical assistance compared to other forest users, said Anne Larson, scientist with the Center for the International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and co-author of several papers in the special issue.
"Under REDD+, they could continue to lose out to powerful competitors who have more money, more connections and more resources," she added.
According to a 2012 report, REDD+ pilot projects run by NGOs and companies in the Peruvian Amazon are already undermining the rights of indigenous peoples. Of the 35 REDD projects spanning the regions Madre de Dios, San Martin and the Central Jungle, "at least 8 are operating on customary lands that as yet are legally unrecognised by the government", it said.
To address these problems, seven social safeguards were proposed at the UN climate conference in Cancun in 2010, including requirements for REDD+ planners to develop transparent and effective national forest governance structures; ensuring the participation of local stakeholders, and showing respect for the knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples.
However at last year's UN climate change COP17 summit in Durban, the final text only required REDD+ developers to submit qualitative information on how safeguards are being implemented.
"We have no way of actually measuring impact" of REDD+ on communities, which requires collecting and comparing before-and-after data, said Louis Verchot, who leads CIFOR research on climate mitigation.
And this year's UN Climate conference in Doha does not look any more promising.
"The decision right now is that this year the safeguards will be kept as it is and it will be reviewed next year," said Tony La Vina, a lead UNFCCC negotiator and REDD+ facilitator.
REDD+ can help transform the democratic process
In another article featured in the special issue, Larson noted that REDD could help support local democratic institutions and push for more progressive forestry legislation.
In Nicaragua's North Atlantic Autonomous region (RAAN), for instance, legal reforms have in recent years granted indigenous peoples the right to land titles and to representation through their community and territory leaders.
Decentralisation has also shifted important decision-making over natural resources from the national governments to the regional authority. The regional offices now have a greater role in guiding the development of the region and have veto power over central government investment decisions.
Larson said while this has already helped to empower different levels of governance, REDD+ has the ability to "strengthen areas where ambiguity in the laws still exist and where communities still do not exercise effective decision-making power over their territories and natural resources".
Where to from here?
According to Ribot, safeguards must broaden their scope and have stricter criteria to ensure that communities are able to shape REDD+ decision-making.
At a minimum, he said, "democracy safeguards" should be added to the existing seven social safeguards make sure REDD+ projects "do no harm" to local representation.
"This would at a minimum include the requiring of permanent local institutions that have significant binding decision-making powers, including the right to say 'no' to any project or program, and who are systematically accountable to the local citizens. Empowering and working with local elected authorities would be a good start."
"Such democratic protections are about changing the very nature off business-as-usual by shifting decision-making powers to accountable authorities in a way that challenges the powers of external and local elites."
"If REDD+ is to challenge business as usual and to benefit local populations, safeguard policies must not just protect rights, but must also establish, strengthen and secure rights," he said.
The featured publication forms part of CIFOR's Global Comparative Study on REDD+, which is supported by AusAid, The European Commission and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD).