Africa: Rhetoric or Action in Global Efforts to Protect Forest Communities?

Johannesburg — A UN mechanism that purports to involve forest-dependent communities in preventing forest loss to curtail greenhouse gas emissions is failing to do so, finds a new study.

The study, released days ahead of UN climate change talks in Warsaw, has prompted the authors and environmental activists to call for the international community to define and develop the role of these communities at the talks.

The mechanism, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) and its successor, REDD+ (which additionally aims to reverse forest loss), emerged through years of climate change negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The success of REDD+ projects is determined by the amount of carbon the forests save.

The study, Community Monitoring for REDD+: International Promises and Field Realities, reviewed 50 REDD+ projects, all at the pilot stage. The study found that 48 percent of the projects had no planned involvement of communities, while 52 percent plan to involve the communities in monitoring the projects in some way.

"Although this number has been increasing over time, it remains small and does not truly show commitment from REDD+ project and national implementers to fully involve local communities in this forest-management strategy," said the study.

Rosalind Reeve, senior fellow at the Ateneo School of Government in Manila - a member of the REDD+ Safeguards Working Group (R-SWG), a North-South coalition of civil society and indigenous people's organizations - told IRIN, "We're not surprised that there's a gap between the international rhetoric and reality on the ground.

"The UNFCCC has failed to translate the commitment made in [the 2010 UNFCCC meeting in] Cancun for full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and local communities into practical recommendations. So in the guidance developed so far, there's no mention of involving communities in monitoring either carbon or safeguards, or even recommending a participatory approach to developing systems."

Safeguarding forest communities

The study's 22 authors, from the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre and an array of European and Southeast Asian institutions, also demonstrated that indigenous and local communities can effectively calculate how much carbon is being saved by the preservation of their forests.

The communities in the study produced forest and carbon data using simple tools like ropes and sticks to measure tree circumference, which is used to calculate the amount of carbon stored in each tree; this data was as good as information generated by professional foresters using high-tech devices, the study found.

Forests are known to remove huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, while the destruction of trees releases carbon back into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. But environmentalists have long argued that REDD+ must not simply protect trees, it must also protect biodiversity and forest-dependent communities.

Initially designed to benefit countries with rainforests, REDD+ now covers all developing countries, which could be compensated for preserving forests, either from a fund or with credits to be traded on international carbon markets.

In the 2010 UNFCCC meeting in Cancun, the rights of indigenous forest communities and biodiversity were recognized as "safeguards", or conditions that counties were required to meet to qualify for REDD+ funding.

UNFCCC texts and guidance documents on the technical aspects of REDD+ "outline explicit roles for indigenous people and local communities in implementing REDD+", said the study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecology and Society.

"However, it has been questioned whether these good intentions are being translated into activities on the ground in countries where pilot projects are testing modalities," it said. The study further noted that "despite the intention of full and effective involvement of indigenous peoples and local communities, guidance on how to implement this in practice is wanting".

Gains reversed?

"Over the past 25 years, developing countries have transitioned toward decentralized forest management that allows local actors increased rights and responsibilities, and this has helped protect forests in many regions," says the study. There is concern these gains could be reversed by how the REDD+ projects are implemented on the ground.

Dil Raj Khanal, of the Federation of Community Forest Users, Nepal, a member of R-SWG, told IRIN that in the past three decades Nepal has developed a community-based monitoring systems for forests. "Without getting information from communities, the government cannot prepare [a] report on [the] forestry sector in Nepal," he said.

The country is now developing a monitoring, reporting and verification process for forest and carbon data for the REDD+ programme. But Khanal pointed out that the national system being developed for REDD+ fails to integrate information generated by the community-based forest monitoring system.

Civil society in Nepal has been underlining the need for an overall framework that recognizes monitoring by communities, he said. He added that countries needed direction from the negotiators in Warsaw to harmonize their national forest monitoring systems with the monitoring work of communities.

"The UN has failed to give a strong signal to countries that they should engage communities in monitoring and use a participatory approach to develop systems," said Reeve, "so countries have failed to embed community monitoring in their national REDD+ plans."

Engaging communities

But why have the REDD+ projects downplayed the role of communities on the ground? Finn Danielsen, the lead author of the study, told IRIN, "There are considerable barriers for government departments and the private sector to working in a participatory way. It can only happen as part of a more bottom-up type of planning and operation than has so far been seen. There is progress, but, as we have shown in our paper, this progress is really very slow."

He explained, "One argument against community involvement sometimes heard is that local communities will have a strong incentive to report positive trends in the forest cover and condition, so they continue to be paid, even if forests are actually declining.

We agree that periodic, third-party verification of the monitoring results will be required, but this would need to be built into the design and costs of any REDD+ initiative, whether monitoring is implemented by communities, the state or the private sector."

There is also lack of awareness about how to effectively engage communities in the process, says the study. Foresters often do not have knowledge about low-tech methods to monitor forests, and skills among the local community may vary. The authors call for the development of, and better training in, simple, standardized monitoring methods that can be deployed across the world's forest nations.

Non-carbon benefits

Nepal's Khanal told IRIN that the study has "concentrated on monitoring... carbon-stock related activities and given less emphasis on... non-carbon benefits under the REDD+ programme".

Non-carbon benefits include biodiversity preservation and livelihoods, such as fruit tree cultivation, the collection of medicinal plants and even sustainable harvesting of wildlife meat.

But Danielsen told IRIN, via email, that in the upcoming talks in Warsaw, "countries should agree on a core set of criteria for recognition of non-carbon benefits".

Reeve added, "It must also be made crystal clear in Warsaw that countries cannot access REDD+ finance ("results-based finance") unless they have provided reliable evidence through regular formal reports to the UNFCCC that safeguards are being complied with."

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]

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