Study Warns of Possible REDD+ Land Grab

A new report by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) found that REDD+, the UN program to reduce global carbon emissions, may be putting indigenous communities at risk, jeopardizing local land rights and laying the groundwork for large-scale “carbon grabs” by governments and private investors. Read more below to find out why this program may be disastrous for indigenous people.

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Rainforest in Borneo 

The UN program to reduce global carbon emissions may be putting indigenous communities at risk, jeopardizing local land rights and laying the groundwork for large-scale “carbon grabs” by governments and private investors, argues a new report

“As the carbon in living trees becomes another marketable commodity, the deck is loaded against forest peoples,” said Arvind Khare, executive director of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), which surveyed 23 low- and middle-income countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa together with the Ateneo School of Government in Manila, the Philippines. 

“Every other natural resource investment on the international stage has disenfranchised indigenous peoples and local communities, but we were hoping REDD would deliver a different outcome,” he added in a media release earlier this month

Khare was referring to the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) program, which aims to curb carbon emissions by paying developing countries to protect forests. 

The program reached an important milestone in November last year when delegates at the United Nations climate negotiations in Warsaw adopted a framework allowing REDD+ programs to move forward

However, despite years of readiness efforts and billions pledged to prepare countries for REDD+ investments, the question of who has the right to profit from forest carbon remains largely unanswered. 

Deforestation for oil palm plantations 

Of the 23 countries examined in the study, only two – Mexico and Guatemala – had passed laws clarifying tenure rights over carbon. None had established a complete legal framework to determine how REDD+ carbon would be traded, and none had laws on the books to govern how local communities could profit from forest carbon. 

“Their rights to their forests may be few and far between, but their rights to the carbon in the forests are non-existent,” Khare said. 

The REDD+ program has also done little so far to help secure tenure rights for forest communities, despite warnings from civil society groups that local land rights would be critical for REDD’s success, study authors said during a conference in Washington, DC on March 19. 

Tenure clarification is listed as an official part of the REDD+ strategy for 88 percent of the countries that have taken steps to implement REDD+ initiatives. However, RRI found that the rate at which forests have come under community control has slowed significantly since program was launched in 2008. 

During the first six years of the REDD+ program, the total forest area secured for community ownership was just 20 percent of the total area secured in the previous six years, according to RRI research

The new study, released during the March 19 conference, also criticized the international community for failing to put adequate safeguards in place to protect community rights under REDD+. 

In particular, researchers pointed to the World Bank’s Carbon Fund, which RRI explained is currently driving the process to define carbon rights. 

The World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) released its “methodological framework” in December, which provides guidelines for countries on designing and implementing REDD+ projects. These projects would then be eligible for financing through the FCPF’s $390 million Carbon Fund. 

But the Carbon Fund’s framework, RRI said, provides only a vague guideline on rights – saying that the rights to carbon, and the land where it is contained, “should be assessed to establish a basis for successful implementation of the emissions reduction program.” 

“It is clear that ownership rights and governance are still deeply contested over tangible resources, such as land, forest products, and the minerals under them,” RRI’s tenure analyst and one of the study’s lead researchers Alexandre Corriveau-Bourque said. 

“Adding a new layer—especially one as abstract as carbon—without clearly defined rights and established institutions to safeguard against abuses, drastically increases the risks for communities,” Bourque added. 

While the study warns of potential risks, it acknowledges that a REDD+ land grab is not a foregone conclusion. The study points out that some countries have seen success in including indigenous groups and local communities in conservation and natural resources development. 

Papuan man in Indonesian New Guinea.
Papuan man in Indonesian New Guinea. Photos by Rhett A. Butler. 

A similar cooperative approach in REDD+ could allow the program to help strengthen, rather than undermine, community rights. This would also lower the risk of future conflicts, making REDD+ projects more likely to succeed in the long run, according to the study. 

The study lays out steps governments can take to implement REDD+ in a way that will not lead to the dispossession of local communities. In particular, it stresses the importance of securing forest and carbon rights for local communities. 

“If communities are going to be included in and benefit from this effort to preserve the last remaining tropical forests, their rights to land, forest, and carbon need to be defined and protected,” Bourque said.