REDD in Brazil - Two case studies on early forest carbon offset projects

REDD in Brazil - Two case studies on early forest carbon offset projects

08. Jan. 2015 by Jutta Kill
Heinrich Boell Foundation
For free
Place of Publication: Rio de Janeiro
Date of Publication: December 2014
Number of Pages: 56
License: CC-BY 3.0
Language of Publication: English

In many places where forest carbon projects are implemented, traditional forest use has been blamed for forest loss while the drivers of large-scale deforestation remain unaddressed – and deforestation and the emissions associated with it continue.

This article explores some of the controversies that arise when conservation groups or specialist companies, often supported by international agencies like the World Bank, arrive with their forest carbon pilot initiatives. Two early forest carbon offset projects in Brazil, the Guaraqueçaba Climate Action Project in the coastal Mata Atlntica biome of Paraná and the Monte Pascoal – Pau-Brasil Ecological Corridor: Carbon, Community and Biodiversity Initiative in the Mata Atlntica biome of the far south of Bahia left mainly broken promises.


Table of contents:

1 REDD in Brazil: an introdction
1.1 Forests in the UN climate talks
1.2 REDD in Brazil

2 Two case studies: Forgotten failures with consequences that still affect communities
2.1 The Guaraqueçaba Climate Action Project: “Suffering here to help them over there”
2.2 The Monte Pascoal-Pau Brasil Ecological Corridor: Carbon, Community and Biodiversity Initiative

3 Conclusion: What are the lessons from these two REDD failures?

Kevin Tremain

Project owner. ADPML
How can Redd work if there is no Carbon Price? It's no good world bank, Green Carbon fund investing in new Redd projects when all the one that are already validated and verified can not even survive. We can not afford to even start CCBA

Steve Zwick

Really? Are these what pass for "case studies" in today's Heinrich Böll Foundation? How can an organization named for a man who so eloquently exposed the evils of tabloid journalism publish a piece more worthy of his fictional villain Werner Tötges than of Böll himself?

First, out of more than 400 successful REDD projects, you zero in on two early PILOTS, which were designed to test new methods and see what works, what doesn't, and why. As a result, these two projects have been hashed and rehashed to death – and the lessons already incorporated into other projects. The Guaraqueçaba project, for example, dates back to the early 1990s – long before any sort of standards and practices were created – and Conservation International has always said that it should have engaged the local population better. That lesson has become core to projects implemented since – projects that are now protecting forested areas larger than the entire land mass of Malaysia and which employed 9,000 people in 2013 while pumping $41 million into education, health care, and infrastructure, according to the most recent State of Forest Carbon Markets report.

Instead of acknowledging CI’s willingness to take a critical look at itself so that we can all learn from its mistakes and replicate its successes, the Heinrich Böll Foundation (which apparently lacks the capacity for self-reflection that Heinrich Böll himself exhibited) chooses to ignore all of the benefits this project delivered and zoom in on (and exaggerate) the things it got wrong and then to make up a few more just for good measure by holding the project accountable for the global failure to reach a climate agreement or to support these pilot initiatives.

The other project you highlight tested methods for the then-emerging Climate, Community, and Biodiversity (CCB) standard, but only 17 hectares were part of that effort. Based on what you write, there may have been some valuable lessons in that one in terms of assessing additionality, but that never gets explored in a way that could have any value for the rest of us (although, based on my familiarity with other content in this work, I suspect it has been explored properly elsewhere).

Beyond the two projects, the general section that "explains" REDD simply offers a laundry list of biases and misconceptions that may have had some validity a decade ago, when REDD was evolving, but that have no bearing on the way REDD works in today's reality.

The opening sentence, for example, tell us that “traditional forest use has been blamed for forest loss while the drivers of large-scale deforestation remain unaddressed”, which completely – and intentionally – mischaracterizes the way REDD finance works. Later, you tell us that “almost all REDD projects restrict community access to land that forest peoples traditionally use,” which is a flat-out distortion. In reality, almost all REDD projects work by supporting traditional forest practices or providing a bulwark against illegal conversion of forests to agriculture. The simple fact is that more and more indigenous people are developing REDD projects on their own or exploring the possibility of doing so, and while you can surely find a few disgruntled members of these communities who oppose the projects, that just reflects the fact that no community ever has unanimity on anything.

Then, when you start to "explain" carbon accounting, you do so in a way that is misleading at best. You offer, for example, a long rant about the fact that trees don’t last thousands of years (rehashing one side of the old permanence debate), but you ignore the fact that projects only extend a few decades into the future and that ecosystems do last thousands of years.

Mostly, however you just state things in ways that are either completely wrong or at best far from being right. You tell us, for example, that project developers simply have to “tell a story” about their forest to earn carbon offsets, ignoring the rigorous modeling that underlies those “stories” and the equally rigorous process of peer-review that those “stories” have to go through to earn validation. (A bit of peer review, by the way, would have saved you the embarrassment of putting Heinrich Böll’s name on such a deceptive work.) You rightly point out that projects alone can’t fix all of our problems, but you ignore the fact that they’re not intended to: REDD projects provide a vehicle for getting conservation finance into the most vulnerable and ecologically important parts of the world’s forests, and to do so NOW rather than ten years from now, but they’re just one of many tools being deployed successfully – even as the larger climate-protection effort has failed.

REDD projects, for example, dovetail with and inform emerging jurisdictional efforts that are only now beginning to take shape, and those jurisdictional efforts dovetail with programs that bring transparency to global supply chains – because REDD finance is being used to jump-start those programs.

Is REDD perfect? No, but the decades of experimentation that you so deceptively ridicule have saved more forested land and helped more forest people than traditional environmentalism ever did.

On the flip side, REDD has only succeeded because traditional, pressure-based environmentalism created an impetus for companies to take action, and therein lies the rub. All of these efforts work together, yet a small but vocal and ideologically-driven contingent of the old guard environmental movement not only refuses to give these tools a chance, but to sabotage them with lies, half-truths, and innuendo.

These are the tools the unscrupulous reporter Werner Tötges uses to destroy the innocent Katharina Blum in Heinrich Böll’s most famous novel. Yes, they're embedded in a pseudo-academic paper and bear the imprint of one of the 20th Century's greatest and most courageous thinkers, but that only makes this farce more disturbing and destructive.

We need to examine REDD critically if it's to deliver on its social and environmental promise, but this isn't a critical examination. It's a hatchet job.

PS: The views expressed here are mine and mine alone, and do not necessarily represent those of Forest Trends or Ecosystem Marketplace.

Heinrich Böll F...

Dear Steve Zwick,

as the person responsible for the publication I would like to respond to your commentary with the following clarifications, and I am confident you will consider them even when I refrain from polemics or ill-chosen references to Heinrich Böll.

Certainly, REDD is a very controversially discussed topic with opinions ranging across a wide spectrum. But beyond widely diverging views and dispute over what is fact and what fiction, or over what the correct figures are - REDD is affecting the lives of many people in those places where the idea of REDD meets reality, in the REDD project areas. The intention of the report 'REDD in Brazil - Two case studies on early forest carbon offset projects' was to assess what happens in those places where the concept has been meeting reality for a while, where 'the honeymoon is over', as the renowned research center CIFOR recently described its findings from an extensive research programme on REDD.

Few REDD projects in Brazil meet that condition better than the two projects featured in the report. They were chosen precisely because they have been in operation for a long time. They were under media and NGO scrutiny early on in project implementation and the shortcomings had been documented and to some extent even acknowledged by those responsible for the projects. We wanted to know how these early insights were applied in the ongoing operation of the actual projects from which those insights had been gained, rather than following the crowd to the next generation of REDD projects.

The field work and interviews with residents on which Jutta Kill’s excellent case study report is based showed that for the people who live in the project areas, learning of lessons that might have happened in the offices of the international conservation organisations has (still) not resolved long-standing conflicts between residents and the project operators. Ample time had passed since the initial 'rush to get things going' – and we were curious what had happened in the meantime. We were curious to hear from residents whether they felt that the concerns they had raised early on had been heard and addressed; curious to take a look at what happens in those places that once were in the REDD spotlight. What the field work clearly showed was that many of the problems that had been identified early on, remained. And that most of the employment opportunities that had once been offered had long gone. That is the view of residents still affected by those early REDD projects which continue to be in operation. We are confident the field work was sufficiently wide to ensure that the local impressions presented in the report are not just reflecting the views of 'the odd disgruntled resident who has an axe to grind with the project'.

Please also note that the conservation NGO involved in these projects is The Nature Conservancy (TNC), not Conservation International (CI), as you claim in your response above.

Dr. Dawid Bartelt, Director Brazil Office, Heinrich Böll Foundation

Larry Lohmann

Steve Zwick's extraordinary claim that there exist 400 “successful” REDD projects should not be allowed to pass unchallenged.

First, by definition, all REDD projects, by lumping together emissions from fossil fuels with biotic emissions, discourage the project of keeping fossil fuels in the ground – the sine qua non of effective climate action. From the technical perspective of climate change mitigation, therefore, none of Zwick's 400 REDD projects, without exception, could ever be made to be “successful”.

But perhaps Zwick has in mind some criterion of success other than climatic effectiveness. Could it be REDD's capacity to offer employment? Apparently not, since according to Zwick himself, REDD projects have provided, on the territory they occupy, no more than one job per 36 square kilometres of land. This is less than a fifth of the population density of Greenland. (Calculated from Zwick's estimate that REDD projects now “protect forested areas larger than the entire land mass of Malaysia” – 329,847 square kilometres – together with the figure of 9,000 jobs.)

It may be that Zwick has let himself be carried away by his hopes for REDD's territorial expansion, since his source for his figures – Ecosystem Marketplace's State of the Forest Carbon Markets Report – says that "avoided deforestation projects” cover only “20 million hectares, about the size of the forest area of Malaysia" – not of Malaysia's “entire land mass” (p. 42). (Nor does the report mention 400 REDD projects; rather, it cites 418 “forest carbon and land-use project developers” – not the same thing – and does not use the adjective “successful”.) But this amendment isn't of much use to defenders of REDD's employment record, since it only bumps up REDD's jobs-per-land-area figure to approximately one-third of the population density of Greenland.

It is also clear that Zwick does not understand the additionality issue, insofar as he imagines that “rigorous modeling” and “peer review” will someday provide us with a way not only of doing verifiable counterfactual history, but of quantifying the forest-relevant actions that would have taken place in that counterfactual history.

If REDD projects are harmful both to the climate and to livelihood, then, and if, as Heinrich Boll Foundation's carefully-written report demonstrates, face insuperable quantification obstacles and have a record of not correcting those failures that they might conceivably have been able to correct, where does Zwick's claim of “success” come from? It will not do to fall back on the position that at least REDD has pumped some money into “conservation”. What happens when this kind of “conservation” is attempted is precisely one of the questions at issue.

Steve Zwick

In response to Larry Lohman

You raise some good points, and you articulate what I suspect to be the Böll Stiftung's real motives more honestly than they do in your second paragraph, where you tell us that we can’t deem any REDD project “successful” because fossil-fuel emissions are different from biotic emissions.

In that paragraph, you touched on what I see as an ILLUSORY philosophical divide, as I’ll explain shortly.

You also point out that I got the number of projects wrong, which I did. You say that my statement shouldn’t go unchallenged, and you’re right. You challenged it, and if I’d shown it to my team before posting, they’d have challenged it, too. It was an error, and I stand corrected.

My point, however, wasn’t that 400 (or 200) REDD projects exist around the world. It was that plenty of projects exist, yet “critics” of REDD repeatedly attack either phantom projects that never even got close to coming into existence (see, failed projects that started but never issued credits (see or pilot projects like the ones the Böll Stiftung pilloried here.

There have been a few attempts to torpedo verified projects, but these efforts have simply discredited any critiques of REDD, which is also counterproductive – because we need legitimate inquiry. (In fact, I’d rather be engaged in legitimate inquiry than spend my time posting rebuttals to distortive take-downs like this one:

I don’t think REDD is perfect, and I don’t think the verification and validation bodies are perfect, either. But they have provided a wealth of information in the form of project design documents and validation reports that can be harvested to bring transparency and clarity to this process – yet time and again I’ve seen REDD opponents cherry-pick these documents to reinforce their own preconceptions rather than foster an understanding of how this mechanism works.

Why do they do this?

Perhaps the answer lies in your comment, where you tell us that no REDD project can ever be successful because REDD doesn’t directly reduce the use of fossil fuels.

I understand that argument, and the authors of this report have made that argument as well. But THAT’S NOT THE ARGUMENT THEY ARE TRYING TO MAKE HERE. Instead of honestly stating their philosophical problem with REDD, as you quite honestly do (and as they have done elsewhere), they’re trying to say the mechanism doesn’t even slow deforestation, or that it harms indigenous people. And they’re bolstering that argument with cherry-picked findings from two pilot projects – pilots that, by definition, were testing new methods to find out what works and what doesn’t.

This is no different from the climate-science deniers who fixate on the unusually warm 1998 to say the planet isn’t warming. It’s confirmation bias. It’s cherry-picking. It’s wrong!

We all do it, and I may have been a bit guilty when I said talked about all these “successful” projects out there. I obviously haven’t looked at every REDD project on the planet to see if they fit this criteria. I can’t really say they’re all “successful”, but I can say that every REDD project I’ve looked at that has been verified and validated under recognized standards has stood up incredibly well.

I do, however, have a definition of what constitutes success: I’d say a successful REDD project is one that delivers the benefits it was paid to deliver – or, at least, took actions that will generate benefits if replicated often enough (some will generate more and some will generate less, for random reasons, and witch-hunters will use those that deliver less to vilify those that deliver more – which is silly).

I can also say that, even taking my error into account, forest-carbon efforts – REDD or otherwise – have conserved massive amounts of forest. They have, in other words, achieved a pattern of success that no other conservation efforts can match. You seem to concede this success, but then you dismiss it because you believe the money is somehow being spent to hurt rural people, and you use this report to bolster that claim – which really just comes from your basic premise that no REDD project can ever be successful.

Philosophical differences are fine, and biases are human nature. It’s not, however, fine to support those differences and biases with cherry-picked, outdated information. That’s like dismissing relativity because Einstein couldn’t read his birth certificate on the day he was born.

The question, to me, is: Why do REDD critics insist on distorting REDD to criticize it, rather than looking at legitimate issues like leakage and additionality (not to mention their solutions)?

I suspect it comes back to an assumption that REDD will let industrial emitters off the hook – because that’s what we’re really worried about when we differentiate between fossil-fuel and biotic emissions.

After all, from a climate-change perspective, fossil-fuel emissions are NOT different from biotic emissions. They’re both killing us by warming the planet, right?

The problem is that there are a lot more fossil fuels in the ground than there can ever be trees on the surface of the planet, because fossil fuels have been accumulating for millions of years. Even if we covered every inch of the planet in trees, we won’t absorb all the gunk we’re pumping into the atmosphere. Anyone who says differently is lying to you, and we can’t let industrial emitters off the hook just because they save a clump of trees.

We agree on all of this, but here we are arguing.


It’s not because the mechanism itself doesn’t work, it’s because you’re worried it will be misused.

Think about that for a second.

It’s your opening premise re-stated: you are worried that REDD will be used to let industrial emitters off the hook, and as a result you can’t allow REDD to gain any semblance of credibility – because, in your mind, that’s a slippery slope to Armageddon.

I understand your concerns, but I have a different view. I’d argue that, to fix this climate mess, we have to reduce emissions from ALL sources – be they industrial or terrestrial (fossil-fuel or biotic), and we have to do it fast. That means we need all available tools.

This raises two questions: does the tool work, and is it being properly used.

You’re arguing that the tool will never be properly used, so it can never work. And IF THAT’S YOUR OPERATING PREMISE, THEN SUCCESS AS I DEFINE IT WILL BE INVISIBLE TO YOU.

And if that success is invisible to you, so is the current state of REDD – which is being used to revive indigenous land-use practices in the Brazilian state of Acre and will soon be deployed to support certification programs in support of sustainable agriculture.

To you, this success is irrelevant if REDD is used as a substitute for reductions in industrial emissions, because in the long-term, it can’t substitute for reductions in industrial emissions. Anyone who says it can is lying to you.

But in the short term – while the industrial ship is still turning – we can use REDD to save our forests, restructure our global rural economy, and help forest people adapt to the inevitable disruptions that climate-change will bring.

Here we may disagree – I see REDD as a stop-gap measure that we can employ quickly to reduce emissions as fast as possible – not as a substitute for industrial reductions, but as an addition. You worry it will be misused.

I want to know if it works as advertised, and you want to make sure it never does.

I suspect that’s the thinking behind the Böll report and others of its ilk – and the resulting witch-hunt has created a bunker mentality in the REDD community. While organizations like Conservation International used to openly discuss their pilots so we could all learn from their mistakes, today they’re all in defensive mode, worried about making any utterance that the critics will pounce upon to discredit their honest but inevitably flawed efforts to confront the climate crisis. I’ve succumbed to a bit of that as well – and find myself wasting valuable time in posts like this, defending a mechanism that we should all be looking at with honest but critical eyes.

It’s the same ugly atmosphere that climate-science deniers created in the scientific community, and it does none of us any good.

Response to Dawid Bartelt;

The problem with picking these two projects is that the lessons have been learned and incorporated into projects that have come since.

Jutta Kill

Steve Zwick's comments are on a report I wrote for the Heinrich Böll Foundation. What follows are my reflections on Steve Zwick's comments.

Steve Zwick labels the choice of projects documented in the report "cherry-picking" old projects that REDD promoters have long moved on from. First, the communities affected, unfortunately, have not been able to move on and continue being negatively affected by the projects. I believe they have a right to their continued grievances being documented and published. Second, the title and introduction of the report state quite clearly the objectives for documenting these particular two projects: we were interested in documenting how communities perceive 'old' offset projects. We wanted to hear whether they feel any lessons had been learned in relation to their actual situation or whether 'early mistakes' in project implementation that negatively affected them, had been corrected. The people living in the project areas, affected by or even involved in the projects, were very unequivocal in their interviews: people did not feel that lessons had been learned in regard to the particular project that affected their way of life.

Some 15 years of research, conversations with people directly involved in or affected by forest carbon projects and visits to a fair number of offset project locations have led me to conclude that the majority of REDD or forest carbon offset projects continue to cause the same kind of harm to communities than these two early pilot projects did - - and continue to do. The negative impacts described in particular by peasants affected by the Guaraqueçaba project (which I visited on several occasions over the years), are very similar to those I have encountered in visits to REDD projects that have started more recently. In 2013, I also visited three villages in Acre, Brazil affected by REDD offset projects there, and many grievances villagers expressed in conversations were very similar to those expressed by villagers in the Guaraqueçaba project areas ( ). Based on these experiences, I contest Steve Zwick's claim that "the lessons have been learned and incorporated into projects that have come since." If it indeed were the case that the lessons have been learned, I could go along with his accusation of "cherry-picking".

Reading through the posts, I am, however, convinced that no matter which projects I'd chosen, in Steve Zwick's view they would always have been the wrong projects, or the wrong people I went with, the wrong people I met, the wrong questions I asked, the wrong moment I chose to visit, the wrong set of glasses I was wearing to observe what was going on, the wrong conclusions I was drawing, a lack of interest in 'legitimate inquiry' on my part, etc. I suspect that one reason for this goes back to a different approach Steve Zwick takes to such enquiry: There seems to be an a-priori assumption that REDD is good and overall successful, and that any shortcomings encountered in concrete project implementation merely point to some 'implementation failure' or 'problem' that can be 'solved'. Whether looking out for possible patterns in the 'problems' that he might come across as part of his 'legitimate inquiry', I do not know. But it seems improbable that repeat occurrence of problems of the same type in any number of projects would be considered as indication of possible systemic failure of the mechanism. When others suggest as much based on their own examination, the accusation is of "cherry-picking" some 'old' REDD projects that the world has long moved on from. That is unfortunate.

Judging from the tone and content of his posts, Steve Zwick and I will not agree on whether REDD offset projects run into the problems they do because of systemic failure of the mechanism (beyond their being offsets, which is a systemic flaw as well) or 'solvable problems' arising from poor implementation. The choice of different projects would not have made a difference. The moment the report challenged the underlying assumptions that 'REDD offsets are good and successful, give or take a few minor problems that can be solved with the help of 'constructive' people', it would in all likelihood be considered "cherry-picking" with the purpose of "distortive take-down". I leave it to the readers of the reports to come to their own conclusions. More indication for systemic failure can also be found in this 'REDD: A collection of conflicts, contradictions and lies' ( ). The World Rainforest Movement is currently expanding the collection for a revised edition. I am certain that the collection will include projects Steve Zwick has on his list of successes - and that even if we were to visit a project at the same time we would see very different realities and draw very different conclusions from what we'd be observing.

As to Steve's point about the report "not honestly stating their philosophical problem with REDD": it was not the objective of that particular report to document that "no REDD project can ever be successful because REDD doesn’t directly reduce the use of fossil fuels". I fully share that position, and elsewhere I have written extensively about that set of contradictions that REDD projects - like any offset project - face ( So, yes, I do share that philosophical problem with REDD (and carbon offsets or other forms of offsets more broadly). And I further believe that the problems with REDD do not end with that "philosophical problem". Offsets also cause harm to communities - and that is what the report written for the hbs, in particular the documentation of the Guaraqueçaba project, shows.

That said, the report in fact does state in several places (the box titled 'The False and Perverse Logic of Carbon Offsets' on page 9 ff for example) that REDD offset projects are controversial also because they sell a license to pollute. It is just that that particular aspect of the controversies over REDD was not the main focus of this particular report.

One other problem with offsets that the report also did not explore and which Steve Zwick does do not mention in any of his posts here, is that there usually also is a community that is harmed by the offset at the other end of the trade - where a polluting company uses its right to pollute over and above a legal or moral limit - and the communities affected by that corporate activity suffer more as a result of the company use of the offset credit than they otherwise would have. Offsets thus are also inherently unjust from that perspective. This consequence to a community at the other end of the offset deal is something that very few communities who are persuaded to become engaged in REDD are informed about by those who present the REDD offer. I find that very dishonest practise where it happens, and wonder how withholding that sort of information can be reconciled with the principle of FPIC - free, prior and informed consent - that many REDD projects claim - and are 'independently certified' to adhere to.

This debate is also taking place on with additional participants, and is to be continued there, in accordance with the author and the editors of the publication.