A compensation mechanism could provide countries with incentives to stop their deforestation and thus reduce emissions. However, this relatively simple economic solution remains controversial.
In December of 2015, at COP 21 in Paris, the parties of UNFCCC are expected to sign a new legally binding international agreement. One of the items of the agenda is the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of carbon forest stocks (REDD+).
The international REDD debate
The essential concept behind REDD is to create financial incentives that rewards countries, landowners, and communities for keeping forests standing. This concept is defended by a range of international environmentalist organizations such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Amazon Conservation Association, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), WWF, International Conservancy, and most developing countries that have forests and see the REDD projects as an opportunity to avoid deforestation and create a compensation payments for the proven reduction of CO2 emissions caused by deforestation.
The first time a proposal regarding reducing emissions from deforestation appeared in the agenda of the climate change negotiations was when Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica made a submission on this item during COP 11 in Montreal, in December 2005. The proposal of “Reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries and approaches to stimulate action” was to develop an international mechanism to enable a developing country to establish a national baseline to convert a rate of deforestation into carbon emissions and negotiate a voluntary commitment while receiving financial support to keep the forests protected. Two years later, at COP 13 Bali, the mechanism of reduced emissions started to be negotiated. In 2013, at COP 19, a Warsaw Framework for REDD+ was approved.
There are currently several different arguments for and against REDD being made by civil society organizations and social movements, academy, international organizations and governments. These arguments polarize the debate on the function of forest conservation to face the climate crisis. Many of these conflicting positions are based on the difference of acceptance of the market oriented mechanisms in the climate change mitigation.
The following contains three of the most used points by the above cited actors and their arguments that support or undermine it.
Point 1: Are REDD projects a cost-effective climate change mitigation strategy?
This point was presented in a worldwide famous report called The Economics of Climate Change, in 2006, by Nicholas Stern, also in numerous publications and reports made by international conservationist nongovernmental organizations. The arguments in favor notice REDD projects as an opportunity due to the low costs of protecting forests compared to the costs of reducing emissions in sectors such as energy. Also some developing countries have already institutional capacity and ongoing policies to avoid deforestation, so the projects will not start from scratch.
The arguments against it say that REDD could be very ineffective because it fails to address the real drivers of deforestation and could become quite expensive since it requires a lot of investment in capacity building, implementation, monitoring, report and verification systems (MRV). Several pilot projects have experienced serious methodological difficulties related to lack of baselines and reduced accounting, and foremost, REDD has shifted the debate at the climate Convention taking out the focus of the major emissions from burning fossil fuels by industrialized countries which must not be absolved of their domestic responsibilities to cut CO2 emissions.
Point 2: Can REDD provide positive incentives to combat deforestation, especially through carbon markets?
Those promoting REDD see it as a mean to offer positive incentives as a new way of curbing deforestation and avoid CO2 emissions through paying for actions that prevent forest loss or degradation, including carbon trade and offsetting, payment for forest management and for environmental services. Critics argue that REDD can provide perverse incentives like encouraging the growth of tree plantations as “forest” and can also create risks where protecting forest in one project area would simply displace deforestation elsewhere.
Other arguments against say that REDD financed by carbon markets and offsetting is a false solution to the climate crises due to those causing the problem will continue doing nothing to reduce their emissions and can buy credits of avoided emissions from another country that protects its forests.
Point 3: REDD will have positive social environmental effects, especially for indigenous peoples and traditional communities
On the one hand, the defense states that REDD offers the best opportunity to provide social co-benefits for indigenous peoples and traditional communities, such as improved community empowerment and organization, promotion of forest and rural livelihoods, and create access to credit and sustainable land use alternatives. Likewise, REDD provides ecological benefits while conserving water resources, soil and biodiversity. On the other hand, critics argue that REDD is being imposed from outside with little regard to the rights of indigenous communities, including free, prior, and informed consent for such projects. They affirm that those who are facing REDD pilot projects suffer tremendous impacts of their way of life, due to when the projects arrive in the communities it changes the traditional way of cultivation and transforms the identity of the indigenous, peasants and traditional peoples when they started to be identified as a provider of environmental service.
Indeed, there are concerns on the negative impacts REDD payments might have on forest peoples, primarily through further weakening of their land and resource rights. Finally, the critics suggest that these social groups have had a marginal presence in the international climate conferences and their voice, analysis of the causes of deforestation and ancestral experiences of how to protect and restore forests and its ecosystems are ignored.
Thus, the international debate shows that a relatively simple economic solution to face the climate crisis – paying to keep forests standing – is much more complex than it appears at first glance and it remains very controversial. All the arguments against REDD illustrate that reducing emissions is inseparable from the highly complex social, economic and ecological realities of forests, traditional and indigenous peoples and their territories.
The REDD and forests in Brazil: a vastly complex and controversial debate
Brazil is one of the crucial players in international climate policy and its process of implementation of REDD projects aise well advanced. In the last seven years Brazil has started REDD pilot projects in different states of the country, with more concentration in the Amazon biome. Furthermore, the country has approved policies that aimed at reducing deforestation as an Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Amazon and Cerrado biomes and the National Policy on Climate Change.
Although this vital effort to face deforestation can be illustrated by the reduction of 70 percent in deforestation rates comparing 2013 data and the average among 1996 to 2005, Brazil goes in the inverse direction with the approval of the Forest Code revised in 2012. The forest law was highly questioned for a wide group of civil society organizations and social movements that rejected the proposals with the main argument that the new law would legalize deforestation.
This argument was proven last October when Brazil presented its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) for COP 21 and within the domestic measures proposed to implement the targets where forestry appears as an imperative sector. The forest measures are completely intertwined with the Brazilian Forest Code. The government inaugurated a new official terminology that is "illegal deforestation”. When the iNDC’s document says that Brazil will reach zero illegal deforestation by 2030 it is actually saying that there is a deforestation which is legal.
In this sense, Brazil legalizes various forms of deforestation. For example - if you have a property in the Amazon biome that by law can only be deforested by 20 percent and the rest has to be a legal reserve, you do not necessarily need to stop deforestation at 20 percent since it is possible to buy bonds of legal reserves placed on other properties located within its fiscal rural module. All this goes via environmental asset exchanges such as Bolsa de Ativos Ambientais of Rio de Janeiro. A financial instrument was created called Environmental Reserve Quota (CRA –Cota de Reserva Ambiental) which is a bond that represents x percent of legal reserves within a property that was deforested less than it could be by law.
The majority of REDD mechanism, or other reduction deforestation projects, are financed by the federal government. Part of this funding comes from bilateral agreements such as the ones that support the Amazon Fund – a fund managed by BNDES (Brazilian Development Bank) to support domestic projects to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as for the conservation and sustainable use of forests in the Amazon Biome. The Amazon Fund received donations from Norway (USD 1 billion), Germany (USD 28 million) and from other international foundations. Currently, the Amazon Fund approved 75 grants which include REDD programs and a number of environmental justice projects. One such environmental justice projects is the Dema Fund linked to agro-forestry and agro-ecological production, ensuring preservation of the Amazon with the enhancement and strengthening of forest peoples (indigenous peoples, quilombolas, rubber tappers, river-welling farmers, small farmers, among other traditional communities).
In the case of subnational projects, they are being financed by several sources since carbon market, private foundations, and other kinds of private financial institutions are purchasing emission reductions or investing in the REDD implementation phase. Brazil also became a pilot country under the Forest Investment Program (FIP) of the World Bank.
The Forest Code also approved the first regulation for environmental services payment – to which REDD belongs to, in the national environmental legislation. At the subnational level, many Brazilian state governments are designing their own institutional and legal frameworks for REDD. The states of Amazon and Acre approved laws that provides incentives for environmental services with strong focus on REDD subnational programs and projects.
Despite the accelerating process of the implementation phase of REDD in Brazil, there are many concerns expressed by some civil society organizations and social movements joined in articulations, such as the Belem Letter Group. These groups argue that historical demands and proposals of forest peoples for public policies to support their livelihoods are now being changed into market mechanisms with REDD instead of putting strength in supporting more projects that prioritize the environmental and climate justice such as Dema Fund.
To illustrate the concerns that exists, the box below presents a short case of REDD in Acre, published by World Rainforest Movement, in 2013.
Created in 2012, Purus Project was the first private REDD project to be implemented in the state of Acre located in the southwest of the Brazilian Amazon region. In its Project Design Document, the Purus Project is presented as a REDD initiative aimed at mitigating deforestation pressures on 34,702 hectares of forested land in the municipality of Manoel Urbano, located roughly 200 km from the city of Rio Branco, the capital of Acre. According to the document, the “overarching objective” of the Purus Project is to “generate sustainable economic opportunities for the local communities” and to “implement social projects”, while mitigating deforestation and preserving biodiversity in the project area.
This so-called “pressure” on the forest – resulting from subsistence agriculture and small-scale livestock grazing, viewed by the project proponents as unsustainable practices – is the reason for which the 18 families living in the project area (roughly 100 people) are classified as “deforestation agents”. It should be stressed that the construction of this narrative of culpability is essential to grant legitimacy to a conservation project whose creation could only be justified by the existence of an actual threat to the forest.
Despite the apparent willingness to “allow” the current occupants to continue living in the area, the restrictions that they attempted to impose on the traditional practices of the community gave rise to a confrontation that has yet to be resolved between the occupants of the land and the company owners.
In areas where projects attempt to interfere with the way of life of local communities, what is needed is a greater presence of public institutions, to guarantee their rights and the provision of basic services like health and education. Despite the most convincing efforts of the complex alliances built by NGOs, governments and corporations to create the impression of the existence of external control over these projects implemented within the borders of the Amazon, they are no substitute for the capacity of public institutions responsible for preventing the violation of rights and the exacerbation of land conflicts.
The experience of the Purus Project demonstrates this. Although various control mechanisms have been created within the framework of Acre's State System of Incentives for Environmental Services (SISA), the most basic measures have not been adopted: the community was not informed of its rights and did not receive appropriate legal assistance. Based on this and other examples, it is clear that REDD projects deepen existing problems in the region and create new difficulties in the struggle of traditional communities to remain in their territories. And this situation is even further aggravated by the current context of political retrogression in the struggles for agrarian reform and the demarcation of indigenous lands in Brazil.
This article is part of our dossier on the climate summit in Paris (COP21).
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CIFOR. The Amazon Initiative Policy Brief series. No.02, December 2010.
FOEI. The great REDD gamble. Amsterdam: 2014.
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STERN, N. The Economics of Climate Change. Cambridge University Press: 2007. p. 585-594.
The REDD desk. Brazil. An overview from the REDD Countries Database. May 2011.
UNFCCC. Methodological guidance for activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (…). 2015.
WRM. Observations on a private REDD project in Acre. 2013.
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