Left on REDD: International conservation policies fail to respond to local context

Feature Image Source: UNDP Uganda 2015

Reference: Dawson, N. M., Mason, M., Mwayafu, D. M., Dhungana, H., Satyal, P., Fisher, J. A., Zeitouna, M. & Schroeder, H. 2018. Barriers to equity in REDD+: Deficiencies in national interpretation processes constrain adaptation to context. Environmental Science & Policy, 88, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2018.06.009

Montreal, 2005

In late November 2005, over 10,000 delegates, scientists, and political officials packed into hotels throughout Montreal. They came for different reasons, speaking different languages, and traveling from nearly 200 different countries. Together, they formed COP11- the largest climate conference since adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

On the agenda for the meeting were a number of points on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Participants hoped to develop a system to keep countries accountable for their commitments to emission reduction, and to clarify exactly what those commitments are for each country.

Participants in COP 11
COP11, November 30, 2005. Source: Linkages
The Proposal
The representative from Papua New Guinea to COP11
Papua New Guinea introduced a proposal to combat deforestation in developing countries. Source: Linkages

With the support of several countries in Latin America and Africa, the governments of Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica submitted a proposal for one additional agenda item. They argued that the committee should address ways of helping developing countries reduce deforestation.

Deforestation happens when forests are destroyed faster than they can naturally regenerate. For an excellent description of the importance of deforestation and its meaning within the context of REDD+, check out this recent envirobites post. While deforestation is devastating worldwide, it has especially critical human effects in developing nations. According to the World Bank, 90% of the 1.2 billion people that live in abject poverty depend upon forest resources.

Forests also store carbon, so when forests are destroyed through development and agriculture, this leads to greater overall greenhouse gas emissions. As Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica state in their proposal to the committee, it’s important to address emissions from deforestation in order to combat climate change: “Time is of the essence.”


In the end, Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica’s proposal was accepted as an agenda item and was overwhelmingly well-received by the committee. Their discussion helped create an international program called REDD+ that provides financial support to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. Today, approximately 70 countries are creating plans for REDD+, and many have begun implementation.

Cut trees lying on the ground.
Deforestation causes increased greenhouse gas emissions. Source: Carbon Brief

However, while the aims of REDD+ are simple and admirable, implementation has not been as easy. According to a recent article in the journal of Environmental Science & Policy, the process of interpreting international conservation strategies within local or national contexts has led to a lack of equity among stakeholders such as indigenous peoples, conservationists, and government.

How did researchers come to this conclusion? Simply: they talked to people. Specifically, the team surveyed “intermediaries” in Nepal and Uganda through a series of a series of workshops and interviews. Intermediaries are local or national participants in REDD+ programs that represent the interests of various groups of stakeholders, and they are a critical link between international policies and local change. Both Nepal and Uganda have experienced severe deforestation and have been involved in REDD+ planning for the past eight years. Both countries are now transitioning to the implementation of REDD+ programs, making this research especially relevant today.

Evident Concerns

Through their interviews and workshops, researchers identified several international factors that limit equity for local stakeholders, as well as a set of national concerns with the same consequence.

On an international level, participants expressed concern about the strict, centralized international approach and lack of flexibility for national interpretation. Likewise, international regulations have led to what some participants described as a “tick box approach.”  Officials that simply complete the requirements for REDD+ may not foster the trust required for the program to be successful. As one participant stated:

It’s a big risk, that if you take that tick-tick approach the people doing the consulting don’t even actually believe what they are doing is enough, the locals don’t believe, the trust isn’t developed. So when the officials agree to the project with communities then you go back after 10 or 15 years and see the forest has been burnt down.

On a national level, decisions based on short-term political goals can lead to corruption and weak or inconsistent enforcement. Lack of effective coordination within governmental organizations can undermine conservation efforts, and lack of a productive space for criticism of REDD+ fosters national resentment.

These effects are especially significant for indigenous communities that may be excluded from the forest due to conservation policies. As one respondent stated:

when your identity gets lost, you have no dignity. When we are not allowed to enter the forest, then our knowledge, skills and practices are refrained from getting handed over to the next generation and knowledge is lost forever. These are some of the key issues and agendas we have been raising because conservation and protection is for every human being.

Moving Forward

This study uncovered significant concerns related to REDD+ in Uganda and Nepal. However, these criticisms should not be seen as a statement against the idea of REDD+ in general. By addressing these concerns, REDD+ will continue to develop into a strong, well-supported program with significant contributions to the preservation of biodiversity and emissions reduction in nations around the world. As a final participant noted “we all have a common interest in keeping trees. The question is how? And for that we need to recognize the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples.”

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Abigail Lewis

I am a Ph.D. student studying freshwater ecology and biogeochemistry at Virginia Tech. Whenever possible, I enjoy thinking and writing about the role of science in society, including community-based science, science communication, and science for the public good. In between rehearsals, hikes, and long dinners I am working to build a career that will address environmental issues and build a more inclusive scientific community. Twitter: @lewis_lakes

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