Why REDD+ needs local communities, not the other way around

A commentary by Regan Suzuki, program officer at RECOFTC

Focusing on isolated islands of community forestry as entry points for REDD+ is not the answer. But we need to beware throwing the baby out with the bath water. Rather than dismissing community forestry due to legitimate concerns of leakagethe answer is to look for ecologically acceptable strategies that meet the multiple, and sometimes competing, needs of local stakeholders.  RECOFTC calls for an acceleration of the devolution of management rights of land and natural resources to local communities.

The recent series of Go-REDD articles for discussion by UN-REDD Asia Pacific on the topic of community forestry: REDD+ and Community Forestry, revisited (October)”  and particularly, “Pondering the Role of Community Forestry in REDD+ (September),” raise a number of legitimate challenges associated with the design and implementation of REDD+ in community forestry sites.

Serious discussions of the overlapping frameworks for community forestry and REDD+ are timely. As the Bluffstone et al. article referred to in the September Go-REDD article points out, the extent of collective forest management has more than doubled in the preceding 15 years (granted, the starting point for area under recognized community title is low). In addition to its expanding role as a recognized forest management approach, community forestry is being seriously considered as a potential modality for the implementation of REDD+ projects and activities. UN-REDD notes this both in the October Go-REDD article, as well as in its policy brief on benefit sharing approaches for REDD+ which presents Participatory Forest Management (including Community Forest Management) as one of three likely approaches for REDD+ along with Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) and Forest Concession Management. While there is much to recommend community forestry as a suitable approach to REDD+, there is a thicket of difficult issues that surround the marrying of these objectives. Not least, are the arguments mounted on either side of REDD+ debates, either that REDD+ has the potential to strengthen the equity claimed by community forestry, or conversely, to tip the delicate balance away from the rights and interests of local communities.

There are several important omissions, however, that warrant discussion. First, is a clear understanding of what is meant by ‘community forestry.’ In its very first sentence the September Go-REDD article refers to forests under the management of communities and individual households, the subsequent sentence inferring that these are the constituents of community forestry. This is not interchangeable with the definition of Community Controlled Forests (CCF) used in the Bluffstone et al article, which refers to it as a specific form of common property management – an intermediary between public and private forest tenure rights. Nor does it reflect the ‘small c’ community forestry as described in RECOFTC’s strategic plan, which takes a broader view referring to a large range of local management options of forests including: “all aspects, initiatives, sciences, policies, institutions, and processes that are intended to increase the role of local people in governing and managing forest resources.” This ranges from management of sacred sites to small-scale forest-based enterprises, forestry outgrower schemes and company-community partnerships. Community forestry, in its more contemporary, flexible interpretation, encompasses the multitude of sustainable interactions local communities have at the interface with forest landscapes.

Associated with the concerns of fair compensation of local communities raised by the Go-REDD article, are higher-level questions of equity on national and international scales. Legitimate concerns continue to be voiced by civil society and others that REDD+ and even community forestry in some state-controlled contexts, pose restrictions on forest use that in combination with community level labor inputs and foregone opportunity costs, far outweigh benefits attained and rather instrumentally serve state agendas. REDD+ risks bolstering such agendas and offloading to local communities the burden of meeting national conservation goals, sweetened with prospective incentives, under a cloak of ‘empowerment’. Certainly, this is not the case in community forestry contexts broadly where genuine rights and benefits such as those pointed to in the October Go-REDD blog, are well documented., However the restrictions imposed by REDD+ on forest exploitation may be a move in the direction of meeting national and international conservation and mitigation objectives at the cost of real rights at local levels. To take this point on macro level equity further, carbon offsetting to allow continued emissions and energy inefficient development trajectories in developed countries may come directly at the expense of local communities in developing countries. Enhancing forests and afforesting for carbon sequestration goals requires higher consumption of water than other land uses, and where there may be growing threats of climate-related water and food security, these global mitigation goals may come into direct conflict with adaptation and the basic needs of local communities. As articulated in the joint RECOFTC – Global Alliance for Community Forestry submission to the UNFCCC in 2009, REDD+ can and must be additional to basic approaches of sustainable forest management (SFM) with decision-making and benefits devolved to local communities; not the reverse. This may be the most pragmatic ‘safeguard’ to ensuring both social and environmental objectives through REDD+.

The concluding statement in the September Go-REDD article is misleading: “This is not to say, that the idea of linking community forestry with REDD+ should be abandoned. Rather it means, that focusing on community forests while neglecting key drivers of deforestation and forest degradation may hinder the effectiveness of REDD+ activities. Nobody wants to see that happen.” The message could be misinterpreted to imply that community engagement is instrumental to the successful implementation of REDD+ activities. Rather we understand that the intended point is that targeting isolated community forestry sites as entry points for REDD+ miss the forest for the trees:  real and tangible reductions in forest-based emissions nationally depend on closing the leakage loop. Misguided focus on islands of community forestry will lead to leakage and displacement similar to what has been seen in Oddar Meanchey. RECOFTC’s position is that in order to avoid this, the answer is precisely to accelerate the handover of forest lands to local communities – whether it is for ‘big C’ community forestry or for decentralized management by smallholders. While this may lead to more production oriented forest management strategies in some cases and even forest conversion in others, the strengthened rights and livelihood options of local communities is vital to the long-term equitable and sustainable management of forests in the region.  Focusing on REDD+ while neglecting community (or local level) rights over forests may threaten the most vulnerable communities, and ultimately the global commons. This would be an outcome that nobody wants to see happen.

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