(Deforestation in Laos – photo credit MongaBay.com, http://news.mongabay.com/2009/1201-consumption.html)
If you have not heard of REDD+ yet, you may be out of the international conservation biology loop. With carbon dioxide emissions, global climate change, and overall environment degradation becoming more and more urgent and public issues, the U.N. recently proposed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). This proposal looks into the reduction of emissions stemming from sources other than the big, stereotypical polluting factories. It instead looks to alleviate the impact of forest degradation. While this is not the “emissions” definition we may be used to, the importance is logical – as forests are destroyed, we lose major sinks of the carbon that is being emitted – and this previously sequestered carbon is emitted right back into the atmosphere through combustion and decomposition. REDD+ reaches out to third world countries in particular by offering incentives for the reforestation of cleared lands and the restoration of degraded forests, turning lands being cleared into potential revenue-generating carbon sinks.
But REDD+ has been the source of much controversy in recent months. In “The political economy of reforestation and forest restoration in Asia–Pacific: Critical issues for REDD+,” a scientific journal article in Biological Conservation, Christopher M. Barr and Jeffrey A. Sayer argue that although REDD+ offers many potential benefits to these developing nations, certain aspects of the proposal need some serious revision to prevent increased economic disparity, political turmoil, and biodiversity loss. Barr and Sayer specifically reference the Asia-Pacific region and difficulties it has had in the past with such reforestation programs (often government enacted). According to the two researchers, governments in the region have failed to properly implement such programs in the past.
Although the governments have often began these programs themselves citing noble objectives such as watershed protection, soil conservation, poverty alleviation, and forest sustainability, their implementations have not achieved these goals. Many governments have used the programs as facades to cover up their consolidation of land. Under the pretense of reclaiming country lands to restore their forests, various governments in Asia, such as Indonesia and Laos PDR, have taken vast tracts of land under government control. These “political forests” have been used to extend territorial reach and control and depress rural communities.
In addition, the governments have used their control over the forests for other political motivations. When the governments control the forest lands, they can do whatever they want with them. Often forest lands are packaged under the legal protections of commercial plantation licenses and capital subsidies to the wealthy and key political figures. In this way, the elite are benefitting from the forest programs originally intended to help the poor and the ruling party is solidifying its support by bribing political figures and institutions to support them. They also gain a stake in many of the political bodies involved in the areas.
Other issues have stemmed from poor government regulation of the laws regarding the forests. Fraud and corruption have become prevalent in the regulation of the protected forests, as political officials are bribed by companies to give them specific licenses or to turn a blind eye to timber harvests. Furthermore, laws that allow companies to completely clear-cut already-degraded forests for commercial use have encouraged them to degrade forests beyond what they legally can to tap into the commercial value of the plots. With little legal regulation, it is easy for the companies to get away this.
Perhaps the most disturbing issues with past reforestation programs have been the impacts on rural communities, which were originally told that these programs would benefit them economically. In addition to the constant land disputes with governments and plantations (some of hich have led to eviction), rural communities have also been incurred through legal contracts with companies and government institutions. Developers have used economic tactics to tip the scales in favor of themselves in land-use agreements with rural communities and farmers, often resulting in indebtedness on the famers’ parts.
But Barr and Sayer do believe there is hope for the REDD+ initiative, despite the dreadful history such programs have previously had in the region due to political and economic interests of big players. They state that these problems can be avoided through smart governance. They propose that REDD+ should include “rights-based spatial planning,” which protects the political rights of the small, rural communities, allowing them to adequately defend themselves from other interests. They also propose the provisions should ensure that financial benefits be equal across the regional spectrum – safeguards must exist to ensure that big companies cannot absorb all of the money. Barr and Sayer finally state that financial governance must be increased to ensure that fraud and corruption are controlled, that small stakeholders also benefit appropriately, and that assessments be periodically performed to ensure continuity of fairness.
But despite all of these past issues and their proposed changes, Barr and Sayer still remain optimistic for the REDD+ initiative and the benefits it poses. “We view the potential for REDD+ to facilitate investments in forestry assets to be of considerable value, but only if the governance problems that have led to poor performance of past efforts can be addressed effectively.”
Christopher M. Barr, Jeffrey A. Sayer, The political economy of reforestation and forest restoration in Asia–Pacific: Critical issues for REDD+, Biological Conservation, Volume 154, October 2012, Pages 9-19, ISSN 0006-3207, 10.1016/j.biocon.2012.03.020. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320712001632)