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Assessing REDD+: beyond carbon measurements

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Isilda Nhantumbo
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Assessing projects to reduce deforestation and forest degradation is not just about measuring how much carbon they have sequestered or enhanced. It is equally about asking what such projects have done to reduce poverty and improve people’s lives.

Strategies to reward developing countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and for conserving or sustainably managing forests (REDD+) are rapidly gaining credence as a key weapon in the fight against climate change.

But how do we gauge the success of these projects? REDD+ and other low-carbon development projects are not all about reducing emissions — they are also meant to be a vehicle for alleviating poverty and promoting development. And while the volume of carbon either emitted or stored is a useful metric for assessing the contribution towards lower emissions, it does little to gauge the impact of REDD+ projects on long-standing livelihoods and poverty reduction challenges that contribute to unsustainable land use practices.

In theory, REDD+ certainly has the potential to help communities living in or near forests meet both climate and development goals — through, for example:

• improved agricultural productivity, including by adopting agroecology practices as defended by a recent UN report, and improved productivity of ecosystems such as drylands and wetlands;
• commercial exploration of timber and non-timber forest products which nurture the living forest; and
• efficient production, processing and use of biomass to meet energy needs.

Making each of these work in practice relies on managing natural resources sustainably. REDD+ gives impetus to the implementation of a more participatory model for doing this. We are not starting from scratch and paying attention to the lessons we have already learnt about how to do participatory forest management well is important.

For example, the Improved African Hut for Sustainable Management of Natural Resources and Well-Being of the People provides a wealth of experience in implementing community-based natural resource management in Africa. It highlights the necessary and sufficient conditions for connecting resource rights and development and identifies five pillars for managing natural resources sustainably:

1. Secure rights — be they human rights, resource rights or rights to services. Defining carbon rights is key to who will benefit from improved land use practices.

2. Strong local institutions to ensure that local people can take ownership of the process and participate in developing alternative livelihoods. Organisation, rules, enforcement and production association require capacity development and strengthening of existing institutions to deliver REDD+ for local land users, hence providing incentives to reducing deforestation and degradation where it matters.

3. Access to technology to increase productivity and diversify production possibilities. For this to happen, both research and extension services must help produce and test technologies across different biophysical and socio-economic contexts and disseminate viable practices to land users.

4. Access to long-term financial resources to invest in viable enterprises. Experience shows that short-term financial and technical support only goes as far as raising awareness and creating expectations. It does not supply the means to secure sufficiently consolidate and self-sustaining enterprises—for that, you need investment over the long term.

5. Access to markets for both goods and services, including biodiversity, carbon and watershed protection. Carbon credits may deliver some benefits, but will be hardly significant. REDD+ effectiveness will depend on the total sum of economic benefits from improved agriculture, efficient biomass energy production and use, development of sustainable timber and non-timber based enterprises including tourism.

It is true that some community-based natural resources management initiatives have failed to deliver long-term development and conservation benefits across Africa. That is partly the result of the short-tem nature of support to community enterprises. But, it has also resulted because of a lack of mechanisms to value and compensate for key gains such as biodiversity conservation and carbon credits generated by these community initiatives.

REDD+ provides an opportunity to avoid past mistakes. Focusing on carbon payments alone risks creating high expectations in developing countries — from both government and local communities — that can soon turn to frustration. We must ensure that the success of REDD+ is assessed, not simply by measuring carbon it has sequestered or enhanced, but also by assessing what it has done for ecosystems services and development, including what it has done to support those things that we have already learnt are essential to sustainable natural resource management.

With this in mind, a ‘successful’ REDD+ initiative will:
1. secure resource and carbon rights for local communities;
2. provide a diverse set of alternative income-generating activities;
3. improve agricultural productivity, thereby reducing the amount of shifting cultivation;
4. reduce the incidence of uncontrolled fires;
5. increase the efficiency of biomass energy and deliver alternatives to it;
6. maintain, or increase, biodiversity;
7. boost household incomes and access to social services; and
8. enhance carbon stocks.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut