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Certifying forests: How REDD+ can learn from experience

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July 5, 2011
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BOGOR, Indonesia (6 July, 2011)_REDD+ proponents can learn from the multistakeholder approach of experienced certification body, the Forest Stewardship Council, helping to avoid treacherous forest management politics and better engaging civil society and the private sector in sustainable forest practices said Frances Seymour, Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“The objectives of REDD+ are sufficiently aligned with those of the FSC, and the challenges that REDD+ will face are analogous to those of certification, [so] it would be a huge loss for this relative newcomer to the forestry scene not to benefit from two decades of [FSC] experience,” she said in her address at the Forest Framework Convention 2011 (find the transcript of Seymour’s speech below).

Established to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests and represented in 50 countries around the world, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has worked to create internationally recognised standards and procedures for the procurement and sale of forest-based products. FSC certification ensures that the forest products used are from responsibly harvested and verified sources, enabling consumers and businesses to make responsible purchasing decisions.

This experience, Seymour highlighted, will be helpful for issues currently being faced by REDD+ including the difficulties in Measuring, Reporting  and Verification (MRV) of carbon stocks, developing procedural standards and also adjusting these standards, procedures, and institutions to level the playing field for small-scale producers.

In a new research collaboration with CIFOR, the FSC is set to play a lead role in integrating the certification of ecosystems and biodiversity into REDD+ schemes. The 4 year project will look into the certification of ecosystems as well as other low cost MRV methods to measure carbon density with the hope to expand forest certification to include carbon sequestration, watershed protection, biodiversity conservation, disaster risk prevention, and recreational services.

The CIFOR-FSC research is one of a number of new studies by the  FSC’s Forest Carbon Working Group  to explore the role that governance, policy and forest certification can play in supporting frameworks to mitigate climate change, particularly in relation to REDD. Read their latest paper here.


Forestry Stewardship Council Forest Frameworks Conference

29 June 2011

Frances Seymour, CIFOR Director General

Thank you so much for the generous introduction and warm welcome.

Since I agreed to address this audience many months ago, a study by CIFOR scientists in Cameroon has recently been selectively but extensively quoted to discredit certification.  So I was happy to note on my way in to the hotel that there were no vendors selling rotten tomatoes in the lobby.  But maybe a more subtle form of punishment is being assigned the coveted “after lunch” slot in the agenda.

And having failed to read the letter of invitation carefully, until quite recently I was under the misapprehension that I was being asked to talk today about CIFOR’s research on certification – which would have required me to venture into some of the current controversies about the Congo Basin that I am not competent to address.

Instead, when I visited the FSC Secretariat in Bonn a few weeks ago, I was delighted to discover that my assignment was to talk about forests and climate change. But it turns out that the appropriate degree of engagement between Certification World on the one hand, and Climate World on the other, is also controversial, so some of you might need those rotten tomatoes after all.

In order to fulfill my assignment, I will attempt to do the following in the next 30 minutes or so:

  • First, I’ll provide a  brief history of forests and climate change, with a particular focus on REDD (probably necessary only for those of you who have been stranded on a desert island for the last few years);
  • Second, I’ll assess the “state of play” at global, national, local levels;
  • Third, I’ll share a few preliminary research results emerging from CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD;
  • And finally, I’ll be brave and suggest some implications for “Certification World”, and elements of a possible research agenda that might be of mutual interest to Certification and Climate.

Brief history of forests and climate change

Let me start with the brief history of forests and climate change.  And actually, it IS a brief history, with the term REDD – for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation – less than four years old.

I suspect it is really annoying to those of you who have been laboring in the vineyards of Certification World for almost 20 years to suddenly have the global forestry agenda dominated by this upstart called REDD, sucking up all the political attention and money.

REDD is really just an objective, to be achieved by transfers of funds from North to South in return for reduced forest-based emissions.

It now is technically REDD-plus, which includes:

  • Reducing emissions from deforestation
  • Reducing emissions from forest degradation
  • Conservation of forest carbon stocks
  • Sustainable management of forests, and
  • Enhancement of forest stocks.

The pre-history of REDD is that it was intentionally not included in the Kyoto Protocol due to a number of technical and political issues. But in 2005 a coalition of developing countries put the idea back on the table making it more politically acceptable, and in the meantime, advances in remote sensing technology had made it more technically feasible.

Then in 2006 a report called the Stern Review — commissioned by the Government of the U.K. — identified avoided deforestation as one of four critical elements in any global climate regime.  Forest-based emissions had to be included due their share of the annual global total, and the assertion that they were among the least expensive emissions to avert.

The idea of REDD took off, and the Action Plan agreed at the climate talks in Bali in late 2007 included a “road map” to negotiations on REDD as part of a broader climate agreement, and encouraged parties to get started on REDD “demonstration activities”.  It’s significant for this community that it was in Bali that the second D for Degradation was affirmed, opening the door to eligibility for compensation under REDD of Reduced Impact Logging and other activities to reduce degradation associated with Sustainable Forest Management.

In 2009, everybody was disappointed by the failure of Copenhagen to produce a comprehensive agreement and successor to the Kyoto Protocol, but REDD lived on in a paragraph of text in the Copenhagen Accord.  In 2010 a REDD Partnership, now comprising more than 70 countries, was formed to as a platform for interim action and financing while negotiations continued, and more than four billion dollars has been pledged.  And at the most recent UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in December in Cancun, further progress on REDD was among the agreements concluded.

State of play

So, what’s the state of play as of mid-2011?



At the global level, there’s a strong scientific consensus that there’s no way to meet the target of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius without forests, so there’s still a lot of support for REDD.

But the prospects for REDD have certainly been hurt by the lack of an overall climate agreement, both politically and financially.

Unless it is coupled with commitments to significant emissions cuts on the part of industrialized countries, REDD is vulnerable to the charge that it’s just a way for those counties to buy their way out of hard choices, and put the burden on developing countries.

And even though one of the most controversial features of REDD is its association with a prospective carbon offsets market, it is precisely such a market that could mobilize significant finance.

The prospect of significant finance is what would incentivize governments to put into place the policies necessary for a market to function, and encourage land stewards to consider keeping forests as forests for carbon storage rather than converting them to alternative land uses.

Negotiations towards a global REDD regime continue, if at an excruciatingly slow pace.

At a recent meeting in Bonn, a subsidiary body to the climate convention agreed on some baby steps to move forward on developing the so-called “modalities”, or guidance for common approaches to Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification (or MRV), Reference Levels, and safeguards.



At the national level, the prospect of global agreement on REDD has encouraged around 50 governments to start developing national-level strategies and policies.

These efforts are being supported by a proliferation of multilateral and bilateral assistance programs. The World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and the United Nations’ UN-REDD Programme are more or less working together to bless national REDD plans and finance these and other so-called “REDD Readiness” activities.

The Norwegian Government is by far the largest supporter of REDD, providing funds to these multilateral programs as well as t several bilateral initiatives.  The biggest ones are in Brazil and Indonesia, with up to a billion dollars on offer to each country in return for performance on reducing emissions, whether or not there is a global agreement.

Most recently, as REDD has started to become more real in those countries, constituencies for business-as-usual have begun to wake up and fight back.

In Brazil, there has been an attempt to revise the Forest Code to relax responsibilities for forest protection.

And in Indonesia, a two-year moratorium on new permits to convert forests to other uses was finally announced last month, but contained significant exclusions and exceptions, presumably to accommodate pro-business interests.



There’s also a lot of action going on at sub-national and local levels, although it’s concentrated in a few countries.  There are at least 44 REDD projects in Indonesia alone.

These projects are following a variety of models, ranging from the re-labeling of pre-existing integrated conservation and development projects, to more innovative concessions for ecosystem restoration.

One of the more interesting experiments underway is supported by the Governors Climate and Forests Task Force that links 15 states or provinces in five countries.  California is setting up a cap-and-trade system that would allow California-based entities to offset emissions with REDD credits from sub-national jurisdictions in other countries, such as Chiapas in Mexico or Acre in Brazil. The California scheme is currently subject to a legal challenge in the courts, but if it starts on schedule next year, it will be the first real test of whether and how such a system could really work.

So there’s a lot going on at each of the three levels – global, national, sub-national – that are only loosely connected to each other at this point.

The legitimacy and political viability of REDD has come into question at all levels; and in the meantime, increasing commodity prices will at least make REDD more expensive, if not undermine its economic viability.

My own take is that overall, there’s been a slow-down in the expected pace of REDD’s development, and something of an inversion in the expectations of where leadership will come from.

This time two years ago, and up until the Copenhagen disappointment, there was a sense that a big global climate deal would deliver political will and money to drive action at national and sub-national levels.

Now, rather than expecting the process to be driven by global negotiations, my sense is that local “proof of concept” on the ground is needed to develop national-level constituencies for REDD, and national-level constituencies will in turn be needed for a global agreement.

So instead of “top-down”, REDD will have to be driven from the “bottom-up”. And while all the early attention was on how to design a global regime, we’re increasingly appreciating the role that sub-national governments will have to play to make it work.

In terms of the changing pace of REDD, it’s been a challenge for a research organization like CIFOR:  two years ago, we were worried that we wouldn’t get to the field in time to collect “before” data; now, our concern is about there being interventions in the relevant timeframe for us to collect “after” data.

Preliminary research results

Let me now share some early highlights from CIFOR’s research on REDD.  The role of forests in climate change mitigation and adaptation is one of our priority research themes, and two years ago we started a global comparative study to learn lessons from the “first generation” of REDD projects and policies.


To support REDD negotiations at the global level, we’ve been doing some research related to the so-called “modalities” such as MRV and reference levels, and to fill in some of the gaps in the empirical data necessary to estimate forest-based emissions from landuse change.

We’ve focused particularly on wetlands, including peatland and mangrove forests, because they are both important to climate change, and relatively under-researched. And while I do believe that the science is “good enough” to support REDD, we continue to discover important new information.

It turns out that current methods used to estimate carbon emissions from peatlands are inadequate to capture the multiple biophysical processes that lead to net carbon loss or sequestration, with the result that there is a risk that they systematically under-estimate emissions from land-use change.

And research on mangroves undertaken with the US Forest Service suggests that mangroves are among the most carbon-rich forest ecosystems in the tropics.  At current rates of loss, mangroves may be responsible for as much as ten percent of total forest-based emissions, even though they occupy only .7 percent of forest area.

So we need to focus more attention on wetlands, and I want you to know that I am doing my part.

Last month, I accompanied a team of researchers to Central Kalimantan to test new methods for measuring carbon in peatland ecosystems.  I was allowed to do important jobs like hold the end of the tape measure, and gather leaf litter from sample plots into plastic bags.  In the meantime, the acidic water that I was standing in dissolved the glue holding my shoes together.  And to preview the themes of my conclusion, I had to be patient and pragmatic to get back to the research station without them.


As part of the Global Comparative Study on REDD, CIFOR and our partners are taking in-depth looks at the national political economy of deforestation — and efforts to stop it —  in five countries, and have taken “snapshots” or initiated in-depth work in four more countries.

Research on policy formulation processes shows that governments are having trouble moving from the rhetoric of REDD to actually agreeing on and implementing policies that would change land-use patterns in significant ways.

One reason is that the policy formulation process in many countries is not yet underpinned by rigorous analysis to estimate the relative contributions of different sectors to deforestation and degradation.

This means that it is not possible to quantify the costs and benefits of a shift from business-as-usual to REDD in a way that would be necessary to accurately assess winners and losers, and to support design of a benefit-sharing regime. The lack of analysis works to the benefit of rent-seekers, who would try to shape REDD design to serve their interests by making unsubstantiated claims about prospective impacts.

And while every country is different, there are a number of commonalities.  If you put your hand over the title of the various country profiles, it’s often hard to guess which country is being described.

All are dealing with the challenge of intersectoral collaboration across ministries horizontally, and with appropriate devolution and coordination between national and sub-national levels in the vertical dimension.

All are dealing with unclear tenure over forest land and forest carbon, which is a huge barrier to the implementation of REDD, especially if we envision payment-based mechanisms that require a clear “seller” of environmental services. And all are dealing with weak civil society capacity to participate in REDD processes.

No real surprises here.



For the sub-national part of the Global Comparative Study, we are doing research at twenty REDD pilot project sites scattered across five countries.  At each site, we are undertaking a very rigorous Before-After-Control-Intervention method to be able to measure the impact of REDD interventions on livelihoods, on governance, and yes, on what happens to the forests.

As of now, we’ve only collected the “before” data, and we need wait until after some interventions have taken place to go back for the “after” data, so it’s too early to report on any impacts of REDD.  But in the meantime, we can draw on other research to make some inferences about what’s at stake, and raise some cautions about likely challenges on the near horizon.

Two weeks ago in London, CIFOR launched the preliminary results of a long-term study of the contribution of forests to rural livelihoods that involved collecting income data from each of 8000 households in 25 countries four times over the course of a year.

And the long-awaited answer is, that on average, households living in communities in or near forests get 23 percent of their income from the forests, whether as direct contributions to their subsistence, or as items that can be sold for cash. So the impact of REDD interventions on what is now close to a quarter of the incomes in forest communities will be significant for those households, for better or for worse.

We also have some preliminary findings from 11 of the 20 REDD project sites included in the Global Comparative Study.

In brief, it appears that a significant proportion of villages included in the REDD projects perceive that their tenure over the forest is insecure, and quite a few reported having had a recent experience in which they were unsuccessful in their attempts to exclude outsiders from the forest.  So consistent with the findings of the national-level analysis and what we all already knew, clarifying and strengthening tenure is going to be key to the success of REDD.

A last finding that is disturbing, although perhaps not altogether surprising, is that in quite a number of project sites, villagers do not feel informed about REDD. Many report that they have not given their explicit permission for the project, and/or that they have not been involved in project design and implementation.


Implications for “Certification World”

Now, what are the implications of all of this for those of you who inhabit Certification World?

It seems to me that the objectives of REDD are sufficiently aligned with those of the FSC, and that the challenges that REDD will face are sufficiently the same or analogous to those of certification, that it would be a huge loss for this relative newcomer to the forestry scene not to benefit from your two decades of experience.

Certification World has useful experience share in at least the following areas:

  • Developing standards for substantive objectives – FSC’s experience will be helpful not only for integrating carbon density as an additional value to be addressed in sustainable forest management, but also for integrating the so-called “co-benefits” into REDD, including biodiversity and other ecosystem services.
  • FSC has experience in developing procedural standards and institutional arrangements, such as the role of certification bodies, and the problem of proliferation in all of these, all of which will be  faced by REDD.
  • And FSC has experience in addressing equity issues, such as the need to adjust standards, procedures, and institutions to level the playing field for small-scale producers.

And if you needed more evidence of the intertwined interests of FSC and REDD, both face common critics on the left and on the right:

On the left, both FSC and REDD are challenged by environmental and rights-oriented constituencies that are not satisfied with the rigor of safeguard regimes.

On the right, yesterday’s email newsletter from World Growth, a pro-industry group, included a blast at FSC based on the CIFOR study that I mentioned earlier. It also included an article comparing Norway’s involvement in REDD in Indonesia to the colonialism of the Dutch East India Company.

So at least as important to Climate World is Certification World’s experience with navigating the treacherous politics of trying to change forest management.

Perhaps in part because of its abortive “top-down” start, REDD proponents have not always done a great job of engaging either civil society or the for-profit private sector.  At a conference on REDD last week in Oslo, a participant remarked that “we spend a lot of time talking about drivers of deforestation, but not a lot of time talking to them”.

The very structure of FSC since birth demonstrates FSC’s commitment to a multistakeholder approach, and REDD proponents can learn from its experience.

Now, I understand that you have been wrestling over the last few years with the question of whether and how to engage with Climate World, and I have taken a look at the report of the Forest Carbon Working Group released just last week.

I don’t know your business and wouldn’t presume to meddle in it, but I hope it’s okay to offer the following observations:

  • The Working Group report appears to adopt a prudent approach, optimizing among the potential upsides of realizing synergies, the political risks of being associated with carbon offset markets, and the risk of being irrelevant by not engaging at all.
  • I very much support the recommendation regarding FSC engagement in national-level REDD processes, because of all the relevant experiences and expertise that you have to share.
  • And I especially salute the working group for departing from its mandate, and taking on the issue of ecosystem-based adaptation.

The role of forests in adaptation, and the need to help forests adapt, have been the neglected step-sisters of the REDD agenda in Climate World.  I’m afraid that due to time limitations, this speech is not any different.


Implications for a research agenda

Now let me turn to the implications of all of this for a joint research agenda between Certification World and Climate World.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should let you know that CIFOR is one of several organizations collaborating with the FSC Secretariat on the development of a prospective project on the certification of ecosystem services. The project, which is to be funded by the GEF, includes attention to carbon, so in fact a joint research agenda is already underway.

Clearly, it makes sense to collaborate on such things as the development of low-cost MRV methods, not only for carbon in both certification and REDD, but also for all the other forest values that we’re trying to maintain or enhance. But I think there’s a lot more to learn at the intersection between Certification World and Climate World, and developing such a research agenda could easily be the focus of a full conference in and of itself.

But in the meantime, here are a few more ideas.

First, I think we need a more rigorous and comprehensive analysis, followed by empirical research, on the actual scope for certification and REDD to be complementary at the Forest Management Unit level. For example, how much potential is there for REDD revenues to top up price premiums from certification, in a way that makes it profitable to keep forests as forests, rather than being converted to other uses?

Second, I think there are common interests in research to underpin the negotiation of REDD reference levels and compensation baselines. As I understand it, one of the biggest fault lines dividing stakeholders Certification World stems from different assumptions about what would happen to the remaining tracts of intact forests in the absence of certification – does certification facilitate logging in such areas that would not otherwise happen?

Similarly, Climate World needs to answer a much broader question regarding landscapes to be covered by REDD, i.e., what would be the deforestation and degradation trajectory in the absence of REDD?  Surely there’s a way to design a combined approach to these questions, so that the debates can proceed on the basis of rigorous analysis rather than conjecture.

Finally, the sustainability objective of certification and the permanence of emissions averted by REDD both will depend on getting serious about adaptation. Climate change will happen no matter what we do in the next few years, and I suspect that the approaches needed to address those neglected stepsisters are highly convergent.

Concluding remarks

Let me close by acknowledging another contribution that Certification World can make to Climate World, and that is modeling the virtues of patience and pragmatism – the virtues that I needed to walk out of the peat swamp without my shoes.

Frankly, I’m not a credible spokesperson for the virtue of patience – I often say that if you look up the word “impatient” in the dictionary, you’ll find a little picture of me. But I’ve got lots of company in need of “expectations management” when it comes to how long it takes to achieve the kinds of objectives associated with certification and REDD.

Providing an example of patience, Certification World has plugged along for almost 20 years with steady progress punctuated by successes and reversals; by comparison, REDD is still in its “terrible twos”, wanting everything right now.

As a challenge to pragmatism, there will always be purists in our ecosystems of stakeholders, and they occupy an important niche that keeps everyone honest.  But reasonable people can disagree about when the perfect becomes the enemy of the much-better-than-what-would-happen-otherwise.  And having structured forums such as the FSC for hashing out such disagreements when they arise is extremely useful.

CIFOR doesn’t take positions on things like this, but my own personal judgment is that when it comes to climate change, the risk of no action is much higher than the risks of action. Without it, we are all doomed to a World that none of us will want to inhabit.

I hope that Certification World will be willing to engage Climate World to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Thank you.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut