Aug. 14, 2020

Models aren’t a panacea for saving the environment: hard lessons from REDD+

REDD+ goals suffer at the hands of other development aims, write Adeniyi Asiyanbi, Faculty of Arts, and colleague in Conversation Canada
REDD+ goals suffer at the hands of other development aims

International conservation is known for its pursuit of global, ‘win-win’ solutions that seek to simultaneously address multiple environmental and social issues. But few proposed solutions have offered as much hope, and been so energetically embraced, as REDD+.

The idea was originally conceived as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation (RED), developed as an incentive for low-income, forest-rich countries to reduce deforestation via carbon payments. These payments were to be financed by high-income, high carbon-emitting countries.

This incrementally expanded to REDD+ to incorporate a wide range of actions to reduce forest degradation and improve forest governance. One of the ambitions, according to the World Bank’s REDD+ programme coordinator, was to:

transform rural landscapes, conserve forests, make a difference in climate change trajectories and, most importantly, bring prosperity to the rural poor.

REDD+ gained widespread policy support. It has led to over US$10 billion of (pledged and realised) donor funds and is now active in over 65 countries. Twenty-eight are in Africa. It has also become entrenched in the strategies of UN institutions, major development agencies, international conservation organisations and governments.

However, in Africa, as in other REDD+ regions, the scheme has fallen way short of its promises. For instance, studies show that in many countries it had little impact on deforestation rates. In addition, the promised increase in prosperity for the rural poor and the much-anticipated green development finance for governments have not materialised.

We did research on REDD+ in Nigeria and Tanzania to examine why it has continued to be championed despite growing evidence of failure.

We identified one important explanation, which is that REDD+ has manifested at various levels as a series of time-bound, isolated, miniature exemplars. We call these REDD+ models, which, we argue, have ultimately become ends in themselves. They have replaced the wide-reaching and transformative process that REDD+ was originally envisaged to be.

These models have quickly become the focus of intense activity, high levels of funding and dense networks of actors and relationships. All of which have become the new indicators of ‘success’ in themselves. The problems associated with attempts to create such models – and their failure to deliver the substantive REDD+ goals – have often been left out of project reports.

It is these idealised REDD+ models that enable proponents to continue to promote REDD+ as a ‘successful’ intervention. This has allowed the scheme to persist in policy circles in spite of messiness on the ground and lack of viability at scale.

Model-making is prevalent in conservation and development practice. This is particularly true in the context of new fads that promise to deliver win-win solutions to complex global issues. But the process of model-making often stands in the way of more inclusive and thorough interventions that hold greater potential.

Set up for success

Our research shows that model-making was hard baked into REDD+ processes from the beginning. This included how sites were chosen, how funding and resources were allocated, and how success would ultimately be defined.

For instance in Nigeria, a national REDD+ process designated Cross River State – one of Nigeria’s 37 states – as a model state. Cross River has the most significant portion of Nigeria’s rainforest. It also has a long history of conservation and development interventions with significant networks of conservation organisations.

The state was projected by REDD+ proponents as having both the institutional and landscape qualities for such a project.

These qualities invited a concentration of REDD+ activities, funding and networks in Cross River State. A host of organisations provided funding and technical support. They included the United Nations REDD+ programme, the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and the California-based Governors’ Climate and Forest Task Force.

Implementation of the first phase was carried out by a special REDD+ team composed of local and international consultants and NGO actors working through the state forest department.

Workshops, community engagement activities and field demonstration activities followed. The state government also enforced a ban on timber and some non-timber forest use, as an indication of its political will for REDD+.

The promising vision for the project began to sit uneasily with evidence of increased deforestation and destabilised local forest economies.

Nevertheless, proponents continue to claim success.

Our view is that the claims of success weren’t based on measures that reflect ordinary ways in which forest governance in Cross River state – or any other state – operate. This means that the model status was neither sustainable nor replicable in other Nigerian states.

In Tanzania, the REDD+ readiness activity was funded by Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative through the Norwegian Embassy in Dar es Salaam. The funds were channelled into nine pilot projects (of which seven were completed), which were run by well-established NGOs. This strategy enabled the embassy to bypass the complexity of Tanzania’s bureaucratic state institutions, enabling the pilot projects to be implemented quickly and efficiently. This increased the likelihood of good project results.

In addition, the pilots were largely undertaken with villages that the NGOs had worked with before. Where new villages were engaged, external carbon finance consultants were brought in to identify the forests and villages with the most potential for REDD+ success.

This meant that the projects weren’t representative of typical Tanzanian village contexts. Rather they became exemplary models through which REDD+ success could be demonstrated. During the pilot phase, forests were managed by a wide range of NGO staff and consultants, who had received training on the complex REDD+ mechanism, and had access to expensive testing equipment and 4x4 vehicles.

This is not reflective of forest conservation more broadly in Tanzania, which is largely managed by forest officers who have very few resources and access to funds. Thus the likelihood of pilot project conditions (and results) being repeated after the pilot is very slim.

The projects were nevertheless framed largely as a successful demonstration of Tanzania’s ability to implement REDD+.

Model paradox

Model-making appears compelling for proponents of REDD+. Yet the models often entail creating idealised conditions, ignoring problematic consequences and tentatively suspending ordinary functioning of entities through time-limited, intense REDD+ activities and resources.

In the longer term this limits the likelihood that REDD+ models can be scaled up or replicated.

We suggest that model-making leads to the potential for deforestation and improved livelihoods at scale to be sidestepped, while making it possible for proponents to lay claim to success.