Deforestation: REDD-y for peace or fuelling conflict?

by Janani Vivekananda and Shreya Mitra

REDD forestry efforts don’t pay enough attention to their influence on local conflict dynamics. For REDD+ to be an effective mechanism to curb deforestation and strengthen peace opportunities, it has to pay more attention to pre-existing land and forest conflicts linked to tenure, take into account the interests of the local communities and be more sensitive to the local context .

trucks carrying logs in Gunung Lumut, Kalimantan Timur, Indonesia, November 2005. Source: CIFOR (Flickr)

Trucks carrying logs in Gunung Lumut, Kalimantan Timur, Indonesia, November 2005. Source: CIFOR (Flickr)

Indonesia has for the first time surpassed Brazil’s historical record of being at the forefront of deforestation suggests a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Despite a government-signed moratorium in 2011 to slow down the pace of deforestation, the study reveals that Indonesia has lost virgin forests of 60,000 sq. km, an area roughly the size of Ireland, over a period of 12 years.

The accelerated rate of deforestation raises concerns about the governance of forests in Indonesia and the effectiveness of the moratorium. It also highlights the missed opportunities to preserve the forests and bring about greater peace dividends, especially in a context where peace remains fragile and unequal forest rights remain unresolved. In conflict-affected areas, availability and access to forest resources can either make conflict worse or contribute to peace. If you accept the case, as many do, that the impacts of climate change make it harder to build peace, there is also a compelling argument that mitigating climate change by reducing deforestation, if done right, could offer significant peace opportunities by addressing inequalities and grievances of marginalised forest-dependent communities.

REDD Programmes and Peacebuilding

Yet despite the importance of forests to both climate change mitigation and peace, deforestation continues at an alarming rate as seen in the case of Indonesia. To combat deforestation and preserve forests as carbon sinks, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2005 introduced a mechanism called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). Under REDD, more developed countries pay for programmes in less developed countries to preserve forests. Later, a ‘plus’ was added to REDD introducing the elements of conservation, sustainable forest management and enhancement of forests as carbon sinks. The financial dimensions are significant. For example, Norway as the biggest contributor has pledged over $1.4 billion to REDD+ funds. Most of the money targets Latin America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. For Indonesia alone, $156 million of REDD+ funding has been approved.

From a peacebuilding perspective, REDD+ and other efforts to promote sustainable forest management offer both peace opportunities and conflict risks. The conflict risks of REDD+ often have to do with land ownership and forest access. The peace opportunities associated with REDD+ are wider recognition of the multiple economic, social and cultural values of forests and a strengthening of the rights of local communities that depend on the forest. Poverty may also be reduced if the financial benefits of REDD+ are shared, and income opportunities created for local residents, who may work as forest monitors and guards.

In 2006, in Aceh, Indonesia, initiatives by the newly formed government on forest protection and supporting smallholder plantations, as well as the social opportunities offered by REDD investment, showed real promise for building a sustainable peace in the conflict-affected region. The REDD investment fell through after investors withdrew, but this experience hints at the potential for REDD to exert a positive influence on politics and power relations in a post-conflict context.

Short-Term Gains

Patchwork mountain landscape of agriculture, forestry, and deforested terrain, Tianlin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China. Source: CIFOR (Flickr)

Patchwork mountain landscape of agriculture, forestry, and deforested terrain, Tianlin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China. Source: CIFOR (Flickr)

Yet given the prospect of sums of money to be gained (in the short-run at least), there is a very real risk that communities can make decisions based on short-term profit or be bought off by entrepreneurs hoping to capitalise on REDD+. This means that while community involvement is critical, it alone is not sufficient and should certainly not be viewed as a silver bullet for equitable forestry that supports peace.

As a member of the Dhankuta District Community Forest Management committee explained during International Alert’s research in Nepal: “Forest-user groups might plant trees but don’t always protect them. How can a forest grow if you just plant trees and don’t protect them? People have begun to misuse resources. There is too much freedom and too little responsibility. Poverty is also a factor. People want an immediate return, instead of a better long-term gain.” In Papua New Guinea, many landowners are not aware of their rights, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by ‘carbon cowboys’ who gain control of land and forests to capitalise on REDD+ funding. While REDD+ caused this problem, the mechanism also drew international attention to the issue, which in turn helped push the government to improve its policy on revenue-sharing.

During International Alert’s research in Odisha in India, respondents reported that forest degradation is a key challenge for them. Forest conservation projects could help here to develop a forest management that is beneficial to both communities and carbon reduction. On the other hand, there is a risk that governments use REDD+ as an instrument to restrict the access of local communities to forests and thereby undermine their livelihoods. In addition, incoming finance can fuel existing corrupt structures or cause grievances if it is not shared in a transparent and balanced manner.

Striking a balance

Our research in Bangladesh showed that restrictions on access to the Sundarbans mangrove forest may be useful for conservation purposes but local communities perceived them as a direct obstacle to sustain their livelihood, in the short term at least. This highlights the challenge between balancing conservation and community interests. As with the case of Bangladesh, poor Indonesians dependent on forests for their livelihoods have not been provided a viable alternative source of income, which is one reason why deforestation continues.

Compared with Indonesia, Brazil has been much more proactive on the issue of land and forest tenure and therefore better placed to manage issues of illegal logging and deforestation. Brazil has through REDD+ initiatives been recognising and delineating customary lands and creating new protected areas though these have been beset with some problems.

For REDD+ to be an effective mechanism to curb deforestation and strengthen peace opportunities in Indonesia, Brazil and elsewhere, it has to pay more attention to pre-existing land and forest conflicts linked to tenure, take into account the interests of the local communities and be more sensitive to the local context

Janani Vivekananda is Environment, Climate Change and Security Manager at International Alert. Her specific interests include the implications of climate change policies on peace, the links between climate change and community resilience, and opportunities for positive responses to climate and environmental change and disasters.

Shreya Mitra Programme Officer with the Environment, Climate Change and Security team at International Alert. She previously worked as a Research Consultant for ODI, Save the Children and Social Development Direct. 

Featured image: Patchwork mountain landscape of agriculture, forestry, and deforested terrain, Tianlin County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China. Source: CIFOR (Flickr)

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