Can REDD+ work without land and carbon rights?

by Andy White, Rights and Resources Initiative | @RightsResources | Rights and Resources Initiative
Wednesday, 19 March 2014 07:00 GMT

An indigenous kuna woman of Panama looks on as she stands by her house window and residents pass by on Nusadup island at the comarca of Kuna Yala on September 1, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

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As a case in Panama shows, ensuring forest communities have rights to their land and the carbon it stores is key to making carbon trading work

Panama’s rain forests contain more than 2,300 tree species, one of the highest concentrations of plant diversity on the planet. Panama, then, seemed a natural place to implement a pilot program for REDD+, a UN initiative meant to provide market incentives to halt deforestation.

Further, more than half of Panama’s mature forests are owned or managed by indigenous peoples and local communities. Enabling them to reap income from the biological wealth that they manage seemed a perfect fit.

Until it wasn’t.

In a much publicized case, Panama’s National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples (COONAPIP) pulled out of negotiations on how to launch a REDD+ program in February 2013. They felt shut out of the process, even though under Panamanian law they had clear rights to most of the forests being discussed.

REDD+, or reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, was conceived by the international community as a way to protect forests by allowing the sale of carbon in standing forests to polluters seeking to meet their emissions targets.

But for some forest communities, like the indigenous peoples of Panama, REDD+ felt like another top-down project that would ultimately weaken their control over the land, and open up their forests for exploitation.

Their decision to pull out had serious implications beyond Central America. If REDD+ couldn’t deliver without conflict in Panama, a country with stronger local land rights than many of its counterparts, what would this mean for other low and middle income countries with weaker legal protection of the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities?

This is a central question facing the World Bank, the United Nations, and the many governments actively promoting solutions to climate change. And while the answer may be clear, it is proving difficult for them to stomach.

Since the birth of the REDD+, organisations have called for secure land rights for indigenous peoples and local communities as a critical component, highlighting the copious amount of research showing that local communities excel at the sustainable management of their land and resources when they are entrusted with greater ownership and control.


Yet, governments in low and middle income countries still legally claim and fully control almost 70 percent of forest land. And while there has been substantial progress in the recognition of community rights over the last several decades, new research shows that there has been a dramatic slowdown since REDD+ was established in 2008. The amount of forest land secured for community ownership since then is less than 20 percent of the area secured in the previous six years.

Despite the fact that 88 percent of countries who have taken the first step to implement REDD+ initiatives listed tenure clarification as a component of their REDD strategy, REDD+ initiatives have – so far – failed to reverse this slowdown in rights recognition.

Despite its ability to open up space for dialogue, REDD+ initiatives have not yet prioritised these tenure issues. And as the Panama case shows, the challenge goes far beyond clarifying who owns the land and forest, but also must determine who owns the carbon, who designs carbon policies, and who benefits from carbon trade.

New research shows that insecurity of forest tenure and lack of clarity on community rights to carbon threatens to undermine local rights and the potential for forests and forest communities to benefit from REDD+.

Of the 23 countries analysed, representing 66 percent of forests in developing countries, only Mexico and Guatemala have passed national legislation defining tenure rights over carbon. And no countries have the necessary national legal framework that establishes rules and institutions to determine how carbon from REDD+ should be traded. This is barely chartered territory at best.

Without clear rights to land and forests, REDD+ runs the risk of becoming an unintentional driver of land rights loss among the very communities it seeks to assist. Without clear-cut carbon ownership guidelines, governments hungry to reap the financial rewards of carbon trading could end up usurping the few land rights that communities do possess.


Worse, REDD+ could discourage governments from implementing land tenure reforms, sacrificing human rights as the “price to pay” for establishment of the carbon market.

In Panama, indigenous leaders and the government finally settled their year-long dispute over local communities’ rights and REDD+. But this resolution came at a steep price – a year of setbacks for REDD+ and the forests it seeks to protect, and an erosion of trust in the program’s intentions.

It would be a disaster if markets for forest carbon move forward without clarification on carbon rights and the establishment of clear frameworks governing carbon trade and benefits. Countries seeking to profit from REDD+ without legally acknowledging and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, to both their land and the carbon it comes, will face the same setbacks as Panama, and fail to achieve their climate goals.

REDD+ cannot protect the forests without protecting the rights of those who live in and manage the forests. The United Nations, the World Bank, and all other interested parties need to embrace this point or the carbon markets will become not a tool for fighting climate change but part of a further acceleration of the loss of forests, lands, and livelihoods.

Andy White is the coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI). On March 19, RRI will convene an international dialogue with participants from multilateral institutions, governments, civil society and the private sector to discuss how the Warsaw agreement can be implemented without undermining the land rights of local peoples.   

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