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Forests can help make war or peace

by Janpeter Schilling and Janani Vivekananda | International Alert - UK
Wednesday, 26 March 2014 10:01 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But forest conservation efforts don’t pay enough attention to their impact on local conflict dynamics

Globally, around 1.6 billion people depend on forests for food, water, fuel, shelter and income. Some 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity is found in forests. At the same time, forests absorb and store significant amounts of carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas driving climate change.

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 could offer a significant peace dividend, depending on how it is done. 

Yet despite the importance of forests to both climate change mitigation and peace, global deforestation continues at an alarming rate. Every year about 13 million hectares (roughly the size of Portugal) are being destroyed.

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 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 Nepal, for example, the majority of forest management is through community forest user groups rather than the state, meaning that revenues go to the community.

In Aceh in 2006, 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.


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.

REDD+ in general has the potential to aggravate existing conflicts, especially around land ownership and forest access. Our research in Bangladesh for instance 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.

REDD+ is still a fairly new mechanism, but so far, it pays too little attention to its potential contribution to peace or conflict. Given the clear link between forest resources and conflict, sensitivity to conflict contexts and the interests of local communities should become an integral part of REDD+ when the mechanism is revised in 2015.