Sowing the seeds of sustainable rural development?

This new article, in the journal Land Use Policy, is a closure of a five year research action project developed in Tanzania, under the leadership of the local NGO Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (MCDI) and hosted by the University of East Anglia. MCDI has been promoting Participatory forest management (PFM) for a number of years now in south-eastern Tanzania, aiming to improve local forest governance, enhance resource conservation and to increase rural people’s access to and benefits from forest resources. Recently, MCDI also received climate finance support to enhance the impact of such PFM activities on climate change mitigation.

This action research was thus aimed at analysing governance and livelihood changes in MCDI efforts that have been topped-up through a REDD+ pilot. Based on qualitative governance analysis and quantitative livelihood panel data (2011–2014) that compares villages and households within and outside the project, we find that improvements to forest governance are substantial in project villages compared to control villages, while changes in income have been important but statistically insignificant, and driven by a regional sesame cash crop boom unrelated to enhanced forestry revenues. Focusing on whether PFM had enhanced other wealth indicators including household conditions and durable assets, our analysis shows again no significant differences between participant and control villages, although the participant villages do have, on average, a greater level of durable assets.

Overall, our findings are positive regarding forest governance improvements but inconclusive regarding livelihood effects, which at least in the short term seem to benefit more from agricultural intensification than forestry activities, whose benefits might become more apparent over a longer time period. In conclusion we emphasize the need for moving towards longer term monitoring efforts, improving understandings of local dynamics of change, particularly at a regional rather than community level, and defining the most appropriate outcome variables and cost-effective systems of data collection or optimization of existing datasets if we are to better capture the complex impacts of PFM initiatives worldwide.

This research was funded by NORAD and it also resulted in two other articles published in 2015 and early 2017. If you want to access the full version of these three articles, please contact me at

Towards a just REDD+: Transforming forest conflicts in Nepal

Is REDD+ causing conflicts in Nepal? If so, which kind of conflicts? How does an environmental justice lens contribute to illuminate and resolve these conflicts? What can be done to transform the conflicts in ways that result in a more “just” REDD+?

In this Policy Brief, led by Hari Dhungana and Gyanu Maskey from the Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies, we try to provide succinct responses to these questions. The Brief draws from research conducted under the NWO-DFID funded project “Conflict and Cooperation over REDD+ in Mexico, Nepal and Vietnam“, which has investigated REDD+ preparedness and early implementation in these countries over a four-year period.

We argue that achieving just REDD+ in Nepal would require resolving or transforming persisting conflicts in the country’s forest governance and REDD+ implementation processes. This would in turn require action on 6 key domains:

  1. A reform of the forestry sector focusing on tenure issues. The government and international donors should conduct a comprehensive forestry sector policy reform that primarily focuses on forest and land tenure security, including of carbon assets, setting up clear responsibility, resources and accountability for stakeholders.
  2. Harmonization of land-use and forest policies. The government should initiate a process of reviewing discrepancies between existing policies, institutions and instruments including those recommended in the studies carried out as part of REDD+ readiness. These, for instance, concern benefit sharing, translating safeguards principles into operational procedures, and having common institutional structure for REDD+ and existing forestry institutions.
  3. Critical information and knowledge resources. For effective participation, critical information and reports should be in Nepali and/or other local languages to ensure that all stakeholders can participate effectively in discussions at different governance scales. Resources should be made available to improve people’s knowledge and ability, as well as willingness to participate.
  4. Develop workable monitoring systems for benefit distribution at the community level. The government should further refine and develop capacity to monitor community group benefit sharing.
  5. Capacity for facilitating social dialogue and conflict transformation. The government and donors should develop the capacity of government officials, NGO personnel and community leaders on social negotiations and dialogues for conflict transformation.
  6. Build upon existing analysis. REDD+ preparedness and implementation should consider a number of diagnostic studies that have already been published, includingstudies on feedback and grievance redressal mechanisms, benefit sharing, policy and measures and carbon ownership. These studies do not guide concrete action, but have significant value in identifying issues that need to be addressed.

The Policy Brief has been widely publicized across REDD+ actors in the country, and was recently presented at the stakeholder workshop “Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change (CCMCC) Programme Journey in Nepal: Transforming conflict into cooperation for climate change interventions” (01/11/2007), which involved policy makers, practitioners and researchers involved in the design and implementation of climate change policies in Nepal.

Picture copyright: SIAS.

Payments for Environmental Services: a theory-informed review

Building on a theory-based approach to synthesize research on the effectiveness of PES in achieving environmental objectives and socio-economic co-benefits, this article led by Jan Börner and published in World Development highlights the role of (1) contextual dimensions (e.g., political, institutional, and socio-economic conditions, spatial heterogeneity in environmental service values and provision costs, and interactions with pre-existing policies), and (2) scheme design (e.g., payment type and level, contract length, targeting, and differentiation of payments) in determining environmental and socio-economic outcomes. We also review counterfactual-based empirical evaluations, comparative analyses of case-studies, and meta-analyses. Our review suggests that program effectiveness often lags behind the expectations of early theorists. However, we also find that theory has advanced sufficiently to identify common reasons for why payment schemes fail or succeed. Moreover, payment schemes are often rolled out along with other policy instruments in so-called policy mixes. Advances in theory and evaluation research are needed to improve our understanding of how such policy mixes interact with the targeted social-ecological systems.

The full article can be found here, or requested by email if you don’t have access to the publishing journal.

Redeeming REDD+? A critical review of Michael Brown’s book

Since 2005, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has worked to establish a cooperation agenda where the Convention’s Annex I parties can incentivize the reduction of land-use related emissions in sub-tropical and tropical countries. Many viewed the original vision to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD), and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks (REDD+) as a market-based policy framework through which developing countries would be paid for measurable and verified land-use emission reductions, thus up-scaling former project-based approaches that prevailed under the Clean Development Mechanism.

However, the design of the international, national and sub-national institutions that could guarantee the feasibility and political buy-in of such an approach have proved challenging and, as a result, the finally agreed framework has resulted in a hybrid mechanism that encourages Parties to pursue REDD+ activities using both market and non-market based approaches. A number of political decisions made over this period provide guidance on how countries should develop land-use emissions reference levels, quantify and monitor progress in emission reductions, involve communities and Indigenous Peoples in the implementation of land-use policies, and find meaningful and politically acceptable means to finance such activities and policies (the UNFCCC provides a useful series of documents in this regard; see:

Michael Brown’s Redeeming REDD. Policies, incentives and social feasibility for avoided deforestation is a broad, encompassing book that provides valuable history, insights, and analysis for those interested in the role that REDD+ may play in re-framing land-use governance in the global South. In the book’s first three chapters, including the Introduction, Brown presents his argument, covers the early years of negotiation and reviews the distinct arguments that were mobilized by different parties – including NGOs, governments, and indigenous peoples – to either support or confront REDD+. While Brown considers REDD+ a good idea in general, he is explicit in his belief that ‘the strategies employed are inappropriate and unfeasible’ and that ‘the front line communities who will make or break sustainable forest use that REDD is predicated upon, remain marginalized players in setting policy, identifying practical approaches, and receiving commensurate benefits given the risk they bear’ (p. 9). In a nutshell, the book’s core argument or narrative is that the rural poor can potentially use REDD+ to help save forests if they are recognized as key stewards, allowed to participate fully in policy design and implementation, and provided with the necessary political, technical and financial capacities to do so. But for this to happen, according to Brown, REDD+ would require ‘a new social contract’ (p. 6).

Chapters 4-10 are developed to make the case for his argument, although chapters like the science and policy (5) or finance (9) could well be read as stand-alone contextual information. In chapter 4, Brown draws on some of his early work experience with the Pygmies in Africa in order to illustrate the challenges that REDD+ will face in realizing informed consent and providing the necessary capacities to local people so that they can equitably negotiate their terms of participation. He argues that REDD+, as it stands, pays little attention to how national countries will deal with these issues, and how such efforts should be mainstreamed and funded. I could not agree more. Chapter 5 is dedicated to relating REDD+ to other development or mitigation initiatives, such as the MDGs and joint implementation, and to problematizing the foundations upon which some early REDD+ initiatives were built (i.e. the theory of change), the safeguards and the transaction costs issue. Brown maintains that the theories of change that can be used in ongoing and future REDD+ projects run the risk of simplifying the environmental, economic and social complexities of a given territory. He also suggests that transaction costs calculations disregard the costs of building local capacities, while safeguards do not guarantee the right of many communities who might prefer other development and conservation options than REDD+.

In chapter 6, Brown develops the perspectives of most REDD+ stakeholders, including large and national NGOs, project standard setters, peasant organizations, rural communities and Indigenous Peoples. Brown uses key documents and reports to present these views, without developing an exhaustive analysis covering specific organizations or countries, or examining the views of commercial actors such as timber industries, agribusiness, infrastructure developers and the like. Nevertheless, the chapter still serves its central purpose which is to demonstrate that the interests in REDD+ vary within and across groups. Among Indigenous Peoples, for example, Brown notes that there have been groups that consider REDD+ ‘a possible solution’ to ameliorate climate impacts while others have manifestly opposed its development at national or local levels (p. 182), in line with his view that if REDD+ is transparently developed and provides the necessary capacities to local people, it would not be surprising if ‘a good number of IPs [indigenous peoples] at the end of the day may actually opt for REDD as a best option for the present and future’ (p. 185).

In chapters 7 and 8, dedicated to social feasibility and capacity building in REDD+, Brown begins to distil the foundations of his suggested ‘social contract’. The first pillar of this contract, he argues, should be the recognition that REDD+ design and implementation must treat rural communities and Indigenous Peoples as equals, which means that ‘planners must get past the simplistic logic of needs assessments and treat communities with the same respect they would demand for their own community’s present and future’ (p. 187). In chapter 7, Brown draws a concrete proposal for how this desirable objective should and can be pursued, comparing what he labels a ‘social feasibility’ approach with the REDD+ social safeguards. Here, he stresses the importance of involving communities in developing their own assessments of capacities, equitable benefit-sharing, monitoring abilities and so on, before any consent to REDD+ development is even considered (pp. 189-192). He uses an example from Cambodia to illustrate the risks involved in pursuing a project informed only by social safeguards, and contrasts such an experience with a social feasibility approach developed in the context of a biodiversity conservation initiative in Cameroon and the DRC (pp. 201-202). A second pillar of the new ‘social contract’, according to Brown, is the need to mainstream capacity building efforts. Drawing mostly on his professional experience, Brown explains why building capacity among government, NGOs and local communities is necessary to guarantee the future effectiveness and social success of any REDD+ actions, whatever the scale of implementation. In his view, many development and conservation projects have failed in the past because the capacities for project implementation among involved stakeholders were not been properly assessed and addressed prior to implementation.

Chapter 9 provides an overview of all the possible options that REDD+ might have available in terms of funding, from the yet inexistent markets following the Clean Development Mechanism approach to one based on climate aid or national systems of payments for ecosystem services. In this regard, Brown argues that a hybrid financing platform, made up of ODA-type funding and carbon markets, is ‘inevitable’ (p. 222) and events since the book was written has not proven him wrong, as subsequent relevant REDD+ decisions at the UNFCCC level acknowledge that parties should be able to access finance from markets, governments or other mechanisms based on their results (i.e. the amount of carbon emissions avoided or reduced through REDD+ actions), as well as being able to receive financial support from the same or other sources to support the development of joint mitigation and adaptation approaches for the integral and sustainable management of forests, regardless of the level of emissions reduced. In chapter 10, Brown provides a very balanced synthesis of all the risks involved in REDD+, including the potential perils of: misconduct in carbon accounting and monitoring; simplifying deforestation and forest degradation narratives; and developing poorly designed policy and project approaches that would ultimately impact local livelihoods and the political, economic and social rights of rural communities. At the same time, he also warns against ill-founded critiques of REDD+ on behalf of web-based NGOs or the strategic politicizing and simplification of Indigenous Peoples perspectives.

In chapter 11, Brown concludes the book and returns to his vision of a new ‘social contract’ in REDD+. For REDD+ to be redeemed, rather than discarded on the grounds of its top-down and technocratic character, he argues that first and foremost it needs to develop new mechanisms for recognition and participation across governance levels, from international to local scales, which effectively and equally involve rural communities and Indigenous Peoples in decision-making. In the design phase, this means deploying sufficient resources to build capacities across all parties, and during implementation internalizing the high costs of effective land-use emission reductions, which will necessarily involve compensation for local people. REDD+ should account for the costs of developing grounded social feasibility assessments so that, for example, it does not become a means to encroach upon peoples’ land and other rights. Finally, REDD+ initiatives need to avoid oversimplifying local contexts and mobilizing excessive resources to clarify tenure regimes, and should instead recognize social-ecological complexity, the existence of legal pluralism and messy tenure arrangements, which in turn translates to a range of plausible implementation outcomes (both positive and negative).

Overall, Brown’s book is a very useful guide to the early years of REDD+ formation and implementation, the social and environmental risks it entails, and ideas about how it can work better in the future. There are, however, a few weaknesses in the book that concerned me. First, I think that Brown often mistakenly refers to a REDD+ framework that has barely existed until very recently – i.e. a REDD+ based on tradable carbon offsets – when in reality most of the pilots in place at the time the book was written were conservation and development projects that, at best, were trying to generate carbon credits for the voluntary market. Second, while I agree that REDD+ has been excessively technocratic and top-down, it is also true that many have warned against its blueprint character and host countries have often been quite supportive of bottom-up or sub-national REDD+ activities that have tried to accommodate local realities, though success in doing so has been highly variable. Third, I would argue that the book fails to maintain its argument consistently throughout. This might be because it employs too many sections that can easily distract the reader, including (as indicated before) the chapters that could have been considered contextual information, as well as the extensive discussion in the central and final parts to develop the new ‘social contract’. Finally, and most problematically, I found scant evidence about the role that large-scale and commercial actors driving deforestation and forest degradation have played in REDD+ developments or, more critically, how to account for them in such proposed ‘social contract’. These actors are the missing piece in the REDD+ puzzle, and I would argue that it is impossible to fully redeem REDD+ until this piece is found and placed as a central part of the overall picture. Communities and indigenous peoples, whether they are involved or not in REDD+, cannot alone save the remaining tropical forests: in order to do this, they would also need a firm international and national commitment against the expansion of large-scale agriculture and timber operations, as well as profound changes in the global political economy of natural resource extraction and consumption.

An edited and published version of this text can be found here:

Corbera, E., (2017) Redeeming REDD. Policies, incentives and social feasibility for avoided deforestation, by M.I. Brown. Book review, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44:2, 502-506.

Six thoughts on ‘the carbon fix’

The following paragraphs present my reflections after reading four chapters of the book ‘The Carbon Fix’ (2016), edited by Stephanie Paladino and Shirley Fiske, and which I had the honor to preface. I acted as a discussant of these contributions in the recently held Annual Meeting of the American Association of Anthropologists, Minneapolis, 19th November 2016.

I would like to start thanking the Panel conveners and Book Editors, Shirley and Fiske, for inviting me to be here and to write the book’s Foreword. I’m not going to read the argument put together in the Foreword, which revolved around the importance of thinking about ‘The Carbon Fix’ through the lens of justice, but to sketch instead six thoughts I had when reading four of the articles led by James, Michael, Laura and Pam, who are here today.

First thought: Critique versus accommodation

The four papers reflect all together the tension between the rejection of ‘the carbon economy’ grounded on critical enquiry –regardless of the critique’s angle: anthropology, geography, political economy or ecological economics- and the acceptance of such economy, which comes with suggestions for improvement, such as making carbon projects or REDD+ activities more sensitive and attune with social-ecological contexts, as well as more sensitive to participation and distribution, at least at the national and local scales.

This tension is of course not new and it’s a recurrent one in debates about environmental offsetting, since its emergence in the 1970s in the United States, or in debates for other social policy domains, such as conditional cash transfers. Walden Bello, for example, has argued that conditional cash transfers are ‘about poverty containment rather than poverty reduction’, and that they are promoted by institutions that support forms of macro-economic growth that engender the conditions of poverty that such cash transfers are supposed to alleviate. Does it ring a bell?

Second thought: Long life to critique!

The second thought I had when reading the four articles is that critical scholars should be proud of themselves: I think we have contributed a lot to deflate the balloon of this new carbon economy or, while writing, we have made it look bigger than it has ever actually been. For example, offset markets are relatively small or they are working very poorly when compared to other commodity markets. Many airlines stopped offering offsets in 2011 onwards because nobody would pay for them. Three of the four articles show quite neatly that REDD+ has become more an aid-based mechanism, than it has been a market-based one with strong conditionalities attached. It has been more ‘aid/donor as usual’ by governments, NGOs and consultants, than a revolutionary mechanism leading to dispossessing farmers from forests –with unquestionable exceptions, of course. Many communities involved in REDD+ pilots worldwide are waiting for payments to materialize after participating in policy and project-based design processes.

I’m not suggesting that there are no markets at all, and that we have invented the balloon all together. But I’m suggesting that our critique might have been more effective than we could have imagined, resulting in less appetite for these new sort of ‘invisible’ nature commodities than we originally envisaged when we saw the balloon inflating. In Mexico, except for a few organisations now pushing for emission reduction initiatives under World Bank support, nobody associates REDD+ with carbon trading. NGOs want to think, rightly or wrongly –and we can discuss this later-, that REDD+ will mostly be about receiving money from the international community to develop sustainable rural development plans. Should this be seen as a conquest from the critics and from those who resist ‘the carbon fix’?

Third thought: Cashing in

Yes, we have probably contributed to deflate or explode the balloon altogether. However, while we were busy deconstructing nature and burying rather than sequestering carbon, a few cashed in and no tangible or relevant benefits reached forest communities. Three of the four papers argue that most of the money invested in preparing carbon forestry markets or REDD+ governance has gone to state governments, consultants, NGOs, and the like. Efforts to clarify tenure relations, particularly in favor of forest communities, have been weak. Activities geared at sustainable and profitable timber extraction that can uplift livelihoods have been limited to a few projects and have been insufficiently sustained over time. Time and money invested in social processes, such as participation and consent, or at building the social contract Michael advocates for, have been scarce.

Fourth thought: the never-ending story

This last point takes me to my fourth thought, which goes one step further: when is there ‘enough participation’ in ‘the carbon fix’? And what kind of participation should be pursued? Insights from the three empirical articles suggest that farmers, forest dwellers, and communities in general are poorly informed and misunderstand what’s behind a carbon or REDD+ project, i.e. the ultimate purpose, trading carbon, their additional objectives, supporting livelihoods, and how these should be achieved in practice. As a result, there are calls for more and better participation. But how? And funded by whom?

I just arrived from Mexico, where the government finalised a public consultation of the REDD+ strategy targeting thousands of villages throughout the country and developing dozens of focus group discussions in capitals and other towns of REDD+ priority regions. The process was apparently rushed, and somewhat flawed, but despite this tremendous effort, critiques from civil society organisations abound, on the grounds that more efforts are needed to reach everybody who might be potentially affected by future land management activities under REDD+. I could not agree more, but who would fund such continuous effort? When should we call participatory processes to a close? Which lending agencies and private donors are willing to support bottom-up participatory processes forever?

Another difficulty is to identify who should participate in these participatory processes and to develop those in a way that are both inclusive and respectful . Understanding tenure dynamics, understood as the set of social relations and property rights that glue the socio-ecological fabric that forests represent, is always a good starting point to deal with the whom and the how. As the Vietnam and Brazil papers implicitly suggest, this is by no means a straightforward task because legality and legitimacy in land tenure mean different things to different people. If we were to extend the participatory processes in the Brazilian carbon projects, why should not we also involve the migrants who threaten indigenous peoples’ territories? Which advantages or disadvantages would that have? And in Vietnam, should projects targeting state-owned forests involve the inhabiting but untitled communities? And those projects targeting land titled to ethnic groups… should they involve in participatory processes the government which feels entitled to carbon ownership and carbon rights?

Fifth thought: More ‘superfluous’ research

We, the academics in the room, have also benefited from the new carbon economy through the pursuit of research grants. Therefore, outlining a few areas of additional enquiry might sound superfluous, even hypocritical. Our panelists have shown that, in each project, or in the REDD+ preparedness phase, there is an important number of intermediaries about which we know little about: it is known who they are, but why they operate the way they do, in which countries, under which operational assumptions, and if they got involved in the carbon economy as a mode of institutional reproduction or as a life source has not been well researched and systematised.

The scholarship of the ‘new carbon economy’ has probably not been sufficiently in contact with anthropologists like those present in this conference and in this Panel. Articles about carbon projects and REDD+ have not sufficiently problematized very contested social entities like ‘the community’, or ‘the indigenous’. We have been more interested on unearthing the challenges of realising justice at the intersection of project proponents and communities, and of communities and the global community (including donors, prospective carbon buyers and citizens), or at the level of international negotiations, than we have been on explaining how carbon projects and offsets create new elites at local level, and how they might be helping some to gain power against others. We have also not paid sufficient attention to how these projects and REDD+ preparedness might have politically favored some social identities over others, and why.

Another under explored question relates to the existence of contradictory policy incentives that will compromise any promised emission reductions and the lack of interest in REDD+ activities by agribusiness, mining and timber companies.  In this regard, and during my stay in Mexico last week, an officer of the national forestry commission complained about how little interest the agricultural ministry had so far had in the REDD+ readiness phase and how difficult it had been for the forestry commission to receive attention from agribusinesses and timber management organisations. This is again a commonly found weakness of REDD+ preparedness throughout the world, which in turn suggest that those who aim to ‘trade nature to save it’ or ‘to destroy nature all together’ are, albeit some exceptions, two separate social networks. I think that we wrongly believe they go together because a few NGOs from the former group get funding from a few large multinationals from the latter.

Six thought: ‘Doing good, feeling bad’

Finally, I would not like to conclude without a final reflection that came to mind after reading Jim’s article. In my view, the mere existence of the conservationist movement, and the more recent ‘selling nature to trade it’ one, seems to connect with some kind of logic of ‘doing good’, rooted in a sense of guilt that we want to confront. This sense of guilt is related to our consumerist behavior, which has inextricable and complex links to a series of environmental impacts across the world. Knowing this springs in us a desire to find ways of alleviating these impacts and ease our consciousness. But the sense of guilt is also related to the fact that we have increasingly become urban beings, detached from everyday natural resource management, and who feel the need to support those who still live somewhat like our ancestors. So, the question becomes then, how can we approach or relate to nature under such individual and collective conditions of doing good, feeling bad and urban living? Should we simply discard whatever mode of environmental conservation action, dismantle related NGOs and focus our efforts on developing a non-capitalist and less urban global society? And, if so, where do we start?