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: http://unfccc.int/land_use_and_climate_change/lulucf/items/6917.php).

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. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2017.1287671

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