Equity and REDD+: are we there yet?

The global scheme to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from deforestation and degradation plus conservation needs equitable distribution of both costs and benefits if it is to achieve its goals


Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions—and hence limiting global warming—by slowing or stopping deforestation and degradation of forests, plus conserving them, seemed like a ‘quick fix’ when it was first mooted more than ten years ago, according to Dr Maria Brockhaus of the Center for International Forestry Research and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

Dr Brockhaus, who was speaking at the 6th ASEAN Social Forestry Network Conference, Inle Lake, Myanmar, held 1–3 June 2015, added that, ‘However, it soon became apparent that implementing such schemes in developing countries wasn’t as easy as first thought’.

She was speaking from experience, having conducted a study with a team of researchers supported by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, Australian Aid, UK AID, European Commission, USAID and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

Dr Maria Brockhaus presenting at the 6th ASEAN Social Forestry Network Conference, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 1-3 June 2015. Photo: ASEAN Social Forestry Network

Dr Maria Brockhaus presenting at the 6th ASEAN Social Forestry Network Conference, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 1-3 June 2015. Photo: ASEAN Social Forestry Network


A range of agendas adhered to the concept as it advanced in detailed research in some of the most complex social and biophysical sites on the planet. One important discussion that emerged was that in any REDD+ scheme, equity of both distribution of costs and benefits and equal participation in decision making was essential for ensuring both legitimacy and effectiveness. Globally, this was seen as ‘turning the tables’ insomuch as developing countries would no longer be receivers of aid but providers of a globally needed service; it would also provide social safeguards that would protect the most vulnerable. For developing nations, it looked like being able to encourage a mix of policies that would support conservation, reform of land tenure and rights, and other even larger policy reforms. In the communities that would be implementing the schemes, equity promised benefits for forest stewardship through payments-for-environmental-services schemes, cash and co-benefits, such as improved governance, particularly, participation in decision making.

carbon, REDD+

REDD+ equity was about more than just carbon. Source: Badan Pengelola REDD+, Indonesia

So what had started out as a ‘quick fix’ for global warming and climate change had soaked up a much larger agenda in which transformational change through shifts in incentives, discursive practices and power relations in the REDD+ policy arena would also lead to equity outcomes, beyond effective and efficient delivery of carbon results.

Meanwhile, a parallel discussion was arguing that REDD+ threatened to become an incentive to sideline indigenous people, who are often holders of informal property rights, and to ‘carbonise’ and ‘monetarise’ Nature.

Protest against proposed program such as REDD+. Source: Indymedia.org.au

Protest against proposed program such as REDD+. Source: Indymedia.org.au

‘Some people were arguing that REDD+ would be a “cheap excuse” for the off-setters of high carbon emissions, particularly in developed countries, who wanted to pay for their sins without changing their behaviours; a form of “payment for indulgence”’, added Dr Brockhaus. ‘Concomitant with this was the claim that the “real” profits would go to private investors, so-called “carbon cowboys”, and that, furthermore, REDD+ masked a “recentralization” of forests and benefits not for communities but for the state and its administration’.

money, forest

‘There’s money in them thar trees’. Source: Center for International Forestry Research

To better understand the way debates were being formed in forest-rich developing countries themselves, Dr Brockhaus and team conducted an analysis of how equity was framed in media representations of national REDD+ policy debates in Indonesia, Brazil, Viet Nam and Peru. They found that reports showed that national state actors (except Viet Nam) engaged mainly with global equity issues whereas civil society organizations mostly focused on domestic equity. In all four countries, the most discussed equity issue by the state actors was benefit sharing from REDD+; followed by non-state actors’ concerns about impacts on livelihoods, tenure and indigenous rights and participation. Incidentally, there was almost no discussion about gender equity.

Another study looked at discourses around ‘who should benefit and why’. The different discourses had different implications for design of any benefit-sharing mechanisms, particularly about trade-offs: effectiveness and efficiency versus equity. Effectiveness and efficiency focused on the goal of reducing emissions whereas equity emphasised who had the right to benefit.

Dr Brockhaus summarized the rationales behind the various benefit-sharing arguments (see links for source documentation): Rationale 1: benefits should go to actors with legal rights related to carbon emission reductions (‘legal rights’ rationale); Rationale 2: benefits should go to those who reduce emissions (‘emission reductions’ rationale); Rationale 3: benefits should go to forest stewards (‘stewardship’ rationale); Rationale 4: actors incurring costs should be compensated (‘cost-compensation’ rationale); Rationale 5: benefits should go to effective facilitators of implementation (‘facilitation’ rationale); and Rationale 6: benefits should go to the poor (‘pro-poor’ rationale).

She noted that if the actual objective of a REDD+ benefit-sharing mechanism is not defined, countries will face the risk that all related decisions then lack legitimacy in terms of the legal mandate to do so and regarding adherence to due process and to procedural rights.

As an example of other risks involved, all hampering the delivery of equity outcomes, Dr Brockhaus referred to a case study from Cameroon, which has two main mechanisms of benefit-sharing: 1) a decentralized forestry taxation system; and 2) land fees. In both, risks were clearly related to institutional path dependencies (for example, leftover colonial rules) in the process of establishing land tenure; a top–down approach to establishing a governance system for the distribution of forest fees; and a lack of transparency in the fee-distribution process.

To illustrate another type of risk, decision-making and discussions about REDD+, in general, and benefit sharing, in particular, can be dominated by self-selecting, powerful actors. In the case of Viet Nam, government agencies play a dominant role in REDD+ policy-making and there is limited political space for non-state actors, such as non-governmental and civil society organizations, to exert an influence on the final policy.

Despite all of this, it’s still fair to ask what hinders translating lessons and realizing transformational change for equity into policy and then practice. Dr Brockhaus and team suggested that even though in various countries there are new agencies and policy coalitions emerging for ensuring equity in REDD+, the rhetoric of the most powerful was still ‘business as usual’. Incentive structures had changed somewhat but without clarity and transparency over the objectives of countries’ REDD+ benefit-sharing mechanisms and, hence, lack of clarity over the legitimacy of those that make decisions about REDD+, it seems that this will lead only to a reinforcement of existing patterns of rent seeking. As for shifts in power relations, little progress could be seen.

So, has equity through REDD+ really ‘turned the tables’? Hardly, according to Dr Brockhaus.

‘Rather, the “aid-ification” of REDD+—richer nations giving grants to poorer—is slightly worrying if it becomes a longer-term reality’, she said. ‘And in international and national REDD+ policy arenas, “business as usual” remains dominant.

‘It is by now quite clear that REDD+ is not the easy, quick and cheap solution to global warming that we had hoped but we still do see strong agreement on the need for equity in the REDD+ agenda. However, to deliver on this, more effort is needed to build capacity in policy, to gather experiences and lessons about the risks for equity and about how to manage those risks, from other sectors and countries and, in particular, from REDD+ demonstration sites’.


REDD+, equity, publications

Publications of the research team into REDD+ equity. Source: Center for International Forestry Research/CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry


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The ASEAN Social Forestry Network is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry


Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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