Ensuring the rights of forest people in REDD+ programmes
The idea behind REDD+ is simple: Reward the people who manage forest resources in developing countries so they reduce emissions and increase removals of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
But ensuring that the rights of forest peoples are formally integrated in climate change programmes like REDD+ is much more complex – and elusive. Here is a case in point: a draft text presented for approval at the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
‘The text contains an explicit reference to the importance of safeguarding and promoting the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and to securing their participation in the REDD+ process,” said CIFOR scientist William Sunderlin, , co-author of an editorial on REDD+ and forest peoples’ rights in the current issue of Global Environmental Change.
‘But the draft did not become official in Copenhagen because a binding agreement was not reached,’ said Sunderlin. ‘Still, the reference in the draft is important and should be a central part of future texts because it acknowledges the background on which REDD+ is developing: the historical dispossession, political exclusion and cultural marginalisation of forest people in forest management.’
A complex issue that requires a complex approach
In most tropical countries, governments have placed forests under state ownership and set up centralised forestry departments to manage them. Political decision making has excluded forest people from meaningful participation, even where governments are democratically elected. They have found themselves outside the cultural mainstream, seeing their group-specific identities devalued. Unfortunately, state forestry has been neither equitable nor effective: Forest cover has declined and many forests have become degraded throughout the tropics.
At the same time, the rights of the world’s estimated 1.6 billion forest people have been increasingly recognised in national laws and international agreements. Rights have also emerged as a central rallying point in the demands of forest people and their supporters.
The editorial discusses three distinct approaches for securing the rights of forest people. One centres on the transfer of tenure rights to forest people, building on the premise that the redistribution of forest tenure is necessary to redress people’s historical dispossession. Another approach promotes rights for indigenous people and their organisations that lobby for a broad range of issues, such as promoting participation in political processes. And the third emphasises the relevance of human rights to forestry.
Three principles for REDD+ actions
From these approaches it is possible to distil three broad principles for recognising the rights of forest peoples in future REDD-plus actions, said Thomas Sikor, Researcher in International Development at the University of East Anglia and lead author of the editorial.
‘First, forest people must participate in political decision making regarding their own affairs,’ he said. ‘For this to happen, governments have to implement policies that encourage public participation and democratic control over forests. Forest people must be involved in the design, development and implementation of REDD-plus actions from the outset.’
Equitable distribution of forest benefits is the second principle. It can mean distribution of forest land rights, use or the goods and services that forests provide. Some countries are redressing the historical exclusion of forest people from ownership or access rights by redistributing forest tenure. To fairly share in benefits from forests, forest people are receiving logging receipts, payments for environmental services, and the profits generated through community–company partnerships.
‘The third principle is recognition,’ said Sikor. ‘This refers to forest people’s particular identities, experiences and visions. Many forest people see themselves as outside the cultural mainstream and find their own cultures devalued. Acknowledging social and cultural differences helps to overcome stigmas attached to forest people and to prevent the loss of diverse cultures.’
The need for nested levels of forest and climate governance
Forest people’s rights cannot be simply defined in a uniform and universal manner at global scale. REDD+ requires nested governance practices that extend from global to national and local scales. Decision-making processes at multiple levels will help define different types of forest rights at different scales.
Clearly defined rights at national level will ground more specific legal relationships and promote uniformly applied procedures. Still, actors can only determine at local level the concrete bundles of rights and duties regarding forest resources, functions and distribution of benefits among stakeholders.
‘Recognition of forest people’s rights remains a huge challenge for the global climate agenda,’ said Professor Katrina Brown, editor of Global Environmental Change. ‘New technologies and financial incentives are obviously important, but appropriate governance is a critical prerequisite. The road ahead is messy. But there is no choice if humanity wants to undertake effective and equitable actions to mitigate climate change.’