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Communities need more than money to stop clearing their forests, new research shows

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Issue date: 
September 2, 2013
Publisher Name: 
Valerie Giesen
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According to a recent study funded by the World Bank and published in Science magazine, tropical land use change was responsible for 7 to 14 percent of gross human-induced carbon emissions between 2000 and 2005. Forests are valuable storage places for large amounts of carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming when it enters the earth’s atmosphere. This is because plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) and transform it into energy necessary for growing in a process called photosynthesis (for details, see the May 2013 Exactly how to trees fight climate change article by Institute for Advanced Development Studies (INESAD) researcher Tracey Li). Land use changes such as clearing forests for agriculture or construction mean that forests are less able to extract COfrom the atmosphere and store it. Additionally, burning trees—which, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are made up of around 50 percent carbon—to clear land releases the carbon that was previously stored in the them.

To help curb deforestation rates, the United Nations (UN) is promoting a mechanism for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD). In this framework, countries will be rewarded financially for halting deforestation and forest degradation. The framework was renamed REDD+ in 2010, when the United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC) Cancun Agreements added activities to increase carbon stocks in forest areas by planting new forests—reforestation—and by promoting sustainable forest management. REDD+ is a market mechanism that gives the carbon stored in forests a financial value and pays developing countries to keep their trees intact. This money would make it possible for governments to compensate landowners for profits they would lose by not clearing their forests. In other words, as was put by INESAD’s Dr. Lykke Andersen in the institute’s video The REDD Dilemma, the mechanism tries to “tip the balance” in favor of leaving trees standing.

However, the program’s implementation is still a long way off as it faces criticism from developing countries and the scientific community. One of these specifically challenges the output-based model of incentives that REDD+ is currently focused on. An ‘output-based’ design compensates landowners simply for what they do not destroy, while an input-based design also commits to providing money for the labor needed to ensure sustainable forest management if they stop clearing old-growth forest.

To test what actually works in Bolivia’s communities, Dr. Patrick Bottazzi a senior research scientist at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) in Bern and his colleagues recently analyzed output-based designs that dominate in Latin America and explored alternative, input-based incentives to make REDD+ work. Their brand new 2013 study, published this month in the journal Ecological Economics, is an example of how applied research can take on accepted orthodoxy productively. Over the course of eight months an interdisciplinary team, including anthropologists, forestry experts, and a spatial analyst, conducted fieldwork among 12 communities of 208 farming families in the Bolivian Amazon in order to explore under what circumstances communities could be involved in the management of their forests under REDD+. Interviews, focus groups, and household surveys were used to analyze local uses of the forest, agricultural practices, and the local labor market to calculate the communities’ present agricultural value. The researchers found that there were significant differences between ‘agricultural communities’ that have already cleared large parts of their forest and ‘forest communities’ with high proportions of forest intact. Then, the team measured the density of local forests and how much carbon they stored to estimate the forests’ productivity as well as the area’s carbon emissions. The trade-offs between these variables were analyzed in input- and output-based scenarios to compare how much communities would earn under both circumstances and how much it would cost to implement the programs.

In their study, Bottazzi and his colleagues argue that a differentiated approach to the two types of communities’ diverse situations will be paramount for REDD+’s effective implementation. Logically, they found that output-based financial incentives—the current REDD+ orthodoxy—are financially more attractive for agricultural communities, while forest communities favored alternative, and often cheaper, input-based sustainable forest management approaches. The team’s research shows that communities with high shares of old-growth forest would stand to actually profit financially from input-based strategies that pay them, as well as provide training and other support, for forest management. These strategies would also uncouple local income from carbon market prices. Thus, in order to achieve its goals, REDD+ would need to be implemented on a case-by-case basis, with different strategies for different communities; and focus more on linking local livelihoods with forest conservation.

The study also questions the assumption that financial incentives are enough to persuade people to change their livelihoods. Bottazzi explained in an interview with Development Roast that financial incentives alone will not be sufficient to discourage deforestation, because they require the reduction of the farmers’ primary income earning activities, such as agricultural labor. Farmers clear more forest when their other land becomes less productive. Within this setting, REDD+ is asking them to stop farming without creating new employment opportunities, which runs the risk of side effects such as increased migration to cities. Therefore, Bottazzi emphasizes, valuing and rewarding labor—instead of simply reducing it—must urgently come into the political agenda. Helping farmers grow crops in a more sustainable manner that enriches the earth—instead of destroying it—so that they do not need to clear more forest is another overlooked deforestation reduction strategy, adds INESAD researcher Ioulia Fenton.

Bottazzi and his colleagues show that there are still many possible schemes to implement the overall objective of REDD+. They show how different local situations, such as those of the forestry and agricultural communities in the Bolivian Amazon, can be matched by multiple mechanisms. Of course problems remain. It is not clear, for example, how local communities will be incorporated into the implementation of REDD+, nor how to avoid power over local issues shifting to the funding agencies of the global north. Nevertheless, the CDE team’s commitment to understanding whether and how REDD+ could benefit smallholders, not just large-scale forest owners, takes this strand of research in a much-needed, constructive direction.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut