Making REDD work for the Congo Basin


Anyone who has been following the evolution of Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation –‘REDD’- could be forgiven harboring concerns as to how the mechanism will perform as it gears up for implementation over the next several years. The concept of REDD is just as compelling today as it was when first announced at the COP 11 of the UN Climate Convention in Montreal in 2005,

Avoiding deforestation and degradation in the Congo Basin means working at the grass roots – and that means drawing from lessons already learned in Community-based conservation.

Anyone who has been following the evolution of Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation –'REDD'- could be forgiven harboring concerns as to how the mechanism will perform as it gears up for implementation over the next several years. The concept of REDD is just as compelling today as it was when first announced at the COP 11 of the UN Climate Convention in Montreal in 2005,

and is just as urgently needed. It aims to halt the approximately 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions that are caused annually by tropical deforestation, by paying land users from private or bilateral funds to keep tropical forests standing, rather than cutting them down .

But achieving positive outcomes in REDD means relying on brand new under-tested concepts. One is the spatial analytical technologies capable of remotely detecting single crown removals over massive swaths of tropical forest, but the technology may be the simplest part of the equation.

A bigger REDD quagmire is in the social, political and economic challenges of monitoring, reporting and verifying REDD conservation activities, given that most countries where REDD is expected to take root are mired in political corruption. Critics have also pointed to the possibility that REDD could erode indigenous peoples' rights by restricting customary access to forests in the name of carbon conservation.

Guyana and Indonesia are furthest along in the process of integrating REDD into a national economic strategy. Indonesia is currently losing forest cover at an alarming rate, and Guyana is at risk of Brazilian colonels slashing and clearing. Each are slated to receive a billion dollars of bilateral REDD funding from Norway in return for establishing, among other things, a moratorium on new forest conversions. Unfortunately, in the lead up to REDD implementation, both countries continue to struggle with credibility issues following recent exposure of unregulated timber concession allocations by both governments.

Rocky beginnings in Guyana and Indonesia have lead many to wonder how the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – a country which cannot specify to the nearest million how many civilians were lost in its protracted civil war – will manage large funds across multiple government ministries, donor agencies, and civil society stakeholders to produce tangible, verifiable conservation benefits.

And the stakes could not be higher. The DRC is home to over 105 million hectares of intact forest – more than any country except Brazil –and most of the countries' rural citizens are directly dependent on this forest for timber, cooking wood, medicinal plants, arable land and other non-ligneous forest products . Unlike other major tropical forested countries, the DRC's deforestation rates have remained low over the past several decades, held down mainly by the infrastructural stagnation caused by decades of war. But as the country emerges into an unsteady peace, foreign investors, eager to build roads and to tap the estimated 24 trillion dollars in mineral wealth lying just beneath the thin layer of biomass, represent a large-scale and immediate threat to Congo's forests as well as global climatic stability.

For these reasons, there is a strong imperative on proponents of REDD in the Congo to get it right the first time. But what will 'getting it right' look like on the ground?


Context matters

Deforestation in the Congo Basin differs from that in South East Asia and the Amazon in a second critical way: it is driven less by global demand for commodities such as soy and palm oil as it is by local subsistence activities –mainly unregulated artisanal timber harvesting for local charcoal markets and slash and burn agriculture. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates as much as 80% of the Congo Basin's carbon emissions come from burning wood for cooking.


This fact highlights the unique character of Congo Basin-based REDD: real Emissions Reductions will be generated not through top- down designation of new protected areas or logging moratoriums alone, but at the grass roots.

The local nature of degradation drivers in the DRC bodes well for the future success of REDD, because it means that positive outcomes in REDD are intrinsically linked to positive outcomes in Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM). Unlike REDD itself, CBNRM has a long empirical legacy of successes and failures to draw from, which can be used to inform best practice project design.


Achieving successful REDD: Lessons from CBNRM

There are a number of practical solutions to the problem of unsustainable local wood use; improved stove efficiency and agricultural intensification techniques alone can achieve massive reductions in deforestation and degradation with very low technical and capital inputs.

However, the history of CBNRM in Sub-Saharan Africa tells us that failure to achieve community-based conservation objectives is rarely a function of insufficient funds or technology. Rather, CBNRM projects tend to fail in their stated objectives of conserving ecosystems while promoting sustainable development because they do not adequately consider critical aspects of community-based project design. Some of the most important lessons from CBNRM are outlined below.

Creating Appropriate Incentive Structures: REDD credits are created through shifting business as usual ('baseline') wood use and are measured in tonnes of CO2e, whose release into the atmosphere was prevented though project conservation activities. In the case of Community-based REDD, those credits are generated as rural stakeholders change their wood use patterns, in exchange for compensation.

How much compensation? In general terms, benefits shared with local stakeholders should be at least equivalent to lost opportunity costs. Because lost opportunity costs vary greatly across regions, project developers must develop a socio-economic baseline which quantifies the portion of household income derived from forest products and crops in cleared forest land.

Compensation should also be directly tied to baseline shifting activities in a way that is clear and tangible to the resource user. This means clear establishment of a project baseline in a way that is broadly understood and agreed upon by the stakeholder community. Compensation should also be success-based, and commensurate with the portion of conservation objectives that were achieved by the stakeholder in a given year.

What type of compensation? Because of low infrastructure and the absence of a coherent banking system outside of the capital, cash payments are less favorable than in-kind compensation. In return for successful achievement of conservation goals, a stakeholder community may, for example, chose to receive technical and financial assistance in establishing aquaculture facilities, or they may wish to improve a local clinic.

Participatory Project Design: The history of CBNRM demonstrates clearly that successful achievement of conservation goals is closely linked with inclusive project design, which incorporates stakeholders in meaningful decision-making at the earlier possible stage in order to ensure that a sense of ownership over project outcomes is felt by stakeholder communities. For example, participatory mapping using hand held GPS devices, and the creation of community-based land use plans which designate protected areas and multiple use areas. Beyond that, the establishment of a baseline should be seen as an opportunity to create technical capacity in forest carbon management within the stakeholder communities.

If REDD is implemented successfully at the village level where, low-level CO2 emissions are created, it will represent a viable development option for the DRC, seeking to balance economic growth with forest-dependent development objectives.


Jane Boles is currently managing a REDD project in the Democratic Republic of Congo for ERA Ecosystem Restoration Associates Inc. You can reach her at [email protected]