REDD+ and Rural Communities: Threat or Opportunity?

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Community leaders in Ixtlán de Juárez, Oaxaca




One of the “hot-button” issues surrounding REDD+ that will no doubt generate heated debate at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP16), to be held in Cancun, Mexico, this December, is that of rights to forests and carbon. Representatives of rural communities, especially indigenous groups, are already posing tough questions to determine whether REDD+ schemes will harm or help them and how.

Four presentations, followed by vigorous question-and-answer as well as round-table sessions on “rights, livelihoods and forests” (the fourth and final theme of the Oaxaca workshop) provided an engaging preview of scenes that are likely to unfold at COP16. They addressed the issues in detail, drawing on diverse experiences and evidence from Latin America.

The first paper shared insights on land tenure and carbon rights from Brazil, Costa Rica and Mexico, whose histories in relation to these issues and whose current positions on REDD+ contrast sharply. The presenter described a “wave of significant land tenure reforms” that have swept across Latin America since the 1980s, mainly affecting forests and often “recognizing the [land] rights of indigenous peoples,” particularly in Mexico and to a lesser extent in the two other countries. These reforms have created opportunities for rural people to build livelihoods based at least in part on sustainable management of forest products, while by no means guaranteeing such a happy outcome.

With rights, of course, come responsibilities, so if rural communities receive funding for carbon storage, then presumably they will also “become directly liable for future potential carbon losses,” said the first presenter. One option for avoiding such situations is to divorce land tenure from carbon rights, making the latter a public commodity and leaving the state responsible for carbon storage under new REDD+ schemes.

This line of thinking has many worried that governments might recentralize forest management – reversing many of the social gains that have accrued from land tenure reform – presumably to take up the burden of carbon accountability but also perhaps to seize control of the large sums of money involved.

For that and other reasons, some indigenous groups fear they will receive little but crumbs from the REDD+ table, said the second presenter on the rights theme. At recent conferences in Bolivia and Costa Rica, he noted, representatives of some groups complained that, just as they have historically been deprived of benefits from the use of natural resources in their territories – including timber, minerals and hydrocarbons – history will mostly likely repeat itself with REDD+.

This expert proposed a “territorial” approach through which indigenous groups assume responsibility for managing REDD+ schemes in the huge forest areas for which they have title. In order for such an arrangement to work, governments must recognize the rights and autonomy of rural people, including indigenous groups, which will need to revitalize or reinvent their customary forms of governance on a large territorial scale.

A third presenter proposed instead that the new REDD+ architecture be created from the bottom up, resting heavily on community forest management. Citing evidence from Bolivia, Mexico and Brazil, he argued that rural communities have proved to be a powerful force for creating local forestry enterprises, which raise rural incomes and foster sustainable management practices. Ideally, he suggested, community-based initiatives should be enmeshed in organizational networks with governance institutions operating at the local, regional and national scales.

Until there is greater clarity about rural people’s participation in REDD+, however, they will likely continue to see it, said the fourth presenter, as a torre sin escalera (“tower without a ladder”) – possibly a desirable place to be, or perhaps not, but difficult to reach in any case.

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