Can REDD+ protect the trees that nourish nut harvesters in Peru’s Amazon rainforest?

Concerns that Brazil nut harvesters won't see direct benefits themselves from the carbon storage scheme.

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A family collects Brazil nuts from their forest. Kristen Evans/CIFOR

PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru (1 October, 2012) _ Families in Peru have for decades carved out a living harvesting the nutrient dense, half-moon shaped Brazil nuts from 40-foot-high emergent trees in the Amazon. But with rainforests rapidly disappearing and Brazil nut-rich forests under threat, these communities are now looking towards a UN-backed forest preserving program as their last potential hope.

REDD or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, sees forest-rich countries compensated for conserving carbon stored in trees while promoting alternative livelihoods and poverty alleviation.

The nature of Brazil nut harvesting makes it a perfect candidate for a REDD project given that survival of the Brazil nut tree is dependent upon a relatively pristine forest capable of maintaining the large bodied bee species which pollinate the trees – Brazil nut trees do not fare well in disturbed forests or in plantations and thus the integrity of the REDD project is ensured through the survival of the Brazil nut trees.

Canadian researcher Valerie Garrish spent four months in the northeastern region of Madre de Dios from October 2011 to January 2012 interviewing Peruvian nut collectors about plans to establish a local REDD project which would assist in conserving the forest which house the Brazil nut tree.

The project is being set up by the private Peruvian company, Bosques Amazonicos which aims to become a global leader in the development and commercialization of forestry and environmental assets. It is one of many sub-national REDD pilot projects popping up all over Peru, which is losing 224,000 hectares of forest every year to farmers, miners, loggers, gas and oil extractors, as well as migrants brought by the construction of the inter-oceanic highway.

Garrish spoke to Brazil nut harvesters about their expectations and concerns for the scheme. Meanwhile, the project propopent has promised that a Brazil nut processing plant, legal and technical assistance as well as a rapid response system to address illegal land invasions will eventually be implemented implemented throughout the Brazil nut concession area.

Garrish plans to return over 2013 and 2014 to reevaluate whether the REDD project has helped protect their forests, create jobs and improve incomes. Her findings will be shared with the local communities, the REDD project leaders and other stakeholders including policy makers, non-governmental organizations and private companies to help guide them in developing future REDD projects.

“We like to say that we provide independent, scientific assessments of REDD projects in the field,” said Garrish, who is not alone.

She’s part of a team of scientists dispatched by the Center for International Forestry Research to Brazil, Cameroon, Tanzania, Indonesia and Vietnam over the last two years to learn about similar projects during the “pre-implementation” stage of REDD+. They’ve interviewed nearly 4,000 households in 170 villages, districts and provinces.

The primary goal of the 400 plus participating Brazil nut harvesters, who still engage in laborious and hazardous manual methods to harvest their nuts, was pretty straightforward, Garrish said. Their short term goals are to increase their income and encourage market stability.

Neil Palmer/CIAT

However stability and planning are elusive concepts to the harvesters. In January 2012, for example, harvesters said they were able to negotiate prices close to 200 USD per “barrica” — a basket containing approximately 60 kilos of shelled Brazil nuts — in the market. Upon revisiting sites a little more than six months later, harvesters were lamenting that prices had rapidly and unforeseeably fallen by nearly 400 percent.

Although almost all appreciate the value of protecting forests, harvesters still have many concerns about REDD. In the face of increasingly stringent regulations, will they be able to maintain control over their long-term, government granted concessions to extract nuts, for example? Can they expect to be adequately compensated for carbon storage in their forests? Is this yet another empty promise in a region beset by short term and short sighted conservation projects, or will the project eventually become a reality?

They are also desperate for more project information and more transparency, saying most of what they understand of REDD at the moment comes filtered from the project proponent and other stakeholders.

“We are telling you our concerns like we tell our concerns to the president when he is on an official visit,” one villager told Garrish during a meeting in a small community near Puerto Maldonado. Harvesters often do not know to whom they can turn to receive unbiased, reliable information on the project.

Research gathered so far is extremely rich and useful, Garrish said, but not without its challenges because there isn’t a “standard profile” of a harvester with which to work.

Some depend entirely on the annual harvest, mainly achieved during the first half of the year, while others complement their income with small business enterprises, agricultural production (both subsistence and a small proportion of cash crops), extraction of timber and animal farming with a minority of them even engaged in cattle ranching.

Many other factors come into play, as well, including local and international markets.

When nuts are fetching a high price at market, harvesters invest less time on their “chacras” — the quechua word for the allotments where they grow their own food, Garrish said.

“Harvesters are generally happier to purchase their food rather than harvest themselves when resources permit. Moreover, when prices are high, they often hire more help.”

One of the biggest, shared concerns from communities engaged in the project pertains to rights over the nut concessions.

In the last decade, more than a thousand 40-year concessions have been granted to harvesters in approximately one million hectares of public forest. These contracts are subject to annual approval of management plans by the government, however, some holders worry that REDD+ will usher in a new set of rules and that their rights may eventually be revoked or limited.

Some people worry too that they won’t see direct benefits themselves from the carbon storage scheme.

None of this is too uncommon, Garrish noted, in part because REDD+ implementation across the world is still in the early stages and so it is difficult for many to place much faith in its success.

A recent CIFOR publication shows communities in other parts of the world, regardless of differences in context and the types of projects, have similar concerns.

“The key challenges for REDD projects are: communicate to villagers how REDD projects work, the opportunities and risks, and the rights and responsibilities; to involve villagers meaningfully in the design and implementation of the project; and to balance forest protection with the welfare concerns of villagers,” the preliminary CIFOR findings in Peru show.

Edited by Robin McDowell and Michelle Kovacevic.

This work is part of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+, which is supported by The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) and AusAid.

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