In Nepal and Papua New Guinea, media does little to explain REDD+

Media needs to be able to simplify the complexities of REDD+ to help build public understanding.

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BOGOR, Indonesia (31 October, 2012)_Mainstream media coverage of REDD+ in the forested nations of Nepal and Papua New Guinea is dominated by government policy makers and experts, while the voices of traditional land owners and local communities are conspicuously absent, two new studies by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) have found.

And because journalists in both countries are ill-equipped to constructively analyse policies linked to the U.N.-backed scheme, they often have had little influence in shaping public debate which may prove to be critical to the scheme’s success.

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD+, was introduced to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2005 as a way to offer financial rewards to developing countries that agree to stop cutting down their trees – one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Participants would be eligible for “credits,” which could be sold on the international carbon market, helping ensure that the poor, tropical nations will be able to continue to develop and prosper economically.

Researchers from CIFOR and its partner organisations looked at the quality and quantity of coverage REDD+ got in the newspapers from 2005 to 2011. In these countries, the forested land is either held by customary land-owners or is being actively managed by the community forest groups – with limited direct management role of the government or private companies.

‘Very little’ and ‘inadequate’ was the verdict in Nepal, where it was the rate of glacial melt in the Himalayas that dominated climate change headlines. (The IPCC overestimated the figure in their annual report in 2007 and publicly apologised for it in 2010).

REDD+ got scant mention.

Dil Bahadur Khatri, lead author of REDD+ Politics in the Media: A Case Study From Nepal, said “that was largely because the Nepalese media found the issue too complex and too technical to understand or write about.”

“They lack the confidence to comprehend the issue and they rely on the experts for analysis,” he said.

Nepal has a long history of forest management – logging and reforestation – and its forests remained primarily under central control until the 1980s when decentralised local groups began to manage the forests of the mountainous country.

Today, over a third of its 5.8 million hectares of forest are controlled by local communities.

[Journalists] lack the confidence to comprehend [REDD+] and they rely on the experts for analysis.

Political discussions about REDD+, however, have been concentrated in the capital city of Kathmandu, dominated by experts, bureaucrats, international and non-governmental organisations.

The press also largely ignored the people who would be most directly impacted by the scheme – local forest user groups, said Pham Thu Thuy, CIFOR scientist and collaborator with the Nepal study team.

This concern also rings true in Papua New Guinea, where by comparison there was a great deal of REDD+ coverage.

“People in Papua New Guinea have been quite open and excited about the idea of REDD+, they are keen for sustainable livelihood options as well as the potential to generate income,” said Andrea Babon, CIFOR researcher and lead author of REDD+ Politics in the media: A case study from Papua New Guinea.

“But the average land owner, living in a remote area and often illiterate or unable to read English [the language of most printed newspapers in Papua New Guinea] has little access to information about REDD+, and so their voices are not being represented in the media,” she said.

PNG is home to the third largest intact tract of tropical forest in the world and unlike most tropical countries, nearly all of it is held under customary tenure by the traditional land owners, not the state.

One of the reasons for all the REDD+ press coverage is that the nation itself proposed the program (along with Costa Rica) at COP11 in Montreal in 1995. There was also a great deal of media flurry over the potential for carbon cowboys — carbon credit dealers who often exploit local communities to gain control over their land.

“This undercuts the real issue at hand around how the benefits will be distributed, and how funding will be handled. People on the ground don’t trust the government to spend the money wisely – they worry they won’t see any benefits,” Babon said.

The national government dominated newspaper coverage, leading to a widespread lack of critical analysis of REDD+ by newspapers and radio stations, either because journalists repeated government statements verbatim without criticism, or because government officials would simply write editorials and articles themselves.

“Journalists seem to have difficulties accessing clear explanations of scientific and technical aspects of REDD+ from experts who are familiar with PNG context,” said Ronald Sofe, co-author and researcher at the National Research Institute of Papua New Guinea.

Some journalists don’t have access to the internet to get information from a range of sources (including those outside PNG) and often rely on sources who have their own agendas to push. There is an urgent need for REDD+ to be picked apart by the media, otherwise the scheme’s progress could be hampered, he said.

Babon adds that if the media are unable to simplify the complex discourse surrounding REDD+ to build public understanding, it could further complicate issues of public awareness and scrutiny of REDD+ development and its progress going forward. 

“Without a basic level of awareness of REDD+ and its likely costs and benefits, communities will be unable to provide their free, prior and informed consent for REDD+ schemes, which is increasingly being recognised as a pre-requisite for REDD+ to be equitable,” she said.  

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