When tenure reform for REDD+ needs a second wind

Broader, national programs for land tenure reform are needed to support tenure progress achieved through REDD+.
Secure land tenure is increasingly recognized as an essential prerequisite for REDD+.

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Initially promising efforts to strengthen land tenure in tropical forest countries may need a fresh injection of resources and political will if they are to be sustained, cases from Tanzania, Brazil and Indonesia show.

Secure land tenure is increasingly recognized as an essential prerequisite for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), a scheme that involves making payments to reward reductions in deforestation and its associated emissions.

Tanzania, for example, which began preparing for REDD+ in 2008, has emphasized Participatory Forest Management (PFM) as a basis for REDD+.

“Tanzania has very good guidelines on participatory land use planning,” Rahima Njaidi of the Community Forest Conservation Network of Tanzania (MJUMITA) said at the recent REDD+ Exchange in Oslo.

“By-laws at the village level say exactly how a particular resource is going to be used by a community.”

Njaidi added that local rules could be enforced by the courts in the same way as national law, and that discussions of REDD+ had pushed those rules into prominence.

“The national Tanzanian REDD+ strategy and safeguards all try to incorporate the importance of land use planning,” she said.

Tenure is a crucial issue for REDD+ because, if and when international donors are ready to pay for efforts to store carbon in the forests, they must be able to identify who owns them.

This condition has prompted renewed interest in long-standing tenure issues in many tropical countries, including Tanzania. Yet the case of the east African nation shows that a new impetus is required beyond the stage of recognition and early measures.

“[Tanzania] is a huge country with more than 10,000 villages,” Njaidi said. “Land use planning is a long and expensive process, and many villages have not achieved it yet.”

She added that encroachment remained a common problem in the case of big, land-hungry projects such as mines.

Fragile achievements

In the past few decades, Brazil has emerged as a world leader in the improvement of tenure security and clarity — and is experiencing the associated environmental benefits.

“Establishing indigenous territories was instrumental in reducing deforestation,” said Adriana Ramos, deputy executive secretary of Brazilian local rights advocacy group Instituto Socioambiental.

“The Constitution says that the land is owned by the state but all natural resources are for the exclusive use of indigenous people.” Forty percent of Brazil’s forests are now recognized as indigenous territory, Ramos noted — but warned that those tenure rights did not extend to underground resources. Without a detailed tenure plan for use under REDD+, the recent achievements remain fragile.

“Congress is considering legislation to allow mining in indigenous territories. But we don’t yet have a REDD+ strategy,” she said.

“We believe that if we allow mining without having the regulations in place for all other activities, we are going to put huge pressure on those landscapes.”

Other competing claims, such as government plans to attribute land to the descendants of slaves, could also jeopardize newly established tenure rights — a risk that is beginning to discourage some villagers from taking the steps needed to claim their rights, according to Ramos.

“The rights we have achieved were a result of mobilization. Now we have to group together again to make sure we maintain them,” she said.

Ramos argued that national authorities must remain strongly engaged if tenure reform is to get the second wind it requires — especially as doubts and delays mount around REDD+.

This is a landmark decision, but it will only be meaningful in the REDD+ context if it gets actualized

William Sunderlin

So too says William Sunderlin, a scientist who is studying more than 70 villages in areas under REDD+ pilot projects around the world for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Brazil is among the countries where Sunderlin has found that the awareness and engagement of tenure problems among local organizations promoting REDD+ projects are simply not enough.

“You have big companies that are making claims on local forests, and proponents who are working at the level of the project do not have the means and the leverage to resolve pressure on forests whose origin and scope is well beyond the boundaries of the project,” he said.

Constitutional change

Sunderlin’s research exposed similar situations in other countries. Nevertheless, change is underway in some cases.

“In Indonesia, for example, the preparations for REDD+ have led to the recognition of indigenous people’s customary forests by decision of the Constitutional Court in May 2013,” Sunderlin said.

The Court ruled that land traditionally used by forest people could not be regarded as state-owned.

“This is a landmark decision, but it will only be meaningful in the REDD+ context if it gets actualized – if it is not simply a decision on paper but actually leads to a situation where these rights are effective for the people who claim them,” Sunderlin said.

In another positive example, his colleague Anne Larson said that a World Bank-led initiative supporting preparations for REDD+ had just allocated funding to a group of indigenous organizations in Peru that list land rights as their top priority.

Yet unless such strong moves are generalized, researchers believe tenure will remain an unsolved problem — albeit one clearly identified by experts and community groups preparing REDD+ projects.

As Larson and Sunderlin wrote in a recent paper on land tenure and REDD+: “The findings suggest that in most cases REDD+ has clearly provided some new opportunities for securing local tenure rights, but that piecemeal interventions by project proponents at the local level are insufficient in the absence of broader, national programs for land tenure reform.”

For further information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact William Sunderlin at

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

William Sunderlin discussed his research at the CIFOR side event “Getting REDD+ off the ground: Challenges and opportunities” at the University of Warsaw on Friday 15 November.

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Topic(s) :   REDD+ Community forestry Rights