REDD+ readiness strategies largely overlook root causes of deforestation

"Countries should look beyond the forest canopy," urges expert, to find the underlying causes of deforestation.
Oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Photo by Ryan Woo

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BOGOR, Indonesia – Most countries devising national strategies to curb carbon emissions through avoided deforestation and forest degradation do little to actually address the root causes of deforestation, a new study has found.

The study examined 98 readiness documents from 43 countries undertaking REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) programs. It found that only 10 nations had planned interventions that explicitly addressed particular drivers of deforestation. Nineteen others acknowledged the importance of addressing drivers in their documents without targeting specific drivers; 14 made no mention of drivers at all.

This has major implications for monitoring the effectiveness of REDD+ projects. Current monitoring efforts tend to focus on verifiable changes in carbon emissions associated with changes in forests, the study notes; enhanced monitoring capacity will be required to account for broader causes of deforestation that current methods often miss, such as socio-economic drivers of deforestation and activities outside forests.

“The danger of not considering drivers is that, as countries focus on forest conservation and increasing carbon stocks, the underlying causes of deforestation will persist,” said the report’s chief author, Giulia Salvini, a researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“Countries will find themselves in a situation where they are feeding two opposite trends: promoting forest conservation and at the same time allowing certain forces to keep driving deforestation and forest degradation,” she said.


The study looked at two types of causes, or drivers, of deforestation: direct and underlying.

Direct drivers of deforestation and forest degradation on the ground vary widely depending on the country, researchers note – from expansion of palm oil plantations in Indonesia to cattle ranching in Brazil; from logging in Cameroon to cross-border trade in Mozambique.

Underlying drivers are broader, more powerful forces, and are thus more difficult to measure – including everything from international markets to commodity prices; from population growth to poverty.

Strategies that focus solely on direct drivers to show quantifiable emissions reductions are at risk of placing less emphasis on addressing the broader underlying forces behind forest loss. Conversely, 29 of the 43 countries in the study proposed interventions that mentioned underlying drivers, but very few connected them to the direct, on-the-ground drivers of deforestation in their respective countries.

It seems that countries are still shying away from larger reforms that would enable the required change and new policies for REDD+

Maria Brockhaus

According to Salvini, countries looking to achieve climate change mitigation goals merely by slashing carbon emissions are forgetting that deforestation and forest degradation can be effectively addressed “by getting to the root of the problem.”

“For REDD+ to succeed, countries should look beyond the forest canopy and better link interventions with direct and underlying drivers of deforestation and forest degradation. And this is certainly challenging.”

Underlying drivers are often ignored because they can be complex – involving social, economic, political, cultural and technological processes – and thus difficult to control, the report notes.

Moreover, less attention has been paid to studying them, pointing up the need for more research on drivers at the national level, according to study co-author Martin Herold.

“Carbon happens to be the story that has generated interest in preserving forests. It’s quantifiable. If you say, for example, ‘Let’s protect biodiversity,’ that tends to be more difficult to directly measure and monitor,” said Herold, a professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“It can also be quite hard to link underlying drivers to deforestation. To say this piece of forest was cut because of international demand for one thing, or because of poverty or population growth, can be very difficult,” Herold said.

“In the past, countries have never been asked to really assess drivers, but they have been encouraged to, by donors and ina COP 19 decision in Warsaw, for example,” he said.


Countries described a variety of “direct interventions” to address deforestation and forest degradation in their REDD+ documents, from sustainable forest management to agroforestry.

But more complex measures to address drivers, known as “enabling interventions,” remain vague. Thirty-six countries, for example, proposed good-governance interventions but rarely take into account existing or planned policies and programs that might lead to deforestation and forest degradation.

The scant attention given to underlying drivers and weak enabling interventions show a lack of political will to carry out the reforms needed to tackle deforestation, according to Maria Brockhaus, a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and a co-author of the study. Such reforms, she said, require involvement much beyond the forestry sector and are often met with resistance from powerful interested parties.

“It seems that countries are still shying away from larger reforms that would enable the required change and new policies for REDD+,” she said. “Removing perverse incentives or reforming land tenure remain good example … This often has to do with underlying interests and stakes.”


The report recommends more attention be paid to building accurate and complete data sets, explaining that countries with stronger data tended to design better-targeted interventions.

The report also calls for more research into why more action is being taken against forest degradation than deforestation.

Herold said this was likely because it is something countries feel like they can do in the short term.

“They cannot easily deal with international drivers – they can divert them – but if they want to do something concrete, changing agriculture that reduces natural forest is more complex than just going and planting trees or rehabilitating forest,” he said.

The study, “How countries link REDD+ interventions to drivers in their readiness plans: implications for monitoring systems,” can be read here.

For further information about the topics of this research, please contact Giulia Salvini at or Maria Brockhaus at

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

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