‘Honeymoon’ over, REDD+ struggles with politics and power

There are serious difficulties in designing—and implementing—policies that an ever-growing number of stakeholders can agree on.
How can the international community move away from business as usual, the current ways of deforestation and degradation?

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BOGOR, Indonesia—In theory, the plan seemed rather simple: a financial mechanism to reduce carbon emissions by incentivizing the protection of forests.

In practice, REDD+ has struggled to achieve what it aims to do—reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

As climate negotiators head to Lima for the UNFCCC COP, where does REDD+ stand now, and after nearly eight years, why is it still in most countries in the early, “readiness” stage?

Politics and power struggles explain part of the problem, a leading expert says, pointing to difficulties in designing—and implementing—policies that an ever-growing number of stakeholders can agree on.

“The honeymoon phase is over,” said Maria Brockhaus, a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), in a recent interview. “You have actors that no longer happily agree on the broad idea, that strongly disagree on how to realize that idea.”

Underlying, large-scale drivers must be addressed on a country-by-country basis for REDD+ to pick up steam, Brockhaus said.

Watch a video of the interview, above; an edited transcript of the interview follows below.

Question: How is REDD+ evolving?

Answer: Progress with REDD+ is moving much more slowly than we anticipated. And we mean, as a research community from 2006-2007 onwards, we thought REDD would just move on, because at that time it was thought of as something quick, cheap and easy – the perfect mechanism to tackle a global problem, which is deforestation and forest degradation, and the resulting emissions. But then REDD+ was not that quick. It was for sure not that easy, and it’s also not cheap, as we thought.

Q: What progress have most countries made in the REDD+ process?

A: There is the idea of REDD+ moving through three phases. So, the first phase would be readiness. The second phase would be policies and measures, implementation, and learning from demonstration sites. And the third phase was basically the market element or the performance element where it comes to results based payments because of performance. Unfortunately, countries are stuck in phase one.

In our studies, in 12 out of 14 REDD+ countries, what we saw was that at the very beginning, where REDD+ was thought of as cheap, quick, easy, that you had a lot of different actors and actor coalitions happily joining under this canopy of the REDD+ idea. And they were sitting there, they shared the same vision, the same idea—but for very different reasons, for very different interests. However, they could all join under this big idea of REDD+. Then countries worked together to manage to get this REDD+ idea designed, and then the follow-up and implementing policies. But that’s the moment where this honeymoon phase of a wonderful idea is really over.

And we see now that countries don’t really manage to establish policies to really learn from existing demonstration sites, to actually realize REDD+ that would lead to performance-based payments and to results. Now you have really political struggles. You have actors that no longer happily agree on the broad idea, that strongly disagree on how to realize that idea.

Q: How does CIFOR try to approach REDD+?

A: The way we try to understand that with our research, the perspective we are taking, is a political economy perspective. Because there are a number of reasons and ways how you can explain that a policy process is not moving as fast as anticipated.

In some countries you find a lot of discourse. It’s the shifting cultivator, the smallholder, the illegal logging. But what is not really made explicit, and that’s a central finding in all our studies, it’s the large-scale drivers, the large-scale conversion of land. It’s the agribusiness that in most countries strongly drives deforestation. And it seems to be for all countries very complicated, or delicate or difficult, to actually tackle these underlying causes.

The way we are trying to understand that is by providing a framework, which we call the four “I’s”. A “four-I” lens means you have to imagine a policy process where you have a global policy arena, national policy arena, sub-national policy arenas. Which are all where actors come together to design the mechanism that is called REDD+.

And obviously these actors don’t operate in something totally new. This policy arena is created by existing institutions—that means existing norms, values, procedures, regulations, behaviors. So you have an institutional setup there in which all these actors operate and try to realize—or maybe even to not realize—REDD+. Not everybody has an interest in REDD+. So if I benefit, if I have really huge profits from deforestation and forest degradation as an individual, as a corporate body, as an organization—if I benefit from that, why should I have an interest in realizing REDD+? So then, obviously, my interest is to make sure that my benefits, my profit, my revenues, also come in, in the future, without REDD+.

So here you see a little bit why this term “policy arena” is so nice, because you have to imagine actors struggling. Some actors do join, they build coalitions, policy coalitions. But other actors are really opposing those coalitions.

Q: Can you describe some of these actors and the relationship among them?

A: From the very beginning, folks were kind of gathering together under this canopy of that idea. And you had very vocal environmental international and national NGOs. You have a much less vocal civil society in these countries, especially from the bottom up. But you also have actors that are very vocal and that voice an agency, that voice their interests, which are kind of gathering together and trying to build an alliance, a coalition, against those actors that they think would be either not realizing REDD+ or not realizing this idea as a very carbon effective, cost efficient, but also equitable idea.

So what you see in this policy arena is you see these different actors getting together and trying to voice their interests. And not only voicing them, but you voice because you want to realize in this political process. So you have this institutional environment that creates this policy arena. Then you have your multitude of diverse actors.

Q: How do these actors differ across countries?

A: Obviously countries are different. You have a country like Cameroon where, for example, only a very small group of state actors and a larger group of environmental NGOs with a little bit of research is talking about REDD+. Business is completely absent there. And we find that business is very absent in most policy arenas, so they don’t really speak. And if I say business, then I talk about large scale business that drives deforestation and forest degradation. So I don’t talk here about this nice, beautiful green business. I’m really talking about this established, business as usual, driving deforestation private sector.

Q: What is the role of ideas in REDD+ policy arenas?

A: Another thing that drives actors and explains why there is very little progress now in this very complicated phase of political negotiations in the different countries is the ideas that actors have. What kind of belief do you have of what forests should be? How an economy should be? The entire mindset that drives an actor in his decision-making and his engagement. And it’s not only what drives yourself as an idea or ideology; it is also about what enables others to join you.

So where you have shared ideas, then you move forward. And that’s a little bit the case about the business sector and the state. They have pretty much the same discourse. They speak the same language, and that means they are very close and they share a common idea. You find the same with coalitions around environmental NGOs, with a little bit of civil society and international research organizations as well.

Q: What is the role of information in the REDD+ policy process?

A: The fourth “I” is central to REDD+, and that’s information. To understand progress and non-progress with REDD+, we integrated information because REDD+ as a mechanism has an architecture, where you have your financial systems and you have your information system. Which means here you have your locality where the emissions are reduced, where deforestation and forest degradation is avoided or reduced. And now this has to be observed, measured, monitored, reported and verified.

REDD+ is not a policy problem in the forestry sector—you really have to change everything around it

Maria Brockhaus

So in this national architecture, what you have to imagine is a huge part is this whole reporting, information-sharing, and based on the information given, there will be a financial action. So this technical information about a carbon unit has to be translated into a financial transaction. And here, again, we have this kind of global funds, global market, carbon market, regional market—and then your very specific national, sub-national, down to the very local place where the result was achieved, that emissions or the performance was done. And that’s where you want to reward.

So it’s very complex, and what you can see is that information is a very crucial element in the process of realizing REDD+. Information is also a resource: Some actors do have information, other actors would need information, and other actors don’t get access to information, or have access to information. So, in fact, what one could say is that information is a currency in today’s world—it’s really also about power. And if I’m the Ministry XYZ that has the full data sets of deforestation, maybe I don’t want to share that information. Because, also, information is not something totally objective, as we all would like to believe. But facts get selected. Facts get interpreted, facts get re-interpreted, and sometimes you just get a few facts that give a very different picture of a reality that, if you would have full information, would look very different.

So information can be used as something very political, and that’s the reason why it is in our political economy framework. Who has the power to realize his or her own idea of what REDD+ should be or should not be? That’s the big question. You can think about information also as a source of power, because you can’t ignore an organization, even though maybe a ministry has reported very dubious numbers for decades. You still cannot ignore it if it is the ministry with the numbers. Like it or not, you have to deal with it.

Q: What is the next big question for REDD+?

A: The big question is really, how to move from this kind of business as usual, the current way of how deforestation, forest degradation, is done and is motivated and is possible—the political economy of that. How to change that to move to a situation where you have the transformational change that would be required to make REDD+ happen. And when I talk about “transformational change, I mean for example the removal of perverse subsidies. And we see that in countries like Peru. You see this conflict between new ministry regulations from the Agricultural Ministry that are completely contradicting what the whole REDD+ idea would like to want. Indonesia is the same.

So you have this conflict of the development discourse. We need to land to develop our country, to ensure food security, etc.—but in all cases we need land for that. So forests are seen as a source of land for development purposes. And obviously that clashes very much with the idea of, There’s value in sustaining forests, so let’s keep them there.

Q: What needs to happen to enable REDD+ to make further progress?

A: Not only the removal of perverse subsidies. It’s not only this kind of broader changes in regulatory frameworks, governance frameworks such as tenure, which is considered very crucial. But it’s also implementing actual REDD+ policies, like a moratorium. And I think we all know there is a huge debate about the Indonesian moratorium. Beautiful idea, but as a colleague called it once, it’s all about the politics of the possible. But the moratorium got incredibly weak over time. So it’s really the question, what is possible in this context of clashing ideas, clashing interests, with different access to information, and in an institutional setup that is very sticky?

And if we moved from business as usual to this transformational change scenario where you would have in place major changes in governance structures, in regulatory framework in terms of subsidies, perverse subsidies, in terms of forest industry reforms, I think that’s really crucial. REDD+ is not a policy problem in the forestry sector—you really have to change everything around it. That’s why REDD+ progress is hard to achieve.

For more information on CIFOR’s research on REDD+, contact Maria Brockhaus at m.brockhaus@cgiar.org.

CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+ is supported in part by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and by NORAD, AusAID, DFID and the European Commission.

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3 responses to “‘Honeymoon’ over, REDD+ struggles with politics and power”

  1. Peter Schlesinger says:

    I think the points made here are all valid, but there are some big elephants not addressed in the last Q: 1) At the start of REDD+ it was hard to get the key people involved, but at the same time there were many players who signed on because they thought erroneously that the gravy train was going to start and they wanted to get in early to get their share. Now the train is here, it has a whole lot of cars and some tracks to move on, but way too many rules, expectations, and hands to feed with the limited money may eventually come when it comes, and there are many locations where it is questionable whether the carbon credits that are already in the pipeline can really generate enough money to not only feed the outstretched hands of investors, but the agencies who must allocate the funds, monitor, report, verify, as well as actually the in situ stakeholders who must provide for increased vigilance to keep squatters and would-be developers off of their lands; 2) the depressed value of carbon credits, the impact of the European recession, implosion of the Euro carbon market is keeping many potential investors away; 3) climate change is certainly noticeable in many/if not in all locations, but like it or not, the subject is still not the most important thing on the agenda for many locations. In Latin American nations there is severe inequity, and consummate poverty, lack of resources, inaccessibility to clean water, squabbles over dwindling economic, terrestrial, mineral, and agricultural resources, as well as basic survival is really very important; 4) in Peru, it is well known by most that the market for wood products is only 15% legal, and that the lion’s share (85%) is illegal. The high value of the illegal market for wood and the corruption that this practice resolves offers a sincere disincentive to making REDD+ really functional. In fact, the ever-ensuing corruption in many natural resources markets in Latin America, makes a vibrant REDD+ really questionable in the region; and 5) whether the Republicans in the US are going to make or try to make the “climate change controversy” there completely disappear from their agenda starting early next year.

  2. lmilich says:

    I agree with Peter’s “elephant” point – the number of hands outstretched is likely to be the failure point. When all is said and done, in most instances REDD+ has to be a development paradigm, for it is the local villager who must be convinced that protecting the community’s forest heritage is a more viable economic option than illegal logging, or for that matter, swidden with its associated fire risk. Concomitantly, the interviewee doesn’t dance around the predominant issue, that it’s big business (whether oil palm/fiber in Indonesia or soybeans/cattle in Brazil) are the leading causes of deforestation, underlain by the value of the timber extracted when the land is cleared.

    In terms of the first item: unless and until the UNFCCC finds a formula to make the process less bureaucratically cumbersome, REDD+ will head down the same path as the CDM – that is, toward death by a thousand cuts. There must be a fast-track and user-friendly procedure put in place that forest communities themselves can follow to gain benefit from conservation practices, be they from the formal or voluntary carbon markets. Putting all actors together in the same boat is, as Dr. Brockhaus suggests, bound to overload and sink it: rent seeking by the higher echelons of government that believe that they control the forest will otherwise inevitably reduce the local impact to a meaningless trickle.

    In terms of big business: there have been significant advances in bringing some large companies to reduce their footprint on remaining forests, but unless China and India follow OECD-type consumer-led activism – hardly a likely scenario – the sad reality is that tropical forests are surely doomed. It was not that long ago (around 2006) that China held out the carrot of a US$4 billion investment for palm oil plantations in Central Borneo to the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia, causing a great deal of bickering between the Ministries of Forestry and Agriculture in the latter. To the surprise of many, both governments declined the bait. But for how long (see rent-seeking above)?

    So as not to end on a pessimistic note, I found that REDD+ can indeed work at the local level – recently I led the socio-economic impact assessment of the largest (perhaps second-largest?) REDD+ demonstration project in Indonesia, the KFCP. The report is available at the FORDA website, at

  3. Maria says:

    Dear Colleagues, thanks so much for the discussion and the points you are making, really helpful for our work! The elephants in the REDD+ room (or in the boat – using the metaphor by Imilich ) are quite numerous,
    thanks again

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