REDD+ on the ground: New book offers insights, lessons from across the tropics

Lessons from REDD+ are applicable across all different types of conservation interventions.
The forested hills of Sierra del Divisor, Ucayali, Peru. Photo courtesy Diego Perez

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BOGOR, Indonesia—From the Amazon forests of Peru and Brazil, to the Congo Basin and Tanzania, to Vietnam and Indonesian Borneo, more than 300 initiatives have emerged in the past five years experimenting with the idea of REDD+.

That’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation—an initiative to tackle climate change by keeping carbon locked in standing forests.

The idea of paying people in developing tropical countries to protect their forests, generating carbon credits, and selling them on an international carbon market, gained prominence at the 2007 UN climate change summit in Bali.

It generated excitement and funding—and controversy. By 2009, REDD+ pilot projects were being set up across the tropics.

A group of scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) set out to independently analyze 23 of these diverse initiatives. Lessons from the first stage of that research is explained in a new book, “REDD+ on the Ground: A case book of subnational initiatives across the globe.”

Forests News recently spoke with Erin Sills, a Senior Associate at CIFOR and the lead editor of the book. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Question: What can it tell us about REDD+ to bring the stories of these 23 initiatives all together in one book?

Answer: The first point is the heterogeneity of initiatives. REDD+ has been thought of as equivalent to payments for environmental services (PES). You sell credits in a market—which doesn’t yet exist—and you pass that cash on to local people, if they stop deforesting as verified through remote sensing.

But on the ground, there’s actually a very wide variation around that, and not very many initiatives that are anywhere in that narrow space of PES funded by a carbon market.

They’re getting funding from different sources—carbon funding, yes, but also many other sources—bundling all the different benefits you can get from forest conservation. And they’re pursuing all sorts of different strategies on the ground to reduce different sources of emissions.

Degradation is really important in Tanzania. Fire is important there too, as well as in the peatlands of Kalimantan. Smallholder agriculture is the main driver in some places, and in others it’s about blocking the entry of large external agents like cattle ranchers or palm oil companies.

That’s important for people to grasp as we’re thinking about what the future of REDD is going to be—this variation reflects what proponents have done in response to the prospect of getting funding to reduce deforestation emissions.

They set out within the context of their other concerns about biodiversity or local livelihoods, to think about the best way to accomplish this end goal of reducing emissions, and they came up with lots of different strategies.

This is fundamentally about a global public good—so we’ve got to pay for it

Erin Sills

And to my mind they’re probably better placed to know what will work on the ground, where they’re operating, than people who are conceptualizing REDD+ in theory and at the central level.

We need the theory of REDD+ because we need it to work globally, but we also need to take on board these local lessons from people who really know the local context, and based on that understanding, have decided on the best way to proceed within the constraints of available funding.

Q: And what kinds of lessons are you talking about?

A: A major objective for me in getting this book written was to document really carefully what’s happening in all of these sites, what we’re measuring the impact of, what the baseline conditions were—in sum,  what exactly are these subnational REDD+ initiatives?

Given that we know that they’re not all about “selling carbon credits and distributing PES,” we needed to document really carefully what they have done, so that now we can move on to quantifying the impacts of these different types of interventions.

We haven’t yet evaluated impacts because we have only just completed the second round of data collection, but what we have in this book is a lot of information on process, how local people have responded, and how they’ve been engaged.

We’ve learned about different ways of designing local institutions, how you manage expectations, and adapt to local tenure and social settings.

For example, in most of the initiatives in Tanzania, the communities agreed on specific benefit-sharing systems for future carbon revenues. In some of the initiatives, these systems were tested with pilot payments. The systems demonstrate different ways to motivate individuals to modify their forest use behavior while providing community benefits. In some cases, individuals receive most of the payments and then decide how much to donate for community projects, while in other cases, community institutions receive most of the payments and the community votes on how they should use those funds.

So these examples and others show us how proponents have worked through, given the local social settings, the ways that you can design payment flows that don’t just exacerbate local inequalities.

Q: Why are some of the initiatives profiled in the book no longer calling themselves “REDD+”?

A: In one way it’s a symptom of the problems with REDD+. There’s not enough of a financial incentive to overcome some of the problems created by all the connotations and expectations that surround the concept of “REDD+.” Many proponents worry about how to manage expectations that REDD+ is going to generate lots of money for doing nothing.

The other perspective is that it’s an example of how these subnational initiatives are leading to innovation, to perhaps bigger and better things—for example, collaborating with a government to put together a low-carbon development strategy that is meant to be broader and longer term than a discrete REDD+ initiative. For example, two initiatives that cover entire municipalities in the Brazilian Amazon—Cotriguaçu and São Felix de Xingu—have moved in this direction.

Q: Do these examples tell us something about the future of REDD+ and how it might evolve from here?

A:  These proponents have done a great job piloting REDD+—but many of them are struggling to move from the pilot stage to actual long-term implementation, because of the uncertainty about funding that results from lack of progress on a binding global agreement on mitigating climate change.

This is perhaps especially true for the original concept of REDD+ as giving people performance based or conditional incentives to reduce deforestation—the proponents  are hesitant about making any promises and certainly don’t want to enter into any contracts, because they don’t see the long term funding source for these incentives. And there’s only so long they can limp along without being able to make that long-term contractual commitment.

These proponents, who have been our collaborators in this study, have really stuck their necks out trying to make these initiatives work on the ground

Erin Sills

So that’s one thing we’re learning—they can do a lot, they have done a lot—but they can only do so much unless the global community comes through and ponies up the money. This is fundamentally about a global public good—so we’ve got to pay for it.

The other lesson is that if the global community does come through with that funding, then I think we can expect to see a diversity of approaches from local organizations, tailored to their different local contexts.

Regardless of the international architecture for REDD+, you’ve got to implement interventions to reduce deforestation locally—in particular places, working with particular stakeholders. These initiatives show that there is a range of ways to go about that.  The next stage of our research will evaluate the effectiveness—for carbon and co-benefits—of those different strategies.

Q: If REDD+ does fall by the wayside, are the lessons learned in this broad and intensive project still worthwhile?

A:  Definitely. That’s one advantage of the great heterogeneity of interventions. It makes impact evaluation more complex, but also more useful for conservation and sustainable development type efforts beyond REDD+.

Many of the interventions are similar to ones that would have been implemented without REDD+, and what the carbon or REDD+ funding has done is allowed proponents either to continue interventions that might have been discontinued without that additional funding, or to expand to new areas.

So as long as there is funding for biodiversity and ecosystem services more broadly, there will be lessons that can be drawn from this study and from subnational REDD+ initiatives that will be applicable across different types of interventions.

These proponents, who have been our collaborators in this study, have really stuck their necks out trying to make these initiatives work on the ground, with the explicit objective of piloting, and demonstrating, how different interventions might work.

So part of what I hope this book does is to disseminate that information—tell the world about what they’ve done—and that helps fulfill their mission of demonstrating REDD+ and generating lessons about how it could work on the ground.

For more information about this book, please contact Erin Sills at or William Sunderlin at

CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD is supported by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom, and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests Trees and Agroforestry, with financial support from the CGIAR Fund.

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