Research’s role in REDD+ decision-making: Q+A with Anne Larson

"Working with and through government in a jurisdictional REDD+, in essence, is both a necessary and a high risk proposition..."
Anne Larson leads the Center for International Forestry Research’s (CIFOR) work on multilevel governance and carbon management at the landscape scale as part of the Global Comparative Study on REDD+.

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At a glance :

  • Goal of multilevel governance research is to understand relationships between different stakeholders and the issues and interests that drive their behavior.
  • Even seemingly technical issues (e.g. monitoring, reporting and verifying carbon) have complex ramifications for overall balance of power.
  • Too early to assess whether REDD+ has made lasting changes to forest governance or in flows of information, transparency or accountability.
  • Moving toward jurisdictional REDD+ is a multilevel governance challenge by definition and both a necessary and a high-risk proposition.

Anne Larson leads the Center for International Forestry Research’s (CIFOR) work on multilevel governance and carbon management at the landscape scale as part of the Global Comparative Study on REDD+. In this interview she sheds light on the role of research in the world of complex and sometimes insidious environmental decision-making, why the next two years will define some key pieces of the REDD+ puzzle, and how a move to jurisdictional REDD is both a necessary and a high-risk proposition.

Q: Information sharing and building relationships between national and local governments have been identified as two key areas for REDD+ success. How is research helping to achieve such goals?

The goal of our research is to understand these relationships more clearly and in particular to understand the issues and interests behind behavior. As in negotiations of all kinds, the reasons that an actor may hold a particular stance or oppose a particular activity or policy may be quite complex.

Differences may be due to lack of information or understanding – these are relatively easy to solve. But often we (researchers, people with a more technical focus, donors, and so on) assume or want to believe that these are the key issues when in fact there are much more difficult differences to resolve. This is particularly true in politics (and therefore in the relationships between or among levels of government) because much more is at stake in these relationships than just the issues that researchers are trying to address (conservation, environment, forests). They include much broader issues of political power, party politics, economic concerns, as well as the more insidious issues of personal gain/ corruption; and we cannot forget the role of personal differences, different worldviews and in some cases, and where we are talking about different ethnic groups, for example, issues such as racism.

What research can do is bring to light the underlying issues and try to put them on the table, so that the different actors can identify the opportunities and obstacles to change. Those on the “inside” may (or may not) already know what these issues are, but “outsiders” (everybody else: civil society, forest peoples, professionals, etc) who I believe are fundamental to keeping debate alive, providing the “demand side” of good governance, human rights, democracy – they may not understand this.

One example is monitoring, reporting and verifying (MRV) systems for carbon emissions. This is an apparently technical issue but there are big questions that have broad ramifications: Should an entire independent monitoring system focus on carbon because that is what is useful for a particular set of actors? Probably not, so how should this system be integrated with other national and subnational needs and interests? What is being monitored and for whom? How will the systems already developed at project or subnational levels fit into an emerging national system? In Peru and elsewhere, these subnational systems in some cases are far more advanced than the national system, but the national government has to build a system that works for the whole country. A lot of human and financial resources have been put into some of these subnational systems, and no one wants to “lose their investment”.

Aside from this, there are other, fundamental issues of the balance of power between national and regional governments. Setting up the balance on “Who gets to make what kind of decisions about this MRV system” has ramifications for this overall balance of power, and these kinds of issues are very likely to underlie negotiations.

2.  Governance problems in the forestry sector have been an ongoing issue for decades. Is REDD+ really making a difference?

I don’t think that we can answer this question yet. There are two issues here: one is whether there are improvements, and the other is whether this is due to REDD+.

We have certainly seen issues such as the rights of indigenous people and other communities living in and near forests put on the global agenda around REDD+. It is not as if they were not on the agenda before, but they have definitely been important in the REDD+ agenda. That said, do we yet have evidence of governance improvements on the ground?

There are many pieces to this puzzle and too few of them are in place to be able to formulate any conclusions yet

Anne Larson

In 2013, the World Bank Forest Investment Program granted substantial funding to indigenous peoples organizations in Peru to address land issues, but it remains to be seen if this will have any effect on the Peruvian government’s land policies: titling to indigenous people and communities has virtually come to a halt for the past 6 years.

Overall, REDD+ appears mainly to be housed in environment ministries with little convincing engagement with other ministries that are more closely related to (and often responsible for) drivers of deforestation coming from outside the environment sector.

On the one hand, at this point there is not enough funding behind REDD+ to make it an interesting alternative to those involved in lucrative activities that result in carbon emissions from forest conversion. On the other hand, a lot more funding brings governance risks, as the potential for corruption, land grabbing in the interest of selling carbon, etc. is much higher.

So it is very unlikely there will ever be a simple answer to this question. The best we can do is look for the conditions that lead to better or worse outcomes, and overall, through previous research on governance, we already have a pretty good idea of what those are likely to be.

3.    Several years ago, CIFOR research identified two key aspects requiring attention by REDD+ decision makers i) matching flows of information and incentives with transparency and accountability and ii) matching interests and institutions across scales. What progress has been made to address these issues and what still needs to be done? 

Based on what we have seen so far in REDD+ processes, I would say that these are the questions that will start to be answered in 2014 and 2015, as this is when governments and donors are really starting to try to build a single REDD+ architecture out of the initiatives that were begun more or less simultaneously at national and at project/subnational levels.

There are many pieces to this puzzle and too few of them are in place to be able to formulate any conclusions yet. For example, on point (i): In some countries donors chose not to work through certain government structures because of the risks of low transparency and accountability. They solved one problem but created another: no government buy-in to REDD+, that is, no institutionalized national structure to manage the information or the incentives. Now what?

On point (ii), in the countries we are looking at there are Task Forces and working groups (Tanzania) or Roundtables at national and subnational levels (Peru) in order to promote the kind of information exchange and negotiations that are needed if interests and institutions are eventually to match under a national REDD+ architecture. But overall we are finding that the further from the ground the greater the interest in carbon, while the closer to the ground, the greater the interest in livelihoods or other non-carbon issues. This does not mean that these differing interests cannot reach common solutions, but there is still a long road ahead.

4.  How do you see a move towards jurisdictional REDD+ affecting multilevel governance challenges?

Moving toward jurisdictional REDD is a multilevel governance challenge by definition. First of all, there is no single definition of what jurisdictional REDD+ means. That is, it refers to the pre-eminence of the political-administrative jurisdiction, but it does not clarify where decision making power is located. For some, it means central government control. For others, it means guaranteeing powers (for example, management of funding) at lower levels of government.

For projects or communities that are not already working with governments, it means that government may benefit from their efforts to lower carbon emissions, rather than them. This may push projects to the voluntary carbon market rather than choosing to participate in a national system. For those interested in fundamental change that would lower carbon emissions and seriously address leakage, accounting systems that cover broader scale political jurisdictions in a national system are the priority. Working with and through government in a jurisdictional REDD+, in essence, is both a necessary and a high risk proposition, for all the governance problems we know are all too common.

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