CIFOR Director General gives overview of REDD+ research

OSLO, Norway (27 June, 2011)_Constructing safeguards to protect against REDD-related harm, preventing corruption in REDD+-related finance, and addressing pushback from constituencies for business-as-usual, were highlighted by Frances Seymour as challenges which will indicate that REDD+ is assuming some reality on the ground.

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CIFOR Director General, Frances Seymour. Photo by Dita Alangkara for CIFOR.

OSLO, Norway (27 June, 2011)_Constructing safeguards to protect against REDD-related harm, preventing corruption in REDD+-related finance, and addressing pushback from constituencies for business-as-usual, were highlighted by Frances Seymour, Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), as challenges which will indicate that REDD+ is assuming some reality on the ground.

But the biggest risk of all would be for REDD+ to lose traction, she said in her speech at Oslo REDD Exchange 2011, dooming all of us to a future that is truly unthinkable.

Seymour presented preliminary results from CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on the first generation of REDD+ initiatives and explained what these results may mean for REDD+ practitioners.

Find the transcript of her speech below.


Let me start by thanking the organizers for arranging this event, and for pulling together such a great line-up of speakers and impressive assemblage of participants.

This conference is just the latest in a series of actions on the part of the Norwegian Government to advance the REDD agenda in a responsible way.  I think congratulations are in order, both for their initial courage to set out on this journey, and for their continuing perseverance on what is sometimes a treacherous road.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should also hasten to openly thank the Norwegian Government for the financial support it is providing to CIFOR.  But let me assure you that our research results and my admiration for the Government’s actions are completely independent of that support.

My assignment is to give an overview of REDD+ research.  This topic might not appear to be the most scintillating to those of you, who are sleep-deprived by the endless summer sunshine or associated late-night partying.  But let me see what I can do.

I’ll try to accomplish three objectives in this short intervention:

First, I’ll briefly contextualize the state of REDD+ research in the evolution of REDD+ more generally;

Second, I’ll use most of my time to summarize some preliminary results from CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on the first generation of REDD+ initiatives and some other relevant research; and

Third, I’ll share some personal reflections on what I think those results mean for this community of REDD+ practitioners.

REDD+ research in context

For those of us who have been living and breathing REDD+ for the last few years, it can be hard to remember that REDD+ is still in its early childhood development stage, or even its infancy, depending on how much time you are willing to attribute to gestation.

Recall that the idea was first floated in 2005, and didn’t really get legs until the Stern Review in late 2006. It was the Bali Road Map and Action Plan in late 2007 that encouraged demonstration activities, and launched the various multilateral and bilateral initiatives to support national-level REDD+ readiness.  And it took at least a year after that for most of those initiatives to start getting off the ground.

But in the run-up to Copenhagen, it seemed that REDD+ was ready for take-off.

For those of us in the forest research community, it was very exciting, but very stressful:  on the one hand, it was great to suddenly have a huge demand for our research results; but on the other hand, we were terrified that REDD would unfold so quickly that it would happen before we had a chance to produce any research results to influence its design.

It turns out we need not have been quite so worried.

Last year, I did a literature review on the REDD-related articles published in peer-reviewed journals up to that point.  Many of the articles focused on analysis needed to support negotiation of a global REDD architecture:

  • Articles on how much money would be needed, and alternative ways of raising it, either through funds or markets;
  • Articles on other issues such as scope, scale, and reference levels; and
  • Articles on the rapidly developing technology and methods for MRV, and associated cost and capacity issues.

A second set of articles — probably of most interest to this audience — focused on institutions, governance, risks, and co-benefits of REDD.

What was striking was how much of this latter research was of necessity based on speculation about how REDD was likely to unfold, given that a global REDD mechanism did not yet exist, and the concept itself was being simultaneously invented in the context of formal negotiations as well as in national policy arenas and on the ground.

Such analyses often took the form of “lessons learned” from previous attempts to reform tropical forest management.  This included one of CIFOR’s “best sellers”, Realizing REDD, released in Copenhagen eighteen months ago.

This literature included many assertions.  Reasonable people could disagree, for example, on whether or not REDD was more likely to harm local communities than to help them.  But the fact was, there was no evidence basis of actual REDD initiatives from which to draw such conclusions either way.

So the next generation of research on REDD would need to focus on empirical analysis of what actually happens as REDD policies and projects move from ideas to implementation, or as Pak Kuntoro put it, moving from the easy part to the hard part.

But that process has proceeded somewhat more slowly than appeared likely only two years ago.

Preliminary research results

We’re only just now reaching the halfway point of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on the first generation of REDD+ initiatives – two years into a four-year project.

Given that we needed time to establish partnerships, select countries and sites, and develop research methods during the first year, we’re really only a year into fieldwork, so it’s early days to draw definitive conclusions. But there are some preliminary results to share, and there are also relevant findings emerging from other research efforts.

I’ll organize them by their particular relevance to global, national, and sub-national level REDD+ initiatives.


Starting at the global level, we’ve focused on filling in some of the gaps in methods and data that will be necessary to implement REDD with a set of common approaches to measuring the reduction in forest-based emissions.

One of the so-called “modalities” issues that is quite fundamental, but also among the most intractable, is the question of how to set a reference level.

To those of you have haven’t seen it yet, I commend to you the piece of analysis on this topic commissioned by the Government of Norway and released at the SBSTA in Bonn two weeks ago by the Meridian Institute.  (CIFOR’s contribution was through the participation of Arild Angelsen, our favorite Norwegian Research Associate.)

The analysis is useful in two complementary ways.  First, it illuminates the challenges posed by differences across countries in capacity and in national circumstances that would make it difficult to agree on and implement a “one size fits all” approach to reference levels or compensation baselines.  But at the same time, it proposes some practical options for moving forward in constructing a UNFCCC procedure for this purpose.

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz was joking in Bonn that compared to reference levels, safeguard issues were very easy to understand and address, so the Meridian report is especially valuable in making a complex issue accessible to negotiators and other stakeholders.

Another area of our research has been filling in some of the missing data necessary to provide better estimates of forest-based emissions.  We’ve focused particularly on wetlands, including peatland and mangrove forests, both because they are particularly important to climate change, and are relatively under-researched.

It turns out that current methods used to estimate carbon emissions from peatlands are inadequate to capture the multiple biophysical processes that lead to net carbon loss or sequestration, with the result that they are likely to systematically under-estimate emissions from land-use change.

And research on mangroves undertaken with the US Forest Service suggests that mangroves are among the most carbon-rich forest ecosystems in the tropics.  At current rates of loss, mangroves may be responsible for as much as ten percent of total forest-based emissions, even though they occupy only .7 percent of forest area.

So we need to focus more attention on wetlands, and I want you to know that I am doing my part.  In one of my all-too-rare field trips, I recently accompanied a team of researchers to Central Kalimantan to test new methods for measuring carbon in peatland ecosystems.  I was allowed to do important jobs like hold the tape measure, and gather leaf litter from sample plots in to plastic bags.  In the meantime, the acidic water that I was standing in dissolved the glue holding my shoes together.  So a possible title for my memoir is “Barefoot in the peatswamp”.  Perhaps this title could also serve as a metaphor for our collective venture into the enterprise of REDD+….  But I digress.


Now let me turn my attention to national-level REDD+ policies and processes, which is also the subject of a parallel session tomorrow morning.

As part of the Global Comparative Study on REDD+, we are taking in-depth looks at the political economy of deforestation and efforts to stop it in five countries, and have taken “snapshots” or initiated in-depth work in four more.  This research is under the leadership of Maria Brockhaus, who is here with us today.

Research on policy formulation processes shows that governments are having trouble moving from the rhetoric of REDD+ to actually agreeing on and implementing policies that would change land-use patterns in significant ways.

One reason is that the policy formulation process in many countries is not yet underpinned by rigorous analysis to estimate the relative contributions of different sectors to deforestation and degradation, or to quantify the costs and benefits of transitioning from business-as-usual to REDD+ in a way that would be necessary to support the design of a benefit-sharing regime.  This works to the advantage of rent-seekers, who would try to shape REDD design to serve their interests.

And while every country is different, there are a number of commonalities.  If you put your hand over the title of the various country profiles, it’s often hard to guess which country is being described.

One common constraint is the challenge of intersectoral collaboration.  In Indonesia, for example, we’ve seen how difficult it is to agree on a meaningful moratorium on forest conversion when permitting involves agricultural and mining as well as forestry sector interests, even with strong and capable leadership directly under the President’s Office.

Another common challenge is appropriate devolution and coordination between national and sub-national levels.  In Cameroon, for example, even though it was a pioneer in decentralization in the forestry sector, incomplete devolution and still-fragile processes and weak capacity pose significant challenges for benefit-sharing and other features necessary for a robust national REDD+ strategy.

A third challenge is unclear tenure of forest land and forest carbon.  Even though Brazil has arguably done the most to recognize individual and community rights to forest land, unclear tenure is still a huge barrier to the implementation of REDD+, especially to payment-based mechanisms that require a clear “seller” of environmental services.

A fourth challenge is weak civil society capacity to participate in REDD+ processes.  Despite good intentions for inclusive consultations, local communities need more support to be able to meaningfully exercise voice, the media needs to be strengthened to cover REDD+ more effectively, and the private sector needs to be brought to the table in more open and transparent ways. Clearly, more effort is needed to build robust alliances around REDD+.

The bottom line is that many of our hypotheses from a couple of years ago about what would likely constrain REDD+ policies and strategies are now being confirmed.


Let me wrap up this section on preliminary findings with a brief report on sub-national level findings.

For this part of the Global Comparative Study led by William Sunderlin, who is also here, we are doing research at twenty REDD+ pilot project sites scattered across five countries.  At each site, we are undertaking a very rigorous Before-After-Control-Intervention method to be able to measure the impact of REDD+ interventions on livelihoods, on governance, and yes, on what happens to the forests.

As of now, we’ve only collected the “before” data, and we need wait until after some interventions have taken place to go back for the “after” data, so it’s too early to report on any impacts of REDD+. But in the meantime, we can draw on other research to make some inferences about what’s at stake, and raise some cautions about likely challenges on the near horizon.

Last week in London, CIFOR launched the preliminary results of a long-term study (the Poverty Environment Network) of the contribution of forests to rural livelihoods that involved collecting income data from each of 8000 households four times over the course of a year.

And the long-awaited answer is, that on average, households living in communities in or near forests get 23 percent of their income from the forests, whether as direct contributions to their subsistence, or as items that can be sold for cash. So the impact of REDD+ interventions on what is now close to a quarter of the incomes in forest communities will be significant for those households, for better or for worse.

Beyond this bottom line number, there are many other preliminary findings relevant to REDD+ that we’ll be extracting from the data in the coming months, as we slice it by gender, income quintile, degree of rule enforcement, and other variables.

We also have some preliminary findings from 11 of the 20 REDD+ project sites included in the Global Comparative Study.

In brief, it appears that a significant proportion of villages included in the REDD+ projects perceive that their tenure over the forest is insecure, and quite a few reported having had a recent experience in which they were unsuccessful in their attempts to exclude outsiders from the forest.  So consistent with the findings of the national-level analysis and what we all already knew, clarifying and strengthening tenure is going to be key to the success of REDD+.

A last finding that is disturbing, although perhaps not altogether surprising, is that in quite a number of project sites, villagers do not feel informed about REDD+. Many report that they have not given their explicit permission for the project, and/or that they have not been involved in project design and implementation.

It seems that many project proponents are reluctant to discuss details of how REDD+ might unfold for fear of raising community expectations that might later be dashed due to factors beyond their control.  It’s a genuine dilemma, but arguably it’s better to risk community disenchantment than to leave them unprepared to negotiate their interests if and when REDD+ takes off.

But let me stress that these challenges are prospective rather than current:  when we started this research, we were afraid that REDD+ interventions would happen before we had a chance to collect the “before” data; in fact our problem is that we’re having to adjust our research design to accommodate delays in those interventions that are necessary to get to “after”.

Implications for social sustainability

Let me now close with some personal reflections on the implications of this research for this conference, which is focused on the social sustainability of REDD+.

I’ll take the liberty of defining “social sustainability” in terms of political legitimacy.  For the REDD+ enterprise to maintain its legitimacy, it will be necessary to keep moving forward, and to do so in ways that strengthen rather than undermine confidence in its integrity and its fairness.

My sense is that social sustainability is something that needs to be cultivated at all three levels – global, national, and sub-national – and that our preliminary research results point to some areas of concern.

At the global level, meeting the test of integrity will require progress toward a mechanism that actually leads to additional reductions in emissions. Getting the rules on reference levels and the basis of MRV right will be crucial.  In the shadow of “Climate Gate”, such rules need to be grounded in sound science, and to the extent possible, unadulterated by politics, even while adjusting those rules to take into account national circumstances in the interest of fairness.

And of course fairness will also require a strong global framework for monitoring safeguards, especially in light of the findings about the tenure insecurity and lack of involvement reported by many communities.

At the national level, “social sustainability” means developing the constituencies and capacities sufficient to get national REDD+ policies and strategies off the ground in the first place.  And these policies and strategies — and the constituencies who promote them — need some resilience to the inevitable setbacks that will happen as REDD+ policies begin to “bite” in the sense of challenging business as usual.

It’s hard not to be discouraged by some recent developments – such as proposed changes to Brazil’s Forest Code, and some conspicuous omissions from Indonesia’s Moratorium – but surely we should have expected some resistance on the potentially transformational change that REDD+ implementation will require.

Perseverance in building coalitions for change – again with attention to integrity and fairness, underpinned by rigorous analysis – is the order of the day.

At the local level, “social sustainability” is going to require that local actors be empowered with rights and back-up enforcement of the rule of law to defend their forests from potential infringement by third parties who may not have their interests at heart.  And local actors also need to be empowered with the information and capacity they need to represent their own interests in negotiations even with third parties such as the people in this room who might be well-intentioned, but who might nevertheless get it wrong.

At the risk of being misunderstood, let me leave you with the following thought:

The challenges being addressed by this conference – including how to construct safeguards to protect against REDD-related harm, how to prevent corruption in REDD+-related finance, and how to address pushback from constituencies for business as usual – are good problems to have.

They are good problems to have, because if they arise, it would indicate that REDD+ is assuming some reality on the ground, REDD+ funds are flowing, and REDD+ policies are starting to challenge vested interests.

If REDD+ were not getting some traction, we wouldn’t have to worry about these risks.  But the biggest risk of all would for REDD+ to stall out, dooming all of us – including the vulnerable communities that we profess to care about — to a future that is truly unthinkable.

As a result, I hope that the research results that I’ve presented today, and more to be produced in the future, will be used to inform mid-course corrections and to chart a constructive way forward, rather than to confirm cynicism that REDD+ simply can’t be done.

Almost exactly two years ago, when I was here in Oslo for the 20th anniversary celebration of the Rainforest Foundation Norway, I said, “we need to temper everyone’s expectations about what can be achieved through global agreements and how long it will take.”

I think that advice still stands.

Thank you.

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