Challenges in Communicating REDD+ Hamper Efforts to Save Forests

BOGOR, Indonesia (30 June, 2011)_Some communities in Indonesia are currently facing a tough choice: sell their forests to logging or palm oil companies, or engage in a new forest-preserving scheme linked to climate change known by the acronym REDD+. Many have heard that REDD+ could pay them not to cut down trees, but they are skeptical.

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Photo by Yayan Indriatmoko/CIFOR.

BOGOR, Indonesia (30 June, 2011)_Some communities in Indonesia are currently facing a tough choice: sell their forests to logging or palm oil companies, or engage in a new forest-preserving scheme linked to climate change known by the acronym REDD+. Many have heard that REDD+ could pay them not to cut down trees, but they are skeptical.

REDD+ stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. The + refers to the conservation and sustainable management of forests, and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks. The scheme could see billions of dollars flow from rich countries to poor ones in exchange for them protecting their forests because of the carbon stored in them.

While this has increased expectations among forest communities of new sources of money, it has also caused widespread confusion. Some NGOs are trying to raise awareness about REDD+ among forest communities, but with questions still remaining at the international level as to what REDD+ may look like in the future, it is proving a major challenge.

Policymakers and researchers agree that REDD+ will only work with strong involvement from all stakeholders, especially forest-dependent communities, whose participation in the design, implementation and monitoring of REDD+ activities depends on their ability to understand the scheme.

“The level of understanding is such that many communities believe that if you plant trees, you will protect the forest and you will get money. REDD+ information needs to be more clearly defined,” says Ruly Prayoga, a program manager with Rare Conservation, an environmental NGO.

The problem lies not in communicating climate change, as it is obvious to local people that their environment is changing, according to Stibniati Atmadja, a research fellow at the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor. “Linking degradation, deforestation and climate change to REDD+ is difficult to explain, even for people who are heavily involved in the REDD+ discourse. What happens on the ground is that people talk in bits and pieces.”

Further complicating the picture is that over the years, empty promises by other entities have led to a jaded outlook by communities when it comes to REDD+. Workers in an international organisation’s project in Central Kalimantan, for example, stop short from promising anything to the communities as the local people feel burnt by empty promises made by previous projects and government officials, said Atmadja. “Sometimes keeping things unclear and keeping expectations low is the most honest thing to do.”

CIFOR is carrying out a 4-year global comparative study of REDD+ to inform policymakers and practitioners about what works in REDD+ in developing countries. CIFOR researchers are studying the awareness levels of REDD+ in developing countries around the world, both at national levels and within forest communities. Results on the education levels of forest communities about REDD+ will be published in 2012.

At the international level, key REDD+ concepts, such as the definition of what constitutes a ‘forest’ and base levels to calculate carbon levels, are still being determined. “Many REDD+ concepts are still too complicated or unclear for the general public to understand,” said Berry Nahdian Forquan, Director of Friends of the Earth Indonesia.

Progress in raising awareness about REDD+ in forest communities has been hampered by misinformation and confusion, with many campaigns using complex images, unknown jargon and a heavy reliance on printed publications.

Rather than relying on brochures and other printed literature, radio and television have been shown to be more effective ways to educate the public in remote communities, said Wirayanti, Programme Director at Voice of Human Rights (VHR), which broadcasts across Indonesia’s archipelago through 420 community radio partners. To counter the lack of infrastructure in remote areas, VHR sends a CD with features and fillers, including on the environment, to the local radio stations every month by mail.

VHR is planning to develop radio programs to explain REDD+ with the Alliance of the Archipelago’s Indigenous Peoples (AMAN). “We’ll consider each particular audience and determine which part of REDD+ to explain” to ensure that the message gets through, Wirayanti said.

Conservationists have also started looking at the use of social marketing, namely selling ideas instead of products, as a way to grab attention and promote new messages. “It is marketing an idea, knowledge and attitude that will change the way people think,” says Danny Yatim, social marketing lecturer at Atma Jaya University in Jakarta. In the case of conservation, forest communities need to be “sold” the idea of protecting their forests.

Rare Conservation has pioneered a social marketing strategy based on community involvement in conservation called the Pride Campaign. This approach, which it says has been successfully employed in indigenous communities all over the world, appeals to people on an emotional level – offering them a chance to save something that belongs to them and that they are proud of.

The program starts with a survey to determine where the community stands on a particular topic to then determine the right intervention strategy. “The campaign is not run above them [the local communities], but with them,” said Prayoga, who has worked with communities on the Mentawai Islands, off the West coast of Sumatra.

Although such a community-based approach is yet to be tried with REDD+, Prayoga says he is confident it would be more effective than traditional top-down communications strategies. “Community participation in the design of REDD+ strategies is a much more appropriate way to develop the REDD+ message,” says Pragoya.

Michelle Kovacevic is studying science at the University of Melbourne in Australia. She wrote this piece while completing an internship with the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor. She is now an editor of CIFOR’s Forests Blog. She can be contacted at

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