REDD+ politics – or why it is so difficult to tackle large-scale drivers of deforestation

While countries are developing their own approaches to REDD+, the challenges they face remain largely the same.
Negotiating the design of REDD+. Photo: Marco Simola/CIFOR

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What challenges do REDD+ countries have in common, where do they differ? And how do a country’s politics play out in managing drivers of deforestation?

Representatives from more than a dozen countries across three continents had the rare opportunity to discuss these and other questions at a recent REDD+ knowledge-sharing event held from 8-10 June in Addis Adaba, Ethiopia.

The three-day meeting, hosted by the Wondo Genet College of Forestry and Natural Resources at Hawassa University, brought Ethiopian policymakers and practitioners together with researchers from 15 REDD+ countries in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia to present and analyze their progress.

Discussions showed that while countries develop their own approaches to REDD+, incorporating national circumstances in their policy design, the challenges they face in avoiding deforestation remain largely similar.

Timing is crucial, but it’s not everything

It would be easy to assume that early-mover countries have already progressed with REDD+ to a stage where ‘payments for performance’ can be made. However, it appears that some early-mover countries – such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Mozambique and Papua New Guinea – are still struggling with policy design and implementation, meaning that late-comer countries could yet catch up.

Analysis in some countries shows that either the political carousel is rolling too fast within election cycles to maintain momentum for change, or the attention span of politicians is too short to carry out major reform.


Laos established a REDD+ task force in 2008, and has conceptualized REDD+ as a shared responsibility of two ministries, but there is still the classic problem of conflict between institutions, which has created confusion. Overall, REDD+ in Laos is seen as a project, and not as policy development. Things may be changing, however, since a new prime minister assumed office on 20 April and has already issued a moratorium on timber and log exports.

On the African continent, Ethiopia recently established a REDD+ national strategy, covering REDD+ goals, governance, measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) design, and financing options. REDD+ activities in Ethiopia will be implemented with both in-country and external funding, including through agricultural intensification. The jurisdictional REDD+ project in the regional state of Oromia is now entering its final stage of implementation, with a pledge by Norway of USD 50 million.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is busy establishing REDD+ policies and measures, as well as a major demonstration site in Mai Ndombe to prepare for results-based payments – the third and currently final phase of REDD+. However, there is still no national REDD+ coordination, and drivers such as mining and large-scale agriculture are not included in REDD+ policy development.

Papua New Guinea is still in the first phase of REDD+ readiness, despite being one of the first countries to propose REDD back in 2005. The country’s political commitment to tackling deforestation and forest degradation has been questioned — for example, it remains the largest exporter of timber in the world, and continues to back large-scale land conversion plans under a paradigm of ‘green development’.

Stumbling blocks on the road to ‘transformational change’

Business-as-usual is a powerful force. Conflicting interests in the agendas of different actors involved in deforestation — across and within ministries, and across levels of governance —can be a major challenge for achieving effective, efficient and equitable REDD+.

Lack of land-use planning, unclear tenure, weak law enforcement and uncertainty over long-term funding were also found to be common challenges. Another was the lack of continuity in commitment from politicians.

Political champions for change are crucial for moving the REDD+ agenda forward. But some of these champions in REDD+ countries have not been able to generate sustainable and institutionalized pathways for change away from deforestation and forest degradation in the course of their terms.

The politics of the possible

Politics do matter when moving forward with REDD+. Analysis from Indonesia, Guyana, Burkina Faso, Nepal, Brazil and many other countries show that either the political carousel is rolling too fast within election cycles to maintain momentum for change, or the attention span of politicians is too short to carry out major reform.

One example mentioned was Indonesia, which until 2014 rapidly developed a REDD+ mechanism under the leadership of a president with a strong public commitment to mitigate climate change. During this time, a REDD+ national strategy was established, as well as a REDD+ agency with the power to coordinate across ministries, a REDD+ financial mechanism, regulations related to REDD+ implementation, MRV infrastructure and more. Policies were issued, including a peatland moratorium policy, and a one-map policy.

With a change in presidential leadership in 2014, everything seemed to change overnight. The new president, with a strong focus on strengthening governance and economic development, merged the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Forestry, dismissed the REDD+ Agency, the Climate Change National Council (DNPI), and the presidential office for development monitoring (UKP4), as the institution where the REDD+ task force was hosted. He then established a Directorate General of Climate Change Mitigation under the new Minister of Environment and Forestry, handing over the tasks of the late REDD+ Agency and DNPI.

Reactions were mixed among participants at the Addis Adaba meeting – some questioned the effectiveness of the first president’s measures in halting deforestation, considering that by 2014 Indonesia had become the country with the highest rate of deforestation in the world. They argued that change under the new president presented a possibility for greater ownership over the REDD+ process within the government. Meanwhile, others argued that the changes indicated weakened political will and undermined effective REDD+ policy making. However, all participants agreed that the changes in the political configuration contribute to an unclear future for REDD+ in Indonesia.

Optimists and pessimists

REDD+ gives reason for both cautious optimism and also some skepticism.

Some countries presented successful policy responses to the problem of deforestation, with ‘command and control’ as well as ‘payments for environmental services’ (PES) being part of the more effective approaches. Others mentioned REDD+ as being adopted in education curricula, reviews of natural resource exploitation licenses causing deforestation and forest degradation, capacity-building and technology transfer on conducting forest inventories and MRV as positive policy innovations for REDD+.

One topic that stirred controversy in discussion among country representatives was the strategy of integrating REDD+ into green economy pathways, as adopted by countries such as Guyana, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Participants said that this kind of strategy can ensure that the roadmap for transformational change is more comprehensive in targeting the underlying causes of deforestation, and can help to remove perverse incentives such as subsidies for land-use change driving deforestation and forest degradation.

However, some participants shared pessimistic concerns that with the introduction of ‘green economy’ or ‘green growth’ language, attention moves away from tangible measurable carbon and non-carbon outcome performance to rather fuzzy concepts with very little REDD+ objectives within.

One key condition to move forward with REDD+ seems to be the upfront investment a country needs to make. While this is a burden for most countries in the short term, in the long term it instills a sense of ownership, as seen in the cases of Brazil and Guyana, and carries a commitment to move past the pressures of election cycles and business as usual.

In the end, political willingness to break with old habits and powerful interests was highlighted as the most crucial factor for success across all country cases. It takes optimism and commitment for a state to break away from the entrenched interests driving deforestation, and to regain autonomy by enforcing decisions that regulate large-scale international and domestic investor behavior. And it takes an empowered civil society to hold state and business accountable to their commitments and promises.

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Topic(s) :   Deforestation REDD+ Climate change