In 2012, Central Kalimantan was chosen as Indonesia’s pilot province for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+). REDD+ is an ambitious effort to mitigate climate change and achieve other benefits by reducing greenhouse gas emissions through a series of incentives. To do this, projects are developed to improve forest management, increase conservation efforts and enhance forest carbon stocks. These projects involve multiple stakeholders, from central, provincial and district level governments to NGOs and local communities.
Scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and partner institutions looked at how the global environmental goals of REDD+ translated on the ground in Central Kalimantan. They found a number of underlying tensions among the local population that hampered the success of many projects.
“Proponents of REDD+ branded these efforts in Central Kalimantan as ‘pioneering’ but many local actors including government officials and NGOs, as well as communities, felt they were part of an experiment and were being treated more like guinea pigs for testing new approaches, the effects of which were uncertain,” says Anna Sanders, lead author of the study and a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.
Sanders says many difficulties arose from a rigid, top-down approach to project design. She says one example was a foreign government funded project that had too much control from abroad, so issues that needed to be quickly resolved were delayed.
“It wasn’t until the final year of the project when those central reigns were loosened that the project moved forward,” says Sanders.
She says another issue they found was that many of these projects were designed to be completed within a short period of time, often just year or two, and that the timeframes and general expectations were unrealistic.
‘SEEING’ THE PEOPLE
The scientists looked at recent comparative studies of REDD+ and spoke to more than one hundred stakeholders. Their study points out that although REDD+ covers a wide range of issues such as poverty and human rights, there is little focus on the actual underlying causes and the drivers of deforestation.
We have found that REDD+ should address the main issue of deforestation, not just with the environment, but also with the communities, the people living in the forest, because they are the ones who maintain and value the forest. But they are poor. But for this [REDD+] to happen, the preconditions are actually to address poverty as the cause of deforestation. Of course, poverty is linked to how countries govern themselves, the governance and institutional issues. You have to start by seeing the people in this.
Sanders says these projects need time to develop, and that local social aspects also need to be considered in project design.
“These communities have been through all these top-down initiatives, like the failed Mega Rice Project, as well as political changes, the fires, the oil palm, and they get confused about what works and what doesn’t,” says Sanders.
The study indicates that it is not only at the community level that confusion can spread, but also at the higher levels where these multi-million dollar projects are designed.
“You have different cultures and practices among the big donors and international agencies involved. Often these organizations have different expectations, different ways of working, and often they don’t translate,” says Sanders.
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS
The study also raises the question: How can a REDD+ project be successful if people don’t fully understand each other?
As in any project, meetings and consultations are held regularly from the highest levels of government to the ground level. But the researchers found there were often misunderstandings among the stakeholders. For example, foreign experts would be asked to speak but only official attendees had interpreters or translation devices, which left some NGOs and other local attendees to make their own, sometimes incorrect, interpretations about what was being discussed.
Many UN agencies and government officials come here to talk about REDD+, and we don’t understand what they are talking about because they do not adapt their way of speaking to our conditions. They don’t see that we are not able to understand what they are talking about.
“This led to some local actors resisting projects and plans that did not make sense to them, and they often felt like they were being told what to do and were not involved in initial design of the projects that they were expected to implement,” says Håkon da Silva Hyldmo, second author of the study, and a graduate of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).
And it wasn’t just the people at the ‘top’ or the ‘bottom’ – those working in the middle, like managers, district officials and project staff also faced difficulties meeting donor expectations and outcomes that were not possible on the ground.
THE TIME IS NOW
Following the devastating 2015 peatland fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, there have been multiple proposed solutions, ambitious new timelines and national targets set for peatland restoration.
The researchers note that now more than ever, there needs to be more of a focus on how these projects are implemented.
“It’s time for all stakeholders to learn from the REDD+ experience. People shouldn’t be working in silos. We need to find points of convergence so people can come together and discover how they can work more effectively, especially at the village level,” says Sanders.
The study reveals that greater flexibility in the design of programs and initiatives is needed, to provide space for local input. That, in turn, should be used to inform decision makers at higher levels. Programs like REDD+ need to extend beyond a focus on short-term projects and targets and instead emphasize long-term investments and forms of collective action that support learning.
The researchers also point out that successes observed in other countries are not outcomes of singular efforts, but negotiated through “lengthy social processes to build linkages and foster learning”. They say all stakeholders from all levels need to relate to each other by sharing information and consolidating their learning as they go, even when it challenges accepted ways of doing things.
“It is my wish that it is their wish and they define what that is and they go through the process to get there. Let people be pioneers. It isn’t going to be easy but what you might get in the end is people feeling proud, or in some cases disappointed, but they fact is – they will own it,” says Sanders.
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