Fears about community rights under REDD+ are justified despite tenure reforms

BOGOR, Indonesia (21 November, 2011)_The fears of forest-based communities about their rights under REDD+ schemes are justified, concluded a comparative study of recent forest tenure reforms conducted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Rights and Resources Initiative.

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A 100-year-old farmer in the Juma Reserve in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo courtesy of Neil Palmer (CIAT).

BOGOR, Indonesia (21 November, 2011)_The fears of forest-based communities about their rights under REDD+ schemes are justified, concluded a comparative study of recent forest tenure reforms conducted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Rights and Resources Initiative.

“Indigenous organisations have been among the most vocal critics of REDD+ schemes, warning against risks to their land rights and the need for indigenous participation at all stages,” said CIFOR scientist Anne Larson, who led the comparative study of forest tenure reform.

“The communities in our study all faced obstacles even after winning tenure rights, so we can say with certainty that community concerns about REDD+ are valid. For REDD+ to be effective and sustainable, there must be a substantial effort to challenge the status quo in forest governance, particularly in community tenure rights.”

CIFOR and its partners studied the reform processes supporting greater local forest rights in 10 countries and surveyed more than 30 communities benefiting from reforms. The study found that, from Bolivia to Nepal, tenure reform faced obstacles at every stage.

In the first place, when rights are granted, they differ in extent and permanence. Some communities argue that their rights have been reduced, because their formal rights are attached to an area much smaller than the one they customarily claimed. With new rules restricting resource use, new rights may actually result in decreased access for communities. And in all cases the central issue is how secure the new rights are, and under what circumstances they can be withdrawn.

“Formalising forest rights sometimes ends in both winners and losers even among customary users. In Nepal, for example, granting rights to settled communities ignored the customary rights of pastoralists in Nepal’s high hills. And this is not an isolated example,” explained Naya Sharma Paudel, leader of the Nepal research team.

Once the new rights are granted on paper, implementing them is the next challenge. Resolving competing claims from other communities and businesses or conservation interests relies on effective community organisations and alliances and determined supporters within government.

“Access in practice may not be related to rights. Communities in particular need state support when their granted forest areas are invaded by others, but this is rarely provided, or sometimes is even given to the other side,” explained Larson.

“Implementation also faces internal governance challenges. It is risky to assume that communities have appropriate institutions and mechanisms for governing local access and control of resources; the new rights may not reach all community members or even the community at all. For example, obtaining the rights to a community forest in Cameroon is so costly that communities are forced to depend on local and sometimes external elites for funding, who hijack the process and take the benefits for themselves.

“In Nicaragua and Bolivia, indigenous communities have received land titles to large territories for which they have had to create new governance structures – these may start out weak, inexperienced and vulnerable to corruption.”

These problems highlight the next challenge in the tenure reform process: ensuring that communities are able to obtain livelihood benefits from the new rights. This includes making it easy and worthwhile for communities to access, use and sell forest resources.

Most often, state bureaucracies impose heavy and costly regulations on using and selling forest resources, particularly timber, rather than promoting local forest management and recognising effective local rules where they exist.

“Some communities have succeeded in gaining greater or more secure rights to forests and forest resources, but they have paid for this in effort and cost, through grassroots organisation, national and international networking, court cases, time and money,” said Larson.

Failing to secure and defend community tenure rights would clearly have a detrimental impact on communities. It could also affect REDD+ schemes, with conflict increasing transaction costs or leading international donor agencies to withdraw their involvement and their funds. Alienated communities may even voice their protest by intentionally destroying forests.

If these outcomes do not convince governments interested in REDD+ to transform their governance systems to protect community rights, Larson suggested that binding agreements, included in the conditions for REDD+ schemes, would be more effective.

“Communities have every right to be concerned by the political, technical and conceptual obstacles that are at the root of these tenure problems. Unless governments address these problems, there is little reason to believe the results under REDD+ will be particularly favourable for communities,” said Larson.

As countries prepare for further REDD+ negotiations at the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP) in Durban, South Africa on 4 December, Larson is circumspect as to what outcomes there may be for community tenure rights.

“It seems unlikely that significant and binding safeguards for forest communities will be approved in Durban, and unfortunately, even if they were, enforcing them on the ground is still a huge challenge. But it is still worth the effort. The debates and negotiations on climate and REDD+ have been catalysts for getting indigenous and community rights issues on the table.”

CIFOR will have a team of experienced writers covering the climate change negotiations and events of COP17 to be held in Durban, South Africa from November 28 to December 9. Follow stories related to forests, REDD+, food security and climate change on CIFOR’s Forests Blog and @CIFOR_forests on twitter. Get involved in Forest Day 5, the biggest global platform on forestry and climate change, by tracking the hashtag #FD5 on twitter

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