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Did we get it wrong? CIFOR responds to critique

Why we stand by our Infobrief on rights abuse allegations in the context of REDD+
An indigenous man catches lunch on the Ucayali river in Peru. CIFOR Photo/Juan Carlos Huayllapuma

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In the past week, sharp criticism was leveled at CIFOR’s recent publication, ‘Rights abuse allegations in the context of REDD+ readiness and implementation’ (Larson and Sarmiento Barletti, 2017 — for further references, see end of article). In a blog (Meyer, 2017), the Environmental Defense Fund’s Senior Manager for Amazon Forest Policy, Chris Meyer, raised several charges regarding the assumptions, sources and conclusions made by the authors of CIFOR’s Infobrief, and criticized the research approach undertaken by CIFOR.

We highly value comments and opinions from our readers and the end users of our work — open debate is central to advancing development. At CIFOR, we pride ourselves on the quality and integrity of our research and the publications that convey our results and recommendations.

On the rare occasion that we receive a complaint, we follow a standard practice to assign several scientists to review the paper and the research in question. No institution is infallible and if we make a mistake, we admit it and strive to correct it. In this case, a team of scientists led by Christopher Martius, CIFOR Team Leader, Climate Change, Energy & Low-Carbon Development, and including Stephen Leonard, John Colmey, and the authors Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti and Anne M. Larson, reviewed and answered each of the charges. As a result of this process, we remain confident the Infobrief is a sound contribution to the discourse on the future development of REDD+.

The arguments against CIFOR’s brief are stated below, and each is addressed in turn.

The research underlying this sensationalistic headline is fundamentally flawed”

Our title was carefully chosen to represent the topic of the publication. The brief represents an analysis of allegations of rights abuses that have been cited in the literature, and is not an analysis or investigation of the abuses themselves, which is beyond the purview of CIFOR scientists; such work is best left to journalists and proper authorities. The authors’ approach to the analysis of allegations is explained in the box accompanying this article.

“The mafia, not REDD+ supporters, are killing indigenous and community leaders”

We must be clear here that the brief does not present any finding, statement or suggestion that REDD+ supporters are responsible for the killing of indigenous and community leaders, as alleged by the author of the blog.

As the CIFOR authors state in the brief, the literature reveals allegations of rights abuses in the context of REDD+ readiness and implementation processes. The Infobrief relays clearly that some of the alleged abuses are not related to physical violence. As explained in the brief, a human rights violation refers to any violation of the rights accorded in UNDRIP and ILO 169 or the broader UN human rights conventions. This includes key rights to Free, Prior and Informed Consent; Territory; and Self-determination. Most of the alleged abuses found in the academic literature fall into these three categories (see Table 1 on page 3 of the Infobrief for a list).

The literature also reveals that REDD+ is implemented in the wider context of the assassination and harassment of indigenous leaders and activists, as revealed by Global Witness in a report cited in the Infobrief. The document does not make any suggestion that REDD+ proponents or supporters are killing people. The brief points out that REDD+ as it currently stands is ill-prepared to navigate the context of rights abuses and has the potential to exacerbate this situation; these concerns remain and should be considered in the implementation of REDD+.

“CIFOR’s publication relies on unreliable sources”

Information provided in the brief specifically highlights the academic sources used in the review (see Box) versus those sources used only for additional contextual information. The criticism refers only to a single reference, which is not part of the reviewed literature (31 peer-reviewed publications, see Box) and which was included as it provides leads to specific inputs from indigenous organizations in Ecuador. The authors also sought comments from indigenous leaders and texts written by indigenous organizations to expand on the contexts described by the peer-reviewed articles. In recognition of AIDESEP’s (Peru’s national indigenous Amazonian organization) and COICA’s (the pan-Amazonian indigenous organization) positions on REDD+, the brief also recommends the consideration of indigenous transformational alternatives such as REDD Indigena Amazonica.

“CIFOR’s article’s peer-review is weak”

The peer reviewers for this brief were selected for both their technical expertise on legal aspects of REDD+ and its safeguards, and for their knowledge of how these processes take place on the ground. We consulted a higher number of reviewers for this Infobrief than would be normally employed in scholarly journals. Reviewers with this expertise were selected because the authors found that the literature highlights a mismatch between what policies intend to do and how they are put into practice. For example, initiatives like REDD+, can be diluted in national-to-local socio-political contexts (Sanders et al., 2017; Korhonen-Kurki et al., 2017). As such, the recommendations in the Infobrief propose a way to reinforce the potential that REDD+ may have as a rights-based approach.

“UNFCCC REDD+ uses a rights-based approach”

The argument that REDD+ already uses a rights-based approach is a subject open for debate, as it is for national governments to decide on how they implement the policy framework. The COP decision made in Cancun states that safeguards “should be promoted and supported” by Parties to the UNFCCC (Decision FCCC/CP/2010/7/Add.1, Item 69; our emphasis). International law does not usually (if ever) interpret this terminology as legally binding. Further, the Cancun Safeguards merely “note” the existence of UNDRIP, which is weak terminology. One reviewer of the brief, who was involved in the creation of the safeguards between 2008 and 2010, reported that the efforts to make REDD rights-based fell far short of what indigenous groups and civil society sought at the time.

The Cancun safeguard provisions require that countries develop national-level REDD+ safeguard information systems (SIS) to provide information on how REDD+ safeguards are being “addressed and respected” and submit a summary of this information to the UNFCCC as a pre-condition to receiving results based payments. As another CIFOR brief (Menton et al. 2014) analyzing Party and Observer submissions to the UNFCCC on the subject pointed out, “[w]hile developed country Party submissions emphasize the need for SIS to demonstrate adequate governance and safeguard implementation, civil society organizations highlighted issues around equity and participation of local people in the process.” Countries are certainly encouraged to implement REDD+ in a rights-based manner, but the UNFCCC agreements, including the way in which REDD+ is included in the Paris Agreement, do not assure such a rights-based approach. The Infobrief by Sarmiento Barletti and Larson in its recommendations proposes ways forward to navigate this context.

“The Warsaw Framework for REDD+ does not include project-based REDD+”

The differentiation between jurisdictional REDD+ programs and “one-off” voluntary, market-focused REDD+ projects, and the emerging dispute over what is or is not ‘REDD+’, is not relevant to the issues discussed in the brief. The brief is not a review of REDD+ initiatives as relevant to the UNFCCC Warsaw Framework, but rather a review of allegations of rights violations in the context of how REDD+ has been rolled out on the ground over the past decade. A lack of attention to the potential abuses that may take place in any initiative referred to as REDD+ has implications for the perception of REDD+ overall.

“Vigilance will always be needed to ensure that no abuses of indigenous rights occur in the context of REDD+ readiness and implementation.”

Many REDD+ stakeholders have become concerned with the number of assertions made of REDD+ related rights violations, and CIFOR scientists undertook to research the subject to address those concerns and inform relevant discussions. The Infobrief highlights the barriers that Indigenous Peoples face when presenting denunciations of abuses in local courts, or of covering the costs of the process to take such cases to courts outside their countries. The brief highlights the different kinds of alleged violations that have been recorded by the scholarly literature in the wider context of REDD+ readiness and implementation. The results suggest clearly that while governments and organizations are taking steps to address issues of rights abuses, more work needs to be done as REDD+ rolls out on a larger scale in the years ahead.

The CIFOR authors recognize REDD+’s potential to address the situation of rights for forest-based communities. The brief, while based on sound, defensible analysis, is a preliminary research product (see Box), and the authors will now continue to build on this in their further studies and forthcoming publications, in the spirit of CIFOR’s commitment to providing perspectives, based on sound scientific evidence, to key debates and discussions seeking rights-based climate change initiatives.

Few if any organizations have developed, and made available, more knowledge on REDD+ than CIFOR. We have been called pro-REDD+ and anti-REDD+ — in fact, CIFOR is neither; advocating is not our mission nor our intention. By providing research-based evidence, knowledge and tools, we do seek to inform the design of REDD+ policies and programs that are effective (in protecting forests and reducing emissions), (cost-)efficient, equitable, and that produce co-benefits. In this context, the Infobrief has identified REDD+’s potential to improve the rights of Indigenous Peoples, while pointing out current weaknesses and a way forward.

Box: The research

In the third sentence of the introduction to the Infobrief, the CIFOR authors specify that:

“The brief is based on the preliminary results of a systematic search of academic literature (and not legal cases). Although the review cannot verify the accuracy of any specific allegation, the findings highlight important considerations for REDD+ readiness and implementation.”

They explain further, in footnote 2, what the brief is and what it is not:

“this review refers only to published sources, it does not include more recent allegations or attempts to evaluate the veracity or present status of each case (including whether corrective measures have since been taken), nor is it intended to be exhaustive. In this preliminary version, it does not distinguish between projects and programs or policies. The review seeks to derive lessons and recommendations as to how future REDD+ efforts could be adjusted to address a problematic context and to contribute to relevant policy discussions, which are progressing rapidly.”

In the Methods section, the authors explain that:
Using EBSCO PUCP and Google Scholar, the authors undertook a systematic search for journal articles that self-identified as addressing REDD+, using combinations of the following key terms: REDD, REDD+, human rights, human rights violations, human rights abuses, indigenous peoples, and indigenous rights. The resulting articles were screened for information, and their bibliographies were checked for further relevant background, including “grey literature”, after which the search was expanded to include the following terms: eviction, displacement, forced relocation, land rights, land tenure, FPIC, and prior consent (in conjunction with the term REDD+).

The complete systematic search resulted in 85 relevant academic journal articles that fit the criteria for the review. From those, the authors then selected, for this brief, the articles that had sufficient sources to understand the alleged rights transgressions they described, and that would allow for snapshots of different stages of REDD+ in Africa, Asia and the Americas. These 31 articles are identified in the References section of the Infobrief. All other references in the list have been used for the purpose of argument or illustration. Another set of references, cited in footnotes in the text, refers to websites for further contextualisation and do not form a part of the set of academic papers found in the systematic search.


Korhonen-Kurki, K., Brockhaus, M., Muharrom, E., Juhola, S., Moeliono, M. Maharani, C. , Dwisatrio, B. 2017. Analyzing REDD+ as an experiment of transformative climate governance: Insights from Indonesia. Environmental Science & Policy 73, 61–70.

Menton, M., Ferguson, C., Lelmu-Brown, R., Leonard, S., Brockhaus, M., Duchelle, A.E., Martius, C., 2014. Further guidance for REDD+ safeguard information systems?: An analysis of positions in the UNFCCC negotiations. Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) Infobrief No. 99. 8 pages.

Meyer, C., 2017. Shoddy CIFOR publication on indigenous peoples’ rights abuses gets the facts wrong. EDF talks Global Climate.

Sanders, A.J.P., H. da Silva Hyldmo, R.D. Prasti H., R.M. Ford, A.M. Larson, and R.J. Keenan. 2017. Guinea pig or pioneer? Translating global environmental objectives through local actions: the case of Central Kalimantan as Indonesia’s official REDD+ pilot province. Global Environmental Change 42: 68-81.

Sarmiento Barletti, J.P., Larson, A.M., 2017. Rights abuse allegations in the context of REDD+ readiness and implementation: A preliminary review and proposal for moving forward. Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) Infobrief No. 190. 8 pages.

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Topic(s) :   REDD+ Climate talks