“People’s lives are very complex”: Why conditional payments aren’t enough to protect and restore forests

REDD+ should combine such payments with a broader ‘bundle’ of measures, say researchers
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Cattle graze in a traditionally-managed ngitili forest in Tanzania’s Shinyanga Region. Photo by CIFOR-ICRAF

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If you were around in the ‘90s, you might remember those ‘sponsor a child’ ads that popped up a lot on TV. In the face of widespread and seemingly intractable challenges like poverty and malnutrition, helping one kid make it through ‘for just a dollar a day’ was an appealing proposition.

But as popular and ubiquitous as they were at the time, the development agencies running those ads were eventually forced to change tack. Sponsoring a single child in a community full of people facing similar challenges caused family rifts, engendered cultural confusion, and failed to address systemic problems. Most agencies have now pivoted to community-, landscape-, and country-wide approaches – which perhaps lack the same marketing clout, but offer more opportunities for equitable and lasting change.

A similar shift appears to be occurring in the realm of REDD+, the UN-backed scheme to reduce deforestation and degradation, and enhance carbon stocks. The scheme’s initial concept was satisfyingly simple: to help mitigate climate change, let’s pay people living in and near forests to stop cutting down trees.

An in-depth look at how REDD+ pilot projects played out on the ground shows that the picture is more complicated. This foreshadows what is now happening with jurisdictional REDD+ programmes at a larger scale.

The disjunct is highlighted in a new study in Global Environmental Change that seeks to tease out REDD+ project impacts on forest-adjacent community members’ behaviour. In a sample of 17 active REDD+ initiatives at the subnational level across the Global South, the co-authors found that conditional payments (payments made only upon proof of forest protection, which are conceptually at the core of REDD+) were not perceived by local people as a key factor in their land use decisions.

“We expected to find conditional payments would be what mattered, but in the end, it doesn’t seem to be the thing that tipped households over to land use changes that are beneficial for the climate,” said Erin Sills, head of the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University and a co-author of the article. “What we found instead is that the more interventions there were, the more likely you were to see positive land use change (reducing carbon emissions) by households. This was most likely with a mix of positive and negative interventions: you need both the ‘carrot and the stick’.”

That might include a combination of things like alternative livelihood support, capacity building, education on the benefits brought by intact forest ecosystems, and monitoring to deter illegal activity.

One of the most successful of the case studies, which took place in the Shinyanga region of Tanzania, demonstrated the value of such a multifaceted approach. There, local communities were encouraged to protect and restore local dry forests that had been managed sustainably in the past through the traditional ngitili system of closing off wooded areas in the dry season, but that in recent years had become threatened and degraded from overgrazing and firewood collection.

In that intervention, financial rewards for protecting ngitili forests were coupled with the provision of alternative energy-efficient technologies, alternative livelihoods, and improved farming techniques. The REDD+ project also provided education and information, strengthening of property rights, and the provision of awards to communities in recognition of their restoration achievement. Penalties and fines were put in place for the destruction of ngitilis, as well as quotas and permits for grazing, cutting fodder, and harvesting timber.  

“People’s lives are very complex. [REDD+ project participants] are often trying to make a living in very remote areas, without any of the backup systems we’re used to [in more developed places],” said Sills. “So it makes sense, looking back, that the idea that they might just say, ‘oh great, a cash payment – I’ll completely change what I’m doing’, is too simplistic for the really complicated balancing act of maintaining rural livelihoods in these places.”

Where conditional incentives existed, they were not always implemented in the ways that the scientists and economists devising the scheme imagined.

“REDD+ has had its ups and downs in terms of funding related to whether there’s been international agreements and market demand or not. Most recently, there appears to be shift in focus from quantity to quality of carbon offset credits – and that’s the system adapting, and that’s good,” said Sills. 

“But if you’re on the ground, and you’re trying to set up a contract [for conditional REDD+ payments], you need some certainty. So that lack of certainty might have meant that conditional incentives also didn’t quite get implemented like we expected them to – and people also didn’t respond quite like we expected them to, either.”

While the early REDD+ initiatives examined by this study were mostly subnational projects, the focus of REDD+ is generally moving away from project-based interventions and towards more national and jurisdictional level policies.

“What our results suggest is that there’s no silver bullet here: you can’t just set up a national REDD+ programme with conditional payments for forest conservation and assume that those payments alone will deliver your country’s contribution to climate change mitigation; it’s going to require looking at the whole set of policies and measures that are both intended to affect the forest and that unintentionally affect incentives for forests,” said Sills.

“So there’s no easy answer: it wasn’t that we found that conditional incentives are bad; they’re just not enough. It looks like what households respond to is a set of measures: some conditional, some not conditional, some positive, and some more enforcement-oriented. And it’s that effective combination of measures that households tell us is going to lead to change.”

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