A What-If Approach to Assessing Livelihood Impacts of REDD+


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The indigenous Orang Rimba in Indonesia rely on the forest for resources, such as wood, berries and honey. Photo by Angela Dewan

By Angela Dewan

If REDD+ is agreed upon and rolled out globally, measuring its impacts on livelihoods years down the track will be relatively straightforward. What is a lot more difficult is measuring how communities affected by current REDD+ projects would have benefited or lost out if REDD+ had not been piloted.

It may sound a little abstract, but accurate information on these hypothetical scenarios can be very useful for REDD+ project design. Many debates on REDD+ are fueled by assumption. If a REDD+ project were not in one community, maybe they would have better access to resources. If REDD+ project were not in another community, maybe their homes would be of poorer quality. But how can anyone really know?

Collecting before and after data from REDD+ pilot sites, as well as control sites – without REDD+ projects but will  REDD+ eligibility – allows for a more accurate insight into what would or would not happen to livelihoods with REDD+ in place.

This is what is known as a counterfactual approach. A CIFOR guide to aid project developers and policy-makers decide on and carry out such rigorous assessment with this approach was launched on Thursday night in Cancun. “A Guide to Learning About Livelihood Impacts” provides the reader with technical worksheets and a bibliography of toolkits, methods and research.

“Measurement, reporting and verification of carbon is getting a lot of attention in REDD+ talks, but research shows that emissions are more likely to be reduced when forest users benefit,” said Pamela Jagger, the guide’s co-author.

Eirivelthon Santos Lima, a natural economist at the Interamerican Development Bank, welcomed the new resource.

“This is the first guide to bring together the REDD+ community and the impact evaluation community. For quite some time the two have developed in a quick way and have not communicated enough,” Santos Lima said.

The guide was published as part of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study, which looks at REDD+ project sites across Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam, Tanzania and Cameroon.

This kind of research and methodological development has not come without challenges. The uncertain pace of REDD+ development has made planning difficult, said William Sunderlin, also a co-author of the guide. When CIFOR began research in this area four years ago, the momentum of REDD+ had scientists working hard to develop the methodology quickly. As momentum slowed, researchers had to reevaluate their goals and timeframes.

Santos Lima said costs could also be an obstacle, mostly because governments were always concerned about big budgets for impact evaluation. Impact evaluation is an important part of any REDD+ design, he said, and sizeable costs were inevitable.

“If the project is large-scale, $50 million or $100 million is only a small part of the budget. But when you’re talking about specific small-scale projects, we do have to think what the point is of the evaluation if it’s going to take up 30 percent of your budget.”

All speakers acknowledged that the money to be put into forests through REDD+ will be unprecedented, and called for a fair share to go to livelihood impact assessment.

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