“We don’t conserve. It’s our way of life that conserves.”

Mt Elgon Community, Kenya

As a first-time participant in RRI’s annual planning efforts, I had a unique opportunity this past October to better understand the work of and emerging lessons from the RRI Coalition during the 2017 Africa regional planning meeting. The meetings—attended by RRI Partners, Collaborators, Affiliated Networks, and Fellows from eight countries in Central, East, and West Africa—provided space to share and distill lessons from the previous year, as well as develop strategies for 2018.

Two things stood out for me in terms of shared learning.

The first relates to strengthening community governance around land and other natural resources, including tree and forest tenure. Partners highlighted this issue as one that needs greater attention. Natural resource governance is complex, especially for trees and forests, due to a diversity of interests and use patterns that inevitably generate conflict. Conflict can arise, for example, from contradictory management objectives between conservation and use; different interests from local, national, and global constituencies; and finally conflicts between actors within the same group. Large-scale concessions and their allocation processes were highlighted as a significant source of these conflicts. Expansion of protected areas and smallholder out-grower schemes also place tremendous pressure on forests and often result in the displacement of local communities or Indigenous Peoples who lack legal rights over their lands and forests.

RRI Partners highlighted some of the governance tools being considered to reduce or avoid conflicts associated with tree and forest management. The first is ensuring that communities and Indigenous Peoples have legal ownership and direct management rights over trees and forests, as access alone does not guarantee a sustainable supply of tree and forest resources and can ultimately lead to scarcity.

The second relates to the use of rules, whether mandatory or voluntary, as well as incentives to help minimize conflicts. Progress has been made in some countries, such as Liberia, where a Land Rights Policy was introduced in 2009 and completed in 2013, followed by the creation of the Liberian Land Commission. This policy, if implemented, could lead to significant improvements in the protection of customary rights. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the government recognizes in statutory law the rights of communities over forests. However, resolving land and forest disputes through the court system has presented several challenges. Judges and magistrates often have limited understanding of forest and land issues, while few lawyers have the experience needed to represent communities in courts.

Governance of trees and forests requires rules. Of critical importance is how these rules are developed and implemented, as well as the power dynamics around decision-making. Power and influence often determine who gets to sit around the “policy fire.” RRI Coalition members highlighted the need to consult local communities when formulating these rules.

The second issue that really caught my attention was the reflection around REDD+ initiatives. This issue is also very closely related to the governance of trees and forests. Since REDD+ design and implementation often involve multiple intermediaries, issues of power and control at various government and community levels can influence how benefits are distributed. Weak institutions could undermine equitable distribution of these benefits.[1]

We also know that REDD+ projects affect and influence the way many local communities and governments use and manage forests, land, and the associated natural resources necessary for sustaining livelihoods and economic development. It is therefore important that countries in Africa define an approach to REDD+ that builds community resilience, and addresses the real drivers of deforestation. Above all, countries must manage expectations that REDD+ can generate huge sums of money for communities.

For Africans, REDD+ should provide benefits that go beyond carbon. If REDD+ is seen as being about carbon money, then forests are only viewed in terms of carbon—and yet they are much more than that. If REDD+ design includes issues of governance, then the chances of reducing emissions, increasing ecosystem integrity, and securing communities’ rights are enhanced. A singular focus on carbon can lead to narrow policy objectives that focus on emission reductions without considering the broader drivers of deforestation and forest degradation[2] as well as the significant non-carbon benefits that are preconditions for successful REDD+ implementation.

The types of benefits that can be generated under REDD+ depend on the country context, the type of REDD+ programme, and forest type. Therefore, REDD+ benefits can be classified as social, environmental, or governance-related. Some of these benefits accrue only at the national level while others, such as biodiversity, can be at the national, regional, and international levels. Guaranteeing these tangible non-carbon benefits raises the possibility of delivering on carbon sequestration.

During the meeting, Cameroon was cited as a country that avoided immediately jumping onto the REDD+ bandwagon and instead opted to define a clear process that empowers civil society to engage and influence the design and implementation of REDD+. It was also acknowledged at the meeting that the underlying reason for forest loss in many African countries is weak institutions and policy failures. In this respect, REDD+ can contribute to addressing some of the governance challenges facing the forest sector.

A key issue considered by RRI Partners was whether community forestry can address climate change through REDD+. There is a real need for community forestry to contribute to reducing emissions while securing immediate community benefits such as livelihoods diversification, climate change adaptation, and employment. These benefits can only become a reality if community tenure, and not simply access and benefits, is secured. Land ownership rights are crucial for communities’ investment in and long-term care for their lands and forests. In the absence of clear incentives to sustainably manage their forests resources, communities may opt to “liquidate” their forest resources rather than let someone else lay claim to them.

This means that ultimately, the design of REDD+ must deliberately invest in non-carbon benefits such as forest and tree governance, livelihoods diversification, and enhancing the social and cultural values of forests.

[1] Ebeling, J. and Yasue, M., 2008. Generating carbon finance through avoided deforestation and its potential to climate, conservation and human development benefits. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B, 363: 1917-1924.

[2] Okereke, C. and Dooley, K. 2010. Principles of justice in proposals and policy approaches to avoided deforestation: Towards a post-Kyoto climate agreement. Global Environmental Change, 20: 82-95.

About the author: Yemi Katerere, a Fellow at the Rights and Resources Initiative, is an independent scientist working with the regional office of WWF Africa, supporting the strengthening of country offices in Africa including Madagascar. Read his full bio.

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