I am undertaking my Lombard Fellowship at the Secretariat of the United Nations initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), based in Geneva, Switzerland. REDD encourages developing countries to preserve their forests in order to store carbon, considered crucial to offset climate change. The goal is for partner countries to eventually receive payments for reducing forest loss, which in turn indicates that they have prevented carbon emissions. To be eligible for such payments, countries must develop capacity in a variety of areas, including monitoring forest cover change and respecting the rights of local communities. The function of the UN REDD program is to support governments in their efforts to curb deforestation, especially to invest in the upfront costs of this endeavor.
My function at the Secretariat relates to the social equity dimensions of REDD. In my academic work at Dartmouth, I came to understand that seemingly benign environmental projects in the developing world often ended up only exacerbating the poverty of farming communities. Paradoxically, despite being couched in the language of “sustainable development,” they may undermine local people’s conceptions of rights to land and food. A question that has guided my work at REDD thus far, then, has been: Is it possible for a global environmental program, whose primary interest is in maximizing the carbon stored in the world’s forests, to equip rural people with the autonomy to decide how land should be managed for their agricultural needs and other economic gains?
In this regard, I have been conducting an analysis of REDD funding disbursed to countries for the purpose of “Stakeholder Engagement.” This category is meant to ensure that forestry programs are inclusive of all the actors relevant to forests. It revolves around the idea that decisions shouldn’t be made simply by a minister in the capital city, but must be rooted in the participation of the people living in forested regions.
My review is timely for two reasons. First, the REDD program is re-evaluating the funding mechanism, called “targeted support,” that offers stakeholder engagement grants to countries. For example, questions have arisen over how to generate more country ownership over the process, and how to ensure that such grants are part of a coherent national REDD strategy. Second, as an outcome of the UN REDD biannual Policy Board meeting in November, the Secretariat encourages greater involvement by local NGOs and indigenous peoples in requests for funding. Under the current targeted support structure, the proposals are typically drawn up solely by a government ministry, without attention to the priorities of forest communities.
I am particularly excited to follow the trajectory of this Policy Board decision. It offers a real opportunity for farmers across the developing world to articulate their priorities. Beyond increasing their engagement in policy processes with their own governments, it may generate new thinking among aid agencies and large environmental NGOs about the value of including perspectives of local people within a global climate change program.
In the spring, I will get the chance to explore first-hand this nexus between agriculture and carbon forestry. I will travel to Ethiopia to conduct research on a World Bank-funded REDD project that has proposed new agricultural practices as a strategy to reduce deforestation. How exactly does smallholder food production become framed as a “driver” of forest loss? How are these producers induced to depart from their current practices? These are the questions that will lead me toward a more complete picture of whether carbon forestry objectives can be responsive to the priorities of surrounding communities.