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To conserve forests, climate funds must cut out corruption

The glaring red patches on Google Earth’s Global Forest Change map charts the destruction of the world’s tropical forest cover over the last decade. The extent of the devastation was worse than even the gloomiest of environmentalists might have expected – it showed that between 2000 and 2012 the area of forest lost equaled the size of Mongolia.

One reason for this is rampant corruption fuelling the felling of the planet’s forests, fast destroying biodiversity and uprooting the homes and livelihoods of forest-dwelling communities. By absorbing carbon dioxide, woodland is like an extractor fan to the residues of modern life – car exhaust, jet fumes and the smoke that bellows from power plants. At current rates, deforestation and forest degradation is second only to the energy sector as the leading cause of global warming.

Forest fire haze
Forests under threat in Indonesia

Enter REDD+, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, a UN-initiated scheme aimed at shifting the forest economy from short-term profit to long-term security by offering financial incentives to forest-rich countries to hold onto their woodland. Born out of the wider UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), REDD+ is still in start-up phase but gathering pace.

Some of the key players working to establish a global REDD+ mechanism are two World Bank- and UN-administered funds – the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) and the UN-REDD Programme – that have been meeting together in Lima this week and last to discuss the progress of this ambitious, and potentially transformative, scheme. These institutions have already disbursed over US$100 million dollars to forest-laden countries to support the development of the infrastructure and institutions that will manage the protection of tropical forests.

If REDD+ works, it could help slow climate change. It is our concern, though, that given the huge amounts of money involved in these programmes, corruption could thwart that goal.

Already we see problems. Transparency International assessments of how these funds are governed overall, and operated on a daily basis, highlight several weaknesses that need to be addressed if REDD+ is to fulfil its promise of averting deforestation and supporting sustainable development.

Rooting out corruption at country level

At the national level, the grand-scale corruption that plagues the forestry sector in forest-rich countries needs to be tackled seriously for REDD+ to stand a chance of working. For example, palm oil companies are using back-room deals to gain access to land in the Congo Basin, the second largest rainforest on Earth. In Indonesia, where deforestation is on the rise despite a moratorium on logging licenses, politicians have in the past been accused of selling off protected forestland to fund their election campaigns. One recent study suggests the rate of deforestation in Indonesia has been grossly underreported, with the country felling forests at almost twice the rate of the previous global ‘leader’, Brazil. In Papua New Guinea, between 2003 and 2011, corruption fuelled the rapid and massive sell-off of customary-owned land (land held via traditional communal practices) equivalent to 12 per cent of the country’s land mass.

Our chapters in Asia, Latin America and Africa are working with governments, civil society and local people to try and improve this picture, and make REDD+ viable. REDD+ risk assessments conducted by our chapters in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam highlight red flags for corruption as REDD+ is developed and implemented in their countries. We will soon conduct similar assessments in several African countries. See the main findings of our three Asian REDD+ risk assessments below.

In Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Zambia and Zimbabwe, our chapters are also working with local partners and governments to establish monitoring systems that will engage communities and keep them informed and able to have a say in what happens to their forests. Our Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres are providing tailored outreach services to forest communities, so they are aware of their rights and have a channel to report corruption and receive support.

Face-to-face in the forest

Kim from PNG

Our chapter in Papua New Guinea has sent its staff to meet face-to-face with forest communities to hear their concerns and help explain their rights. As Kimberly Buka from the chapter’s legal advice centre explains, ‘It is important to always remind ourselves of the struggles and hardship of the rural people that are a direct result of corruption from the top.’ The chapter has run a campaign to explain land rights in accessible language, which is increasingly important as mining and logging speculators arrive in rural areas where illiteracy is high and traditional customary rights hold sway. She relays a 2012 case from the Manus province:

Meeting in Manus image
Residents of a forest community in Manus
attend a meeting with our chapter staff

‘The complaint was basically that a particular logging company had proposed to build a road linking the community to the town area whilst harvesting timber. The contract was facilitated by the provincial government and soon after negotiations the project was underway. A year later there was still no road and landowners were beginning to notice that the company was cutting trees outside of the area permitted by the timber authority. [Our legal advice staff] visited the communities affected and talked to them about the rights they had to question the company and to take the matter to court if they thought the contract had been breached.’

After the session, the centre’s staff raised the case with local media, student groups and professional associations, and coordinated with other NGOs and a pro bono lawyer, drawing attention to the community’s concerns. While at last report the company had abandoned this particular operation, the case highlights the need to inform forest communities about their rights and enable them to join civil society and public officials in monitoring the activities of logging interests – especially as REDD+ funds begin to flow.

REDD+ could be a vital part of the planet’s last line of defence against an increasingly wild and erratic climate. But for the scheme to stand a chance of effectively reducing deforestation, the global and national institutions that govern REDD+ need to take corruption seriously.

Key findings from our REDD+ risk assessments in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam

  • In all three countries information gaps exist. Accessing relevant information on REDD+ readiness processes and activities proved difficult, even for civil society groups who have more knowledge on how to manoeuvre through the system. Even in Indonesia, which has legal guarantees on access to information, the translation of these in practice has been weak.
  • Access to information for those directly affected by the decisions being made is a far greater challenge to be tackled. High rates of illiteracy and the remoteness of affected communities make it difficult to ensure that adequate information and understanding of REDD+ processes is held at the local level. Efforts to achieve this must be redoubled for the integrity of REDD+.
  • The assessments showed that the risks facing REDD+ reflect those which have been present in the forestry and land sectors for years: the existence of overlapping laws and loopholes, elite capture and cronyism. Failures in enforcement of existing legislation in these sectors emerged as a significant concern for REDD+.
  • Civil society groups want to engage and are keen to fulfil a monitoring and oversight role in REDD+, but feel that they lack the necessary information and resources. In some cases, civil society representatives either did not grasp the importance of participating in REDD+ consultations or expressed apathy based on past failures to take their input into account.
  • Participation of affected communities is insufficient, and the consultation processes required for REDD+ remain weak. Although UN-REDD and the FCPF have guidelines in place, consultation processes at the national level need to be strengthened, and a greater emphasis should be placed on continued engagement so citizens can understand what information to request, how it can be requested and how it can be used to hold decision-makers to account.

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