Uprooting corruption, not trees

Uprooting corruption, not trees

A judge in Peru’s northern Maynas province last month issued a warrant for the arrest of an Australian property developer. Locals interviewed for an Australian documentary claimed that the developer had been striking deals with illiterate indigenous tribes in the Amazon. Tapping figures into his calculator, the developer allegedly told landowners – who preside over hundreds of thousands of hectares – that they could earn billions of dollars from carbon credits. The developer’s contracts reportedly give him control of the rainforest for 200 years, and half of all profits.

Cover image of Keeping REDD+ clean guide

As this case demonstrates, forest economies are changing. We are beginning to realise that trees are worth far more standing than they are cut down. As cars, planes and coal plants continue to belt out heat-trapping gases, forests defuse their damage by absorbing carbon dioxide. Forest carbon projects like REDD+ are an important acknowledgement of this. By investing in forest conservation they aim to avert trillions of dollars in climate damage each year. Yet these schemes are bringing new money into a sector that is already rife with corruption, so risk abounds. 

Our new step-by-step guide, Keeping REDD+ clean, is aimed at guarding REDD+ against corruption, before it sets in.

Understanding REDD+

A guide to fighting corruption in forest carbon

Many of the world’s most densely forested countries have a poor track record for corruption. Politicians have been known to accept bribes – sometimes huge – to grant companies access to forest zones that should be protected. Meanwhile, some local communities have been forcefully removed from their homes in order to clear the way for forest exploitation.

REDD+ will inherit many of the corruption risks that have long beset the forestry sector, but it also brings with it new ones. Carbon is intangible, and so difficult to quantify. This opens the door to mistakes or manipulation – both of data and of people. Given the remoteness of REDD+ sites there may be no easy way of knowing whether a project is authentic or bogus. And forest communities may be marginalised from decision-making and profits

Forest carbon projects are very new and policy is still taking shape. At this critical stage, Keeping REDD+ clean shows the reader how to identify risks in REDD+ countries and find solutions. The book is already being used by our national chapters in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam – all home to vast swathes of tropical forest. 

Anticipating corruption risks now: a view from Vietnam

Cao Hai Thanh

Cao Hai Thanh is Project Coordinator at Towards Transparency, our chapter in Vietnam.

Transparency International’s new manual walks users through how corruption can take root at all stages, from policy-making in Hanoi to projects deep within the forest. As we began investigating REDD+ in Vietnam we realised that, unless changes are made soon, corruption could occur in a number of areas. 

Vietnam’s National REDD+ Strategy, for example, sets out regulations that allow only certain groups – in many cases political and business elites – to profit from REDD+ activities. This limits the rights of indigenous peoples and other forest-dependent communities who, according to the international principles of REDD+, should be key beneficiaries.

Opacity can also be a big problem in Vietnam. Based on our past experience working on forestry issues, we are concerned that once REDD+ is implemented there will be no public record of how much REDD+ money is allocated to government ministries, agencies and provinces. This means that it will be very hard for people outside government to track the money and ensure that it is not diverted elsewhere or embezzled. Guarding these funds against corruption will require far more stringent, transparent and verifiable financial management.

To take action against corruption risks in REDD+ we have organised a number of training workshops for government officers at district and provincial levels. We also hope to launch a programme that will train people in monitoring REDD+ on the ground and encourage them to become forest whistleblowers. The more informed people are about corruption risks, the more likely it is that we can keep these threats in check.

Playing politics with the forest: a perspective from Indonesia

Dedi Haryadi

Dedi Haryadi is Forestry Team Leader at Transparency International Indonesia.

Indonesia’s forests are often used to consolidate political power. In the mid-1990s the Ministry of Forestry reportedly took US$600 million from the country’s Reforestation Fund and invested it in projects that were more politically favourable. Satellite images of forest cover changes in Indonesia also show that deforestation tends to increase ahead of regional and local elections. Forest land and proceeds are an important source of party political financing, and can be used to buy votes and secure support.

Policy capture – when decision-makers shape policies to suit their own interests above those of society – happens when citizens are unable to critique or contribute to policy. We believe that this manual will help turn the tide on this at a critical time in the development of REDD+.

Beyond raising awareness about what REDD+ is, the manual gives people a checklist of questions to ask as well as people and processes to monitor to ensure that REDD+ decision-making stays clean. People need to know that they have an important watchdog role to play, and what to watch out for.

Our staff in Aceh, Riau and Papua have been using the manual to identify and address corruption risks in their provinces. It has also been enthusiastically received by concerned citizens, NGOs, journalists, activists and academics. We hope that the manual will help galvanise an informed and active society that monitors money flows and holds leaders to account. 

REDD+ corruption risks are real, but so are the solutions

Rick Jacobsen

Rick Jacobsen of our partner organisation Global Witness discusses the promise of REDD+, and the perils that corruption poses for forests and local communities.

Back in 2009, when REDD+ was in its early days and talk of billion dollar markets for forest carbon was common, we began to hear disturbing reports emerging from Papua New Guinea. The government’s newly established Office of Climate Change had sold a huge number of REDD+ credits, apparently without legal mandate and before a framework for implementing REDD+ had even been established in the country. Other reports came of rogue businessmen manipulating local villagers into handing over the rights to the carbon in their forests. The term “carbon cowboy” quickly became a part of the REDD+ lexicon.

It is often said that REDD+ could be a real opportunity to protect forests and address poverty in forested areas. The concept has gained traction around the world and has generated unprecedented levels of interest in and funding for forest protection. But, as the situation in Papua New Guinea makes very clear, REDD+ faces some major challenges in overcoming corruption and illegality.

The forest sector is particularly vulnerable to corruption. Global Witness and its Liberian partners recently documented how in Liberia 40 per cent of the country’s forests were quietly handed out as private logging permits in just two years. Evidence of forgery, violations of legal statutes and neglect of due process abounds. Similarly in Democratic Republic of Congo, permits meant for small-scale local logging have been given away to international logging companies eager to bypass more strenuous regulation under other types of licenses and a moratorium on new industrial logging concessions. These developments in Liberia and DRC, both members of major multi-lateral REDD+ programmes, illustrate the risks posed by weak governance.

REDD+ could also create additional opportunities for corruption: new streams of money, an increase in the economic value of forests and land, the complexity of dealing with carbon rights, payments and measurements. Transparency International’s new guide to preventing corruption in REDD+ can help governments, the private sector and NGOs to address old and new risks at the national level. Talking about corruption in many of the countries participating in REDD+ isn’t easy; often it’s the large and menacing elephant in the room. But the best way to begin addressing these risks is to shed light on them, as Transparency International’s guide ably does.


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