After a decade of deliberation, the US state of California may soon let its companies meet part of their emission-reduction obligations by saving forests in places like the Mexican state of Chiapas. For it to work, the process must not only be socially and scientifically rigorous; it must also be well-communicated.
By Felicia Line
This story is cross-posted on Ecosystem Marketplace
While participating in a recent workshop on climate change and the role of forests in the Lacandon Forest in Chiapas, Mexico, I asked a participating member of the indigenous Lacandon community if he knew what REDD+ stood for. He correctly answered, "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation".
"And the 'plus'?" I asked.
"Redd more... money!"
A friend of mine told a similar tale: while he was explaining REDD+ to people from the Tseltal community, an elderly man stood to speak.
"I don't know about this REDD+ you're talking about," he said. "I only know about Red Cross!"
Another colleague of mine recalls his confusion when members of a different community in the Lacandon Jungle asked him when the "big net" was going to descend over the forest - but his confusion dissipated when he realized they had literally translated the Spanish word red into "net".
Even government officials have got their terminology muddled, and one of them expressed relief after coming to a workshop and discovering that it was about forests and not computer networks.
Such confusion is understandable here, because the previous governor of Chiapas used the term "REDD+" to describe a program that funneled money from the state's car tenure tax to indigenous landowners in the Lacandon Jungle. They received 2000 pesos (around $150 dollars) per month as an emblematic "thank-you" for being "guardians of the forest" - without anyone monitoring to see if they were effectively conserving the forest or not.
An introduction to the Lacandon indigenous group and their history as strong forest stewards in Mexico's Lacandon Jungle.
Some of the Lacandon indigenous people were pleased to receive money for doing nothing, and most say they spent the money on food and medicine. Many, however, claim that a lot of the money received by the neighboring Choles and Tseltales indigenous people was reinvested in agriculture and livestock - defeating the point of a conservation subsidy - while others claim the money was spent on alcohol, cars or cheap goods that weren't always in the best interests of the family.
It is clear that this program lacked any scientific or social justification, but was instead a political creation, designed to win votes from those forest people it funneled money to. It had nothing to do with the national or state REDD+ strategy that is being collectively built in Mexico, and it was rightfully scrapped after a few years - but not before the disinformation brigade misleadingly equated it with the REDD+ initiative currently being debated in the state of California.
For a disinterested summary of the debate, see MongaBay's "Debate Heats up Over California's Plan to Reduce Emissions via Rainforest Protection".
The California (Dis)Connection
Like all disinformation campaigns, this one had a germ of truth to it. In 2010, Chiapas Governor Sabines Guerrero signed a memorandum of understanding with California Governor Arnold Swarzenneger and Jorge Viana, the governor of Acre, Brazil to explore options of REDD+ offsets for California's ARB32 climate change law. The MOU explicitly referred to a jurisdictional REDD+ approach developed in conjunction with all stakeholders, and it led to a set of stringent standards endorsed by indigenous people, policymakers, and the scientific community, cumulatively known as the REDD+ Offset Working Group.
It may have also inspired Sabines Guerrero to launch his pseudo-REDD initiative, in the mistaken hope that it will eventually be recognized by the state of California and financed by the offset program. That, however, is a far cry from being "linked to California's cap-and-trade program through a complex 'carbon offset' scheme," as one skeptical organization put it - especially since the current Chiapas administration seems intent on avoiding a repeat of this mistake, and it's taking a more rigorous and participative approach to building its state REDD+ jurisdictional Strategy.
The State of Play
California has been exploring options for REDD+ offsets outside the state, partly due to rising prices of their carbon credits, and partly due to the success of some of their domestic forest offset programs.
Potentially, in the next few years or so, a market for carbon offsets from California's cap-and-trade system could provide carbon finance for forest communities, but the demand is not as high as expected. Only 8% of the total emission-reductions will be allowed to be offset from other sectors such as agriculture or forestry projects in California, and of this, only 2% will be allowed to come from international offsets. From these international offsets, only a small percentage will be REDD+ credits, which in itself is a fairly unattractive and risky investment.
California last year signed a memorandum of understanding with Mexico, providing a potential basis for linkages with any of Mexico's forest emissions reductions initiatives, not just Chiapas, depending on accountability within Mexico's climate change law framework.
REDD in Mexico
The face of "REDD+" has changed radically in recent years, and is now focused not just in the Lacandon but in Mexico's five Early REDD+ Action Areas, moving up from the project scale to the jurisdictional scale that requires many more components than just payment-for-environmental programs.
Multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral groups such as the Consultative Technical Committee on REDD+ (CTC-REDD+) have been working at both the state and national level on building a more inclusive, stringent REDD+ strategy that includes monitoring, reporting and verification of emission-reduction results to ensure environmental integrity and safeguards to ensure there is no harm to communities in implementing REDD+. This state REDD+ Vision and Strategy bears no resemblance at all to the "REDD+" Program that Chiapas implemented, but many challenges remain, such as politics, corruption and dissonance between environmental and agricultural sectors.
The National REDD+ Strategy was written by multiple stakeholders from a wide variety of sectors, and it has taken many years to reach consensus. The focus has shifted from Payments in Cash for "protecting" the forest to a more integrated focus on land-use management, which aims to identify and align policies and programs while helping to conserve and increase the remaining forest carbon stocks.
The distribution of benefits and payment-for-result mechanisms are still being determined, and the National REDD+ Strategy is still undergoing consultation. Those communities most likely to benefit are the ones with clear land-tenure rights and stronger capacities for planning, implementing and monitoring actions that reduce the causes of deforestation. We should, therefore, aim to support women and youth - not just landowners - to implement cooperative mechanisms that detonate an income from low carbon activities, which should not be limited to REDD, but could include exporting certified timber and non-timber products and ecotourism, among a plethora of other activities.
In the Lacandon region, lessons learnt from past policies implemented by the federal and state government are being documented, and examined in order to figure out which policies have been more successful and deserve to continue. The most imminent payment-for-results program is the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility's Carbon Fund, and this year Mexico will present a proposal to the World Bank for Early REDD+ Action areas, including the Lacandon Jungle, for payment-for-results eligibility. The activities to be implemented in the field will be decided in the Investment Programs, to be submitted in the upcoming months, and based on a proposal that addresses the causes of deforestation identified in key areas that have been consulted with local communities.
This should hopefully move away from the traditional "payments for environmental services" model to more innovative policies that address deforestation at its cause, combining better agricultural practices and sustainable supply chains. The indigenous people who live in the forest are clear on what the causes and solutions to deforestation are - it's just a question of listening to them and supporting them, and ensuring that the activities implemented are effective and sustainable. This is what jurisdictional REDD+ is really about, and what is being communicated and consulted in Mexico.
This is the fourth in a continuing series examining the role of traditional and indigenous people in managing Mexico's forests. The next installment examines the role of Lacandons in monitoring their forests.
Felicia Line is a Field Coordinator in nonprofit EcoLogic's CarbonPlus program. She coordinates and supervises field and desk activities related to the REDD+ initiative with the Governors' Climate and Forest Fund in the states of Chiapas, Campeche, Jalisco, Tabasco and Quintana Roo in southern Mexico.