Rewarding communities for slowing forest destruction to enhance carbon storage sounds, on its face, like a win-win solution. Emissions go down, forests are spared, and, ideally, people benefit economically and socially. But it’s also controversial. Some view it as neo-colonial conservationism, imposing outside pressure on local decisions. Others wonder if such programs work at all, as the global price of carbon is low.

The debate itself is less helpful than learning from specific projects to identify what makes them successful or not, suggests UC Davis anthropology Professor Monique Borgerhoff Mulder in her recent study, “Does REDD+ Stand a Chance? Implications from Pemba, Tanzania,” and its related blog post.

REDD fairly successful in Tanzania

REDD+ stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. Adopted by the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2007, it is a conservation program intended to reduce deforestation while conserving carbon stored in the trees. Ideally, communities are rewarded for their diminished use of the forests through money generated on the global carbon market.

In Tanzania, many people rely on the forests for fuel, food, fiber and building materials. Borgerhoff Mulder looked into how people on Zanzibar’s Pemba island felt about slowing their forest use, how communities were managing to police themselves, how individual payments and community services would be shared, and ultimately how this would all translate into changes in forest cover.

a man in foreground of forest in Pemba, Tanzania

A patch of sacred forest in Wingwi Mapofu on the Tanzanian island of Pemba. (Monique Borgerhoff Mulder/UC Davis)

She found, however, that implementation was problematic. For example: “The donor and international project implementers had left after the period of REDD-readiness was completed (2015) without finalizing the certification of carbon stored in Zanzibar,” she writes of her study site in her blog post. The carbon agent assured the Forestry Department that the work contracted to them would be completed.

“Yet here we are in 2020 with no verified and validated carbon units for sale, despite our satellite-based evidence that rates of deforestation have declined in some communities,” she continues.

The communities who reduced their use of the forest did not receive the promised carbon units. Their reduced forest use has not been justly rewarded.

Local context key to success

So was the program in Pemba a failure?

Borgerhoff Mulder thinks not — for three reasons.

First, the communities have generally positive feelings about the project: They are excited about alternatives to firewood. They appreciate the increased security in land tenure provided by land management agreements.

Second, while some academics view REDD+ as a ploy that allows the central government to lay claim to local forests once carbon payments appear on the horizon, this is not the case in Zanzibar. The government has often supported communities in managing their own forests and does not plan to take carbon credits for itself.

Third, communities are not being asked to protect their forests from huge international commercial consortia. Most forest products are used by locals, so communities are protecting forests for their own sustainable use in the future.

“Despite all the negative press concerning REDD+ there are conditions under which payments for ecological services, and bio-accreditation more generally, can and should be working,” Borgerhoff Mulder writes. “The key to success is finding conditions in which the institutional design matches the local context.”

That idea, she notes, is something her anthropology students predicted several years ago.

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