Reporting the Real Story on REDD+

Money, measures and meetings — the troika that dominates discussions around Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), an emerging mechanism designed to conserve tropical forests in a climate-conscious world.

There’s the cost, currently estimated to be $US 30 billion/year. There’s the satellite imagery and statistical sampling that will chart progress. And there are the long, intense negotiations that hope to overcome the challenges of reaching an agreement and maintaining commitments.

Those three factors swirl around REDD+, one of many items up for discussion at the latest UN climate conference now underway in Cancun. They will be discussed in meeting rooms and hallways and they’ll make their way into headlines over the next couple of weeks. Good stuff all around, right? Sure, but if we want real action on a global scale we are going to have to go a bit deeper than just reporting on the words and commitments of delegates and senior level decision-makers. We also have to engage citizens and help them to understand the impacts of deforestation, why it’s taking place and how our actions can have a positive impact, for nature and for ourselves.

Last month in Bangkok, I sat in a small meeting room with 12 environmental journalists from eight countries in Asia-Pacific. Some of the journalists would be traveling to Cancun; others would be glued to their computer monitors covering the negotiations from their offices in Beijing, Hanoi or Manila. Few of them knew much about REDD+, although they knew that it was important.

They know their audiences, how to structure a story, what sort of technical terms to use and what sort of protagonist to feature. But they lack detailed knowledge of the issues, the ways in which different strategies interact and the evidence and nuances to construct a compelling case. Furthermore, they are challenged to make stories resonate with editors who reserve the right to cut an expensive and well-researched feature down to a 200-word sidebar.

This was eye opening for me. Here in Asia-Pacific, a high-stakes region with the greatest ability to have a sustained impact on efforts to reduce global carbon emissions, journalists are struggling to make the issue appealing to their readers, listeners and viewers.

The negotiations in Cancun will provide good copy for journalists. They can play it safe by writing about the money, the measures and the meetings — who said what to whom. It’s good drama: you’ve got villains and victims, powerful countries and fragile ecosystems, the moral imperative and scandalous profit-making.

But the negotiations are not the only — or even most interesting — story around. Tropical forests affect everyone: from the Penan people in Borneo who get their medicine from the leaves of a tree, to the Kreung people in Cambodia who’ve lost their traditional lands, to the profit margins of a timber company to the American family eating a meal at a teak table from a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified forest in Indonesia.

The media has a role to play in reminding us of this narrative telling accurate, balanced stories that matter for our planet in a way that draws readers in and helps them envision a way out. Programs like the USAID/TNC-led Responsible Asia Forestry and Trade (RAFT) partnership can be valuable resources to journalists in playing this role. In the end, that’s how societal change happens: people connect with issues and demand action to be taken in their names.

(Image: Reporters join a TNC-led field visit to see Reduced Impact Logging using the monocable winch system at Belayan River Timber Concession far from their Jakarta offices, in Berau District on the island of Borneo. Image Credit: Nurni, The Jakarta Post)

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  1. Such importamt work! Thank you from me and my children and grandchildren …

  2. REDD+ must require forest community’s land tenure and legal rights…It doesn’t yet!

    Would you install solar panels or plant redwoods on land you had no enforceable legal right to?

    Imagine you are have practically no legal rights, (i.e. Native Americans vs. Cowboys)and millions of dollars annually will be granted or paid for the carbon holding capacity of your lands and forests. These are the dire problems that 1.6 billion people who depend on the forests now face with the REDD agreement.

    Concerning these risks and rights the latest draft of REDD+ reads:
    “69. Requests developing country Parties, when developing and implementing their national strategies or action plans, to address, inter alia, drivers of deforestation and forest degradation, land tenure issues, forest governance issues, gender considerations and the safeguards identified in paragraph 2 of annex II to this decision, ensuring the full and effective participation of relevant stakeholders, inter alia, indigenous peoples and local communities;”

    Requesting to address ownership issues and right to rule of law? Would you want this kind of nonbinding language to assure your access to your home, livelihood, bank account or live?

    The rule of law is a prerequisite for sustainable forest management. I learned this while filming and interviewing Aristeo Blanco, a member of a Mexican tropical forestry community that has managed and marketed certified eco friendly products for over 16 years.

    Standing in his community’s towering bio diverse forest, Aristeo patted a huge mahogany tree ladened with vines and bromeliads. He explained that it takes over 85 years for it to get that big and ready to harvest. But, if his family doesn’t have the security that their forest will remain theirs, how can they or their descendants plan to benefit from growing trees. Instead they’ll fell and burn them so they can plant crops, which they are more likely to harvest. Even with their land title, if they do not have the right to negotiate for their sustainable lumber’s fair price, then they can not afford the cost to manage its growth and regeneration for an 85 years life cycle. But because they have community title to their forest, human rights and economic incentives, they are managing and protecting it for the long term.

    This is a rarity. Living on Earth reports that “governments own about 75 percent of the world’s forests, less than ten percent legally belong to communities. In Indonesia, 65 million people live off forests—most of them have no official rights to the land they consider theirs. In the eyes of the Forestry Ministry, they’re squatters occupying a national resource.” Governments have not protected these forests as effectively as people, like Aristeo, who are on a level legal playing field. England’s Telegarph posted, “Illegal logging in Brazil. 13 million hectares (50,000 square miles) of forest are cut down each year – the equivalent of the size of England – to provide timber or make way for grazing.”

    The World Bank’s Social Development Department agrees with Aristeo about the importance land tenure, it states the following:

    “In one of the most robust studies available on the role of community-owned forests in carbon sequestration with data from 325 sites in 12 countries covering 594 user groups and 211 forest associations, Agrawal (2008) shows that the larger the forest area under community ownership the higher the probability for better biodiversity maintenance, community livelihoods and carbon sequestration.

    The growing evidence that communities and households with secure tenure rights protect, maintain and conserve forests is an important consideration for the world’s climate if REDD schemes go forward, and even if they do not.”

    “The private sector and intergovernmental organizations recognize that clear tenure rights are fundamental to secure and predicable transactions needed to compensate for the opportunity costs of reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation.

    ….The cost range of recognizing community tenure rights (average $3.31/ha) is several times lower than the yearly costs estimates for …. an international REDD scheme ($400/ha/year to $20,000/ha/year). … a relatively insignificant investment in recognizing tenure rights has the potential to significantly improve the world’s carbon sequestration and management capacity. …, prioritizing policies and actions aimed at recognizing forest community tenure rights can be a cost-effective step to improve the likelihood that REDD programs meet their goals. World Bank SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT WORKING PAPERS Paper No. 120/December 2009

    From my work and documentary interviews with Indigenous and non indigenous forest communities in 7 Latin American countries over 35 years, I believe that REDD+ should require that these resource statutory rights be made binding for all indigenous people and other forest peoples whose rights do not conflict with the rights of adjoining indigenous peoples. These rights should be a pre-requisite for the granting of REDD+ funds and funds should earmarked for their securing or resolution and enforcement.

    For forest communities, REDD+ should stipulate that resource statutory rights shall be secured or rights conflicts resolved before more than 10% of REDD+ funding are granted. These rights of tenure shall be secured for at least three times the life of the oldest tree species in the forest in question and 51% of REDD+ funds or carbon offsets received by the national or sub national Government will be available to the forest peoples for the enforcement of these rights.

    Private forest owners should be required to have their forests titled as a conservation easement to require adherence to the REDD+ program resource management plan for no less than 3x the life of the oldest tree species in their forest and more if the REDD+ plan requires it before any funds are granted or invested. Non compliance would result in return of funds plus penalties and 51% of REDD+ funds or carbon offsets received by the national or sub national Governments will be earmarked for enforcement.

    The Standards Committee has developed Standards for design and implementation of REDD+. Their standards need to be binding in REDD+ now, not later. Their standards are almost as binding and enforceable as the ones I proposed.

    The private sector would surely prefer to have land conflicts resolved so as to minimize financial and reputation risk. Money for REDD+ can be had easier than the rule of law in tropical forests. REDD+ could be easily gamed unless it requires standards for resource tenure and human rights. There will never be enough environmental cops to protect these forests from either those who are “above the law”, corrupt insiders or those “below the law”, poor forest people who have no long term legal stake in the forests.

    Those who have title and benefit from their forests have a stake in their future and are the most likely to protect them. Governments have not protected these forests as effectively as those few forest peoples, that have human and tenure rights, and can depend on and defend their forest. Rights we take for granted but now must be extended to forest people. One of the most cost and environmentally effective next steps will be to stipulate that prior to REDD+ funding human rights and resource tenure be enforced statutory rights.

    Norman Lippman, documentary filmmaker at the Living Story Foundation has worked in integrated resource development and documentary film in 7 Latin American countries over 35 years. He is directing a documentary series exploring sustainable and profitable community management of these forests. For more REDD+ information and analysis go to,

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