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Saving Trees in the Congo Basin: is REDD a Solution or a Quagmire?

Emilie Filou

The Congo Basin is rich in forests and poor in cash, which makes it hard to resist offers of easy money from loggers.  Carbon credits could, in theory, help save the forests, but the region’s historically low rates of deforestation (and governance) make it difficult to prove you’re saving trees.  Here’s a look at some of the complex challenges facing forestry advocates in this vital region.

The Congo Basin is rich in forests and poor in cash, which makes it hard to resist offers of easy money from loggers.   Carbon credits could, in theory, help save the forests, but the region’s historically low rates of deforestation (and governance) make it difficult to prove you’re saving trees.   Here’s a look at some of the complex challenges facing forestry advocates in this vital region.

18 November 2010 | Cash-strapped nations with tropical forest cover have been scrambling to qualify for Reduce Emission through Degradation and Deforestation (REDD) funds ever since climate negotiators agreed at their meeting in Bali three years ago on the need to fund rain forest preservation.

REDD financing could, in theory, offer subsistence farmers a way to earn money by preserving the rainforest instead of destroying it, especially after the UNFCCC placed new emphasis on REDD as an essential tactic to reduce global warming when they met in Copenhagen in December.

REDD in Theory

The idea behind REDD is simple.   Since studies show that deforestation causes 15-percent of greenhouse gas emissions, the second-leading cause of global warming, richer nations can pay poorer ones to protect their tropical rainforests.

Yet no clear consensus exists on what activities would make these nations eligible for REDD funding and how REDD will play out in the Congo Basin.

The six Congo Basin nations – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Equatorial Guinea – have been bogged down by more questions than answers.   How will they change the ways of their own farmers who for generations relied on slashing and burning forest cover to make way for farming?   And how will they counteract a history of abandoning environmental deals when loggers and corporations come knocking with ready cash?

The trouble, says Alain Karsenty, an economist at the Center for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development, is that the region still perceives REDD as a quick money fix.

“On the one hand, they negotiate with Chinese companies over logging concessions, and on the other they’re negotiating with REDD,” he says. “There is a real contradiction at play.”

The struggle faced by Congo Basin nations in creating viable REDD-readiness plans provides a window into the complexities developed and developing nations tackle in creating lasting solutions in the battle against global warming.
   

Pay now; Profit Later

Ironically, nations with a history of watching while their rainforests disappear do not face the hurdles Congo Basin nations must leap to attract REDD dollars.   Indonesia and Brazil, for example, with deforestation rates approaching two-percent during the decade spanning from 1990-2000, will clearly qualify for REDD because they can point to a problem that they have solved.     But here, where deforestation rates hover at only 0.17-percent, Congo nations risk being bypassed by climate-negotiation funds.

“REDD will be a failure if it can only benefit countries who have deforested massively in the past,” says Raymond Mbitikon, executive secretary of the Central African Forest Commission (COMIFAC), a regional body promoting greater harmony in forestry practices in the Congo Basin. “It would encourage countries to deforest to gain compensation, which would be a very perverse system.”

The reasons behind the Congo Basin’s low deforestation rates are economic.   The region has experienced low levels of development and population pressure is limited.  

Yet the region’s deforestation rate is somewhat misleading.   It appears low because it stands in the context of an immense rain forest.   The region, in fact, is the leading exporter of tropical timber, according to a study prepared by the International Monetary Fund.   And the income this produces provides a huge incentive to chop down trees in a region where the World Forest Congress places the average annual income at $310 U.S.

Whether central Africa got to where it is by design or default, what is clear, most climate negotiators agree, is that there needs to be a system in place to preserve current resources from future pressure.

What does Money Do?

Money talks.   This is particularly true in nations where there is little of it.   This reality has prompted negotiators to come up with a slew of scenarios to promote REDD.   And it has prompted a similar number of environmental and finance-based objections.

Some negotiators representing Congo Basin nations advocate having REDD pay their nations for maintaining current forest cover. This appears fair because it would treat forests and carbon stocks as an asset similar to other natural resources.   The problem is that local governments, so far, have been unable to guarantee their forests’ preservation. Studies show that fewer than half of logging concessions in central Africa comply with forestry laws.

Another option for REDD readiness involves what are called “conservation concessions.” These concessions allow governments to sell swathes of land for conservation as they would for logging. But this will only work in areas with little economic pressure (and little risk of deforestation), says Robert Nasi, director of environmental service and sustainable use of forests at the Center for International Forestry Research.   This is because the money logging concessions can bring in far exceeds any returns from carbon payments.

Regional governments aren’t enthusiastic about this option either, says Matthew Hatchwell, now director for Europe at Wildlife Conservation Society but previously based in Madagascar and the Congo.

“Logging concessions bring lots of advantages beyond their contribution to GDP,” he says. “They’re often the main employer in areas of high unemployment. They also provide schools, health care and basic infrastructure that conservation concessions, for the most part, would not provide.”

Logging concessions: friend or foe?

This has led negotiators to discuss establishing a baseline scenario to encourage maintaining current forest stocks while allowing certain levels of deforestation for economic development. Most agree that this would be an imperfect but pragmatic solution.   It allows nations to work with logging concessions that occupy 40-percent of land area in central Africa and, as a result, hold economic and political might.  

Yet it raises a number of new questions.   First and foremost, what would be an ‘acceptable’ level of deforestation? Karsenty says this would remove all incentives for countries to change their modus operandi.

“Under this model, countries would get paid as long as deforestation is less than they thought it would be,” he says. That means all they’d have to do is choose a dramatic baseline scenario to be eligible for payment.

Moreover, would the baseline work on the assumption that logging concessions implement sustainable forest management practices? Karsenty says that many ignore such requirements. So it would be perverse, not to mention in breach of the additionality principle that provides carbon credits only to efforts that exceed “business as usual,” to offer REDD dollars simply for complying with the law.

Because of these concerns, Karsenty advocates a voluntary scale back of logging production.   This would satisfy the additionality principle and would be relatively easy to calculate and monitor.

Hatchwell, in turn, advocates creating an incentive system through taxation. Concessions achieving Forest Stewardship Council certification, for instance, could be rewarded with lower taxes.  

Addressing Deforestation Drivers

Unfortunately, even if these nations solve the so-far intractable issue of logging concessions, there remains yet another elephant in the room.   Subsistence agriculture is a huge issue that few countries have started tackling. Farmers on small and medium-sized plots use slash-and-burn farming on nearly 30-percent of central African land, according to recent studies.

It’s high time these farmers switch to more intensive practices that require smaller plots of land, Karsenty says.

“I’m not advocating the massive use of fertilizers,” he says, “but there are many environmentally friendly techniques that could increase yields and benefit both farmers and the climate
Nasi also points out how the need for fuel wood causes deforestation.

“The DRC exports about 250,000 tonnes of wood per year, but in Kinshasa alone, people use four million tonnes a year for heating and cooking,” he says. “We have known this for a long time so it’s not lack of awareness.   It’s just lack of political willingness to look into it and find alternatives.”

Finally, there is the issue of commercial agriculture. The region is ideally suited for oil palm trees and there are signs the industry is developing here.   In August, Singaporean agribusiness giant Olam signed a deal with the government of Gabon to develop a 300,000 ha palm-oil plantation in the southeast of the country. Returns from the crop are so high that struggling nations might find them an irresistible opportunity. In fact, Hatchwell says that even with a perfectly functioning REDD system; it would be touch-and-go whether carbon payments could match palm oil revenues.

Stumbling Along the Road to REDD

With so much at stake, the region is stumbling on the uncertain road to REDD readiness. It is an uneven playing field determined largely by how much funding and support a country receives to create its readiness plans.

The Democratic Republic of Congo currently stands as the regional leader. The World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), an organization helping developing countries design a framework to implement REDD, approved this nation’s REDD strategy, referred as a Readiness Proposal Plan, or RRP back in March. The country also received substantial financial support from organizations such as UNREDD and the Congo Basin Forest Fund.   Thanks to this funding, the Democratic Republic of Congo is now awash with pilot projects.

The Congo’s Readiness Proposal Plan also received broad support at the FCPF meeting in Guyana in June. However, a variety of environmental organizations including Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation advocated against its approval in a joint statement.   They pointed to weak governance, regulations and monitoring in Congo Basin nations that could let large-scale logging industries wipe out forests given REDD credits.  

Christian Burren, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s climate change technical advisor in Congo, acknowledged that the country does indeed need to undertake more consultation to address these issues. But this requires additional funding.

“We know that the Congo will need more than the $3.4 million allocated by FCPF,” he says (of the total $11.5 million the Congo requested for its REDD preparation budget.) “But once the RPP is approved, it’s a great document for countries to use to approach donors and show exactly what they would use the money for.”

Harmonizing REDD

Unlike Congo, other Congo Basin nations have received limited funds to prepare their readiness strategies. As a result, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Equatorial Guinea are making slow progress, negotiators say.

Meanwhile, Gabon’s REDD efforts are languishing, frustrated, insiders say, by political in-fighting including   bottom-line arguments over who is responsible for implementing REDD.   Separate ministries oversee environmental and forestry matters, posing another hurdle.  

Mbitikon says that COMIFAC is working hard to try and harmonize REDD efforts. The organization is considering opening a REDD coordination unit in Brazzaville, the capital of the Congo, although, with COMIFAC’s limited resources, it is still unclear how the unit would be funded and staffed.

No Silver Bullets

Together these issues have affected the region’s credibility over their commitment to REDD.

Karsenty says rhetorically that “Norway has committed $1 billion to Indonesia, $1 billion to Brazil but just $200 million to the Congo Basin; why is that?”

Karsenty says that Central Africa should start by regulating logging concessions and enforcing forestry laws.   He also questions the role the Central Africa Forests Commission can or should play when such a big part of the solution lies outside forestry.

To give the region its due, awareness of issues involved in establishing REDD readiness has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. Unfortunately, a solution to the vexing issue of how the region will fully benefit from REDD appears a long way off. What is clear is that central Africa still has much to do to achieve the levels of governance required to implement REDD.

“People see REDD as a silver bullet,” Nasi says.   “But there is no such solution.”

 

Emilie Filou is a free-lance writer specializing in African development issues and a regular contributor to Ecosystem Marketplace. She can be reached at filouemilie@yahoo.com.
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