There are no high-quality REDD+ projects without indigenous and local communities

Verena Manolis

Carbon markets have historically taken as the primary indicator of project success the volume of carbon sequestered. But there is another barometer, often unevaluated but equally important: whether carbon finance strengthens the rights and livelihoods of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs). Such human-centered metrics are generally referred to in the field as “co-benefits.” In fact, carbon markets’ success may depend on them.

IPLCs are the world’s best stewards of forests and biodiversity, and they should play a central role in nature-based carbon project development and implementation. Many defend their territories from land grabbing and illegal activities like logging, mining, and ranching at great personal risk. Bridging this gap between community well-being and emissions reductions is critical to enable resilient communities and reduce environmental impacts in the long term.

On the heels of Africa Climate Week, and as we approach New York Climate Week and COP28, we wanted to repeat the calls we are hearing from communities.

Carbon co-benefits must be redefined as “core.”

Ecosystem Marketplace recently published a story about the Kasigau Corridor REDD+ Project in Kenya. As Geoffrey Mwangi, the project’s Lead Scientist for Biodiversity and Social Monitoring, told us in an interview, social and environmental outcomes are intertwined. They cannot be separated. Even the term “co-benefits” is misleading. That project’s developers “recognize what [we] are calling ‘co-benefits’ as ‘core benefits,’” he explains.

Such a reframing can push a carbon project to focus more on taking pressure off communities on the front lines of forest protection. Communities suffering from livelihood insecurity and constant threat by illegal actors need support to protect their territories and develop sustainable, forest-based livelihoods. Without alternatives and equitable access to markets and other resources, communities may otherwise have no choice but to base their economies on natural resource extraction. Or they may not have the resources to expel illegal loggers, miners, and other intruders. The types of land management practices and projects that generate desirable co-benefits can help address some of these root drivers of deforestation and poor land use.

Projects that generate co-benefits enable communities “to spend more time on economic activities that are not reliant on natural resource extraction,” said Cara Braund, Conservation Office Manager at Wildlife Works, during a recent Ecosystem Marketplace webinar. Things like access to markets for forest products, such as cacao; adequate water infrastructure; or access to social benefits, like healthcare or education, can make a world of a difference to communities and help ensure long-term success of the projects they help steward.

In Kasigau, for example, Early Childhood Development Supervisor Catherine Simba explains why education is key to reducing deforestation in the long-term. “Before carbon,” she says, “my babies weren’t coming to school.” But with project money, she was able to implement a school feeding program and to subsidize secondary and university education – both of which greatly increased retention. With an education, these children can make a living without poaching or cutting down trees.

The best solutions for carbon markets are not always going to be the best solutions for communities.

Earlier this year, Ecosystem Marketplace led a conversation with partners from the Forest Stewardship Council, the American Forest Foundation, NCX, and Wildlife Works. They discussed a demand for high-quality carbon projects with co-benefits, and how these projects can both curb deforestation emissions and benefit communities. “When it comes to [carbon] projects,” says Zach Parisa, CEO of NCX, “it is tradeoffs all the way down.” In other words, it is important to acknowledge that community objectives often extend well beyond carbon project objectives. Likewise, increased carbon storage does not necessarily also generate enhanced biodiversity conservation or community well-being.

Take a tree replanting effort, for example. Evergreens are some of the most effective carbon absorbing trees (think species such as spruce and fir in the north, and mahogany and eucalyptus in tropical regions). Although large plantings of species like these might absorb the most carbon, they might also be disruptive to the community living on that land. Plantation-style reforestation can outcompete native species, degrade natural habitats, deplete a community’s water supply, and strip essential nutrients from the soil. It can also harm community food systems by removing diverse plants that are essential food sources. Agroforestry can be a more functional approach for communities and ecosystems. This method incorporates a biodiverse mix of native trees and shrubs into agricultural systems, which can increase food security and create market opportunities for food and artisan products.

Yet in the long term, we cannot meet global climate goals without simultaneously prioritizing emissions reductions projects and the long-term social and economic well-being of the communities implementing those projects.

Fitting measures to the community

Co-benefits will also take different forms for different communities, along with case-specific methodologies and quantification. Back in Kasigau, Kenya, the communities that Braund works with have elected committees that identify their priorities and how they will address them. For one community, access to water and education were most important. Through REDD+ funding, community members were able to renovate their local school. The renovation included rain gutters and better-quality roofing, which allowed rainwater to flow from the rooftop into the school interior. These changes improved the students’ learning environment and their access to water. When households are less focused on finding water, they have more time for economic activities that will generate income, and children have time to study in school. Better water access is especially important for women and girls.[1] They are the ones tasked with finding and carrying water back to their families – a time consuming and unsafe job. When water is already nearby, they can spend time working, studying, or socializing.

The small landowners in the United States that Nathan Truitt, Executive Vice President of Climate Funding at the American Forests Foundation, works with as part of the Family Forest Carbon Program have completely different priorities when it comes to co-benefits. Communities in central Appalachia, for example, value long-term sustainability of local timber markets that comes from increasing the health and productivity of the forests on their land. When communities help lead decision-making and receive project benefit funds directly, they are better able to address the issues most pressing to them and steward their lands long term.

A successful climate finance project actively engages community members as equal partners.

Striking that balance means engaging communities as equal partners. The climate space can often be incredibly unwelcoming for IPLCs, and some estimate that as little as under 1 percent of global climate finance reaches them directly.[2] Technical and legal language, complicated project methodologies, and a history of mistrust and abuse between communities and governments and companies make it difficult for communities to participate in projects.

REDD+ is an effective tool for directing funding to communities – when done well. In a recent open letter, Peoples Forests Partnership participants and eight other indigenous organizations from around the globe voiced support for REDD+. They called it one of the most powerful methods to channel direct climate finance to the Global South, adding that many recent criticisms do not paint the full picture. Community experiences and perspectives are often not considered to decide the effectiveness of a REDD+ project. But a growing chorus of voices argues that indigenous needs, knowledge, and ways of life must be metrics of project success. These communities are on the ground actively caring for the land, and they see firsthand the impacts high-quality carbon projects can have; their knowledge is a critical metric for project success. Engaging communities as equal project partners allows them to preserve their cultures, values, and environments and sustainably manage their territories for future generations.

Forest Trends’ Communities and Territorial Governance Initiative is also working with IPLC partner organizations, donors, companies, and others to promote carbon projects and jurisdictional-level funding that are rights-based, equitable, and of the highest integrity. As part of this mission, they launched the Territorial Governance Facility, along with three regional indigenous and local community organizations in Amazonia and Mesoamerica, to promote IPLC access to climate finance. After carefully ensuring community needs were being met, the Facility launched its first pilot projects in six indigenous territories this past June, all led by local leaders. With direct financial and technical support, communities are better able to protect their territories and livelihoods, resulting in increased community well-being, healthy landscapes, and successful carbon projects.

Changing how we do business in the long term is a huge undertaking – and requires a global effort. As we work to meet climate goals for 2030 and beyond, high-quality market mechanisms like REDD+ and the voluntary carbon markets remain important strategies to channel direct climate finance to indigenous forest stewards who are actively protecting their land right now. When IPLC rights, knowledge, and well-being are at the core of a carbon project, it sets up the project and community for long-term success. And as carbon markets increasingly place a higher dollar amount on projects that center these community needs, the higher prices can add immense value for communities and credit buyers and can help preserve our planet for future generations.

[1] Myers, Kim. “What’s in a carbon credit? New tools help quantify the sustainable development benefits of carbon offset projects.” Ecosystem Marketplace, March 8, 2021. Accessed May 9, 2023.

[2]Osorio, Karen. “A Renewed Focus on Direct Financing at International Climate Summits.” Rainforest Foundation US, March 16, 2023. Accessed May 8, 2023.

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