Is REDD+ an effective way to tackle poverty?

Alain Karsenty

How a virtual economy is bringing (more or less) virtual benefits for the poorest people

REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries) is an international mechanism that seeks to financially reward countries, programmes and projects that reduce deforestation-related CO2 emissions. Under this system, other countries or businesses can buy ‘carbon credits’ to satisfy their emission reduction targets. Other financial rewards come from the Green Climate Fund in the form of ‘results-based payments’. REDD+ has come under criticism from many stakeholders, who feel that the mechanism could lead to the monopolisation of woodland, tempting programme initiators to ride roughshod over the customary access and usage rights enjoyed by communities whose activities (slash-and-burn agriculture, charcoal production, small-scale timber farming, etc.) contribute to deforestation. Others, meanwhile, see REDD+ as an effective way to tackle poverty by paying local people to look after forests.  

To get to the bottom of this debate, we need to look again at results-based payments – the principle that is supposed to make REDD+ an effective mechanism. In many cases, reducing deforestation is not about cutting tree-felling in absolute terms, but rather against a ‘reference’ – i.e. against a ‘what would happen if we did nothing?’ scenario. By definition, it is impossible to verify such scenarios (because they cannot be observed if the project is actually carried out), making them easy to manipulate. For example, if the scenario points to a 100% increase in deforestation in the coming years, and the actual figure is ‘just’ 60% (i.e. with the project), then the project can claim to have prevented the remaining 40%. Moreover, both NGO-initiated REDD+ projects and World Bank-supported jurisdictional REDD+ programmes (which cover a larger area) have to abide by rules on the rights of communities and indigenous peoples. REDD+ projects are covered by private certification schemes, while others are bound by World Bank rules. 

These projects capitalise on the REDD+ scheme’s key design weakness – ‘predicting the worst and promising the best’ – and on the profusion of deforestation scenarios. And by doing so, they are often able to secure financial rewards even if deforestation actually rises, provided the increase is below the ‘forecast’. Another benefit of this ‘virtual economy’ is that it avoids the risk of confrontation with local populations seeking land or timber – a situation that might make it impossible to secure certification or cause project initiators to fall foul of big international donors’ social rules. As it happens, these projects bear all the hallmarks of the conventional integrated conservation and development projects they were supposed to replace and make little difference to everyday rural practices. In terms of poverty reduction, our research in Madagascar has shown that while socio-economic benefits accrue to some community members, marginalised populations – i.e. those whose dependency on natural resources is greatest – are less able to access these benefits.  

Moreover, the sheer complexity of REDD+ makes it a boon for consultants, many of whom are less readily available in the South. A significant portion of the payments is eaten up by consultancy fees, often leaving little remaining for local populations. And in that sense, REDD+ is certainly not the most effective way to transform agricultural practices and reduce poverty.


For more information visit: 

Seyller C., Desbureaux S., Ongolo S., Karsenty A., Simonet G., Faure J. and Brimont L. 2016. The ‘virtual economy’ of REDD+ projects: Does private certification of REDD+ projects ensure their environmental integrity? International Forestry Review 18(2):231-244 

Brimont L. and Karsenty A. 2015. Between incentives and coercion: The thwarted implementation of PES schemes in Madagascar's dense forests. Ecosystem Services 14:113-121 

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.