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Efforts to stop deforestation threaten indigenous peoples, local communities in DRC

In a new study released on Wednesday, March 14, 2018, researchers identified significant flaws in ambitious forest preservation projects underway in a densely-forested region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where a decision on future investment by the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF ) is imminent.


The international climate scheme si designed to halt forest destruction, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reward the indigenous and other local peoples. Photo credit:

The DRC province of Mai-Ndombe has been a testing ground for the international climate schemes designed to halt forest destruction, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reward the indigenous and other local peoples who care for the forests and depend on them for their food and incomes.

But the new study released by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) reveals that the climate funds known as REDD+ risk harming their intended beneficiaries, while failing to stop deforestation in the province where an estimated $90 million has been either dispersed or committed to projects.

“Our findings show that DRC is not yet ready for REDD+ investment,” said Andy White, coordinator of the RRI. “Our report analysed 20 existing and planned projects in DRC and concluded that projects already underway are not respecting the rights of local peoples or delivering on their goal of protecting forests. The evidence from other countries shows that REDD+ and similar payment schemes will work only if governments recognise and support community land rights.”

Citing weak recognition of community land rights in the province, as well as an environment of corruption and poor governance, the authors argue that channeling additional investments into the area for REDD+ programmes would exacerbate conflict and fail to protect the forests.

The findings come at a particularly urgent moment, as the countries that fund the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) prepare to make a decision on a payment agreement that would insert millions of dollars into REDD+ programmes in DRC.

Funders of the FCPF are planning to approve the payment agreement with DRC within the year – the final step before funds are dispersed and implementation begins. DRC, which contains the majority of the world’s second biggest tropical rainforest, would become the first country to sign a payment agreement with the World Bank under REDD+.

“If the programme in Mai-Ndombe is approved without ensuring that local peoples’ rights are respected, it would set a terrible precedent for REDD+ and make a bad situation worse,” said Alain Frechette, researcher and director of strategic analysis at RRI. “Strong indigenous and community land rights and a clear understanding of who owns forest carbon are vital prerequisites for climate finance to succeed in its goals of reducing poverty and protecting forests.”

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The report also finds that projects already underway – among them those funded by Wildlife Works Carbon, Novacel, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Forest Investment Programme – have not adequately included communities in governance of the projects, nor have they made plans for benefiting the forest peoples. Instead, the authors reported, the lack of legal safeguards and accountability in the current system could channel benefits from REDD+ – legally and illegally – to private sector representatives and others with little incentive to champion forests or local peoples.

A second paper released on Wednesday by the RRI analyses the legal systems of 24 of the 50 developing countries preparing to participate in the global carbon market, revealing that only five have established national legal frameworks to regulate their trade in carbon. So far, none of the 24 countries has set up a system for sharing the benefits earned on the carbon market with local forest communities, despite evidence that the best guardians of the forests are forest peoples themselves.

“It is crucial that the 17 countries working on draft legislation regarding carbon rights – and other countries preparing to enter the carbon market – protect and enforce the rights of forests peoples,” Frechette said. “Otherwise, they risk displacing thousands of people and fueling the violence and deforestation that is usually associated with the expansion of agro-industry and mining operations.”

The DRC study, “Mai-Ndombe: Will the REDD+ laboratory benefit Indigenous Peoples and local communities?” is the first-ever to analyse the 20 climate finance projects planned or underway in the province. Home to 1.8 million people, the Mai Ndombe holds 10 million hectares of forest and the world’s largest wetland of “international importance.”

“Communities depend on the forests for their lives and livelihoods – especially rural women,” said Chouchouna Losale, vice-coordinator and programme officer for the Coalition of Women for the Environment and Sustainable Development in DRC. “Yet these projects were developed in Kinshasa before being shared with communities, that therefore did not participate in drafting these projects or give their consent to them. To succeed, these projects must include the communities that have managed these forests for generations.

Despite plans that include transforming former logging zones into conservation areas and paying locals to plant acacia trees on a stretch of degraded savannah, the projects currently underway in DRC suffer from conflicts and mismanagement. The report traces these troubles back to weak public governance and inadequate adherence to international standards. The national REDD+ steering committee has not met since it formed in 2012. Project organizers have often committed to guidelines that require safeguards and consultation with local communities, but have neglected to fully implement them.

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While details of the REDD+ mechanism are still being negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), more than 50 developing countries have initiated programmes to enter the carbon market. REDD+ is the only solution to forest protection laid out in the Paris Agreement; it is also included in many national plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“REDD+ was created to both halt deforestation and benefit local communities – yet the current projects inMai-Ndombe fail to address both objectives,” said Marine Gauthier, a lead author on the DRC report. “Countries engaging in REDD+ must ensure secure community land rights for Indigenous Peoples and local communities. These are fundamental to reversing the deforestation crisis and delivering long-overdue benefits to the guardians of the forest.”

The report details how projects in DRC are failing to tackle forces driving deforestation. The authors argue that the country will need to prioritise resolving land conflicts, respecting the rights of local communities and Indigenous Peoples, and enabling these communities to participate directly in REDD+ programmes to succeed.

“The people of Mai-Ndombe – whose median income is only $.24 per day – are largely to thank for keeping the world’s second largest tropical forest intact. But their success has made the province a magnet for carbon profiteers as well as timber and oil companies,” said Solange Bandiaky-Badji, director of RRI’s Africa and gender justice program. “DRC must respect its international human rights commitments, especially the tenure rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, as a starting point for the success of any climate finance or development initiative moving forward.”

The government of Mai-Ndombe province, located in the west of the country, officially became a province in 2015, 10 years after the national government first drew its boundaries through the forests of DRC, and one year after the implementation of DRC’s Forest Code. The Forest Code recognises the legal right of Indigenous Peoples and local communities to ownership of forest areas up to 50,000 hectares. In Mai-Ndombe, the Mushie and Bolobo communities have requested formal title to 65,308 hectares of land, but only 3,900 hectares have been legally recognised.

Over the same period, more than $90 million has been committed for 20 REDD+ projects in the province. It was expected that the estimated 73,000 Indigenous Peoples who live in Mai-Ndombe would be among the beneficiaries of these initiatives.

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In the second study, RRI researchers reveal that few countries preparing to take part in REDD+ have developed the legal and regulatory frameworks required to ensure these programmes will live up to their promises. According to the report, £Uncertainty and Opportunity: The Status of Forest Carbon Rights and Governance Frameworks”, without governance in place, it’s unclear who has legal rights over the carbon.

“Critically, of the 24 countries analysed, only Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and Vietnam have established national legal frameworks to regulate their trade in carbon,” said RRI’s Alain Frechette. “And, of this group, only Brazil, Costa Rica and Peru have also established legal definitions for carbon rights, demonstrating the potential for other countries to clarify these rights.”

The authors caution that the lack of clarity opens the way for major conflicts over natural resources and threatens to undermine the customary rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities to their lands and resources.

“And, after more than a decade of engagement, the concept of carbon rights remains shrouded in legal ambiguities – separated from forest ownership or land rights – even though clear rights are essential for a system that financially rewards those who protect forests,” Frechette continued.

Scientists estimate that forests and “other natural science solutions” offer up to 37 percent of the solution needed by 2030 to keep a global temperature increase below 2°C – the target stated in the Paris Climate Agreement.  A growing body of evidence shows that indigenous and local communities – when their rights are recognised and protected – are peerless protectors of tropical forests. Increasingly, forest peoples and the forests they care for are being recognised as vital to addressing climate change, as scientists continue to report the dearth of affordable carbon capture technologies that can safely be scaled up.

“In DRC and worldwide, conflicts over agriculture, logging, livestock, mining, and conservation are mounting,” said RRI’s Coordinator Andy White. “Instead of empowering Indigenous Peoples, communities, and women in the forest communities, the REDD+ programmes in Mai-Ndombe are not adequately respecting the rights of local peoples and are failing to protect forests.”

“But all is not lost,” White added. “Countries that fund the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility have an opportunity to postpone this project until community rights are respected and the government demonstrates progress on recognition – or to cancel it altogether if DRC does not correct course. It is not too late. Recognising community land rights and engaging local communities would ensure that this grand experiment underway in the world’s remote rainforests can succeed, unlocking all of the benefits that come with strong forests and forest protectors.”



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