Anthropology Students Analyze Strategy for Slowing Climate Change

REDD+ provides financial incentives to nations, organizations, and communities who work to slow local rates of deforestation. Here, the students of ANT 103H: Conservation and People, led by Professor Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, assess the program’s efficacy in slowing global climate change.

Deforestation in the developing world is the second major cause of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) was founded on the idea—which came out of the Kyoto Protocol—that polluting nations would pay for exceeding “acceptable” limits, and that the funds raised would be transferred to forest-dependent communities that were successfully sequestering carbon in the developing world through a market mechanism (carbon credits). 

In the last two weeks of Spring Quarter 2017, we formed teams to investigate the different moving parts in this complex schema, and examined some case studies. Here we summarize our general findings regarding the state of REDD+, and direct you to our full 8-page referenced class report for more detail.

First, we uncovered a central paradox in the design and implementation of REDD+. While forests are, for the most part, best managed by local communities, adding value to the forest (through the issuance of carbon credits) inevitably attracts the interests of the central government, which can instigate distrust at the local level and promote further deforestation. 

Second, we appreciated the intuitive appeal of using performance payments, or payments for ecological services, to elicit sustainable forest management. But we also recognized potential abuses—not just government appropriation, as we mentioned above, but also insufficient payments and inequitable distribution of these payments.

Third, we found real challenges in implementation, particularly in obtaining Free and Prior Informed Consent, and in ensuring inalienable land rights. As the value of the forests increase, there is a persistent danger of land-grabbers (local or foreign elite) moving in. This raises further issues of social justice, with communities being manipulated into surrendering their land rights.

Ethics and imperatives

While these problems are substantial, case studies showed considerable success, both at the national level (in Brazil), and at a smaller scale (Tanzania). Despite the hurdles, we generally concurred there is considerable potential for the use of performance payments to encourage sustainable forest management.

The biggest problem, however, lies in financing. To this day less than 10 percent of REDD+ projects are market funded. Indeed, the market is glutted with more sellers of forest carbon credits than polluters or idealists willing to buy. This is because, with the Paris accord in the balance, there is as yet no international agreement enforcing pollution limits. REDD+ projects still depend on bilateral and multilateral aid programs, and as such are not sustainable.

There remains a final dilemma: is it even ethical that the poor reduce consumption so as to allow the rich pursue their excessive lifestyles? Can the payments from rich countries ever provide true compensation? And if the poor are to be paid for this “service”, how should the cost of paying for the protection of the environment be divided amongst the rich?

Difficult questions! But the imperative to slow global climate change is huge. We need to combine the insights of as many disciplines as possible (conservation, economics, anthropology, political science, ecology, ethics, history and more) to explore all options.

This is an edited version of a paper co-authored by Professor Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and the students of Anthropology 103H (Spring 2017). The contributing students were: Berguin, B., Castro, J. Choat, T., Contreras, A., Hamilton, L., Hisey, E., Johnson, K., Jones, E., Key, J., Lee, D., Lewis, K., Loomis, M., and Silva, S.

Read the full-length class report.

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