Is Mai Ndombe REDDy?

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As the Participants Committee of the World Bank-managed Carbon Fund approves DRC’s flagship Mai Ndombe REDD programme, further evidence of customary claims over the area casts doubt as to who will benefit from the scheme.

The Mai Ndombe ‘emissions reduction’ programme will potentially unlock $50 million in carbon credit purchases, which will require huge international investments to create in the first place.  But new community maps for the Inongo and Bassengeli sectors which fall inside the emissions reduction zone are revealing a complex patchwork of de facto customary rights and resource use. In theory, these maps could be used as a basis to seek the free prior and informed consent of local communities, to devise detailed local plans for activities, and to channel the relevant benefits of the programme to them. However, despite concerns being expressed by independent technical advisors to the Carbon Fund – as well as by many local and international NGOs – the whole question of who actually owns and uses the forest at present has been almost entirely side-stepped by the project’s proponents and funders.

Remarkably, the DRC government’s project document, which was actually largely written by a San Francisco-based for-profit REDD project developer, Wildlife Works Carbon, along with WWF, which also stands to benefit from the scheme, and which foresees a total budget of nearly $0.5 billion, was approved by the Carbon Fund with almost no conditions, despite numerous serious technical deficiencies having been identified in it. The document does not even provide an accurate estimate of Mai Ndombe’s population (though it’s thought to be around 1.8 million), stating only that there are “thousands” of villages. The existence of customary tenure claims – which our mapping work shows is likely to be contiguous and probably extant right across the project area – is only addressed in a highly superficial way. Our experience shows that the speed and scale at which the project proposes to map these areas across 12 million hectare area is likely over-ambitious and will probably lead to corner-cutting. Furthermore, the document provides almost no information as to how any finance from the sale of carbon ‘credits’ will be allocated among the local population or indeed other potential claims which overlap the area such as numerous industrial logging concessions, protected areas, and oil exploration permits. Many of the project’s interventions – such as ‘sedentarisation’ of shifting agriculture through the use of agroforestry techniques – are entirely unproven even on a small scale, let alone over such a vast area.

This comes amid wider criticism of the design of the project (and of the Carbon Fund itself) which has included the disproportionate (and contested) targeting of shifting cultivation, inflated baselines and leakage issues that call into serious question what actual emissions reductions the programmes will achieve. Moreover, whilst these large ‘jurisdictional’ REDD emissions’ reduction programmes were supposed to follow-on from painstaking efforts to make countries are ‘ready for REDD’, in reality, DRC has almost no more capacity to run such a major project than it did five or ten years ago. Even the necessary basic legal framework – such as a law setting out the rules and conditions of ‘carbon ownership’ – has not been developed.

In light of these developments, it is questionable what kind of benefits the programme will deliver either for the local population or in terms of a reduction in carbon emissions. Moreover, one must hope that the decision to approve the ERPD without these issues being properly addressed is not a precursor to further conflict in the area over land and carbon rights of the imposition of changes to the already highly fragile livelihoods of some of the poorest people on Earth.

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