What has REDD done for land rights in the Congo Basin?

Though it is now fading, great expectations were placed on REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) as a means to fund better forest protection in the Congo Basin and elsewhere. But in what ways has REDD strengthened or weakened land and resource rights of forest communities?

As most readers will be aware, virtually all forest land in the Congo Basin officially belongs to the state, and forest communities have no land titles to areas they have in some cases inhabited for generations. As well as being fundamentally unjust, this situation increases the insecurity of communities’ lives and according to studies leads to increased deforestation and degradation. In-country and international groups, such as the Rainforest Foundation UK, have been calling for recognition of these rights, which are enshrined in international law.

REDD was first discussed in 2005, and Congo Basin countries have been drawing up plans in preparation for it, with support of the World Bank and UN agencies, since 2009. Four of the five major countries of the Congo Basin – Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Republic of Congo, Central African Republic (CAR) and Cameroon – now have approved national REDD plans (known as ‘REDD Readiness Preparation Proposals’ or R-PPs). The exception is Gabon, which is pursuing its own path.

Pressure from civil society and indigenous peoples’ groups has led, in some cases, to more consultation and often to new sections of text in the national REDD plans, which commit governments to respect rights or address concerns about lack of land title for forest communities. However, pushing in the opposite direction have been two forces, both linked to financing. First, countries are in competition with each other for a limited pot of donor money and believe that dealing with land rights will delay them in advancing with REDD and accessing funding; and second, potential financial flows from REDD are likely to go to land owners, currently states, or leaseholders such as logging companies, who are therefore unwilling to relinquish them at this time.

Despite the promises, the occasional additional consultations and studies, almost nothing has actually been done through the REDD process to improve the land rights of local communities and indigenous peoples. (Although, it could be argued that the discussion has raised the profile of the problem, especially with at higher levels of government than previously). Some progressive governance structures – such as REDD Committees with local community and indigenous peoples’ representatives – have been created, but all too often they do not function adequately, meet infrequently and often being asked to agree decisions that have already been made, typically without their free, prior and informed consent .

In fact, many governments of the region have signed agreements with private companies for the sale of carbon from their forests. These deals – the terms of which are often secret – are likely to impact how forest communities use their resources, and indeed their very rights over these resources. It has already been reported that in one instance the licencing of the carbon rights over a National Park to a REDD project developer has resulted in the rolling-back of agreements with local communities about their access to the Park (http://www.redd-monitor.org/2011/09/06/african-parks-network-plans-to-sell-carbon-from-odzala-kokoua-national-park-in-republic-of-congo/). There is evidence that, contrary to the long-term trend of increasing local control of forests in recent decades, we have seen a reverse in this trend more recently.

The impact of numerous REDD projects in the region cannot fully been known either, as a ‘system for sharing information’ on REDD social and environmental safeguards, agreed in principle at the international level, has yet to be systematically implemented at the local or national level.

One structural issue that should not be overlooked is that it’s often Environment Ministries that lead on REDD, and these Ministries, whilst having expertise about climate negotiations and forest management, have little influence in discussions on land tenure, national zoning plans and other areas ‘outside the forest’ that influence deforestation and degradation. Inter-ministerial Committees have been created to attempt to bring other Ministries on board but similar to the multi-stakeholder committees have not been functioning adequately.

It is increasingly recognised that the greatest hope of saving the rainforest is through populations who have lived in and alongside it for generations. REDD is currently generating thousands of pages of technical documents related to deforestation, but not increasing local control of the forest, or the rights of the people that live there.