REDD Ready with a Gender Perspective

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By Zachary Wells

Reducing emissions from avoided deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) represents the frontier of financing for global forest conservation. This December in Copenhagen, forest stakeholders at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) should conclude the two-year path that began in Bali by deciding on a mechanism for reducing green house gas emissions from forest destruction. REDD will provide incentives for slowing deforestation, the root cause of 20% of global green house gas emissions, as part of the post-Kyoto climate agreement. African states stand to be major recipients of REDD funds; a recent report found that the continent is losing forests twice as fast as the rest of the world.1 Perhaps more importantly, project developers will be taking aim at the continent because of low land use values and the cheap relative cost of protection.

There are, however, major issues to be resolved before REDD officially begins facilitating financial transfers. Africa is a prime case study for gauging global readiness for the mechanism; the most urgent gaps in REDD readiness are epitomized by that continent. This paper describes the major challenges in preparing African nations to be responsible and empowered players in the converging fights against forest loss and climate change, even as capacity building begins and project developers take aim at ripe hinterlands. To sum up, African states must finally address longstanding ambiguities surrounding traditional forest tenure and private ownership. Africa must also determine, as individual nations and as a collective continent, how to monitor and enforce forest protection. Every African nation with a desire to implement REDD must individually recognize and legislate customary tenure and private ownership as the only means to guarantee socioeconomic freedoms and effectively govern forests. All African forest stakeholders must simultaneously work towards improved extension of authority – traditional and public – over the continent’s vast and unmanaged hinterlands. It is unclear that any African state will have achieved the necessary elements by next year. It is even less clear that the makers of REDD will consider them prerequisites for participation or delay implementation to avoid trampling traditional rights and throwing capital to the wind.


Tenure: Who owns Africa’s forests and who should be paid to protect them?


The most essential piece of information to understand before REDD proceeds is who owns Africa’s forests. Early opposition to the mechanism focuses on the need to cement customary forest tenure before threatened forests receive exponential economic value. The principle fear, voiced by traditional forest owners at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) meeting in May 2008 and by various rights-based organizations, is that newly valuable forests may be centralized and revenue expropriated, marginalizing traditional owners. That indigenous forest users have not been present at the most important meetings on REDD and some have railed at their own United Nations representative body– the UNPFII – for not representing their interests, epitomizes the exclusivity of current REDD dialogue. While most of the world’s forests are publicly owned –estimates fall within the 75-85% range 2– a great proportion of that is managed to some degree by rural forest dwellers within traditional use patterns. Very frequently, the traditional tenure of these people is unclear or unrecognized; and, Africa is no exception. Most of Africa’s 650 million hectares of forest – nearly 95% of it – is publicly owned. The majority of that is the legal property of central governments with ownership of the rest vested within local governments on a complicated scale from district to village. Communities, individuals and other private entities legally own the remaining 5% of Africa’s forests.3 A large part of the confusion surrounding REDD in Africa stems from what happens on the vast majority of public forests. Only around 16% of the public forests are completely managed by the government with no private extraction rights granted. The rest can be characterized by various systems of granting uses to local people and private firms. It is here that African tenure must be understood and, this paper suggests, overhauled. Moreover, it is here that Africa’s largest source of land use change – the conversion of forests to small-scale permanent agriculture takes place. 4 Thus it is here that REDD projects should happen.

Two factors appear to lie at the root of Africa’s forest tenure structure. First, forests are considered to be valuable national resources. Second, the ability of African governments to regulate forest use is often negligible. The centralization of the timber, mineral, wildlife and genetic resources within Africa’s forests emerged from colonial efforts at state-building and has since been cemented as a common condition.The continent’s natural capital constitutes the economic foundations of its nations. The desire to hold on to these resources, however, runs headlong into the physical characteristics of Africa’s hinterlands. Just as Jeffrey Herbst in his thesis on African state building claims that geography and population density increase the costs of extending power over people, making it extremely difficult to consolidate authority and rule large tracts of land, the same argument can be applied specifically to the governance of Africa’s forests.

According to Dr. Jason Scorse, Professor of Natural Resource Economics at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, “oceans are open access and so are (developing country) forests, by default.” Where forests are managed, African citizens are generally the de facto managers if not legal owners. This is because African states simply do not have the means to manage the large and difficult terrain that they legally own. As a result, traditional management regimes endure, often unregulated and unrecognized. Increasing pressures from logging, development, land conversion to agriculture, and climate change are destabilizing these regimes, resulting in increased rates of forest loss. The means to reverse the resulting degradation may exist in REDD; however, the customary rights of access that traditional forest dwellers enjoy will face a great challenge if forests are suddenly revalued under the present system of unrecognized tenure.

There are innumerable ways to reform, transfer and recognize traditional ownership. Gambia, South Africa Ghana, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe already promote greater devolution of ownership– in participatory and joint forest management – and may prove insightful for identifying best practices. A longstanding commitment across southern Africa to community-based natural resource management has also made great strides in engaging local people. Real transfers of tenure, however, are elusive; most programs reach the level of granting restricted rights of access or use and stall before legislating a handover of ownership. These models can be classified as “concessionary” and, while moving in the right direction, do not embody the full recognition of resource tenure that will guarantee that African forest owners are not run over or run out by REDD. Moreover, African governments have a tendency to grant more private than community land concessions than does the rest of the world. 6 It is not a stretch to imagine Africa’s forests being sold out from under its traditional users. Recent work by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 7 and the Rights and Resources Initiative8 provide good first steps in understanding the current state of tenure in Africa. Much remains to be done, however, to transfer a worthy amount of the continent’s forests to local ownership. Important considerations are, first, that tenure should be reformed before a nation is allowed to access REDD derived funds, and second, that the process will require intensive capacity building – implying time and capital. The strongest incentive for reforming tenure may be making any participation in REDD contingent upon a thorough examination and approval of a nation’s tenure system, a process which has yet to be developed. Initial steps should be taken to begin comprehensive mapping of African forest cover and forest peoples and clarifying all types of legal forest resource uses. Moreover, it cannot be taken for granted just how thorough this review should be. One example of what REDD must avoid sanctioning comes from Liberia where communities with real land deeds have no claim to the trees on the land and cannot legally exclude loggers.

The relationship between gender and land tenure is also of principle import as Africa readies for REDD. Women in Africa stand to gain or lose from REDD in the same way traditional forest owners as a whole do. Women are often responsible for more forest resource use than men – including collecting firewood and building materials and clearing land for agriculture. In some African countries, however, women are not allowed to own land without the consent of their husbands. Other African laws forbid women from inheriting land or from stopping their husbands selling it. Socioeconomic gender inequalities on the continent are not a new phenomenon; nor are international initiatives to address it. Countries like Zambia, which sets aside 30% of all urban land parcels for women, and Namibia and South Africa, which mandate minimum female representation on land management boards in areas of customary law, have made progress.10 REDD, however, could be a game-changer for rural African women. It is imperative that gender biased land legislation is also reformed in order to protect another marginalized group of Africans. Again, REDD policy should make national participation contingent upon fair land ownership laws before governments can receive funds for protecting state lands. The nine countries chosen to receive UN-REDD funds under a preparatory program – three of which are African – should receive assistance in undertaking a comprehensive statutory review with gender at the front of issues addressed.

The Southern Africa Development Committee adopted in 2008 a Gender and Development Protocol calling for such reform. REDD dollars could be an appropriate incentive for action. Moreover, when future REDD projects target community-based organizations, women’s associations should be viewed as principle loci for investing forest rights and responsibilities. One incentive for socio-economic change would be to price-favor credits developed through gender forward REDD projects. Gender specific capacity building, however, must begin now and stronger wording for gender considerations should be added to the Community Conservation and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA) standards. Likely, the principle tool for verifying a project’s socioeconomic impacts, the CCBA standards require a description of customary tenure and disputes. They do not, however, require equal ownership opportunities across gender lines.12

The UNFCCC should also take the initial steps of affirmatively bringing women to the policy table. More deeply, non-governmental organizations working with African forest owners should consider hiring female extension agents and managers and focus on educating rural women regarding the actions and opportunities of sustainable forest management.


The capacity to control: Who can protect Africa’s forests?


The second great theme of getting Africa ready for REDD is ensuring that someone can physically protect the continent’s deep forests. Avoided deforestation projects were initially nixed from the Kyoto climate instruments over concerns of, amongst others, permanence and leakage. In many places, turning over tenure, building capacity and covering the costs of conservation can help to control threats like unsustainable use and even illegal logging. Ensuring this process should be the first priority of international donors, climate change and conservation organizations, and the African leaders who wish to keep their people happy and preserve their forests. The continent’s governments should view REDD as they would foreign direct investment and make themselves attractive candidates for projects.

Progress in satellite imaging is making it easier to monitor changes in forest cover.That data can be used to generate the baselines necessary for justifying a project as containing threatened forest habitat and for assessing the extent to which pressures are shifting from one place to another. Even with continual advances in satellite monitoring, there is nothing that guarantees that the original concerns of controlling leakage and guaranteeing permanence have been adequately assuaged. In zones of conflict even local managers with newly acquired ownership cannot risk standing up to some of the human causes of environmental degradation. Again, the geography of Africa’s hinterlands comes into play in considering the capacity of any actor, public or private, to police and enforce forest protection in the face of violence and to manage for shifting pressures from one place to another. Consider a hypothetical forest-carbon project in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The country contains more forested area than any other African state at around 135 million hectares. The eastern region particularly contains some of the most dense and biologically rich rainforest on the continent yet is plagued by constant conflict. Virunga National Park – home of the endangered mountain gorillas – is the world’s most deadly protected area, where more than 150 guards have died in conflict over the past decade, perhaps because it lies well over 1,000 miles from the capital Kinshasa through some of the world’s densest jungle. So far from central authority, rebel violence, small-scale agriculture and cattle farming converge to rapidly deforest an area of global ecological significance. Though simply turning over the responsibility to traditional forest dwellers will not protect gorillas from poaching, granting tenure, building capacity and paying for conservation actions could slow the destruction of their habitat linked to cattle farming. Where though would the cattle farmers go and how would adjacent areas fare under a shifting threat? What if the rebels clear the forest to grow their own crops? What if violent incursions from neighboring Rwanda, intended to suppress the insurgency, ends local conservation efforts – some 10,000 locals have already fled the area. What if neighborhood tussles spill over into Rwanda, a country on the upswing with solid REDD potential? The same story holds for an innumerable variety of threats in areas all across Africa where the rule of law is little more than local norms. There is hope, however, coming from the DRC. That country is currently entertaining bids for an independent observer to help it monitor forest governance after a previous audit by Global Witness found that DRC was not capable of controlling illegal logging.


What will Africa do with billions of REDD dollars awaiting forest-carbon projects?


In cases where the state cannot effectively manage vast forests, privatization can lead to socio-economic empowerment and promote sustainable use by clarifying ownership. The caveat is that decision making and enforcement capacity must be built up first. Just nine months before the expected delivery of a structure for REDD in Copenhagen, African states have much to do to ensure that the drive to slow deforestation does not trample the rights of their millions of forest-dependent peoples in a multibillion dollar backfire. National enrollment in any part of the REDD instrument needs to be contingent upon some third-party verified tenure reform. After that, controlling the migration of pressures within Africa will be a long and difficult battle. At this point there is little evidence of continued tenure reform; that is, minus a strongly incentivized policy. It remains the responsibility of international actors –motivated by human rights and practical effectiveness – to push the continent to make the necessary changes. Moves like the Multidonor Trust Fund for Forest Governance which will finance third party observing in DRC are good indicators of international assistance. REDD could be channeling billions of dollars to Africa tied to conservation and poverty alleviation very soon. Violence and socioeconomic concerns will weigh more than science and technology as to whether or not that money makes any difference.

Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and Zambia have already expressed formal interest in participating in REDD. The former two submitted plans for preparing national REDD strategies in March 2009. It is to these countries that the international community should look for signs of African REDD readiness.

1 UNEP. 2008. Africa: Atlas of our changing environment. Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA) United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Nairobi, Kenya. Available at

2 Sunderlin W., Hatcher J. and Little M. 2008. From exclusion to ownership? Challenges and opportunities in advancing forest tenure reform. Rights and Resources Initiative. Washington D.C. and FAO. 2008. Tenure for better forestry: Understanding forest tenure in Africa.

3 FAO. 2008. Tenure for better forestry: Understanding forest tenure in Africa.

4 Martin, R.M. 2008. Deforestation, land-use change and REDD. Unasylva 230(19): 5.

5 Herbst, J. 2000. The political economy of Africa: Comparative lessons in power and authority. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

6 Sunderlin et al. 2008.

7 FAO. 2008. Understanding forest tenure in Africa: Opportunities and challenges for forest tenure diversification. Forest Policy and Institutions Working Paper 19.

8Sunderlin et al. 2008.

9 Ibid.

10 United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT). 2005. Land tenure, housing rights and gender in Zambia. UN-Habitat: Nairobi. p10

11 The nine countries selected for UN-REDD readiness funds are Bolivia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia.

12 CCBA. 2008. Climate, Community & Biodiversity Project Design Standards Second Edition. CCBA,Arlington, VA. December, 2008. At:

Zachary Wells is Project Coordinator for a conservation organization in Papua New Guinea. He can be reached at