The protection of tropical forests is a hot topic, particularly in light of the pressing threat of global climate change. The 2014 UN Climate Summit saw a range of national and subnational governments, along with numerous business and civil society organizations, endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests, which set a timeline for cutting natural forest loss in half (by 2020) and ending it completely (by 2030). A major goal of the declaration is to agree at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Paris is to reduce deforestation and forest degradation as part of a post-2020 global climate agreement. And financial contributions are now stacking up, with more than USD 9.6 billion pledged by 22 countries to the UN’s Green Climate Fund.
Securing a global climate agreement that includes tropical deforestation would no doubt be a historic achievement. But once world leaders return from Paris next year, the proof of the pudding will lie in national implementation. They may well wish to consider what can be learned from recent schemes for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (known as REDD+), to date largely funded by the Norwegian government through bilateral arrangements with major deforesters like Indonesia and Brazil, but also channeled through multilateral agencies. It turns out that even when donors have pledged substantial amounts of money, spending that money effectively can be challenging. A major part of that challenge relates to the difficult political-economy of forest sector reform in developing countries, where corruption in its various guises can be a core feature. Indeed, despite being described as a potential game-changer for addressing tropical deforestation, REDD+ financing also risks increasing corruption and related problems like land grabbing.
These challenges are not new and indeed were well-known among Norwegian aid practitioners as REDD+ pilots began some four years ago. But the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre has just completed a three year research project–based on case studies of REDD+ pilots in the DRC, Indonesia, Kenya, the Philippines, and Tanzania–that sheds some new light on the issues. The report’s empirical findings suggest three main lessons:
- First, although the UN-REDD Programme (a UN initiative which supports national REDD+ programs) has developed governance safeguards for REDD+, these safeguards are not, by themselves, sufficient to mitigate corruption in the schemes. This is because they depend on more fundamental country reforms that are in many instances still pending and highly political, such as the enactment of access-to-information laws or whistleblower protection provisions.
- Second, REDD+ pilots have been accompanied by national anticorruption campaigns attempting to raise awareness of the risks. But these campaigns do not reach down to the local project level. Practical access to forestland and to the economic and livelihood benefits such access assures are the most important incentives at the local level. It is these incentives that ensure bribery or nepotism to avoid forest sector regulations persist, and it is unlikely they can be changed through financing alone.
- Third, national and local actors assumed to play an anticorruption watchdog or monitoring role in REDD+ may be subject to conflicts of interest. Because many NGOs and community-based groups directly receive REDD+ financing, it may not be wise to rely primarily on their warnings of abuses.
There is no evidence of large-scale corruption linked to REDD+ to date, although minor misuses of funding have been seen, for example, in Tanzania, and the activities of “carbon cowboys” have been widely reported. This may be because much REDD+ money has yet to hit the ground in tropical forested countries. On the other hand, empirical evidence of continuing corrupt practices in the forest sector is considerable. The potential for forms of corruption to undermine national implementation of any post-2020 global climate agreement needs to be taken seriously. The lessons are already being learned. The question is, will they be heeded?