REDD and Indigenous Communities in India

By: Vinita Krishna and Prasad
The implementation of reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) in developing countries, as a part of CO2 mitigation measures needs to be examined. For India specific situation, this scheme must have the ability to guarantee effective maintenance of forest cover over significant time periods as well as prevent an impact on society and environment. There is a need to ensure a sustainable flow of financial benefit to the indigenous or tribal communities and participation as well as capacity building of vulnerable stakeholders should be facilitated with recognition of their forests rights.

Earning financial incentives from carbon trading by avoiding forest emissions is known as REDD – reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation. The anticipated benefit from such transactions is alluring for economy-building developing nations but the advantages of such a policy need to be weighed before committing to REDD in totality. It is believed that deforestation accounts for about 18-20 per cent of global GHG emissions, a major issue related to climate change. It is estimated that 80 per cent of the earth’s above-ground and 40 per cent of below-ground terrestrial carbon is in forests. The REDD concept is based on the assumption that forests will contribute to climate change mitigation only if their value increases to a level that makes protecting forests consistent with their viability.

The concept of REDD dates back to December 2005 as a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agenda item at the Conference of the Parties (COP)11, ‘Reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries and approaches to stimulate action’, and was consequently incorporated as a decision in the Bali Action Plan, 2007. It was decided that all countries should work towards improving data collection – estimation of emissions from deforestation, degradation monitoring and reporting, institutional needs of developing countries etc. Although the initial discussions began with RED (i.e., limited to deforestation only) it later expanded to REDD including forest degradation and further broadened to consider forest conservation, sustainable forest management, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks. Many of the forest-rich developing countries have been actively participating in these discussions with mixed responses from different groups. In COP 11 India supported the conservation and sustainable forest management based approach of Congo Basin countries and proposed the concept of ‘compensated conservation’ as incentive for maintaining and increasing the carbon stocks. However, lessons in policy making in climate change from the past are not so encouraging – from Kyoto to the latest COP 14 Meet in Bonn in June 2009 a clear mandate on the reduction target in REDD is still lacking.

Concerns in REDD

At the outset, the methodology devised to establish baselines for rate of deforestation which will then enable a calculation in emission reduction, needs exploration. Different countries have different drivers of forest so different baselines are needed, thus a country-by-country approach with nation-specific action plans will undoubtedly be required. Measuring degradation is equally problematic in countries spanning the Congo Basin where losses from degradation are much higher than deforestation. Moreover, ownership of the forests in foreign hands is tantamount to renting out forest. This would mean developing countries would lose national sovereignty over their natural resources against the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) guidelines and in itself will trigger a host of intellectual property rights issues. Also the chances of least cost measures in the name of carbon trade may result in the not so sustainable activities and push the liability for failed projects onto local communities. Other issues that need to be reviewed relate to the methodology of pricing forests, funding for REDD projects, etc.

Impact of REDD on indigenous communities

According to FAO, upto 1.6 billion people are partially reliant on access to forests for their everyday needs and some 60 million depend wholly on forests for all their requirements. However, while adopting measures for tackling climate change, particularly REDD projects, there is a growing concern of their need being overlooked. According to the United Nations, there are between 210 and 260 million indigenous people living in Asia and the Pacific, yet only a few countries, India being one of them, has legislated to address the plight of indigenous communities. The threats and new pressures on forests have ranged from deforestation and forest degradation to climate change and this has led to the introduction of new laws to address the concerns of communities living in the tribal belt.

According to proponents of REDD, it is a mechanism for compensating countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and will generate huge funds to tropical countries, helping preserve rainforests and delivering economic benefits to the impoverished tribal communities. Countries like Belize, Boliva, Cameron and others want REDD to be voluntary and complementary and additional to Clean Developement Mechanism (CDM). The mechanism must recognise their traditional knowledge, their intrinsic relationship with tropical forests and should support their social, environmental and economic development. Ownership of the forest and recognition of the rights of the indigenous communities are at stake. The commodification of forests could lead to impacts as conflict between and within communities (especially where land rights are unclear) rise, or changes in local power structures occur. Such projects may ignore the customary and territorial rights of indigenous communities as they seek to protect an increasingly valuable resource from ‘outside’ interference. In such circumstances, forest dependent communities can also find themselves denied access to their forests. A number of key questions remain – how will forest peoples’ rights be fully respected and safeguarded; how will equitable and sustainable local benefits be ensured; how will the international initiatives accommodate the full involvement of forest peoples; will the state agencies and local governments access the benefits rather than the indigenous communities; will there be a mechanism for prior information consent and access to benefit sharing; etc. With poor negotiating position right from the start, tribal communities in India might find it hard to deal with technical complexities involved in establishing, monitoring and verifying REDD projects. These fallouts have grave impacts on poverty and the achievement of the millennium development goals.

The relevance of REDD for India

Ever since the discussion on REDD began in the UNFCCC and various other international forums, India has reiterated its position by acknowledging the seriousness of threat of deforestation and has participated actively in international efforts. However, the Indian government favours a comprehensive approach towards REDD and advocates inclusive conservation, afforestation and sustainable management of forests. Not a ‘major emitter’ with just 4 per cent of total global emissions, it is not binding on India to meet reduction targets (as a non Annex-I country). India’s per capita CO2 emission is currently only 1.1 tons, when compared to over 20 tons for the US and 10 tons for most OECD countries. Moreover, India’s prime focus being ‘adaptation’ and not ‘mitigation’, reduction target will jeopardise the energy conservation, agricultural food security and transport. In fact the forest policy of India has favoured ‘conservation which includes preservation, maintenance, sustainable utilisation, restoration, and enhancement of the natural environment.’ Although India’s Forest Rights Act (2006) is one such encouraging move there are mixed anticipatory responses to its effective implementation. This Act provides for a series of rights for scheduled tribes (which are listed in India’s Constitution) and other traditional forest-dwelling communities over land, and also over forest produce and traditional knowledge. It gives legal empowerment to communities to manage and protect forests that they have traditionally managed in a de facto manner. The Forest Rights Act is still being assessed for its social and ecological implications. Efforts are on to improve the Act’s provisions and implementation in a way that serves both conservation and livelihood security. At this stage, taking a decision on REDD should be based on a precautionary approach and conducive to the goals set in our forest policy.

The policy approach

‘One size fits all’ approach may not work for nations such as India, as it is often the case with several international policies. Thus it is possibly advisable to opt for nation specific policy approaches. Cheaper options and alternatives to REDD may include deforestation investments within the national programmes and infrastructure that directly support sustainable alternative rights-based forest conservation. Techniques and initiatives favouring natural regeneration and ecosystem restoration, such as community-based forestry and altered patterns of farming should be encouraged. Replacing subsistence farming with the slash and burn farming method which suppresses grass/shrub vegetation (otherwise encouraging catastrophic fires) grow fire resistant trees (especially oil palm) and in turn attract seed-dispersing animals and birds which leads to natural forest regeneration. A global forest fire fighting fund to save the interest of the tribal communities and the traditional knowledge is yet another alternative. Deforestation bans and moratoria are some other cheap alternatives. Novel approaches to link the technical and institutional advances on REDD to local stakeholders are needed so that the tribal communities continue to remain the natural custodian of forests.


Despite the fact that deforestation was previously excluded from the Kyoto Protocol because of methodological problems and concerns about countries losing sovereignty over their natural resources, as of today REDD is being favoured by a majority of governments amidst all controversies. There is an urgent need to plan the way in which REDD should be structured if the developing countries wish to play their part in climate change keeping a fine balance between their national and international commitments.

Responses to REDD

Tuvalu, a Central Pacific country has proposed a multilaterally funded UNFCCC monitored community based forestry project. Communities would be awarded Forest Retention Certificates, issued by national governments and would be able to redeem a certain number of these certificates at the end of a defined period against an International Forest Retention Fund. Although deforestation and forest degradation together are by far the main source of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil, it has opposed the renting out of its forests to the countries to offset their domestic reductions. The Indonesian province of Papua has entered into an agreement with Australian financial firm, New Forests. It intends to establish a one million hectare forestry-based carbon finance project on the island of New Guinea, as ‘a perpetual financial base for local communities’.

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