Whose forest is it anyway? – Political Barriers to Reducing Emissions from Forests

Continuing from my previous blog post which discussed the technical barriers developing countries face in reducing forestry relation emissions, this blog post will looks at how domestic politics can hamper the adoption of mitigation strategies. Measuring forests, converting forest land and preserving forests are all deeply political acts. Any policy that addresses Land Use Change and Forestry (LUCF) activities directly influences the level resources a community or an area gets access to, the kind of legal rights they enjoy, and level of investment it can attract. As a result, we often see local governments be at odds with state level or federal bodies when it comes to implementing a LUCF related policy.

Autonomy on the local level can also act as a source of innovation as well as a barrier to preserving forests. This was the case in Indonesia’s Aceh province where the

governor’s plan to revise land-use regulations and rezone protected forests as “production zones” will reduce the province’s forest cover from 68% to 45% . While the rezoning (which is now a much smaller area than previously thought) paves the way for economic development and investments from the palm oil, mining and logging companies, it can make flash floods, landslides and animal habitat destruction very likely and conflicts with the federal government’s moratorium policy at that time. Aceh’s case is instructive as the region has enjoyed a special autonomy after the 2005 peace accord between the Indonesian government and “free Aceh” rebels. As seen in Aceh’s case, tensions between the central government’s and local governments’ agendas can act as a powerful barrier to implementing mitigation strategies.

Political barriers are prominent in LUCF abatement activities as multiple actors operate at different levels with diverse, often competing interests. Developing countries have low involvement in bio-sequestration activities (i.e. accounting for the capture and storage of carbon dioxide through biological processes) on the international level as they have no requirement or opportunity to account for emissions and sequestration activities in the LUCF sector.

Land is a valuable commodity and when it becomes difficult to clear forests for land, tensions between stakeholders increase and sometimes incentivize corruption. For example, when Indonesia imposed a moratorium on forest and peatland conversion in 2010 (as a result of its agreement with Norway), there was a rush to obtain licenses and amend existing spatial plans in favor of forest conversion just before the deadline.

Conflicts are likely to arise and create different winners and losers in the short and medium term. Marginalized and indigenous communities who rely on forests for livelihood and survival – as is the case in much of the Amazon – are likely to lose when there are competing land-use conflicts. In this regard, policies that seek to promote forest ecosystem carbon management must simultaneous address resulting conflicts that are likely to arise between different land uses and protect poor. 

Political instability clearly has the ability to destroy forestry-related progress and threaten the REDD+ process, especially if there is no strong local base of technical knowledge or capacity (or if such capacities come primarily from abroad). This is clearly a factor in DRC and sub-Saharan Africa as well as in parts of the Amazon. Political instability and war have direct and indirect effects on forest preservation measures. Forests are cleared to expose hiding enemies and improve accessibility to resources. Organized forest management becomes impossible due to the destruction of governance structures and the absence of rule of law, as was the case in DRC starting from the late 1990s. Even when war ends and political instability subsides, the bulk of state resources are focused on state building activities.

To address these political challenges, successful forest protection strategies must have integrated approaches that combine national level policymaking with local level initiatives and opportunities. Bottom-up structures, such as sub-national REDD+ programs, could serve to inform national REDD+ program design and could help identify future participation barriers. Subnational REDD+ has to work nationally but also on the individual community and stakeholder levels. There is important knowledge at the local level that can inform decisions at the subnational or national levels. Political will, at the national level, can also drive change at the lower levels. Therefore, REDD+ must integrate both top-down and bottom-up approaches. In post-conflict developing countries, initiatives that accentuate participatory forest management can simultaneously build peace and protect vulnerable forests. Similarly, systems must be established that ensure long-term local capacity building. An example is the MRV/REDD+ certificate program developed in Peru’s Madre de Dios region, which created continuity and constancy in the REDD+ process despite frequent political change and discord.

As long as forest preservation is seen as a ‘cost’ to local economic development, it will be difficult for countries, especially developing countries, to ensure compliance with national level climate action plans. Transparent processes, safety nets and public private partnerships that compensate short term losers and policies that allow communities to derive economic benefits of forest preservation through sustainable use are important first steps.

Bilal Bawany is a second year Master of Global Policy Studies student at the LBJ School specializing in International Development and Governance. His experience in the public health, agribusiness and education sectors has fuelled his interest in how public private enterprise, aid and development policies affect the political economy of service delivery in developing countries.

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