UN-REDD programme: controversy on the potential negative impact on Indigenous communities

On April 22nd, celebrating Mother Earth Day, world leaders are gathering in New York for a high-level ceremony in order to open the Paris Agreement for signature by members states during one year, until 21 April 2017. This momentum will be the occasion to reassert the pledge made by member states to commit to environmentally-binding measures. Out of these engagements to counter climate change, the UNREDD mechanism (United Nations collaborative initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) is rarely mentioned. Above the contribution made by this multi-stakeholder programme to curb down carbon emissions, this analysis intends to investigate the impact of UNREDD on the rights and livelihoods of indigenous people.



Protest against proposed programs like REDD+. Source: Indymedia.org.au


The UNREDD initiative was launched in 2008 and relies on the technical expertise of three leading organizations: the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The main goal of this institutional programme is “to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.” Similarly to the Kyoto Protocol and other market-based mechanisms, UNREDD resorts to financial incentives to encourage governments and companies in developing countries to offset their CO2 emissions by conserving trees and spurring all forest-related actors to participate in these conservation efforts.
This vision enhances the role of conservation, as well as the sustainable management of forests while the nationally-led REDD+ processes promotes the informed consent and involvement of all stakeholders, including Indigenous Peoples and other forest-dependent communities.

Recognition of REDD during the Paris Declaration

Leaders at this landmark climate deal have acknowledged the strategic importance of forests to mitigate climate change, in addition to recognizing REDD as “an instrument to contribute to reducing emissions and enhancing carbon sinks”. Parties to the Paris Declaration have been encouraged to adhere to previous REDD+ related COP decisions and to implement results-based payments in favour of all actors preventing the destruction of forests in developing countries.

Maria Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director-General and Coordinator for Natural Resources insisted on the potential for empowerment toward people from the South who have the daunting responsibility of managing forests and biodiversity: “The UN-REDD Programme has been essential to support capacity building, including through South-South cooperation…”. Thus, this programme is perceived as enabling win-win situations for polluting developed countries and developing countries concerned about development and preserving their ecosystems.

Questioning the essence of REDD

Many reports, journalists, activists or organizations have emphasized that payments resulting from REDD activities far from protecting forests only focuses on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. This statement is shared by Chris Lang, an independent journalist and graduate in forestry from Oxford Forestry Institute who runs the blog REDD-Monitor looking at the impact of anti-deforestation programmes. He underlines four fundamental problems around payments to discourage deforestation and forest degradation: leakage, additionality, permanence and measurement. Apart from the issue that carbon is only temporarily stored in the trees and that it is difficult to measure the amount of carbon absorption, the term “leakage” refers to the problem that “while deforestation might be avoided in one place, the forest destroyers might move to another area of forest or to a different country.”

This narrow vision of “deforestation and forest degradation” adds to the issue of allowing commercial forestry in order to offset carbon emissions. Holly Brentnall sheds light on the practices of corporations which are allowed “to deforest” as long as they “demonstrate that the new forests contain equal amounts of carbon to the previous forest”.  Thus the problem revolves around the UN definition of “forest” which completely ignores the difference between a tropical old-growth forest and an industrial monoculture tree plantation. To sum up, the UNREDD initiative bypasses the crucial issue of preserving biodiversity in forest-abundant developing countries.

Indigenous people left aside

Even though Indigenous Peoples and other forest-dependent communities are seen as stewards of forest and biodiversity and inhabit a large proportion of forests included in the programme, many examples show that they are often excluded from UNREDD decision-making processes.
In 2013, Costa Rica negotiated the very first deal with the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, selling them a consequent figure of REDD credits: the Emissions Reduction Payment Agreement between the Costa Rican government and the World Bank added up to 63 million of US dollars. In their statement on the deal, the World Bank proudly quoted Carlos Cascante, a representative of one of the tribes of Costa Rica, saying that it was the first time that indigenous territories would have access to information on REDD and could define their participation as part of the National Strategy of the country.
However, while appearing as encouraging, this statement clearly shows one less positive truth: so far, indigenous people in Costa Rica have never been informed in their own language about the programme nor been able to react to it – though REDD has been implemented in Costa Rica since 2008.
In fact, representatives from the tribes of Costa Rica allegedly accepted the UNREDD programme. However, these representatives were not chosen by the tribes themselves and did not report to them and inform them of the outcomes of the negotiations .


An opportunity for companies to acquire ancestral indigenous lands

Aside from the essential fact that indigenous people are kept from interfering with the programme due to their lack of knowledge or simply because they are not taken into account, the concept in itself of REDD can be problematic. Indigenous people have shared their concerns about placing a monetary value on forests, which could spark more interest from external sources for acquiring them.

Indeed, negative outcomes frequently translate into displacements of indigenous people from their ancestral lands. For example, as recounted by Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, in Papua New Guinea, carbon traders have been criticized for coercing indigenous people into signing their lands over to U.N. REDD.


Opposition of indigenous people: towards a UN recognition of the issues at stake?

Since the implementation of UNREDD and the issues which were previously raised, Costa Rica’s tribal people have been quite vocal about their protests against the programme. In October 2015, more than 250 indigenous people demonstrated in front of the presidential palace in San José. President Luis Guillermo Solis even met representatives of the tribes.

Beyond the protests, the indigenous people have been very active in raising awareness these past few years: they have held numerous workshops and organized many meetings, often reaching out to the press, in the hope of getting the population and the government to acknowledge the impacts of REDD on the nature, their lands and their lifestyle. Costa Rica is another prime example of tribes getting extremely active in their opposition efforts.

Even the UN recognized the pitfalls that UNREDD initiative may present. At the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), held on May 20-31 2013 in New York City, a UN report lists the conflicts that can affect indigenous people including the violation of customary land rights, the denial to share the financial benefits resulting from the program, the inability to participate due to the lack of information, decreased local food production and loss of livelihoods.

Paris Agreement: REDD strengthened but indigenous people neglected?

If COP21 has widely been acknowledged as a success, all countries involved managing to reach an agreement and to produce a (more or less) binding text, the indigenous people have once again raised their disappointment and concerns over the fact that REDD+ has not been reassessed.
Indeed, the whole article 5 of the final agreement text directly refers to REDD+, reaffirming its importance and calling for more funding. Gustavo Silva-Chavez, who manages REDDX, the REDD+ Expenditure Tracking Initiative at Forest Trends, called it a “strong political signal”: “we’ve got a standalone article. It wasn’t just a couple sentences or a paragraph about mitigation, it was a standalone article. Countries were looking for that.”

The 5th article also includes safeguards, designed to protect the lands, the forests ‘biodiversity and the indigenous people rights, as well as a system meant to assess and report on the respect of these safeguards.

While these safeguards do seem to introduce a concern about indigenous people rights in the text, they have not been taken into account at the level that they wished by the Agreement, despite the communities leaders vocal presence at COP21. Though there is indeed a reference to indigenous peoples rights, it has been cut off from the binding portion of the Agreement and instead relocated to the preamble. The language used remains also vague, as it states the need to “respect […] and promote […] indigenous rights”: a deliberate phrasing to make it less binding than a “shall” would have been instead.

Nevertheless, it bears to mention that the references were also kept purposefully vague so that they may be broad enough to encompass and be applicable to hundreds of different countries – an unfortunate but necessary step on contentious issues in order to get a huge number of countries with different interests to reach an agreement.


COP21 did not manage to fully integrate indigenous people’s rights in the Agreement, reassessing REDD+ without officially taking into account the potential negative impacts on their lives it entails. While REDD+ has been reaffirmed and strengthened and safeguards, meant to protect tribes’ ways of living, included, a lack of binding commitment to respect indigenous rights is noticeable and should be addressed in the future. COP22, which is going to take place in November 2016 in Marrakesh, represents another occasion for these rights to be assessed: once again, the indigenous people leaders and the civil society supporting them will have to raise their voices in order to be heard and taken into account.


Céline Krebs & Léa Guinet, Coordinator and Research Assistant at CIPADH



Chris Lang, “Indigenous Peoples in Costa Rica protest against REDD”, REDD Monitor, 8 march 2016. Available at: http://www.redd-monitor.org/2016/03/08/indigenous-peoples-in-costa-rica-protest-against-redd/.

UN-REDD Programme website. Available at: http://www.un-redd.org/AboutUN-REDDProgramme/tabid/102613/Default.aspx

Chris Meyer, "What the Paris Agreement's references to indigenous peoples mean", Environmental Defense Fund, february 25th 2016. Available at: http://blogs.edf.org/climatetalks/2016/02/25/what-the-paris-agreements-references-to-indigenous-peoples-mean/

Holly Brentnall, "UN REDD program criticized for negative impact on Indigenous communities", Record, january 28th 2014. Available at: https://www.newsrecord.co/u-n-redd-program-criticized-for-negative-impact-on-indigenous-communities/ 

Mongabay, "Inclusion of REDD+ in Paris Agreement heralded as major step forward on deforestation", december 14th 2016. Available at: inclusion-of-redd-in-paris-climate-agreement-heralded-as-major-step-forward-on-deforestation