World Rainforest Movement

“REDD Not Fixable Nor Reformable – Don’t Greenwash REDD” – UNFCCC, COP15: Indigenous Delegates at Climate Conference

By Rebecca Sommer

At the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Indigenous participants are increasingly concerned about REDD.

REDD stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation”. The idea, as agreed by United Nations climate negotiators in Bali in 2007, is that because preserving forests is good for the climate, governments, companies or forest owners in the South should be rewarded for keeping them standing instead of cutting them down.

However, several Indigenous Peoples representatives say that REDD is bad for people, and bad for climate. They call REDD “CO2lonialism of forests.”

Many human rights and environmental groups say that REDD will inevitably give more control over Indigenous Peoples’ forests to state forest departments, loggers, miners, plantation companies, traders, lawyers, speculators, brokers, Washington conservation organizations and Wall Street, resulting in violations of rights, loss of livelihood – and, ultimately, more forest loss.

The newspaper The Australian calls it a “classic 21st century scam emerging from the global climate change industry.”

credit: SAY NO! TO FOREST FRAUD: Photo Van Waarden

“The reasons are simple. Industrialized-country governments and corporations will pay for the preservation of Indigenous Peoples’ forests only if they get something in return. What they want is rights over the carbon in those forests. They need those rights because they want to use them as licenses to continue burning fossil fuels – and thus to continue mining fossil fuels at locations like the Albertan Tar Sands in Canada, the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Niger Delta and Appalachian mountaintops in the United States. They will get those rights by making deals with – and reinforcing the power of – the people that they regard as having “authority” over the forests, or whoever is willing and able to steal forests or take them over using legal means. These people are the very governments, corporations and gangsters who have time and again proved their contempt for the rights and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples. The result is bound to be new and more extensive forms of elite appropriation of Indigenous and other territories.” Said Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN).

“Existing REDD projects have already set in motion this transfer of power. Nor is there any way that REDD can be “fixed” to alter these political realities. It can only reinforce them. For well-meaning environmentalists to deny this is to indulge in a very dangerous naiveté.” Goldtooth added.

REDD Can’t Be Fixed by Attempts to Detach it from the Carbon Markets

First and foremost, REDD is – and always will be – a component of carbon markets. While many of the details of REDD are being worked out by well-intentioned economists, lawyers and forest conservationists and technicians with no particular commitment to carbon markets, the money behind it was always going to come mainly from industrialized countries and large corporations looking for more pollution licenses to enable them to delay action on climate change. Even among the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, the consensus is already clear: finance for REDD projects will come from carbon markets.[i] If REDD plans go forward, billions of tonnes of demand for tradable REDD pollution licenses will be generated by the Kyoto Protocol carbon markets and the European Union (EU) Emissions Trading Scheme. If the US’s Waxman-Markey or the Kerry-Boxer climate carbon trading bills are enacted, billions of tonnes more demand will follow; indeed, the mere prospect of Waxman-Markey has already touched off a REDD land grab in central Africa.[ii] According to the Business Spectator, US President Barack Obama is supporting a carbon trading scheme that would allow “half of a nation’s carbon reduction targets to be sourced internationally, such as through REDD.”[iii]

Even the technical structure of REDD reflects its market orientation: REDD posits a numerical climatic equivalence between saving forests and reducing the burning of fossil fuels. This equation is indefensible scientifically;[iv] its only function is to make different things tradable in order to generate fossil fuel pollution licenses. A non-market REDD would not need to claim this false equivalence between biotic and fossil carbon.

Thus while some delegates from a few small developing countries have tentatively proposed a hypothetical REDD that is not connected with the carbon markets, their interests are certain to be pushed aside by the more powerful actors with a stake in developing this prospective trillion-dollar market.[v] To act as if REDD might someday be financed by a repayment of the ecological debt the North owes the South, or by a benevolent fund, is naïve. Support for REDD, of any kind, as well as any attempt to “fix” REDD, inevitably means support for the carbon markets.

Assuming REDD is irretrievably linked with carbon markets, then at least three important conclusions follow.

(1) There is no way to stop REDD from dividing Indigenous communities from each other. Every time a forest dependent community signs a contract to provide pollution licenses for fossil fuel-dependent corporations, it will be potentially harming communities elsewhere who are suffering from the fossil fuel extraction or pollution for which those corporations are responsible. No possible reform or regulation of REDD could prevent this; it is built into its structure as a carbon market instrument. Of course, it would be theoretically possible, with great effort, for Indigenous communities who wish to sign REDD contracts to secure the free prior informed consent of all the other communities elsewhere who would be harmed. But unless this consent is obtained in every case – and the list of communities across the globe who would need to be consulted would be huge with many REDD projects – REDD is bound to pit community against community. Already, a project using aboriginal North Australian Indigenous knowledge of fire management practices to generate pollution licenses for ConocoPhillips has provoked the following reaction from Casey Camp-Horinek, a tribal member of the Ponca indigenous nation in the US, which suffers from the actions of the company in North America: “Indigenous Peoples who participate in carbon trading are giving ConocoPhillips a bullet to kill my people.”[vi]

(2) There is no way to stop REDD from dividing Indigenous communities who sign REDD contracts from other communities for whom climate change is a concern. As part of carbon markets, REDD will inevitably slow action on global warming; that is what carbon markets are structured to do.[vii] REDD will thus heighten climate dangers for Arctic and low-lying communities, as well as, eventually, everyone else. Again, no possible reform of REDD could prevent the damage it would do to the climate cause, as long as it is linked to carbon trading. Pretending that such reforms are possible only perpetuates the damage. The very structure of REDD makes it impossible that it could ever be made “Indigenous-friendly”.

(3) There is no way to stop REDD from being a speculative plaything of the financial markets – to the detriment of the climate and human rights alike. Already, the biggest investors in carbon credits are not companies that need them in order to meet their government-regulated pollution targets, but Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs who intend to use them in global gambling.[viii]

Just Say NO!! to REDDDon’t be an accomplice to putting forests in the carbon marketsDon’t greenwash REDDDon’t Indigenous-wash REDD eitherREDD is not fixable nor reformable

Tom Goldtooth, Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) at the UNFCCC, COP 15.

Credit: Photo Ben Powless

REDD Can’t Be Fixed by Trying to Ensure that the Money “Goes to the Right Place”

REDD proponents often assert that, even though REDD may be bad for the climate, at least it will be good for forests because it will channel large sums of money to nature conservation. Leaving aside, for the moment, the difficulty that any program that accelerates global warming will also accelerate forest destruction, this is to overlook the historical lesson that every proposal to solve the problem of deforestation and forest degradation through large sums of money has failed.[ix]

This failure is due to at least three reasons. First, the problem of deforestation is not caused by too little money. It is caused by too much money – money in the wrong hands. More specifically, it is caused by the disproportionate political power and global political organizational capabilities of forest destroyers. What is needed to stop deforestation is not well-funded forest global conservation schemes or new markets for ecosystem services, but, rather – for example – a restructuring of trade, finance and consumption, moratoriums on oil extraction and large infrastructure projects in forests, curbs on logging, agrofuels and commercial plantations, and an increase in the political power of those with the deepest interest in saving forests: the communities that depend directly on them. Making supplementary sums of money available – no matter to whom, and no matter in what amounts – will not help forest conservation unless the underlying causes of deforestation are both understood and addressed. There is no evidence that any major supporter of REDD – for example, The Nature Conservancy, the World Bank, Merrill Lynch, Environmental Defense, Dow Chemical, the International Timber Trading Organization, Climate Focus, the Chicago Climate Exchange, plantation industries, Conservation International, Baker & MacKenzie, various United Nations organizations, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Van Ness Feldman, John Kerry, National Resources Defense Council, Al Gore, the Government of Norway – has the slightest inclination to tackle these underlying causes, although they are well known. Quite the reverse – all of these actors support the forces that have been most responsible for deforestation in the first place.

Second, even if REDD could be reformulated as a plan to make available huge financial rewards for the Indigenous protectors of forests, it does not follow that Indigenous peoples would be able to collect and use the rewards. As anthropologist Michael Dove has observed, “whenever a resource at the periphery acquires value to the centre, the centre assumes control of it (e.g., by restricting local exploitation, granting exclusive licenses to corporate concessionaires, and establishing restrictive trade associations). The pattern is aptly expressed by a peasant homily from Kalimantan, which states that whenever a ‘little’ man chances upon a ‘big’ fortune, he finds only trouble. He is in trouble because his political resources are not commensurate with his new-found economic resources. He does not have the power to protect and exploit great wealth and so, inevitably, it is taken from him.”[x]

The truth of Dove’s words are borne out by the record of recent schemes to reward Indigenous and other communities for “traditional knowledge” used in corporate drug development. In the end, the communities that were originally pictured as beneficiaries turned out to be inconvenient entities for buyers and bio-prospectors to deal with, leading to their replacement by ranchers (Argentina), governments (Chile), urban plant merchants (Mexico), or state land agencies and universities (Mexico). Planners were unable to find sites that contained “in one neat package the plants, knowledge, people, territory and decision-making authority, all congealed in the name of [a] participating community” that would receive funds for community development and conservation. Troubled researchers at the US National Institutes of Health concluded that, in Mexico, treating plant collection as a commodity transaction “breaks the link” among people, plants and territory that the whole deal was supposed to encourage. Anthropologist Cori Hayden observes: “offers of market-mediated inclusion also contain within them the conditions for ever-greater forms of exclusion and stratification.”[xi]

An even more brutal kind of evolution has taken place in the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – of which REDD could soon become a part. In the beginning, sellers of CDM carbon credits were supposed to be local developers of renewable energy, community-friendly tree-planters and other actors who could help the South move toward a low fossil-fuel development path while defending local rights. Given the realities of buyers, developers, lawyers, brokers, bankers and consultants, this turned out to be unworkable. Transaction costs and the exigencies of political bargaining, measurement, contracting, investment, cost control, “risk management” and regulation meant that the sellers turned out instead to be the big-corporate Jindals, Rhodias, Tatas and Votorantims of this world, collecting a premium for activities that on the whole thwarted the struggle to moderate climate change. Nor was it usually possible in practice for carbon money to be used to benefit local people. Instead, carbon money has harmed them and rewarded their oppressors.[xii]

The pattern is already being repeated in REDD. Out of 100 pilot projects – almost all of them connected with carbon trading – many are already stained with the blood of the Indigenous and other peoples they claim to benefit, involving land grabs, evictions, human rights violations, fraud and militarization. In Kenya, the Mau forest is being made “ready” for a UNEP-funded carbon offset project by forceful and often violent eviction of its inhabitants, including the Indigenous Ogiek People.[xiii] In Papua New Guinea, carbon traders are accused of coercing villagers to “to sign over the rights to their forests” for REDD.[xiv] The International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) was explicit at the Bali climate negotiations in 2007:

“REDD will not benefit Indigenous Peoples, but in fact will result in more violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights. It will increase the violation of our human rights, our rights to our lands, territories and resources, steal our land, cause forced evictions, prevent access and threaten indigenous agricultural practices, destroy biodiversity and cultural diversity and cause social conflicts. Under REDD, states and carbon traders will take more control over our forests.”

The IIPFCC followed up this message in Poznan in 2008 by standing by “our demand for an immediate suspension of all REDD initiatives and carbon market schemes,” citing “human rights violations caused by the CDM and other carbon trading and offset regimes.”

Third, REDD’s very design ensures that money will flow to forest destroyers, not to forest protectors. To create a REDD commodity, precise measurements of how much deforestation REDD projects prevent is necessary. That market requirement automatically produces a perverse incentive for countries with low levels of deforestation to cut more trees now in order to be able to claim later that they are sharply reducing deforestation and thus deserve more REDD finance.[xv] These perverse incentives are already at work in Guyana, where President Jagdeo has launched an “avoided threatened deforestation” scheme. An editorial in Guyana’s Kaieteur News in May 2009 argued that Guyana “should precede full steam ahead with the exploitation of our forestry resources. In addition to placing our future development more firmly in our own hands, it will ironically make our arguments for REDD even stronger.”[xvi] Adding to the likelihood of REDD money flowing to the worst forest destroyers is the definition of “forests” used by the UNFCCC, which includes monoculture tree plantations and clearcuts (euphemistically referred to as “temporarily unstocked areas”). Under this definition, the Brazilian government’s plans to replace part of the Amazonian forest with oil palm plantations would not count as deforestation.[xvii] Industrial loggers could also benefit from REDD by claiming to be practicing “sustainable forest management,” while criminalizing Indigenous agricultural and forest practices.

REDD Can’t Be Fixed by Saying that Efforts are Being Made for REDD Projects to Require the “Free Prior Informed Consent” (FPIC) of Affected Communities or Compliance with the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) or other Codes or Principles

To act as if REDD’s structural dangers could be “controlled” by pressing for principles such as FPIC, UNDRIP or World Commission on Dams standards to be applied is to indulge corporations and governments in a fantasy that could damage millions of people’s lives. First, many countries do not even recognize the existence of Indigenous Peoples, let alone their rights, so neither the principle of FPIC nor UNDRIP will protect them. Neither FPIC nor UNDRIP are considered legally binding by the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC[xviii] nor by any state except Bolivia. During the Nairobi climate negotiations, the President of the Executive Board of the CDM stated publicly that the “Clean Development Mechanism has nothing to do with human rights.” The right to FPIC has already been violated in REDD pilot projects and in preparatory plans in several countries.[xix] Other internationally-recognized principles such as the standards urged by the World Commission on Dams have similar limitations.

Credit: Indigenous Statement to UN SBSTA Meeting. Photo Ben Powless

Second, even if FPIC and UDRIP magically became enforceable law across the world within the next few years, they would have to be applied to all the communities affected by each REDD project, not just the one hosting the project. For example, to get the free prior informed consent of Indigenous communities affected by the Northern Australia fire management offset project, the consent of Indigenous communities affected by ConocoPhillips operations in North America would also need to be obtained, as well as other communities damaged by ConocoPhillips practices elsewhere. This would obviously make REDD commercially unviable: either REDD or FPIC would have to be scrapped. Hence, to avoid delay, it would be more practical to oppose REDD straightforwardly, at the outset.

Third, whatever the merits of FPIC and UNDRIP, they are, again, incapable of forcing REDD projects to address the underlying causes of deforestation. Even if it were possible to make compliance with the principles of FPIC and UNDRIP a condition for every REDD project, REDD would remain a contributor to both deforestation and global warming, as well as an additional piece of artillery for the use of the corporate and state forces that oppose Indigenous rights. To proceed as if FPIC and UNDRIP could “fix” REDD, therefore, is ironically ultimately to endorse the violation of the rights of Indigenous people as well as those of all others who value climatic stability.


[i] Business Green, 9 August 2009.

[ii] Point Carbon, “Firm Targets US Buyers with African REDD Credits,” 20 July 2009,

[iii] “The Green Gold Rush,”

[iv] Larry Lohmann, “Toward a Different Debate in Environmental Accounting: The Cases of Carbon and Cost-Benefit’, Accounting, Organizations and Society Vol. 34, Issues 3-4 (April/May 2009), pp. 499–534, available at

[v] These countries were not even able to ensure that a reference to the Conference on Biological Diversity was included in the REDD methodology text at the meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice of June 2008 in Bonn.

[vi] See National Indian Education Association

[vii] See, e.g., Larry Lohmann, ed., Carbon Trading: A Critical Conversation on Climate Change, Privatization and Power (Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, 2006), available at

[viii] “When Markets Are Poison: Learning about Climate Policy from the Financial Crisis”, Corner House Briefing No. 40,

[ix] The Tropical Forest Action Plan of the late 1980s and 1990s is only one example.

[x] Michael Dove, “Centre, Periphery and Biodiversity: A Paradox of Governance and a Developmental

Challenge,” in Stephen B. Brush and Doreen Stabinsky, Valuing Local Knowledge: Indigenous People and Intellectual Property Rights (Island Press 1996), pp. 41–67.

[xi] Hayden, Cori, “Bioprospecting: The ‘Promise’ and Threat of the Market”, NACLA Report on the Americas 39 (5) (2006), pp. 26-31. See also “Chronicles of a Disaster Foretold: REDD with Carbon Trading”,

[xii] See, for example, Carbon Trading, op. cit. supra note 7, and Mausam (Indian journal on climate), both available at

[xiii] REDD Monitor,

[xiv] Sydney Morning Herald, 3 September 2009,

[xv] REDD Monitor, “World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility would Reward Forest Destroyers in Indonesia,”; and New York Times, 22 August 2009,

[xvi] REDD Monitor, 24 June 2009,

[xvii] Global Forest Coalition, REDD without Rules: Another Disaster in the Making,; REDD Monitor, “REDD will Fail with the Current Definition of Forests,” See also UNFCCC Decision 11/CP.7 Annex 1 (a),

[xviii] In response to a question from an Indigenous representative of the Assembly of First Nations, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Yvo de Boer, in a meeting with civil society in June 2009 in Bonn, read a previously prepared statement that stated that the UNFCCC Copenhagen deal will not be bound by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples because it is not a legally binding instrument.

[xix] REDD Monitor, “Lack of Meaningful Consultation on R-PINs in Suriname, Indonesia, Liberia and Panama,”