March 29, 2010
REDD Reality-check: The challenges of putting potential into practice in Africa
Lindsey Elliott – Forestry Offset Specialist with the Uganda Carbon Bureau
It is undeniable that REDD is full of potential. Deforestation and forest degradation generate almost one fifth of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, a fact that has become mainstream in global climate discussions. By monetizing the protection of threatened, standing forests, REDD promises to not only prevent much of these emissions, but stands to simultaneously preserve biodiversity, sustain ecosystem functioning, and support local livelihoods.
Yet when faced with the task of getting a REDD project up and running, one quickly begins to appreciate why there are so few projects currently delivering on the ground. The REDD concept is inherently complex, and therefore requires implementers to have a broad background and varied expertise. An advanced understanding of biology, forestry, and conservation is required in order to get through the methodological requirements and to design sampling and monitoring strategies; experience and appreciation of the complexity of the social dimension is needed to ensure deliverance of co-benefits to the community; and some appreciation of economics is useful, although often disregarded, to devise a budget for such a project and to market credits if and when they are generated. Having said that, even the best economists would struggle to accurately predict the future value of voluntary carbon credits, let alone the unexpected costs that accrue throughout project implementation. To make matters more uncertain, the nature of REDD is constantly changing. Copenhagen provided hope for the future of REDD+, yet failed to produce any official commitment or guidelines for its inception.
The project we at the Uganda Carbon Bureau (UCB) are working to bring to life, known as Abalinda Ebihangwa (meaning “nature’s nurturer” in the local language), is the vision of one inspiring woman – Margaret Kyenkya. Margaret purchased a piece of land adjacent to Bugoma Central Forest Reserve (see map) with the primary aim of utilizing the mature forest it contains to educate the surrounding communities, as well as youth from across the country, about the importance of such an ecosystem. She is passionate about environmental conservation and committed to spreading her message. Unfortunately, this region, like so much of forested Uganda, faces severe deforestation pressures from a rapidly increasing population, together with the resulting increases in cultivation and a need for domestic fuel wood. Margaret must first determine how she can protect her forest to enable her to later use its beauty to foster further conservation.
You could say that the project is still working through early development, despite the hard work and considerable funds that have been invested by Margaret and UCB since 2006, when Margaret first approached UCB for help. It was a risky commitment to make given the small size of the forest (relative to other REDD projects) and the infancy of the REDD mechanism at the time of the project’s inception. But if REDD cannot manage to protect this needy forest, what it its purpose after all?
Although REDD and other market-based climate mechanisms aim, by definition, to circumvent reliance on outside investment, considerable donations are normally required to bring projects to fruition due to low and uncertain carbon prices and the high costs of project implementation. This arrangement is unsustainable, and will remain as such until the market and REDD mechanism mature. As identified in a number of publications recently, investors are particularly reluctant to support sub-national REDD activities in Africa due to a track-record of corruption and inefficiency in many African countries.
Due to a general lack of available technical support and a failure to foster a national REDD strategy, the costs of implementing a REDD project in Uganda are quite high. As a result, securing substantial project funding is a must, particularly for a small and pioneering project such as Abalinda Ebihangwa. Attainment of funding continues to be a priority for the project, while Margaret and UCB continue to invest their own resources to continue protecting the forest and to collect the necessary data required for project documentation. The team firmly believes that the experience of learning though doing is a powerful one which can help to inform the REDD process as it develops – but it certainly remains a challenge.
As of March 2010, UCB has finally managed to contract the assistance of a GIS consultant to help with calculating a baseline rate of deforestation, via the comparison of Landsat images of the region over the past ten years. The forest will be classified into distinct strata that reflect the amount of carbon stored. Once the GIS analysis is complete and funding is made available, UCB staff will lead a team of local experts to continue sampling the forest. As a team, for nearly four years we have experienced hands-on the many challenges a REDD project can face. We remain determined, however, to model a successful project. It is time to get past the teething phase of REDD and start making the huge potential of REDD in Africa a reality.