Climate Exchange

Connecting Knowledge and People

Is REDD+ the right approach to reducing deforestation in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) of the South Pacific?

By Rory Walshe

Forest Action on Illegally Felled Trees in Paia PortGreenpeace protesting deforestation in Papua New Guinea (Greenpeace Australia/Pacific 2011)

1. Introduction

In international climate change policy, REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is often championed as an important mechanism in response to the accepted fact that deforestation and forest degradation accounts for approximately 20% of global greenhouse emissions (Madeira, 2008). Deforestation and forest degradation is therefore a major driver of climate change. In response to this, REDD+ was conceived as a multifaceted response mechanism, with objectives including the protection and conservation of forested areas, reforestation and forest restoration and sustainable forest management. REDD+ ultimately endeavors to preserve or increase the carbon stock contained in forests, but the associated benefits of improved forest conditions also provide a smörgåsbord of ecosystem services. These include improved soil stability, providing livelihoods, maintaining biodiversity, raw material supplies and lower risk of flooding (Sayer and Maginnis, 2005; UN-REDD, 2013a).

There is already a large (and contentious) discussion underway about REDD+ (more here), however due to the diverse and complex nature of the objectives and outcomes of REDD+, this article will concentrate purely on the ability of REDD+ to reduce deforestation. Obviously this article also accepts that it would also be an erroneous assumption to say that tropical forested countries are homogenous. This is why, in order to focus this analysis, this article will solely examine the reduction of deforestation in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) of the South Pacific. In this way, it is hoped this article can go a small way to illustrate the practical application of REDD+ and analyse its merits and shortcomings in reducing deforestation.

2. The current role of REDD+ in Pacific SIDS

As one of the original UN-REDD pilot countries (PNG-FA, 2010), Papua New Guinea (PNG) was the first Pacific SIDS to implement REDD+ in 2009. PNG is reaching the final stages of developing a national forest inventory and satellite monitoring system as a precursor to establishing extensive national projects (PNG-OCCD, 2010). A team from PNG presented this monitoring system at a dedicated side event at this years UNFCCC meeting in Bonn, Germany.

PNG REDD+ side event at Bonn 2014

PNG officials present a summary of their national REDD+ monitoring system at SB40 in Bonn, Germany (Photo by author) 

The Solomon Islands are close behind with an initial UN-REDD preparatory strategy underway (UNREDD, 2013b). Many others in the region are pursuing promotion and preparedness programs including Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Samoa and Tonga.

Several nations are also pursuing REDD+ through partnerships with NGOs or with other regional and national organizations such as the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) with the ‘Pacific Islands Regional Policy Framework for REDD+’ which aims to guide the development of REDD+ in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu (SPC, 2012).

The majority of deforestation in Pacific SIDS is due to a combination of subsistence agriculture and timber harvesting (FAO, 1997). Other causes such as commercial agriculture, mining or forest fires represent a small fraction of the overall loss (ibid.). This deforestation is especially damaging to SIDS due to their limited resources, small populations, reliance on overseas trade, and high frequency of environmental hazards (UNDESA, 2010). The loss of forest ecosystem services therefore place a far greater strain on these countries, compounded by the fact that as much as 80% of forest species are endemic on many islands (Koshy et al., 2008).


3. The potential value of REDD+ in Pacific SIDS

Although the implementation of REDD+ is developing slower than envisaged at its conception in 2007, its reception as a concept – at a policy level in the Pacific at least – has been a success. There is undeniable value in the concepts behind REDD+, with advocates pointing to its potential as a relatively ‘quick and cheap’ early action option to limit climate change (Stern, 2006). Moreover, there is potential for a wide range of actors to achieve transformational change (Angelsen et al., 2012). At the most prosaic level, REDD+ rewards communities with financial benefits for maintaining and protecting forests that also provide long term sustainable ecosystem services. Critically, this was the first viable program to offer such development without some form of exchange for the loss of natural resources and ecosystems.

This was remarked upon by Cadman and Maraseni (2012) in their specific analysis of Asia-Pacific REDD+ governance in asserting that the commonly remarked upon exploitive North/South relationships are counteracted within a REDD+ exchange through a “co-incidence of developed and developing country self-interest”. Although there is bias towards the North, entrenched in an economic and market based solution to climate change, REDD+ offers an opportunity for a ‘win-win’ situation of emission reduction concomitant with sustainable development. However, as is unpacked below, Barr and Sayer (2012) argue that this win-win is only hypothetical in nature and confounded in practice by colluding interests and actors.


 4. Issues with REDD+ in Pacific SIDS

 Due to the preparatory stages that most Pacific SIDS are currently engaged in, it is hard to extrapolate the impact REDD+ will have on deforestation. However several conceptual criticisms can be identified:

a) There is a lack of unity and co-ordination

Pacific SIDS lack a unified strategy with which to negotiate at a regional and international level, which means there is no oversight and collective action as a region. Allan and Dauvergne (2013) argue that this is a result of power asymmetries among states and has resulted in inertia in the international effort to initiate REDD+ on a global scale. For example, in any negotiations, PNG holds considerable ‘issue-specific’ power due to its collective forest area of 25.3 million hectares (Shearman et al., 2009), surpassing the combined sum of all other Pacific SIDS more than six times (FAO, 1997). This allows PNG to effectively dictate and determine regional negotiations. A unified strategy could enable a cost effective and accurate monitoring and measurement system through economies of scale as a region. This could allow for the entire region to factor in cross-border leakage and integrate monitoring and accounting of all aspects of REDD+, rather than singling out reductions purely by deforestation in individual countries (European Commission, 2010).


b) There is a lack of effective Measuring Reporting and Verifying (MRV) and weak governance

Tulyasuwan et al., (2012) emphasise the need for effective measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) for REDD+, which requires working forest carbon inventories. The current absence of effective MRV prevents any measurement of ‘additionality’, which is key to delineating changes from any ‘business as usual’ deforestation scenarios (Karky et al., 2013). Pacific SIDS find it difficult to establish MRV systems due to a lack of funding availability, technical capacity, weaknesses in institutions and insufficient data. These combine to result in inventories being piecemeal in nature. This is perpetuated through a reliance on external support and structures which are predicated on hiring international experts – both of which prevent capacity being built within the SIDS themselves.

Brockhaus et al. (2013) propose that although many international issues get coverage in the policy discourse, the larger national issues, specifically the drivers of deforestation, are neglected. This can ultimately undermine the process since it is insufficient to solely offer projects or mechanisms to address the symptoms without addressing the root causes (Kissinger et al., 2012). REDD+ pilot countries such as PNG are party to several international reporting processes that aim to highlight national drivers of deforestation. However, these are often left incomplete and public forums lack access to details about the drivers of deforestation. These details are well known within the governing structures but are withheld in order to restrict and secure decision-making processes. This is often due to the perception that REDD+ could impair development or impinge national sovereignty (Badegery-Parker, 2013). Ultimately this highlights the larger governance issues in Pacific SIDS as a barrier to REDD+ efforts to reduce deforestation.


c) There is widespread corruption in Pacific SIDS

Corruption is unfortunately ubiquitous in Pacific SIDS (Transparency International, 2011a). As a policy and finance based mechanism, REDD+ is vulnerable to the effect of such corruption. The Forests of Pacific SIDS represent considerable financial resources and are accepted to be hotbeds of corruption (Transparency International, 2011b). For example, it is estimated that 70% of PNG’s timber exports are a product of illegal logging (World Bank, 2006). This undermines any efforts to establish effective REDD+ programs.

Larmour (1997) suggests that inept governance, lack of transparency, mismanagement and arbitrary decisions are sometimes mistaken for endemic corruption in Pacific SIDS. Regardless of whether this is the case – this is also to the detriment of any potential REDD+ projects since poor governance is arguably as damaging as corruption. In a later paper, Lamour (2006) identifies that cultural dimensions in Pacific SIDS are confounding factors in the definition and reduction of corruption including many traditional practices such as nepotism, gift giving and ‘big man’ politics which encourage the use of official powers for personal agendas (Dinnen, 2001). This adds to a considerable body of literature that suggests that traditional customary governance – which is especially prevalent in Pacific SIDS (Barnett and Campbell, 2010) – and modern governance systems are ‘incompatible’ (Barcham, 2007: 31). The Pacific has both the highest proportion of people living with traditional governance and the highest proportion of land under traditional management in the world (Koshy et al., 2008). Traditional governance institutions, such as the Samoan Matai system, the Tongan Monarchy and the Fijian council of chiefs, draw upon rich qualitative understandings of the local environment that are misunderstood, undermined and neglected (Paeniu, 1995) by technical global policy frameworks such as REDD+.


d) There is a dangerous potential for the marginalization of indigenous people

As Barr and Sayer (2012) point out, previous reforestation programs in the region have only served to worsen inequality in power relationships between indigenous communities and the economic and political ‘elites’. This is perpetuated by the dichotomy between rich, complex (and often intangible) traditional cultures of the indigenous peoples who live in forested areas and the technocratic, top-down policy based systems and processes of a mechanism such a REDD+.

 Indigenous forest based Ni-Vanuatu CommunityAn indigenous forest community in Vanuatu (photo by author)

As Campbell (2006: 29) notes, traditional practices, which previously provided resilience and encouraged sustainability, such as forest tenure, customary land management, and diverse subsistence farming, have been eroded by the influence of colonization and globalization. The traditional practices are being replaced with short term and financially motivated cash cropping and logging, as knowledge and power bases migrate to urban population centres, where traditional practices are rejected as archaic. Originally, there was a great deal of optimism in the creation of REDD+, in that it could offer the opportunity to return to or protect sustainable practices such as these. However, as previously highlighted, there is a larger danger that REDD+ risks marginalizing and undermining the remaining traditional components of indigenous communities by dictating terms of partnership from urban powerbases in policy discussions, which indigenous communities are poorly equipped to interact with (AIPP, 2010).


e) Adverse impacts and a lack of rights based approach

Previous reforestation programs in the region have sometimes had a negative effect and actually encouraged deforestation (Repetto and Gillis, 1988:165–203) through a combination of ‘perverse incentives’ (Barr and Sayer, 2012) such as timber concessions or undervalued reforestation deposits to counterbalance logging. The implications for REDD+ are that any attempt to reduce deforestation must consider the multi-dimensional impacts of such measures. This includes accounting for various forms of ‘leakage’; deforestation avoided in one community, region or country directly causing proportionate increases in neighbouring areas. Therefore, REDD+ programs must take a ‘rights based’ approach with processes of prior and informed consent and resolve any conflicting claims between forest communities and state or commercial actors before approving potential sites (Colchester, 2010).

5. Recommendations

 This examination of Pacific SIDS has illustrated that there are many provisos and preconditions that must be added to REDD+ to prevent potential detrimental effects.

These include:

–           Establish national, international and regional co-ordination

In order to effectively address such global issues as REDD+ aspires to, it is important to take a holistic approach. This justifies the development of a unified and coordinated strategy for regional and international REDD+. This is especially important in negotiations since Pacific SIDS have very little issue-specific power individually.


 –          Reduce corruption and improve governance (including MRV processes)

In order for any REDD+ efforts to be effective, all institutions involved will need to become accountable and transparent, with robust controls and audits (Barr and Sayer, 2012). The establishment of governance systems and processes that ensure fair distribution of benefits must accompany this. This will require a reversal of the previously clandestine flows of payments to a disproportionate cadre of political, social and industry elites. Furthermore improved governance includes the removal of restriction on certain knowledge and information including exposing the national drivers of deforestation.


–           Integrate and protect indigenous communities

Traditional relationships between communities and nature include spiritual ties to forests, ecological values and sustainability, as a product of forest based livelihood (UNREDD, 2013c). Therefore REDD+ must integrate indigenous communities into the policy process to prevent their exploitation or displacement. REDD+ must also communicate through the lens of indigenous culture and language. As Walshe and Nunn (2012) show, messages communicated solely in a western techno-centric idiolect are likely to be rejected. Finally, nations should pursue a rights based approach and embed controls that ensure that REDD+ benefits (both financial and otherwise) are distributed across all scales and to the appropriate rural communities (Springate-Baginski and Wollenberg, 2010:10).

This is by no means an exhaustive list of issues. Instead these measures reflect specific concerns exposed in the application of REDD+ in Pacific SIDS. It is the potential exploitation, marginalisation or exclusion of indigenous communities that is most strongly illustrated by this focus. To varying extents, each issue can be applied to any global tropical forest application, but this article demonstrates that more research is required to address the gaps exposed and examine if they are universal and generalizable for other regions.


6. Conclusions

As the numerous and complex issues outlined above illustrate, it is not as simple as labelling REDD+ as the ‘right’ approach to reducing deforestation. There is a great deal of frustration and disillusionment with the glacial progress of REDD+ and a great deal has been said about the potential for indigenous communities to be marginalized and dispossessed in the name of climate change mitigation and development programs. That being said, despite all its flaws REDD+ offers the best opportunity (at present) to reduce deforestation whilst also mitigating the effects of climate change, since REDD+ is the only mechanism of such scope and reach on the table. It is also the only program to financially reward communities and preserve valuable ecosystems – if achieved this is a real ‘win-win’. To throw the baby out with the bath water would be to deny what many argue is an understandable gestation period for such a complex mechanism – perhaps REDD+ is yet to reach its stride and get started.

However, there are positive signs that progress is being made. A recent think tank held at the University of East Anglia in Norwich on global environmental justice concluded that democratic forest governance is a pre-requisite for a just and effective REDD+ (more here) and this can only be brought about through a shift from top-down and standardised safeguard procedures to active processes of strengthening local governance of forest landscapes.

We are now in a critical time for such a discussion; the upcoming UNFCCC COP in Lima in December has talks scheduled for reinvigorating and strengthening the safeguards and information systems that would act to implement REDD+ as it was initially intended.

Although this article cannot definitively say whether REDD+ is the correct approach to reducing deforestation in SIDS of the South Pacific, it is clear that no solution will be effective unless strong, transparent and – most importantly – locally appropriate governance leads the charge.


© Rory Walshe


Suggested citing:

Walshe, R., 2014. Is REDD+ the right approach to reducing deforestation in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) of the South Pacific [Online]. Available at: [accessed + date when the website was accessed]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: