Limits to learning: when climate action contributes to social conflict

REDD+, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, has been one of the holy grails of international efforts to combat climate change for the past 10 years: over 10 billion dollars have been pledged to this cause by donor countries. Although REDD+ aims to reduce deforestation rates while increasing the welfare of landowners, research has shown that it also negatively impacts indigenous communities and has contributed to conflict. While hard work has been done to improve REDD+ programs, there are serious unintended effects of this much needed climate change action program. We wondered if organizations will do something about these unintended effects and would like to stimulate debate on that. We found that there are limits to what they learn: some unintended effects are likely to persist.

The REDD+ programmes, developed by the United Nations, use a payment for environmental services (PES) approach to support developing countries in creating more sustainable land use models. The idea behind this is that landowners move away from traditional land use methods that deplete forests and hence exhaust their capacity to absorb CO2. In turn, they receive monetary and other incentives that make up for loss of income and enable them to work towards more sustainable land use.

However, a disturbing number of “unintended consequences” results from these programmes. Such consequences do not necessarily relate to the initial goals of the programme: it can for example achieve great results in forest preservation and poverty alleviation; yet be only accessible to those who officially own the land. Thereby it excludes the poor residents for whom the programme was initially intended. Importantly, because these effects fall outside the scope of the programmes, they are not always taken into consideration when it comes to measuring impact.

In the past years, researchers found such effects on both the forest preservation and social impact fronts. Now, determining that some bear the brunt of well-intended efforts to tackle climate change is one thing. The next question, however, is crucial: will implementers be able to learn from their mistakes? Are the unintended consequences that have been seen in the past years avoidable, and does REDD+ hence have the potential to be for instance truly inclusive and conflict-sensitive?

Will programme implementers learn from their mistakes?

The answer is, as always: it depends. Reasons for not learning from unintended effects are partly technical: for example, the difficulty to measure the actual deforestation rates or the forests that are “saved” as a direct result from the project (the so-called displacement effect). With better measurement techniques, experts expect that these issues can be overcome in the near future.

However, the unintended consequences of REDD+ that are social in nature are a completely different ball game. These include for example the discrimination of indigenous peoples and their ancestral ways of living and working the land; the exclusion of many rural poor because they do not have official land titles; the exclusion of women for the same reason; or the rising of social tensions in communities, or between communities and authorities.

Organizations which implement REDD+, such as the World Bank and the Green Climate Fund, are aware of these unintended consequences and have put measures in place to anticipate and regulate them. These “social and environmental safeguards” should prevent discrimination as a result from the programmes. Moreover, grievance redress and dispute settlement mechanisms are in place to serve justice to those who have been harmed or disadvantaged regardless.

Despite these systems and regulations, World Bank and GCF employees explain that they are struggling with managing these unintended consequences, and that it is difficult to satisfy everyone’s needs while still achieving results on the deforestation front. The dilemma they face is clear: the more time, effort and money is spent to anticipate all possible unintended consequences, the less money and time is left to use for the implement the climate change programming, and time is ticking.

Ideological limits to learning

Donors who fund the programmes appear sometimes more concerned by just increasing disbursement rates, to show they are active in the fight against climate change, than fully taking note and acting on the collateral social damage. With more pressure from civil society, donors and organizations are likely to also take more of the social factors on board, for example through the safeguard system. However, there appears to be one major blind spot, on which little learning is taking place.

To our surprise, the most encountered unintended effects are the so-called motivational crowding out effects. Time and again, it was found that, while people were initially quite concerned about the forest and finding ways to preserve it, their intrinsic motivation to do so declined when monetary rewards were offered. The neo-liberal model of putting a price on everything might work on the short run, but appears to contribute to an erosion of conservation values in the long run. So, taking stock of collateral damage, this might be one of the most unexpected ones we encountered. And unfortunately, it goes against the very ideological basis of the PES approach. Currently, we also found little action by organizations and donors to deal with this unintended effect. An ideological limit to learning appears to be in place here.

Yet, we are still hoping that climate justice can be achieved. That green objectives can be combined with social justice objectives. We invite you to share your abstracts with us for the panel we are organizing at the EADI conference in 2020. The deadline is on December 15. If you would like to read more background information on this topic, you are welcome to consult our working paper.

About the authors:

pasfoto DJ Koch

Dirk-Jan Koch is Professor (special appointment) in International Trade and Development Cooperation at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, and Chief Science Officer of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His latest publications include Is it time to ‘decolonise’ the fungibility debate? (2019, Third World Quarterly, with Zunera Rana) and Exaggerating unintended effects? Competing narratives on the impact of conflict minerals regulation (2018, Resources Policy, with Sara Kinsbergen).Pasfoto.jpg


Marloes Verholt is researcher at the Radboud University Nijmegen. She researches the unintended effects of international climate policy. With a background in conflict analysis and human rights work, she views the climate change debate through these lenses.

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