Forests continue to diminish globally at an alarming rate and have been dropping drastically especially in developing countries who are transforming their natural resources into national financial assets. What kind of forest management approach is a best fit in forest-rich developing countries? Is paying local communities to protect their forests the right approach? We have a look at the role of the UN’s international initiative REDD+ in reducing deforestation in a predominantly mountainous landlocked country in Southeast Asia – Lao PDR.
Every year approximately 12-15 million hectares of forest are lost which is equivalent to 36 football fields per minute. According to a 2009 figure from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global deforestation accounts for nearly 20 percent of all CO2 emissions. Some researchers have claimed the figure should be around 12 percent. Regardless of who is correct, it is evident that preserving the earth's forests would be a key way to help mitigate climate change and maintain biodiversity.
Forests Are More than Just Trees
The value of forests is more than just timber. Forests contain and preserve 75 percent of global biodiversity and are home to 50 percent of land-based species. They remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in their wood, roots and soil. CO2 is one of the most prevalent so-called greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that causes a change in the global climate. In the process of storing CO2 in their biomass, trees release oxygen which gives us the “air to breathe”. For more on the vital role trees play in the planet's eco-system, see our Knowledge article "Forests - Our Green Lungs".
Proper forestry management yields a number of positive effects alongside enhancing carbon stocks, such as ecosystem-based benefits of conservation of forest and agro-biodiversity, water regulation, soil conservation and economic benefits generated from sales of timber, forest foods and non-timber forest products.
Drivers of Deforestation and Why REDD+?
Although Lao PDR still has one of the highest forest cover rates in mainland Southeast Asia, its has dwindled since the mid-60s when forest cover was at 70 percent. The causes behind this are pegged as unsustainable and illegal logging practices, shifting cultivation, conversion to profitable agricultural plantations and infrastructure development, according to ProCEEd (2012).
As pointed out by a 2013 statistical report from The REDD Desk, forest quality has also deteriorated in the last couple of decades, with dense forest declining from 29 percent in 1992 to 8.2 percent in 2002 and open forest increasing from 16 percent to 24.5 percent. According to the report, "forests in Lao PDR hold an estimated 1074 million tonnes of CO2 (FAO, 2010), with deforestation and forest degradation in Lao PDR contributing around 51 million tonnes to annual CO2 emissions (DOF, 2010)".
More than 80 percent of the population in Lao PDR lives close to forests and a number of northern upland ethnic groups rely on forests for their livelihoods, such as Lao Loum, Lao Thung and Lao Soung, and they depend on forests for living with services like water purification, fuel wood, wood or bamboo for housing construction and tree roots for medicines. The poorest groups of Lao society live among these communities and they are particularly affected by the loss of forest and biodiversity. Therefore, preserving forests is a key requirement for reducing Laos and its people’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change such as unpredictable rainfall patterns, floods, droughts or landslides due to the loss of mountain-top tree cover.
What is REDD+?
REDD+ stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation and (+) the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks. It is an international effort lead by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The basic idea is to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, as well as means to leverage this, thus offering an incentive to developing countries to reduce emissions caused by deforestation. REDD+ is implemented in three phases, going from the preparation to get “ready for REDD” to the implementation of REDD+ strategies leading eventually to the flow of results-based payments for national actions that reduce emissions in the forest sector.
Nationally, there are a number of policies to address climate change and sustainable forest management promoted by the Ministry of Laos, such as the National Strategy on Climate Change and the Forestry Strategy to the Year 2020. Lao PDR has been participating in international REDD+ negotiations under the UNFCCC since 2007. REDD+ has been identified as a key mechanism in the climate change strategy and the forestry strategy to increase national forest area and reduce national greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Vietnam are also participants in the UN REDD+ programme.
REDD+ in Lao PDR
There are numerous national, sub-national and project level REDD+ activities both ongoing and in the works in Lao PDR. According to the REDD Desk (2013), the overarching responsibility for high-level coordination of REDD+ policy-making in Lao PDR rests with the National Environmental Committee, a committee consisting of Ministers of all Government Ministries and chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister.
Besides this, forest governance issues were discussed on a political level and in a participartory approach. REDD’s implementation of Participatory Land Use Planning (PLUP) and land registration aims to secure land/ forest tenure in rural areas as a form of support for community-based forests.
The Future Pathway
Globally, the UN’s REDD+ initiative has dispersed nearly 200m USD to safeguard forests in developing countries since 2008. However, there are critics saying REDD+ is not doing enough to acknowledge community forest management and the need for strengthening communities' land carbon rights. Recent findings suggest that deforestation rates in community-managed forestland are dozens to hundreds of times lower than in areas overseen by governments or private entities.
Although REDD+ has the support from the national forestry sector as part of its sustainable forest management strategy, ironically, the Lao government is opening its land to Chinese and Vietnamese concession companies to attract forest investment into mining, plantation and the hydro-power industry at the same time to attract foreign investment. Things will not move forward, until these ‘two hands talk to each other’.
Is REDD+ the right approach to meet Laos’ climate protection needs? Time will tell.
Text contributor: Louisa Wong, English Editorial for RESET.
BMZ, 2011. Ready for REDD. Sharing the experience gained through German development cooperation with Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). BMZ, Division for development education and information, Berlin.
Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) 2014.The challenge of establishing REDD+ on the ground. OCCASIONAL PAPER 104. Insights from 23 subnational initiatives in six countries.
JICA, ITTO, 2010. REDD – plus (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) Forest Conservation in Developing Countries.
GIZ ProCEEd (Promotion of Climate-related Environmental Education)
The REDD Desk: http://theredddesk.org/countries/laos/actors