Dilemmas within REDD+: It’s Hard to be the Good One

In theory REDD+ is simple: Communities are paid to conserve their forests instead of logging them. Further up, countries get credit for reducing their rate of deforestation.

In practice, it creates some moral dilemmas for the virtuous community that conserves its forest. Consider a hypothetical group of 100 communities in a forested area.


There is a 3% rate of deforestation. It’s easy to identify the communities who did log their plots. Here’s the kicker: which of the 97 communities that conserved their forest should get the credit? Should the credit go to communities who were going to log but decided not to or the communities who planned to keep their area forested? How do we know who was telling the truth?


Credit can be given based on how much a community has improved (reduced its deforestation rate). Here, the virtuous community is screwed. A community with a baseline of 30% deforestation can easily improve to acquire REDD+ credits. If a community has conserved fully, it has a deforestation rate of 0%. It can’t get any better, so it gets nothing.


Moreover many drivers of deforestation are beyond the control of local communities. A farmer sitting on marginal soil next to the Amazon may slash and burn the rainforest to grow enough food so their family doesn’t starve. Meanwhile, a nearby rancher decides to log the rainforest to increase grazing land for her cattle and get a slightly higher profit on her beef. Should they be treated the same?

Incorporating Indigenous Rights and Perspectives

“It is not the institutions that define the work we do… it is our relationships.” — Tim Bull Bennett

When considering what topic to follow through the chaos of COP19, and feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the acronym soup, I retreated to a topic I know: advocating for incorporation and respect for Indigenous perspectives, drawing on my six years of work with the Onondaga Nation. The Onondaga Nation (one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy) has been involved in advocating for indigenous rights at an international level with the United Nations since 1977, and was instrumental in the creation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007.

Dan Wildcat, Oren Lyons, and Lindsay Speer

Dan Wildcat, Oren Lyons, and Lindsay Speer

My initial thought was to track how indigenous rights, as embodied in the Declaration, were being considered, incorporated, or ignored by the UNFCCC. REDD and REDD+ have been of particular concern to indigenous peoples, and it seemed important to watch the negotiations carefully and critically.

The Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Working Group meeting at Dartmouth College on November 4th and 5th reminded me that the indigenous stance is not only protective; it is equally proactive. Just as indigenous peoples will feel the brunt of climate change, as land is lost to the sea and plant and animal populations shift, they also have many of the answers. Their stories, songs, and oral histories contain baseline data about the state of the environment. So many of their communities have already experienced relocation during the 1800s; they have significant lessons to share about cultural harms of relocation and strategies for cultural resiliency.

Corn, beans, and squashThe meeting spent a good portion of the first day discussing traditional ecological knowledges (TEK – and the “s” is not a typo; rather, it is a deliberate nod to the diversity of kinds and ways of knowing), their applicability to climate change, as well as the importance of ensuring that the knowledge is not just another thing taken, misunderstood, and misused by the dominant culture.

Robin Kimmerer, Potawatomi, professor, and author of Braiding Sweetgrass, presented a possible structure for good relationship between TEK and traditional western science. She used the metaphor of the Three Sisters, a traditional companion planting methodology of corn, beans, and squash used by the Haudenosaunee. The corn is planted first, providing the structure for the beans to grow up, and the squash shades the ground and suppresses the weeds. Traditional ecological knowledges are the corn; western science is the beans. Without TEK, western science just grows itself into a tangle all over the place. But if western science can look to TEK to point the way, it can grow up into the light in an orderly way, and find the solutions we need. The squash is ethics, and we all are the gardeners.

What would the negotiations look like if the UNFCCC were to think in this way?

Gearing up for COP19

I am eager to go back to a COP. My first and only COP was COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. I went as the Policy Director for the Cascade Climate Network which is a regional super organization of youth activists from environmental groups in Oregon and Washington. It did not go well. I was thrown out along with the other NGOs into the cold of a Danish winter. Luckily, some Danish anarchists let my delegation stay in their concrete bunker for the rest of the COP. Our whole strategy was dependent on us being in the venue. We overhauled our approach and focused on building awareness and political pressure in real time from supporters in the US. The whole experience was jarring to me and caused me to refocus on local environmental issues for a while.


I am currently a second year JD/Master of Environmental Law and Policy candidate at Vermont Law School. I also am a Research Associate at the Institute for Energy and the Environment, focusing on how environmental data is used during permitting for Arctic oil drilling.

Gearing up for COP19

My hobby is boxing


I will be working with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) on safeguarding forests and forest livelihoods. My role is to flit from meeting to meeting and take notes so that CIEL is aware of all of the developments regarding safeguards in results-based finance. Currently, forest protection under the UNFCCC is based on the REDD+ (link) mechanism. There is a debate about how much of the finance should be tied to results, how strict the safeguards should be, when they should kick in, and how they will be monitored. Non-carbon benefits aren’t included now, but may be added into the REDD+ mechanism. Indigenous groups are pushing for more participation as equal partners, stewards and monitors.


I am looking forward to having a real (indoors!) COP experience.