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UN REDD program failing to build capacity for indigenous people in Panama

The U.N.’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (UN-REDD) program may be faltering in Panama due to its failure to build capacity for indigenous people who should play a central role in the initiative, argue researchers writing in the journal Nature.

Conceptually, REDD+ aims to create a financial mechanism for rewarding tropical countries for protecting their forests. Funds generated under REDD+ would go towards programs that conserve forests, support alternative livelihoods that shift practices away from deforestation, and improve forest monitoring. In practice however, getting REDD+ off the ground has been a complex endeavor, requiring large amounts of upfront investment to build capacity, implement forestry sector reforms, and establish baselines for measuring progress. That’s where UN-REDD enters the picture, providing funds for “readiness” activities and pilot projects.

But UN-REDD in Panama has recently experienced some setbacks, especially in regard to the participation of indigenous peoples, who represent about 5 percent of the Central American country’s population but occupy about 31 percent of its land area. In March, Panama’s National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples (COONAPIP), an association that includes 7 indigenous groups, announced it was pulling out of UN-REDD following a series of disagreements. In June, the Guna General Congress, a major indigenous authority, blocked a REDD+ project and forbade NGOs from engaging in REDD+ activities in territories amounting to 7 percent of Panama’s old-growth forests.

In a letter published in Nature, Catherine Potvin of McGill University and Javier Mateo-Vega of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) say the problems stem from “a failure to build REDD+ capacity for indigenous people at all levels.”

“It is time to pay more than lip service to their full and effective participation in REDD+,” they write, noting that while “REDD+ started well in Panama”, it has since gone off-track.

Potvin and Mateo-Vega conclude by warning that if indigenous peoples’ fear of participation spreads beyond Guna Yala, UN-REDD could be jeopardized in countries well beyond Panama.

Given that Panama has strong governance and capacity relative to many of its peers, any failure of UN-REDD to advance in Panama could cast doubt on its likelihood of success elsewhere.

Kapok tree in Panama

CITATION: Catherine Potvin and Javier Mateo-Vega. Panama: Curb indigenous fears of REDD+. NATURE | VOL 500 | 22 AUGUST 2013

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