Here’s why market-based initiatives alone won’t save the world’s forests and climate

  • A new study looked at Papua New Guinea’s Wanang Conservation Area, where villagers work with conservationists in exchange for financial rewards — the type of market-based project that is the focus of the UN’s REDD+ program.
  • When it comes to conservationists working with forest communities, the study found, direct payments may be helpful as part of a broader reciprocal relationship, but direct payments alone will likely fail.
  • Climate negotiators at COP21 discussing REDD+ and other forest initiatives need to keep in mind the lives and lifestyles of the people who actually live in forests, researchers say.

Climate negotiators in Paris know that protecting what’s left of the world’s forests is absolutely crucial if we’re to successfully combat climate change.

They also probably know that Indigenous peoples and other local forest communities are excellent stewards of their land, and that their lands encompass more than 20 percent of the carbon stored safely in trees and other forest vegetation.

But if COP21 negotiators want to get serious about enlisting the help of forest communities in saving forests, they should also consider the fact that Indigenous peoples and other local forest communities probably aren’t just in it for the money.

In a new paper published in the journal Conservation and Society, Bridget Henning, a researcher at the Illinois Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois, details her findings after studying the relationship between conservationists and villagers in the Wanang Conservation Area, established by 11 village clans a decade ago to protect 10,000 hectares (about 24,700 acres) of pristine lowland rainforest in Papua New Guinea.

Representatives from Wanang village will be in Paris to accept a 2015 Equator Prize, an international award that “recognizes outstanding ​local achievement in advancing sustainable development solutions for people, nature and resilient communities.”

Wanang villagers work with conservationists in exchange for financial rewards, in exactly the type of market-based project that is the focus of the UN’s program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+), the topic of much debate in Paris right now as countries try to agree on how the program should work.

But Henning says her research shows that financial benefits alone aren’t enough to sustain the type of relationship conservationists need to build with villagers like those of Wanang.

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Villager and conservationist maintaining their relationship through ongoing exchange. Photo via Bridget Henning.

Previous researchers working on Melanesian conservation projects have found that villagers expected conservationists to be part of their informal exchange economies, which operate based on an often unspoken expectation of reciprocity.

“I was part of exchange relationships without knowing it,” Henning told Mongabay about her time in Wanang village. “I was rarely asked to pay for things in the village, but women would provide me with garden produce and meat. Eventually, I came to understand that at some future point I would be expected to provide them with something in exchange.”

No one has yet looked at a project where villagers are being paid for their conservation efforts in order to see if that changed expectations, Henning said.

As it turns out, financial pay-outs don’t necessarily change expectations, though they do help conservationists to meet some of the villagers’ expectations of equal exchange. Henning says the exact dynamics of these relationships can be tricky for Western conservationists to get the hang of.

“Market-based conservation assumes exchange takes place between independent, self-interested actors,” Henning writes in the Conservation and Society report, “but Melanesian villagers assume that exchange takes place between morally obligated, interdependent actors. Such cultural differences led to contradictory expectations and friction between conservationists and villagers in Wanang Conservation.”

Direct payments may be helpful as part of a broader reciprocal relationship, in other words, but direct payments alone will likely fail.

The villagers expected to have new exchange partners in the conservationists, Henning says. Their expectations may not necessarily be concrete at the time, but whenever they have a need in the future they expect to be able to go to conservationists and count on them fulfilling their social duty. Henning saw a variety of goods and other forms of payment become part of these exchange relationships, including vehicles, education, medicine, new houses, hospitality, employment and travel.

“Although these goods are an important part of the exchange, at its essence it is really a long term relationship that the villagers wanted,” she told Mongabay. “Villagers expect that they have a long term, irrevocable, moral tie to conservationists. In the US we are really fixated on the value of things, but in Melanesia the focus is on the value of the relationship.”

So if the climate negotiators in Paris do want to find ways to help Indigenous and forest communities protect forests and the carbon sinks they entail, how would they do that?

The easiest way might be to give those communities direct access to funds distributed under REDD+, as called for by a group of Indigenous leaders who attended the climate conference.

REDD+ is intended to channel financing from the developed world to developing countries in order to help them leapfrog dirty energy technologies and other carbon-intensive economic development projects that drive deforestation and contribute to global warming.

When negotiators are discussing REDD+ and other forest initiatives, Henning said, they need to keep in mind the lives and lifestyles of the people who actually live in forests.

“No one has suggested that designing REDD+ is easy, but quantifying carbon in forests and the opportunity costs of not deforesting can be achieved,” she added. “The really challenging part is addressing human rights, land tenure, and benefit transfer. For each of these it is essential to consider the local perspective.”

Western ideals and market-based ideas are not the solution everywhere, Henning concludes.

“Some Latin American countries, like Bolivia, are pushing the idea of ‘buen vivir’, which takes a more holistic approach of thinking about the future of an entire community and all that it entails,” she said. “Ideas like ‘buen vivir’ and considering the importance of exchange relationships may lead to very different, more suitable agreements that allow for local flexibility.”

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Wanang villagers. Photo via Bridget Henning.
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