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REDD+ politics in Brazil

The frontier of the soy plantations that surround the Tapajós national forest in Santarem. Pará, Brazil. Pablo Albarenga

As global emissions continue to rise this year, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) is yet again promoted as THE nature-based solution to climate change. But, the COP25 formula of article 6 of the Paris Agreement about the use of carbon markets—leaving out human rights safeguards and including loopholes such as equalizing plantations with native primary forests—implies to further turn REDD+ on its head, threaten the protection of native forests and undermine mitigation of carbon emissions from fossil fuels and consumption, ecological integrity, and climate justice.

By Claudia Horn

Claudia Horn is a PhD student at the London School of Economics, currently based in Belem, Brazil, and researching the evolution of European conservation aid in the Brazilian Amazon since Rio92. Before starting her dissertation, she worked as Project Manager United Nations at RLS-NYC.

Brazil has been a major recipient of REDD+ funding, especially through the Amazon Fund founded in 2008, but deforestation and fires have reached record numbers. Moreover, Brazil’s authoritarian government under Jair Bolsonaro in its first year in power has encouraged resource exploration, land grabbing, and deforestation as well as violence against black, indigenous, and traditional communities. And yet, Norway, Germany, and the UK promote including forests in carbon markets and plan to continue to pay for in REDD+ in Brazil, including on subnational level.

How does the dismantling of environmental regulation and activism and normalization of rural violence affect Brazil’s REDD+ programs established in the last decade? What are the recipient politics of REDD+ and payment for environmental services (PES)? Disproving fairytales of incentives-based forest protection, this article discusses the link between REDD+ and recipient climate injustice, namely social movements’ defense of rights and territory against the expansion of a world leading agrobusiness.

Shades of REDD+

Although Brazil’s REDD+ policy excludes carbon credits, Amazon governors and some NGOs have been promoting offset mechanisms domestically and within the UNFCCC. In an offset system (also called project-based REDD+), landowners (municipalities, communities) produce and sell carbon credits in form of avoided deforestation that can be purchased by high-emission countries and sectors (e.g. aviation). Carbon offset projects have shown risks of leakage and double counting, highlighting the uncertainty over the amount, time span and measuring of carbon stored in forests. Moreover, since investments are linked to local land tenure, projects risk to proliferate local territorial conflicts and social inequalities—so-called social “safeguard” issues. Still, Brazilian proponents argue this model generates more direct funding, according to a publication from 2017 more than US$ 70 billion for the Amazon by 2030.

Traditionally, Brazil has been a major opponent to carbon offsets emphasizing national sovereignty and environmental integrity. Brazil's social and environmental movements have established and this week reinforced their opposition to offsets. These include indigenous, quilombola, and traditional forest people’s organizations as well as the landless workers movement (MST) and small-scale farmers who depend on and defend the biodiversity of the forest. These groups demand public services, autonomy, and the realization of their constitutional collective territorial rights.

According to Brazil’s constitution, land has to fulfill a socio-environmental function, which promotes the collective land rights of traditional forest communities (as does Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization). But designed to incentivize landholders to maintain forest, REDD+ and PES monetize forest and territory in a post-colonial setting where a small percentage of powerful landowners owns and speculates with half of agricultural territory. While REDD+ promises finance for community projects, the scheme does not promote collective use rights against land grabbing.

Payment for Results as Reverse Incentive?

Brazil is in the implementation phase of REDD+ within the Warsaw framework, under which tropical forest countries can receive results-based payments from international funds, such as the Global Climate Fund (GCF), and bilateral initiatives. One of the last presidential decrees of Dilma Roussef established a participatory National Commission (CONAREDD+) and strategy (ENREDD+), which inhibits individual carbon projects. The national REDD+ plan is linked to UNFCCC commitments and integrated with existing forest policies, emphasizing federal regulation and safeguards to avoid leakage and double counting of results.

And yet, Brazil has long established the legal foundations for private ownership of forest carbon and its potential circulation in national and international markets. The REDD+ commission defines REDD Units (UREDD) and equivalent REDD Certificates (CREDD), representing 1 ton of avoided carbon dioxide. The certificate can be used to offset emissions on the Brazilian Emissions Market established in 2009, and internationally pending market mechanisms within UNFCCC.

In addition, the new Forest Code of 2012 establishes a national trade in forest credits, allowing landowners to continue to deforest despite the required “legal reserve” of native forest (50% and 80% in the Amazon) by buying “environmental reserve quotas” (CRAs) from landowners with a surplus. Encouraging land clearing, speculation, and conflict, the example shows that market mechanism does not care for trees nor forest people.

Brazil’s Amazon Fund is considered the largest-scale REDD+ mechanism, although its foundation in 2008 predates the establishment of REDD+. Managed by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), it has raised over 1.3 billion USD in donations from the Norwegian government (94.11%), Germany’s development bank (KfW, 5.29%), and the Brazilian semi-public oil company Petrobras (0.6%) and disbursed 469 million USD. Donors do not receive carbon credits, offsets, or ownership rights. The reference level of the Amazon Fund is the deforestation average of the previous ten years, updated every five years using the measure of five U.S. dollars per ton of carbon dioxide. The payments reward the large reduction of deforestation of ca. 70% between 2005 and 2012 due to environmental enforcement and control and interventions in soy and beef supply chains, rather than any REDD+ incentives.

The Amazon fund supports conservation and civil society initiatives, e.g. the management of indigenous territories. However, BNDES’ financial and scale requirements privileges already professionalized NGO’s and the commercialization of forest products, green technologies that generate quick results. This conflicts with the precarious reality of small and dispersed rural communities and producers that are most affected by deforestation. Social movements such as the National Council of Extractivist Populations (CNS) who are excluded from the governance of the Amazon Fund criticize increased funding for and promotion of forest reforestation because this inverts the logic of conservation by compensating practices of land-clearing instead of promoting existing sustainable production. By contrast, the Amazon Fund does not link to existing policies that strengthen local productive autonomy and food sovereignty, e.g. the Policy to Guarantee Minimum Prices (PG), the Food Acquisition Program (PAA), or the National School Feeding Program (PNAE).

Dawn over rio Arinos. Mato Grosso, Brazil. Pablo Albarenga

The Amazon Fund’s major investment in monitoring technologies, such as supporting states in the rapid implementation of the Environmental Registry (CAR) does not sufficiently consider the local governance of safeguards and consultations with civil society. Social movements have fought for the visibility of collective land use in these instruments that tend to benefit large landowners. In addition, the Amazon Fund sponsored public-private partnerships involving mining companies Anglo-American and Vale, both of which are now seeking to extract in conservation areas. But the investments of the Amazon Fund have neither decreased nor addressed the causes of deforestation, which has grown in recent years.

In addition, the Amazon Fund was based on the additionality principle, which means that it would not replace Brazil’s public conservation budgets and functions but provide incentives for further reduction. But following the significant budget cuts since 2016 that affected inspection and satellite monitoring, which are fundamental to fighting land grabbing and deforestation, the additionality idea became unfeasible and the Amazon Fund has been maintaining public environmental regulation and protecting indigenous and conservation areas

In April, Bolsonaro extinguished per decree civil society councils within federal administration, including the Amazon Fund Orientation Committee (COFA) and CONAREDD+, which effectively stopped REDD+. The dissolution of COFA together with Bolsonaro’s emboldening stance towards deforestation and forest fires, Norway and Germany had suspended conservation funding.

In addition, in February 2019, the GCF approved a project that pays Brazil US$ 96 million for deforestation reductions in the Amazon during 2014 and 2015. Adding to doubts about potential of REDD+ to fight deforestation, the inflated reference level would allow project partners to claim payments even if deforestation doubles.

Show Us the Money

A decade of REDD+ in Brazil has been characterized by pressure from governors private interests against the federal coordination of REDD+ in favor of direct subnational payments and private offsets. Although reductions were based on legal enforcement of environmental regulation, states argue that they protected forests from development in anticipation of REDD+ funding. The Amazon states Acre and Mato Grosso implement the subnational REDD+ for Early Movers (REM) program of the German development bank KfW. While KfW is paying out rewards rather than buying credits, California plans to do exactly that. There is little evidence on the mitigation capacity of REM and generous basement calculations allow compensation despite deforestation increases. Analysts are concerned that these initiatives undermine Brazil’s mitigation strategy and increase resource competition among domestic actors.

The Legal Amazon Governors’ Forum at COP25 convened donors and state governments to discuss subnational REDD+ and payments for environmental services on subnational level and under article 6, showing that actors have used Brazil’s political crisis to take leadership and benefits from the monetarization of the country’s forests assets and promote “less Brasilia, more Brazil”—less state, more private governance. However, if subnational actors anticipate financial gains from selling carbon credits, it would likely decrease Brazil’s Nationally Determined Contributions (to have more to sell). 

The Dismantling of Environmental Institutions

While promoting market regulation, REDD+ presumes credible national environmental frameworks and enforcement institutions. But the Bolsonaro government has systematically dismantled environmental governance and institutions working with rural traditional communities. The government undermined and changed the leadership in the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), and Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), public organs concerned with environmental inspection, issuing fines, monitoring, and licensing.

Moreover, the government paralyzed the demarcation of Indigenous Lands. After defied attempts to transfer the responsibility from the National Indian Foundation (Funai) to MAPA, it drastically reduced Funai's budget), weakening the protection of indigenous territories. Furthermore, Bolsonaro has attacked the Landless Workers Movement (MST) and halted the implementation of agrarian reform. The National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INCRA) was transferred to the agriculture ministry, which hinders the regularization of unfinished settlement projects and increases agribusiness pressure on the territories. INCRA has effectively stopped the regularization of thousands of families living in agrarian reform settlements.

Moreover, the government has criminalized NGOs and activists, and encouraged acts such as the politically motivated arrests and search near Santarem. There have been increased violent threats and killings related to territorial fights. In November, the indigenous leader Paulo Paulino Guajajara was killed by loggers while defending his community’s territory, and in December also Firmino Prexede Guajajara and Raimundo Guajajara in Maranhão state. Also Carlos Cabral Pereira, president of the of the Rural Workers Union (STTR) in Rio Maria, Pará state, was killed in relation to territorial conflict in June 2019.

It is no surprise that deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon this year reached the highest rate since 2008, especially in the agricultural frontier into the Amazon. According to recent INPE reports, Amazon deforestation rose by 30% compared to last year (from 7,536 km² to 9,762 km²). In addition, the Intercept revealed hundreds of new mining requests in conservation areas in the Amazon, including from Norway’s Hydro, UK’s Anglo American and Brazil’s Vale, known for the two biggest mining tragedies in the country, the dam collapses in Mariana (2015) and Brumadinho (2019), which together caused the death of about 300 people.

The agrobusiness has already exploited the market logic of PES and weakened environmental regulation through legislation such as the Forest Code. Now also Brazil’s environment minister Ricardo Salles promotes compensation for farmers that keep the legal reserves of forest. He promotes a new fund at COP25, managed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), that prioritizes the economic development of the region.

In short, the Bolsonaro government highlights the lack of accountability, transparency, and socioenvironmental  benefit of REDD+ payments and indeed, Germany and other donors have raised concerns. And yet, forest fires and violence have not deterred their commitment to continue REDD+ to Brazil, at least on subnational level and through offsets at a COP25 event with Amazon governors. 

Dancing on the Volcano

In Brazil, the REDD+ logic of incentives has failed to prevent deforestation and promote forest conservation. While promising resources for local communities, REDD+ implementation has excluded the largest part of rural groups and provided no support in the fight for territory, autonomy, and food sovereignty. Moreover, instead of fighting deforestation drivers, REDD+ and PES accommodate an expanding industrial agriculture system, backed by financial institutions and investors in Europe and international trade agreements such as the planned Mercosur-EU pact. The territorial expansion and expropriation by agriculture, mining, and infrastructure is now openly sponsored by a racist and anti-environmental government. In short, the REDD+ mechanism does not only undermine the responsibility and action of polluters to cut emissions, its implementation also exacerbates inequalities in recipient countries.  

The case of Brazil illustrates the REDD+ and PES preoccupation with financing, market incentives, results, monitoring and verification technologies, the neglect of environmental regulation, preventative measures, collective territorial rights and climate justice. The implementation of REDD+ in Brazil characterized by resource competition and the weakening of conservation supports early concerns about the socioenvironmental integrity of REDD+. In fact, the offsetting logic of buying your way out of cutting pollution is inherent to REDD+ with or without an international carbon market. REDD+ promoters have tended to dismiss concerns as technical errors that markets would resolve. But article 6, if it allows trading and for instance allows to count monoculture plantations in the same way as native forests, will turn REDD+ against the preservation of nature and further undermine climate justice and human rights of forest people.