Selling nature: Winners and losers in market-based conservation in Tanzania

New market-based conservation mechanisms have attracted considerable attention in recent years as a proposed win-win solution to reconcile environmental protection with economic development. But critical scholars have warned of potential ‘green grabbing’ and the exclusion of local populations from the natural resources they depend on. Andreas Scheba describes a study conducted in Tanzania that offers valuable insights to conservation-development initiatives in South Africa and elsewhere.

Amidst growing concerns over the unprecedented degradation of many of the world’s natural environments, governments, international donors, non-governmental organisations and private corporations have increasingly argued that people need to be paid for ‘saving nature’, i.e. to make nature conservation more economically viable than other land uses to achieve sustainable development objectives.

Financial rewards for ‘saving nature’
As a result, new markets and financing instruments have been designed that considerably re-organise the ownership, access and control over natural resources in the Global South. The most significant of these new mechanisms is REDD+, a global initiative that aims to mitigate climate change by financially rewarding forest owners in developing countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation; and for enhancing forest carbon stocks through sustainable forest management and conservation.

The REDD+ mechanism has generated unprecedented political support and financial funds for the forest-development sector in developing countries, resulting in the mobilisation of around USD10 billion of international funding in the 2000s and setting in motion a host of multi- and bilateral readiness programmes and demonstration projects across Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Tanzania has been an important beneficiary of REDD+ initiatives because of its vast forest resources (35 million hectares), high deforestation rates (1.1% of forest size per year) and large poor rural population dependent on forest resources for their livelihoods.

Project in action
We conducted empirical research in two case study villages in the Lindi region of Tanzania in 2011/2012, employing qualitative research methods (document analysis, participant observation, focus group discussion and 101 semi-structured interviews) to examine the project implementation process, local politics and livelihood outcomes of one REDD+ initiative, ‘Making REDD Work for Communities and Forest Conservation in Tanzania’.

The REDD+ project is a five-year partnership launched in September 2009, which aims to reduce more than 110 000 t of carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in Tanzania in ways that provide direct and equitable incentives to rural communities to conserve and manage forests sustainably.

To generate equitable benefits from the sale of carbon credits, the project established community-based forest management in the villages. Biodiversity and community development were to become important co-benefits of the forest-conservation project, which received USD 5.9 million in funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Government of Norway. The objective of the project was to sell carbon credits to the voluntary carbon market, and in the longer view via the official REDD+ finance mechanisms.

The gap between policy and practice: some unforeseen drawbacks of the project
Our research showed that project proponents genuinely committed to social safeguards, good governance principles and obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of the villagers to maximise local ownership and development benefits from the REDD+ intervention. However, we argue that their noble efforts of the project proponents were inevitably shaped by the on-the-ground historical political, social and economic context of the villages.

This meant that despite rigorously following good governance procedures and standards, the launch and implementation of the REDD+ project was influenced by inadequate information flows, unequal power relations, systemic poverty and social inequalities. While project developers undertook serious efforts to redress these issues, participant observation and interviews revealed the continuous challenges around fostering equal participation and democratic governance in a deprived rural context.

We also analysed the effects of the REDD+ mechanism on local tenure arrangements and livelihoods. REDD+ and other market-based conservation mechanisms rely on clear formal property rights and governance arrangements to enable the selling of ‘ecosystem services’ (e.g. carbon credits) from rural villagers to international buyers. Because land tenure in the rural villages was largely guided by customary arrangements, the REDD+ project considerably changed the access to and control over forest resources.

The project resulted in new demarcations of village and forest lands, as well as new management plans and by-laws, which imposed restrictions on villagers in the name of global climate change mitigation. This affected residents living in the villages, whose rights to cultivate farms in the forest were restricted, as well as farmers of neighbouring villages, whose previously tolerated activities were deemed illegal.

The replacement of customary arrangements with formally enshrined rules and regulations created a new understanding of boundaries, rights, community and property, which changed the relations between people and forests, as well as between people themselves.

While carbon payments were intended to compensate villagers for their incurred losses, they were small in amount and did not take into account different opportunity costs of villagers, leaving some of them with higher losses than others. In addition, the carbon payments were distributed only to residents who were formally registered in the villages, which meant that farmers, who previously accessed the forest on customary terms, were not compensated.

Finding more positive and equitable methods of ‘saving nature’
While our study examined the REDD+ mechanism specifically in the context of Tanzania, its findings offer valuable insights to conservation-development initiatives in South Africa and elsewhere. It highlighted the importance of acknowledging the gap between policy and practice of market-based conservation and showed empirically how pro-poor measures and approaches become reshaped by the actual social, economic and political conditions in remote rural contexts.

We also demonstrated how the reliance of market-based conservation on formal tenure rights and governance institutions conflicted with customary land use arrangements, which affected ownership and access to forest resources, creating new winners and losers within and between communities.

While social safeguard processes have been highly promoted as a way to mitigate any potential negative impacts on local people, our study confirms that their implementation lags behind in practice, which has also been documented in other areas across the South, for instance in the context of Madagascar by Professor Mahesh Poudyal and her colleagues from Bangor University and Université d’Antananarivo.

Based on our findings we call for an explicit social and environmental justice assessment grounded in a thorough analysis of local livelihoods to achieve more positive and equitable outcomes from the commercialisation of nature conservation.

Authors: Dr Andreas Scheba, Research Specialist, Economic Performance and Development programme, HSRC.

This article is based on Scheba, A, Rakotonarivo, O.S. (2016). Territorialising REDD+: Conflicts over market-based forest conservation in Lindi, Tanzania. Land Use Policy. Vol. 57. pp 625-637.