Neoliberal conservation, REDD+ and ‘inclusive exclusions’

by Andreas Scheba, Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Neoliberal conservation, generally critiqued for excluding local populations from the governance and use of nature, is often much more inclusive than it has been acknowledged. However, does this mean we need to stop worrying? Unfortunately, I think the answer is “no”. Here is why.

Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks and sustainable forest management (REDD+) is a global mechanism, negotiated under the UNFCCC, which pays forest owners in the Global South for carbon saved or not emitted into the atmosphere.

Critical scholars have depicted REDD+ as a form of neoliberal conservation, which allows private and state capital to accumulate surplus from the commodification of forest carbon, resulting in local exclusions from crucial livelihood activities.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that REDD+ rarely resembles the simple ‘green grabbing’ or ‘accumulation by dispossession’ logic, as suggested by these critics. While cases of forceful evictions and (il)legal dispossessions in the context of REDD+ have certainly occurred, and should not be taken lightly, they appear to be far less than many had expected to see.

Taking criticism on board

In contrast, over the years REDD+ has consciously embraced the language of inclusive community development, participatory governance, rights, safeguards, free, prior and informed consent, and so on. Project proponents appear to have taken criticism on board and started many efforts to minimise harm and create win-win solutions.

It is believed that in finding the right institutional framework they can make markets in conservation work for the poor. In a lot of cases, this ‘good governance’ agenda of REDD+ is not just plain talk.

In my own research in the South-eastern part of Tanzania (PDF) I encountered REDD+ projects that were primarily started to engage communities in locally beneficial forest conservation, aiming to reduce poverty and facilitate rural development. In examining their projects I realised that serious efforts had been taken to include local communities in the REDD+ process. These efforts comprised action research, participatory assessments, group discussions, stakeholder meetings, scenario planning, stakeholder analysis, participatory planning, participatory forest carbon assessments, etc. The list goes on and on. Safeguards were uphold, consent sought and projects democratically legitimated.

No one can seriously argue that communities were sidelined. They took an active part in enabling the unfolding of REDD, and with it the neoliberalisation of conservation, on the ground.


So does this mean that REDD has learnt to include people rather than excluding them? Were our fears unjustified? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The seemingly inclusive turn of REDD+, and neoliberal conservation in general, is contradictory, unable to prevent the necessary exclusions, which are part of its DNA. In effect, REDD+ always excludes some and includes others. All at the same time.

Through the inclusion of local communities, REDD+ projects change the governance of common forests, which results in new forms of inclusions and exclusions. People with customary access might suddenly find their user rights diminished. Formal ‘communities’ are established who then enjoy a range of development benefits (technology, training, networks, finance, etc). At the same time they lose income from long standing livelihood strategies. New committees and working groups are formed. Older ones are replaced. New forest users and uses are created, others made invalid – leaving people in and outside the community with the task to find alternative income strategies.

In a sense, then, REDD+ does grab forests from people and dispossess them from their livelihoods. But it does so BY including others. Communities are actively included in creating the necessary social exclusions. Yet instead of forcing local forest users directly to give up their land or livelihood strategies, they are made to do so: through power, knowledge and politics. Under today’s good governance agenda green grabbing then functions in a participatory, diffuse and democratic way. It only appears to be different, but in effect (at least to some) it is not.

Andreas Scheba works for the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa. He presented his paper The politics of inclusion/exclusion of REDD+ in Tanzania (PDF) at the Resource Politics 2015 conference.

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