Free, prior and informed consent in REDD+, by Isilda Nhantumbo

“The government took our forest land to create a forest reserve and the same government confiscated our land for planting trees. All that is left is unproductive savannah,” said a community representative speaking during a meeting in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The meeting was part of a field trip that took place during the second in a series of dialogues on free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) organised by The Forests Dialogue – an initiative that brings together people from different sectors and viewpoints to discuss and find solutions to some of the most difficult challenges facing the world’s forests.

The aim of this dialogue was to see how obtaining the free prior, and informed consent of communities could be applied to REDD+, a scheme that aims to compensate communities for keeping their tropical forests intact or for reducing the scale of deforestation.

Members of the Kifulu community were speaking under a tree by a roadside, near the Luki National Reserve, in the south west Democratic Republic of Congo. Established in 1937, the Luki National Reserve is split into three parts: a 6,816 hectare core biodiversity conservation zone, a 5,216 hectare buffer zone and nearly 21,000 hectares where more than 50 communities – including the Kifulu – use the resources to help support their way of living.

Chairs were lined up for the visitors, women and men took part in the meeting and, unusually, the chief sat among the community members. The age of the participants ranged from young children to the elderly.

I was not surprised by the community representative’s comment because the park was set up in the 1930s when community consultation was deemed unnecessary for establishing protected areas. At that time, conserving biodiversity was the prime objective and it was thought that people could even be resettled if necessary to achieve that aim.

These days community consultation is generally taken as part and parcel of decision-making on conservation, natural resources management, and development processes at a local level, but this only started in the late seventies and early eighties as a result of strong advocacy by civil society.

FPIC is fundamental to giving local communities, indigenous groups and other marginalized people, an opportunity to make an informed decision about what REDD+ is and how it might affect them. The underlying assumption is that they do hold rights over the resources on which decisions are to be made. The guidelines for developing a REDD+ readiness preparation proposal (RPP) emphasise the need to consult on all aspects and stages of development of the proposal document.

So what did the people of Kifulu think was most important about being consulted on REDD+ and on how their land is used?

Boundaries and land tenure

Clarity over land tenure and boundaries of community lands is a key element in deciding who to consult and in avoiding conflict over competing claims. It is also essential to determine who is entitled to benefits or incentives as a result of changes in land use and emissions reduced.

With this in mind, I asked what the boundaries of the Kifulu community are, that is, the land they can lay claim to. The community representative said, “Our forefathers did not keep records.”

I was expecting to be told of landmarks including rivers and other reference points defining the boundaries of the communities. Interestingly, the answer rightly suggested that recorded (mapped and registered) boundaries are necessary to determine the legal status of the area and allow negotiation with government and private companies who might wish to use the land in other ways (e.g. conservation, logging, mining, infrastructure development), including REDD+.

Often it is the lack of records that makes communities vulnerable and land tenure systems weak. It affects the claim of communities to land, forests, carbon, and consequently, on benefit distribution.

Livelihoods and benefit-sharing

Unsurprisingly, a topic which came up repeatedly was that of livelihoods and how the community depended on the forest:

“We have no access to forest land so that we can produce our crops; family plots are becoming smaller as it is subdivided.”

“Firewood and charcoal are important sources of income for us, besides selling these products we also use firewood to produce the bricks we need for constructing our houses.”

“Long time ago, one of the companies at least gave some benefits such as providing wood to make the coffins to bury our dead, now we do not have anything.”

These remarks highlight the need to address the underlying causes of drivers of deforestation and the ways in which communities will benefit from saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to REDD.

Including women and marginalised groups

Communities are not homogenous. Cultural norms define gender equity and participation in decision-making, it is important to identify mechanisms to reach out to the different groups within the community. In our meeting, Kifulu’s women tried to make their voices heard:

“We women would like to have schools for our children, churches and clinics.”

“The community have many widows, we need support.”

“Men make all decisions.”

….the men in the group reacted angrily to this last point and the woman changed her discourse in an apparent effort to say what the men in the room expected and not what she wanted to say. Which brings us to the question: how can conflicting voices within the community be captured and influence decisions?

Why FPIC in REDD+ needs to go beyond a simple right to say ‘no’

Concerns raised by the people in Kifulu, and echoed in other communities across the world, show why when we talk about FPIC in the context of REDD+ it should not only be about asking whether or not people accept proposals.

It is about making sure that the people whose lands are affected are consulted even if they hold no legal records.

It is about identifying, together with the community, livelihood opportunities that contribute to reducing deforestation and emissions.

It is about providing local communities with the information they need to evaluate the trade-offs and potential benefits associated with the response ‘no’ or ‘yes’.

It is also about making sure that no-one is marginalised within a community and everyone has a voice.

The right to say ‘no’ embedded in the FPIC concept is as important as knowing the pro and cons of doing so, the costs and benefits as well as alternatives to REDD+.

Isilda Nhantumbo is a senior researcher in the Natural Resources Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development and contributed this blog to the IIED’s Forests Dialogue series on free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).

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