Norwegian climate policy affects the poorest

The below post is a translation of a Norwegian opinion piece that has been printed in the largest newspaper in Norway, Aftenposten.

Written by  Hanne Svarstad and Tor A. Benjaminsen

Many are aware that global climate change is likely to hit poor people the hardest. Few, on the other hand, know that there are measures to mitigate climate change in the Global South that today are implemented to the detriment of poor people. Even fewer are aware of Norway’s central role.

This takes place in an extensive enterprise in which oil-rich Norway masquerades itself as a global climate saviour with no mention of its own contributions to climate change.

My heart hurts when I hear the name of that project. If you mention it again, I’ll leave! “

These are the words of a woman we interviewed in a village in the Kondoa district of Tanzania. The project she refers to is funded by the Norwegian Climate and Forest Initiative, which is the Norwegian contribution to REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).

The venture was initiated by the Stoltenberg government in 2007, and continued by the Solberg government since 2013. Its purpose is to reduce CO₂ emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.

Kondoa Tanzania
Kondoa, Tanzania. Photo: Hanne Svarstad

Lost livelihoods

Norway has so far spent about 3 billion USD on REDD, and played a leading role in recruiting other developed countries and international organizations to the programme.

The core of the project in Kondoa is the introduction of strict measures to protect forests. A forest-covered ridge winds through this arid region. Surrounding the forest live communities of smallholder farmers, struggling to survive on their modest plots, often with a few livestock. A large proportion of the population lives below or close to the absolute poverty threshold. Some years there is drought, making conditions particularly difficult.

Forest conservation has led to people losing the opportunity to make use of renewable resources in the forest for their daily survival. A combination of total bans and hefty fees was introduced for grazing cattle and collecting firewood, amongst other things.

Political unity and media praise

There has always been bipartisan agreement on REDD in Norway. The initiative is supported by NGOs, and the media has, on the whole, given it nothing but praise.

International Cost Effectiveness’ became a main principle of Norwegian climate policy in the early 1990s, and has since been subscribed to by the country’s changing governments. Hence, climate mitigation in ‘low-cost’ countries is considered far more cost-effective than domestic measures in Norway. Covered with such a proverbial fig leaf, Norway has been able to continue pretty much unchallenged with its oil production, whilst its authorities present the country with a green profile, both at home and abroad.

REDD is the recent contribution to this policy. The low costs of the initiative are due not only to the fact that wages are low in developing countries, but also the fact that many of those affected by the measures are not compensated for lost income.

Compensation fabrication

Nine pilot projects were launched in Tanzania in 2010. Some of them went awry because of corruption. We have been following the developments in Kondoa during the five-year implementation of the REDD project there, and up to the present day.

The Norwegian authorities have repeatedly presented this project as an example of how successful REDD is in terms of community benefits. It has been claimed that the lost access of local people to forest resources has been compensated for, and even alleged that the project has led to poverty reduction.

In this case, an agricultural component has been particularly highlighted. On websites and glossy brochures, those behind the project proudly report an eight-fold increase in maize production. This is such a gross exaggeration that agricultural experts dismiss it as fantasy.

In order to increase crop yields, the smallholders must buy expensive pesticides, fertilisers and seeds. Many find this strategy too risky, because of the ​​low and unstable rainfall in the area.

Today, there are few lasting positive results that can be traced back to the project, and many of those living in the villages around the protected forest express bitterness over promises that have not been kept. 

Deterioration in living conditions

It was envisaged that local people in the district would gain annual revenues from the sale of carbon credits on international markets. Lack of certification for such sales from the Kondoa forests prevented this from happening, and the international sale of carbon credits from forestry has, anyway, proven to be no goldmine.

In Kondoa, we have seen that women have been particularly affected by REDD due to restrictions on gathering wood for cooking. This finding is in line with a study from REDD villages in six tropical countries, in which women state that their living conditions have deteriorated since the implementation of the initiative.

Norwegian parliamentarians visiting Tanzania have twice been informed about REDD at meetings organised by the Embassy of Norway. They were provided with presentations about the Kondoa project as a particularly successful example of how REDD produces community benefits. One of us was in Tanzania at the time of one of these meetings, and asked the embassy for permission to attend as an observer. The request was declined. The usual success story could thus be fed to the politicians without fear of being challenged by a researcher.

REDD displaces the poor and vulnerable

Our study of this REDD project also reveals a classic problem in aid: high goals combined with unrealistic budgets and too little time for meaningful implementation. After 60 years of experience in Norwegian aid, why this lack of learning from basic mistakes?

International principles have been developed to ensure the cooperation of indigenous peoples and members of local communities in REDD initiatives. These principles do not, however, provide clear rights, and research from different countries provides a number of examples in which these principles are not followed.

Today, there is a tendency for smallholders, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers in the Global South to be displaced by large agricultural investments, conservation and climate mitigation such as REDD. The situation of these vulnerable groups should be strengthened instead of further weakened. Such an about-turn in development aid strategy is essential for stability and security, poverty reduction, and the sustainable management of natural resources and climate.

In Norway, 10 years of REDD is now celebrated. We suggest instead that it is due time that politicians, media and NGOs put a critical spotlight on the implementation of the Norwegian REDD program. The approach of ‘climate colonialism’ should be ended, and the poor who have been affected by it should be compensated.

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