REDD+ in Nigeria’s Last Rainforest The Rise and Fall of a (Not So) Great Idea

In 2011, Nigeria officially became a beneficiary of the environmental initiative, REDD+. Here’s how a 10-billion-dollar global initiative to save Nigeria’s rainforests failed.

An ambitious climate change mitigation programme could have helped to conserve Nigeria’s last rainforest. The Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation programme (REDD+) is a US$ 10 billion global initiative underway in more than 65 developing countries, including Nigeria. Since 2011, REDD+ has deployed more than US$ 7.6 million to Nigeria. But its haphazard implementation offers broad lessons about how developing countries should respond to climate change and other escalating environmental challenges. 

REDD+: An Ambitious Global Scheme

REDD+ seeks to mobilize international finance from developed to developing countries to conserve the latter’s forests and, thus, increase the carbon dioxide absorbed and stored in those forests against a set baseline. This is based on evidence that global deforestation and land-use changes account for about a quarter of global carbon emissions. Countries can make additional gains by planting new forests or restoring formerly forested areas. 

Across the world, political leaders, international organizations, civil society groups and analysts praised REDD+ as a relatively cheap and more natural way to address global emissions. The initiative received praise as a win-win undertaking that could conserve tropical forests, reduce emissions and conserve biodiversity. By providing significant climate finance, REDD+ could help to address rural poverty and fund green development pathways in developing countries. REDD+ is overseen by international institutions including the World Bank, the United Nations, Western development agencies, international NGOs such as Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund, and governments of developing countries.

Nigeria formally began the REDD+ process in 2011, when its first national REDD+ proposal to the UN-REDD programme was approved. That year, Nigeria received a US$4 million REDD+ readiness grant from the UNREDD , plus US$3.6 million from the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility; and further technical as well as financial support from the California-led Governors’ Climate and Forest Task Force. These early financial transfers were intended to help Nigeria reach further stages where the country could attract even greater amounts of climate finance.

REDD+ quickly gained momentum in Cross River due to Liyel Imoke, then the state’s governor. Imoke threw his full political weight behind the initiative and led the Nigerian delegation at various REDD+ summits and international climate change meetings. Government and civil society proponents in Cross River thought that REDD+ would help to conserve the last remaining stretch of Nigeria’s rainforest in Cross River—a valuable part of the Guinean forests global biodiversity hotspot that boasts unique biodiversity and cultural diversity. 

REDD+ was also embraced by the government of Cross River State and by civil society actors because it was thought to be a crucial tool in attracting much needed finance to Cross River. Then-governor, Liyel Imoke, called for ‘creative funding’ to fix the state’s bleak financial situation, with international finance from REDD+ potentially playing a central part. A key goal of Nigeria’s REDD+ proposal to the UN was ‘enhancing sustainable community livelihoods’ by funding sustainable alternatives to forestry and farm based activities. According to official national statistics, 70 per cent of Cross River’s population is considered poor or very poor, and the majority rely on the forest economy to survive. Yet the REDD+ proposal considered much of the local livelihood activity to be the primary driver of deforestation in Cross River.

Pursuing REDD+ Readiness in Cross River

At the start of the scheme, REDD+ proponents in Cross River set out to stop forest exploitation. A 2008 state-wide ban on all logging was initially supposed to last for two years, but was extended indefinitely until May 2015, when a new government took charge. A key objective of the ban was to demonstrate strong political will to international REDD+ funders and thus justify continued REDD+ funding. As the Cross River State Forestry Commission was seen as too weak to effectively protect the forest, a militarized anti-deforestation task force was established, composed of government officials, conservation NGO representatives, police, civil defence and armed forces officers. 

The anti-logging ban prohibited a significant proportion of forest use, including virtually all timber extraction, processing, transportation and marketing. But the task force was often overly stringent in its enforcement, and by targeting the production of non-timber forest products such as chewing stick, cattle stick and small game, the entire forest economy was largely criminalized. This hard-line approach was made easy by a pernicious colonial-era clause in article 37 of the Cross River State forest law, which tasks those accused of forest offences to prove their innocence. This legislation contradicts other Nigerian laws and article eleven of the UN declaration of human rights, which presupposes the innocence of the accused unless they are proven guilty in court.

REDD+’s proponents in Cross River State—including the governor, top state executives, NGO champions and the new board of the forestry commission—also set out to create an institutional framework for REDD+ in the state, starting with the repeal of the forest law in 2010. These proponents also went about structuring the forestry commission to allow new members, mostly from NGOs, to join the commission’s board which had itself been given new powers. The objectives and operational styles of the commission were revised to better fit REDD+ ambitions, and the state timber revenue target was removed. Official focus shifted from sustainable forest use to strict conservation, and from fast-growing species that met public demand for timber and fuel to indigenous species, which often take longer to mature and are more difficult to regenerate. Some forestry commission units were revamped based on their relevance for the new REDD+ regime of carbon forestry.

A special REDD+ unit, mainly composed of NGO representatives, was also set up. Through its work, early REDD+ implementation became focused on stakeholder and community engagement through training and workshops, and trial of schemes such as a ‘loyalty payment’ to replace community timber royalties.

Impacts of REDD+ in Cross River

Shockingly, despite the state-wide ban, under REDD+, deforestation actually surged significantly reaching a 14-year peak in 2014. Foresters highlighted a rise in illegal logging by criminal networks, which were sometimes abetted by the anti-deforestation taskforce. Indeed, cases of corrupt dealing within the anti-deforestation task force have been widely reported in Nigerian newspapers. But two factors have perhaps been most responsible for the unusually high deforestation rate under REDD+. 

Firstly, REDD+ ignored the deforestation that was being carried out to establish industrial farms and plantations across Cross River, even though this type of deforestation has had a far more significant impact in the state. Secondly, since the task force was unable to stop actual logging in the forest, it relied on tip-offs to seize illegal timber and clamp down on timber markets, meaning that in effect deforestation continued, only now under the control of the task force.

Attempts to restructure and strengthen the forestry commission also ironically had the unintended impact of further weakening it. REDD+ revamped a few units of the forestry commission and equipped few individuals with new skills and tools for carbon estimation and remote sensing. But the overwhelming majority of foresters considered the whole restructuring process to be an ill-thought through imposition that subsumed all forestry issues under the singular pursuit of REDD+. Many foresters argue that REDD+ has pitted a carbon forestry bureaucracy (made up mostly of former NGO actors) against the traditional forestry bureaucracy, with the latter keen to defend legitimate public access to the wide range of goods and services that the forest provides.

REDD+ and the practices that accompanied it precipitated some unsavoury consequences for the wider public in Cross River. Many of these negative impacts had been anticipated by Nigerian NGOs. For instance, there was a sharp increase in the price of wood. Timber rose to cost three times more in Cross River than in neighbouring states, as these states became the destination for illegally sourced Cross River timber at risk of confiscation by the task force in the state. The trade and transportation of wood became more difficult. There were reports of timber businesses going bankrupt, and wood artisans returning to their villages to resort to farming. Many decried the hardship to families and communities brought by these restrictions on wood-based enterprise, and the prohibition placed on timber royalties and non-timber forest product fees hitherto received by communities. At least one business owner was reported to have committed suicide. Through litigation, petitions and various forms of protests, local communities also challenged the violence of the anti-deforestation task force. 

A Nigerian Problem or a General Trend? 

While some uniquely Nigerian factors contributed to how REDD+ played out in the country, the growing body of evidence suggests that many of the patterns observed in Nigeria were similar to those elsewhere. Across many REDD+ countries including Ghana, DR Congo, Tanzania and Mexico, national-level deforestation continues to rise in spite of the scheme. In DR Congo and Tanzania, foreign and local NGOs dominate the implementation of REDD+. In Indonesia REDD+ led to tensions between government bureaucracies. 

Across many REDD+ countries, sub-national governments have spent more than they have received in green finance; while consultants, NGOs and international institutions have, so far, received the bulk of REDD+ funds. There have even been reports of violent conflict and human rights abuses across many REDD+ sites. Promised improvements to local livelihoods and well-being have largely failed to manifest to any meaningful degree. In short, the outcomes of REDD+ have been evaluated as generally poor even by scholars based in institutions with strong sympathies for the scheme. In Latin American countries like Brazil, where more positive results have been reported, these have been in areas with strong formalized local rights over forests, and in countries where REDD+ was made to fit into existing, well-established social and environmental policy frameworks.

Lessons from REDD+

Cross River State’s commitment to REDD+ declined after the election of a new governor, Ben Ayade, in May 2015. Residual structures were placed within the forestry commission’s direct control, and outgoing governor, Liyel Imoke, expressed regret over REDD+ a few days before handing over power. A newspaper reported that, ‘Mr Imoke told shocked officials that REDD+ did not return on investment’.

REDD+ processes seem to have peaked in Cross River as recent activities show limited vigour. But this initiative is only one of the myriad fashionable climate change solutions that appear appealing in theory but are unlikely to be effective in practice. In hindsight, REDD+ was sold to countries like Nigeria as a win-win opportunity, despite being fundamentally flawed and riddled with unresolved technical difficulties and social challenges. The urgency of climate change will be used to justify many more such initiatives regardless of their inherent merit and socio-ecological effectiveness. Given the current vulnerabilities of many in developing countries to climate change impacts, governments would do well to discard policies that are likely to undermine the adaptive capacity and current economic and social wellbeing of populations, especially when such policies are peddled with promises that can easily be proven empty.

Forest conservation is one of the few sectors in Nigeria where colonial legacy still holds sway with incredible effect. The colonial influence on legislation means that forested land can be arbitrarily controlled by the government. It also explains some of the inconsistencies between forest laws and other national and international laws. 

The forestry sector needs to bring forest legislation and practice up to date for a democratic Nigeria in the 21st century. Firstly, forest laws and practice need to unleash the potential for this sector to support innovative, prosperous and sustainable economies for the benefit of the Nigerian public. Secondly, the Cross River State forest law, the national forest policy and the Nigerian Land Use Act (to which the preceding two defer) need to be reshaped to recognize that community-owned forests have been shown to produce more effective conservation outcomes and greater social benefits. This result is more pronounced, where communities have formal forest ownership rights that are defendable in the court of law, and the autonomy to make and enforce local forest rules. An example is Ekuri in Cross River, which is internationally recognized for its excellent conservation and community development efforts.

Above all, actors across the state-civil society divide in the forestry sector need a sincere debate and a clear conception of what constitutes the public good for Nigeria. It is on this basis that effective and equitable solutions can be collectively pursued in the face of escalating environmental challenges

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