REDD+ in the Congo: Intricacies of making it work

The Democratic Republic of Congo has had a tragic conflict-ridden history. With 68 million people and vast natural resources, DRC could be one of the largest economic engines on the planet. Untapped deposits of raw minerals are estimated to be worth in excess of $24 trillion. Unfortunately, Congo is the poorest country on earth with a annual GDI of only $380 USD per capita, according to World Bank estimates.

Continual conflict and weak governance have led to the systematic destruction and degradation of infrastructure, organizational and human capital. The US State Department currently notes that the Congo remains dangerously unstable.

This describes the sociopolitical environment that Projet Équateur was launched in. Lacking all but the most basic infrastructure, the biggest challenge for a group of environmental scientists working on a REDD+ model is framed in terms of best practices and knowhow, and the willingness to implement those best practices.

“There is a great lack of basic project management skills and organizational accountability as we appreciate it in developed economies it,” says Dr. Glenn Bush, an assistant scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center, and principal investigator for Projet Équateur. “This is often overlooked by the way international assistance delivery models are set up—short term with little regard to measure impacts. The Congo is just now coming out of the short-term emergency assistance mode, and transitioning into a longer term model of engagement with the international community.”

It’s going to be hard transition into these new results based project planning deliverables.

Impact focused

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Forests are often cut to provide a fertile place to grow manioc and corn. Here a banana tree has also been planted – photo by Eva McNamara. More photos may be found on the Projet Équateur website.

In terms of deliverables in general, the majority of time has been invested by other organizations to date in evaluating management targets—did they do what we said they would do at the scale they said they would, for example were 100 farmers trained on time? This was seen as being enough to improve villager’s livelihoods, alleviate poverty, grow the economy, and to make everything sustainable.

“But in international development we don’t look at impact measurement enough. There are always assumptions in the project plan,” says Dr. Bush. Cause and effects are hypothesized, but nobody measures them, or asks if they didn’t occur, why did they not occur. “And we don’t peg assistance to those impacts. So it’s not about training 100 farmers, but it’s a question of whether the income of those 100 farmers increased.”

The important thing about REDD+ is that it is impact focused. All payments are based on exactly how much carbon emissions are reduced. Projects pay for carbon stocks saved, so if a local community wants revenue from REDD+, then they need to be able to prove that their trees are growing, that they deforested less. Until impact is happening at an acceptable level we might consider our efforts unsuccessful, or at least over ambitious. If and when measured as being successful, it can then be replicated elsewhere.

Evaluation also needs to be done—somebody has to check that economic growth was experienced, that families are better off.

“REDD+ is different in that important aspect,” notes Dr. Bush. “It sets up a very clear contract.”

The international community is buying carbon conserved in trees, and important caveats are ensconced in the program about exactly how this can be achieved—biodiversity, and social safeguards are locked in for example.

“I haven’t met a single government functionary in my career in Africa that wasn’t also an entrepreneur, and who didn’t also recognize the value of a contract,” emphasizes Dr. Bush. “It’s a refreshing way for them to do business as well, because they can see that if they conserve their trees, they will get paid.”

For more information about Projet Équateur: projetequateur.org