BLOG | REDD+, militarization and the future of carbon forestry

Adeniyi Asiyanbi: REDD+ programme is driving a resurgence of fortress conservation and a deepening militarisation of the forest.

Dr Adeniyi Asiyanbi holds the Anniversary Postdoctoral Fellow in Global Environmental Politics in the Politics Department, University of Sheffield, and is BIOSEC Fellow. His current research explores the emergent global politics of forest-based climate change mitigation.


The market optimism that incentivised tropical forest conservation can address global climate change has been put to the test globally. REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation plus conserving and enhancing forest carbon stocks, and sustainably managing  forests), an archetype of these forest-based climate mitigation schemes, has been championed by the United Nations, the World Bank and an array of international development and conservation actors who consider it a quick and cheap way to reduce emissions, stimulate a global carbon market and deliver additional benefits of biodiversity conservation, improved forest governance and enhanced local livelihoods across tropical countries.

A decade on, it is now widely acknowledged that these schemes have failed to deliver on their promise. Scientists at the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and data from globalforestwatch show that deforestation rates are increasing rather than decreasing in many REDD+ countries, in spite of a 6-billion-dollar REDD+ investment. Instead of anticipated benefits, forest communities and governments of tropical countries are bearing the cost of these projects. Analysts continue to ask: is it time “to cut our losses and move on”? Not only is there still much to analyse and learn from the logics and impacts of REDD+, emergent global environmental imperatives warrant that we reconsider the future of REDD+.

Current understanding of the logics and impacts of REDD+ is partly limited by the late commencement of formal implementation of the project across most sites. Also limiting is the tendency among analysts to analyse REDD+ as a discrete policy-programme whose impacts can be understood mainly through formal outcome checklists, global forest observatories and standardized cross-national surveys. Discussions over the logics of REDD+ are also sometimes too narrowly focused on hypothetical debates over market attributes. All these mean that there is still scope to deepen analysis of the complex articulation of the scheme with geographical, historical and socio-political dynamics in locales, and how this articulation reworks old and creates new structures, practices and discourses with profound effects. For instance, a concerning trend which is less understood is how REDD+ is driving a resurgence of fortress conservation and a deepening militarisation of the forest.

Photo: Paris Climate Conference

Securing and militarising carbon forests

A fundamental requirement for REDD+ is a clear and secure forest and land tenure. This entails clear ownership claims and physical protection of REDD+ forests from exploitation. This requirement is problematic not only because it perversely sets as a precondition the very outcome being sought through incentivisation, but also because existing tenure regimes in most tropical countries are so complex that they defy simple, ‘silver-bullet’ solutions. What is more worrying is that this requirement creates an undue sense of urgency and responsibility that warrants default government control of forests and the use of exceptional and coercive measures such moratoria, blanket bans, stiffer law enforcement, intense surveillance and state violence to secure REDD+ forests. Securing forests for REDD+ is also connected to efforts to combat organised criminal networks, international terrorism and insurgency, as high-level reports including those by UNEP and INTERPOL emphasise the risk posed to REDD+ by timber and charcoal-based threat finance and organised forest crimes. This is part of a wider turn in conservation practice where security objectives are being increasingly aligned with forest and biodiversity conservation. New security and law enforcement alliances are thus emerging around REDD+. For instance, Project LEAF (Law Enforcement Assistance to Forests) is one of such partnerships among REDD+ partners, INTERPOL  and UNEP, aimed at coordinating and strengthening international and national law enforcement around forest crimes, thereby protecting international investment in REDD+. Carbon forestry is thus increasingly associated with tougher law enforcement, sophisticated surveillance and the use of military personnel and logics in forest policing, part of what Leach and Scoones described as “fortress carbon”.

On the ground, militarisation is often accompanied by other processes that equally call for careful analyses. An important example is legal restructuring which lends an appearance of legality and durability to violent enforcement practices. In Nigeria’s REDD+ for instance, the repeal of the forestry law opened up responsibility for forest policing which hitherto had been a preserve of foresters. This has not only allowed groups of sometimes unaccountable actors – including conservation NGOs, private security operatives and the military – to be involved in forest policing, it has also fostered indiscriminate criminalisation of forest exploitation including basic livelihood activities that pose no threat to REDD+. Militarisation thus often goes hand in hand with criminalisation of local resource use. Yet, perversely, the forest surveillance machinery may also enlist local people as paid informants, as is the case of Nigeria. This is not the kind of new livelihood opportunity it appears to be on the surface, it is a highly precarious and dangerous form of livelihood that puts local people at risk.

More remarkable is the burden of forest protection borne by forest communities, some of whom have been forcibly removed or systematically excluded from forests and farmlands to create space for REDD+ as various studies reports.1,2,3,4 Long-standing forest-based economies are being undermined, and the gains of devolved forest governance over the last few decades are being whittled away. And the persistence of deforestation points to the counter-productive effect of militarised protectionism. It also reveals its underlying contradiction: a great deal of deforestation and illegal logging is perpetrated or aided through decisive governments’ policies and by corrupt government officials and elites, often including anti-deforestation squads and the military. The REDD+ exceptionalism on which forest militarisation thrives also forecloses spaces of accountability thereby aiding illegality. Given these outcomes, one then wonders what the future holds for REDD+.

Photo: Cross River, Nigeria

The future of REDD+

The Sustainable Development Goals, the New York Declaration on Forests and the Paris Agreement collectively represent a new imperative for action on climate and forests. Specifically, the Paris Agreement recognises the importance of REDD+ which strongly features in the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) of several countries. REDD+ itself is formally in its third and final phase which continues till 2020. These developments suggest that carbon forestry will continue to be central to the immediate future of climate mitigation and forest conservation. So what do these new imperatives means for REDD+ and its global governance? How will emergent global governance of REDD+ reconcile its failing with the new imperatives? What hope is there for the new international commitments that rely on REDD+ and carbon forestry? These questions become an important focus of enquiry. So too are new theoretical possibilities that shed fresh light on the future of forest-based climate change mitigation as an arena for global environmental governance. My current research seeks to address some of these questions.

To contact Niyi baout his research, please email

Feature image: photo credit Andy, ATF.