Opinion - Simon Counsell
Norway’s International Forest and Climate Initiative – 10 years of kissing frogs
The organisers of the Oslo Redd conference are profiling a little Tanzanian frog that has been named after Norway, apparently in thanks for ten years of Norwegian climate forest efforts. The Executive Director of Rainforest Foundation UK Simon Counsell takes a more sobre look at the ten-year-old initiative.
Tanzania's Norway frog
Beneath a picture of a tropical frog, the Norwegian Facebook page dedicated to this week’s Oslo ‘REDD Exchange’ meeting – a biennial congregation of the supporters and beneficiaries of the Norwegian International Climate and Forests Initiative – tells us: “In the tropical forest in Tanzania lives a little frog which is named after Norway. Why Norway? It is a thank you for the Norwegian effort to protect tropical forests the world over.” This particular frog is hopefully not suffering from the deadly chytrid fungus, a plague affecting amphibians which has already wiped out 200 species worldwide. A frog-themed art installation created by Ståle Sørensen and street artist Peacetu will perhaps cheer NICFI’s supplicants, who increasingly worry, for good reason, that Norway’s REDD programme is looking distinctly mouldy round the edges, and possibly facing extinction.
The Facebook page also tells us that “Saving the tropical forest represents one-third of the solution to climate challenges.” The problem for NICFI is that, as it celebrates its tenth year of operation, and almost USD 3 billion in expenditure, it has come nowhere close to saving one-third of global carbon emissions. In fact a true estimate of any demonstrable carbon savings (which, strangely, has never been calculated) would probably struggle to find reductions amounting to one-third of one per cent of global emissions. Norway’s bilateral REDD programmes have, almost without exception, run into insurmountable problems, obstacles and failures, whilst the multilateral schemes it has backed, such as the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, have incurred huge overhead costs whilst preventing no carbon emissions whatsoever.
The earliest of the large country-to-country programmes – in Brazil – has probably been the least troubled, but it has nevertheless been of questionable value in protecting rainforests. Norway’s Letter of Intent with Brazil was signed in 2008, but REDD funding eventually totalling USD 1 billion disbursed through the Brazilian Development Bank’s Amazon Fund, only really started in 2010. In the seven years preceding this REDD programme, the Brazilian government had slashed deforestation, through better monitoring and enforcement, from a catastrophic 28,000 square kilometres per year to around 7,000. Since Norway’s funding began, that figure has barely budged. Disbursements from the Amazon Fund were so slow in the early years that NICFI had to seek a special parliamentary dispensation to allow it to continue providing money to Brazil even though previous funds remained unspent.
The second billion dollar REDD agreement, signed with Indonesia in 2010, soon hit the buffers of vested interest, corruption, corporate power, and this simple fact: rainforest land is worth an awful lot more cut down and turned into palm oil plantations than Norway could ever compensate for. In the five years that followed, Indonesia lost nearly 10 million hectares of tree cover. In 2016, Norway’s then climate and environment minister, Vidar Helgesen, was forced to concede: “We would obviously have hoped things would have progressed more quickly. We haven’t seen actual progress in reducing deforestation.”
NICFI’s bilateral programme in Guyana foundered after only three years, when the recipient government failed to generate any convincing projects on which to spend Norway’s REDD largesse, and was then voted out of office. The new government removed the NICFI-backed national ‘Low Carbon Development Strategy’ (which had always been a work of pure fiction anyway), from the national budget and cancelled the largest of the projects which Norway wanted - a highly uneconomical, rainforest-destroying, hydroelectric dam. Most of the remaining Norwegian money is still sitting in an Inter-American Development Bank account.
In Tanzania, an USD 83 million programme, mostly funded through local conservation NGOs, ground to a halt in 2013, after one of the projects collapsed due to corruption. Subsequently, a raft of peer-reviewed research has shown that another of the Norway-funded projects had led to violent evictions of villagers, another made poor rural people worse off whilst concentrating wealth and power in the hands of local elites, and yet another found that local democratic institutions had been seriously undermined. Further studies questioned the sustainability of REDD in Tanzania, and criticised the false “success narrative” of Norway’s own reporting on its projects.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Norway’s USD 200 million REDD programme, financed through its Central Africa Forest Initiative (CAFI), was the object of serious criticism from local and international organisations even from the design stage. It has been relentlessly criticised ever since, not only for failing to tackle the underlying drivers of deforestation, but also for potentially worsening matters by promoting industrial-scale logging in the country’s largely unspoilt forests. Disbursements are currently suspended due to the actions of a law-breaking Minister for the Environment (who has also withdrawn from a key government REDD committee) and seem unlikely to be resumed any time soon.
If the bilateral programmes have mostly struggled, those through multilateral agencies such as the World Bank have barely grown into developed programmes, let alone delivered results. Ten years after its establishment, for example, the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), to which Norway has committed over USD 400 million, has yet to sign any forest carbon ‘purchase agreements’. Even the World Bank does not dispute that, to date, no single gram of forest carbon has been saved.
In the re-telling of a Grimm’s fairytale, a princess has to kiss a frog for it to turn it into a handsome prince. ‘Kissing frogs’ has become a metaphor for engaging a lot of inappropriate suitors in the vain hope that one of them will be the making of a beautiful relationship. In 2007, Lars Løvold, then Director of Rainforest Foundation Norway and an early strong proponent of Norwegian REDD, argued that with the expenditure of NOK 1 billion per year, around 700 million tonnes of greenhouse gases could be saved. As it turned out, even more Norwegian money was committed, and much spent, but virtually no emissions have been prevented. A lot of frogs have been kissed by NICFI in the last ten years but, as yet, none of them has turned into a prince.
Simon Counsell is Executive Director of Rainforest Foundation UK