Abstract

This article presents a critical assessment and examination of the underlying justice norms present in the Norwegian–Ethiopian Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) partnership across international, national, and local scales. Based on a multiscalar justice framework and a critical discourse analysis, we explore the extent to which conceptions of justice align or diverge across and between scales of REDD+ discourse. The findings indicate the dominance of a “utilitarian–neoliberal” nexus at the policy level, underpinning a cost-effective orientation of REDD+, that conflicts with the egalitarian ethics present at the community level in Ethiopia. The research suggests that conflicts in REDD+ design, implementation, and management are likely to be underpinned by, and reflect, fundamental divergences in actors’ norms and ethics. Accordingly, we raise concerns over the extent to which the needs and interests of the forest-dependent communities are to be actively considered and valued by REDD+ policy makers.

Conflict is not between just and unjust solutions but between different conceptions of justice. (Harvey 1996, 398)

REDD+, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, is an international policy framework that has emerged since 2007 as a way of combating climate change through intervening in tropical deforestation and forest degradation. Aligning with a payment for ecosystem services (PES) setup, REDD+ works by rewarding and incentivizing tropical-forested nations (through bilateral and multilateral partnerships) for verified reductions in deforestation and forest degradation levels below a given baseline and for conserving and enhancing their forest stocks (Angelsen 2016).

After having been initially raised by the Coalition for Rainforest Nations in 2005 and being formally integrated into the United Nations’ (UN’s) climate regime at the Bali conference of the parties (CoP 13) in 2007, the REDD+ agenda has gained high-profile and significant momentum in the international policy community as a voluntary and fragmented approach to international greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions (Angelsen 2016; Savaresi 2016). In practice, REDD+ is an evolving assemblage comprising a diverse set of practices and discourses across multiple actors (including intergovernmental institutions, state bodies, international and domestic NGOs, and forest-dependent communities) on multiple scales of governance.

This paper assesses and examines REDD+ discourse through a justice-led and multiscalar analysis. Through a case study of the Norwegian–Ethiopian REDD+ partnership, the aim of this article is to extrapolate the justice norms that underpin and justify REDD+ discourses at community and policy levels. We seek to better understand how conceptions of justice are constructed in REDD+ discourses, the extent to which these synergize across and between multiple actors on multiple scales of governance, and what implications this may have for current and future REDD+ practices.

To begin, we outline and assess the existing research base that has theoretically and empirically engaged with REDD+, justice, and scalar dynamics. Following this, we introduce the multiscalar context of the Norwegian–Ethiopian REDD+ partnership, before explaining the methodological approach adopted in this research. Subsequently, we present an analysis and discussion of the key findings in this research, interpreting the emergence of utilitarianism, “neoliberal conceptions of justice,” and egalitarianism in policy and community discourse in turn. Finally, we draw conclusions on the implications and contributions of the findings.

REDD+, Justice, and Scalar Dynamics

Interest in REDD+ has been driven by an understanding that the initiative can offer synergistic social and environmental benefits in tropical-forested nations (Angelsen 2016; Okereke and Dooley 2010). However, scholars have voiced growing concerns over emerging conflicts between the global REDD+ agenda and the rights, needs, and interests of community-level actors in tropical-forested nations (Paladino 2011; Pokorny et al. 2013; Suiseeya 2016). Such conflicts incorporate a multitude of potential injustices, including insufficient flows of benefits from REDD+ to the forested communities, the shifting of forest governance toward centralized nodes at national and international levels, and the limited participation and decision-making abilities of local-level actors.

Early evidence suggests that REDD+ interventions are unlikely to be in the interests of affected communities without significant shifts in the design and implementation of REDD+ frameworks (Bastakoti and Davidsen 2017; Beymer-Farris and Bassett 2012; Pokorny et al. 2013). While the UN-REDD “safeguards framework” introduced at the Cancun CoP in 2010 is intended to minimize or mitigate against adverse environmental and social impacts of REDD+ activities, scholars largely suggest that it is insufficient and overly technical in adequately responding to complex community-level concerns (Jagger et al. 2012). Broadly, there are understood to be divergences in priorities across REDD+ actors between its value as a cost-effective form of climate change mitigation and its value as a local sustainable development or poverty alleviation contribution.

Scholars have highlighted tensions between neoliberal forms of climate governance, predicated on cost-effectiveness logics and the commodification of forest carbon, and the livelihood needs of forest-dependent communities in the Global South (McDermott et al. 2013; Suiseeya 2016; Turnhout et al. 2017). Critics suggest that, rather than acting as a “win-win-win” solution (for the environment, livelihoods, and the private sector) to the climate crisis, trade-offs are more likely to form in the implementation of forest carbon projects (Bastakoti and Davidsen 2017; McAfee 2014). With REDD+ gathering support largely based on its ability to provide a source of cheap emissions cuts, the concept of “offsetting” has been broadly critiqued for enabling industrialized nations to effectively discharge their mitigation duties and commitments to the Global South (Bumpus and Liverman 2008; Ervine 2012; Osborne 2015).

Building on community-centric critiques of the initiative, this research seeks to improve understanding of the fundamental conflicts in REDD+ governance through a specifically justice-led and multiscalar analysis. Particular justice dilemmas emanate from the protection and conservation of tropical forests, as an international climate change mitigation strategy. REDD+ is considered to be steeped in justice concerns (Martin et al. 2014), suggesting that analyses of REDD+ initiatives would be wise to take account of these.

Scholars have increasingly sought to improve understanding of the broad tensions between universal ethics and local norms in international environmental governance (Dawson et al. 2018; Mathur et al. 2014). With REDD+ and other PES forms of governance, it is acknowledged that communities’ culturally mediated values and perceptions of their environment have been effectively marginalized in existing policy formulations (Forsyth and Sikor 2013; Sikor et al. 2014; Suiseeya, 2016). These tensions go beyond moral imperatives, given that they are likely to impede progress in the objectives of REDD+ and to undermine the success of projects (Dawson et al. 2018).

Considering justice to be intractably plural in nature (Martin et al. 2014; Schlosberg 2004; Sen 1999), this research seeks to extrapolate the constructed justice norms that underpin and justify REDD+ discourses across and between scales of governance. It is understood that in order to effectively and adequately engage with the dynamics of international climate governance and justice norms, there is a need for refined and sophisticated scalar analyses (Barrett 2013; Mathur et al. 2014; McDermott et al. 2013). Without knowledge of scalar interaction, Barrett (2013) suggests, climate justice research would be partial and limited. A multiscalar analysis of REDD+ is necessary given its fundamental structure, which interconnects actors on multiple levels of governance as a climate change mitigation strategy (Korhonen-Kurki et al. 2012; Okereke and Dooley 2010).

This research builds on previous multiscalar and justice-centric analyses of REDD+ and other forms of international environmental governance (Bastakoti and Davidsen 2017; Mathur et al. 2014; McDermott et al. 2013; Sikor et al. 2014; Suiseeya 2016). We also extend growing scholarly efforts to map out competing discourses of environmental and climate governance (Bäckstrand and Lövbrand 2019; Hajer 1995) and to understand the coalitions that form around dominant and marginalized narratives in REDD+ discourse (Nielsen 2014; Vijge et al. 2016). While burgeoning in size, there remain insufficient studies that have empirically assessed and examined the multiscalar dynamics of justice norms in climate governance discourse, with the international, national, and local levels in REDD+ having generally been understood in isolation (Bastakoti and Davidsen 2017; Chomba et al. 2016; Mathur et al. 2014).

A multiscalar and justice-led discourse analysis of REDD+ can help to explain how implicit justice norms configure existing and future REDD+ policy outcomes and how divergences in justice conceptions underpin emergent conflicts or challenges in REDD+ interventions. Through this analysis, we seek to better understand what fundamentally drives REDD+ actions and strategies. In doing so, we can provide a basis for better aligning multiscalar priorities and preferences in REDD+ interventions and for pursuing a more just and community-oriented form of REDD+.

In this article, we examine the multiscalar discourse in the Norwegian–Ethiopian REDD+ partnership (see Figure 1). Here, we interpret the policy- and community-level textual data through a justice lens. More specifically, we extend Okereke’s (2008) justice-led discourse analysis of environmental and climate governance to incorporate the community discourse present in Ethiopia. Additionally, as with Mathur et al. (2014), we are motivated by examining the relative positions of different actors and potential justice tensions along multiple axes in the REDD+ network, for example, “global priorities versus local concerns” and “national/regional objectives versus local aspirations.”

Figure 1 

A Multiscalar Analysis of Climate Justice

Figure 1 

A Multiscalar Analysis of Climate Justice

Case Study: The Norwegian–Ethiopian REDD+ Partnership

Given the key role that Norway plays in driving the international REDD+ agenda (see Table 2), it is necessary to critically examine and assess the notions of climate justice that underpin and justify its REDD+ policy discourse. The country was also selected due to the peculiarity of its climate governance profile and the specific function that REDD+ plays in its domestic politics. Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI) acts as the centerpiece of Norway’s climate policy, aligning with its ambitions since the early 1990s to act as a “front-runner” in international environmental governance and colliding with the country’s continued economy dependency on an expansive petroleum industry (Angelsen 2016; Lahn and Rowe 2014). Here there is a need to empirically and critically investigate the underlying justice norms and assumptions of Norway’s potentially paradoxical climate change profile.

REDD+ in Ethiopia has emerged out of broader decentralizing and participatory forest governance structures that have been developing in the country since the mid-1990s (Ayana et al. 2013). Participatory forest management (PFM) has become increasingly recognized, formally and informally, by the Ethiopian government as the preferred way of managing the nation’s forest resources (Bekele et al. 2015). Given the local-level benefits that decentralizing and participatory forms of forest governance are expected to provide in Ethiopia, there is a need to direct attention toward understanding the extent to which emergent REDD+ processes in the country are community-centric. More broadly, it is necessary to assess and examine REDD+ from a justice-led perspective in emerging contexts in which the initiative is in its early stages and in which REDD+ discourses are beginning to solidify.

Extant research in the context of Ethiopia has assessed the potential effectiveness of the country’s REDD+ strategy (Vanderhaegen et al. 2015) as well as drawing attention to the conflicting ideas, discourses, and interests that are present within the government’s green growth strategy (Ayana et al. 2013; Bekele et al. 2015). Elsewhere, scholars have more broadly examined current prospects for forest-based ecosystems services and biodiverse forests in southwestern Ethiopia (Hirons et al. 2018; Tadesse et al. 2014). This article seeks to build on the limited research base that has thus far analyzed Ethiopia’s REDD+ engagement; of the few grounded, empirical, justice-led analyses of REDD+ policies, none have thus far concerned Ethiopia, presenting a notable gap in the extant scholarship. See Table 1.

Table 1 
The Norwegian–Ethiopian REDD+ Partnership
Multiscalar REDD+ Policy InstitutionsProfile
NICFI Since 2008, the Norwegian government has played a prominent and leading role in REDD+ internationally, currently supporting REDD+ processes in nine tropical-forested nations (Angelsen 2016). As of 2016, NICFI is the largest bilateral financial supporter of the international REDD+ framework, accounting for approximately 73 percent of pledged REDD+ funds (around US$ 500 million per year) and is the largest donor to the UN-REDD program (Climate Funds Update 2016). The Norwegian government supports REDD+ activity in nine tropical-forested countries: Tanzania, Brazil, Guyana, Indonesia, Mexico, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Liberia (Angelsen 2016). The REDD+ partnership between Norway and Ethiopia has been in place since 2013, incorporating both technical and financial support as part of the “Readiness” phase of REDD+. Norway acts as the largest financial contributor to Ethiopia’s REDD+ initiative through both bilateral and multilateral mechanisms (see Table 2). 
The Ethiopian government The Ethiopian government has closely integrated REDD+ within its broader environmental and green growth ambitions. Since 2011, the government has been working toward its Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) strategy, whereby it is aiming to become a middle-income country by 2030, while keeping domestic GHG emissions at 2010 levels (Bekele et al. 2015). Driven by the long-term, persistent, and acute deforestation in the country (a rate of approximately 1.0–1.5 percent annually) and the key role that forests play in regulating the climate (accounting for around 40 percent of GHG emissions in Ethiopia), the Ethiopian government has made a concerted effort to sustainably manage its forests and has placed REDD+ centrally in financing its CRGE strategy (Bekele et al. 2015). 
 Since 2013, the Ethiopian government has engaged in the “Readiness” phase of REDD+, whereby capacity of the government is being built up to prepare the country for the forthcoming results-based payment stage. The Norwegian government provides financial and technical support for REDD+ development in Ethiopia (Bekele et al. 2015). Alongside bilateral support from Norway, Ethiopia’s REDD+ initiative receives support and finance from the World Bank (through both the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility [FCPF] and the BioCarbon Fund [BCF]) as well as technical guidance from the UN (through UNDP and UNEP). REDD+ forms part of a nested approach to forest governance in Ethiopia, with Oromia currently acting as the pilot state for REDD+ implementation in the country. As part of a ten-year agreement, the World Bank acts as the primary funder of the pilot program in Oromia, with the Norwegian government providing additional financial support (Bekele et al. 2015). 
Nono Sele REDD+ Project In this research, the selected study area was the REDD+ project in the Nono Sele district, in the Illubabor zone of Oromia, managed by Ethio Wetlands and Natural Resources Association (EWNRA), a domestic environmental NGO that works on natural resource and forest management at the project level in Ethiopia. The Illubabor forested landscape has become under threat from deforestation, partially driven by the intensification of agricultural processes (including of coffee agroforests) in the region (Tadesse et al. 2014; Vanderhaegen et al. 2015). Through financial support from the Norwegian government, the Nono Sele REDD+ project seeks to incentivize farmers in the district to reduce levels of deforestation and to maintain and enhance existing forest stocks. Current efforts are focused on capacity building and livelihood development, with verified emissions reductions purchases expected at a later stage of REDD+. 
Multiscalar REDD+ Policy InstitutionsProfile
NICFI Since 2008, the Norwegian government has played a prominent and leading role in REDD+ internationally, currently supporting REDD+ processes in nine tropical-forested nations (Angelsen 2016). As of 2016, NICFI is the largest bilateral financial supporter of the international REDD+ framework, accounting for approximately 73 percent of pledged REDD+ funds (around US$ 500 million per year) and is the largest donor to the UN-REDD program (Climate Funds Update 2016). The Norwegian government supports REDD+ activity in nine tropical-forested countries: Tanzania, Brazil, Guyana, Indonesia, Mexico, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Liberia (Angelsen 2016). The REDD+ partnership between Norway and Ethiopia has been in place since 2013, incorporating both technical and financial support as part of the “Readiness” phase of REDD+. Norway acts as the largest financial contributor to Ethiopia’s REDD+ initiative through both bilateral and multilateral mechanisms (see Table 2). 
The Ethiopian government The Ethiopian government has closely integrated REDD+ within its broader environmental and green growth ambitions. Since 2011, the government has been working toward its Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) strategy, whereby it is aiming to become a middle-income country by 2030, while keeping domestic GHG emissions at 2010 levels (Bekele et al. 2015). Driven by the long-term, persistent, and acute deforestation in the country (a rate of approximately 1.0–1.5 percent annually) and the key role that forests play in regulating the climate (accounting for around 40 percent of GHG emissions in Ethiopia), the Ethiopian government has made a concerted effort to sustainably manage its forests and has placed REDD+ centrally in financing its CRGE strategy (Bekele et al. 2015). 
 Since 2013, the Ethiopian government has engaged in the “Readiness” phase of REDD+, whereby capacity of the government is being built up to prepare the country for the forthcoming results-based payment stage. The Norwegian government provides financial and technical support for REDD+ development in Ethiopia (Bekele et al. 2015). Alongside bilateral support from Norway, Ethiopia’s REDD+ initiative receives support and finance from the World Bank (through both the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility [FCPF] and the BioCarbon Fund [BCF]) as well as technical guidance from the UN (through UNDP and UNEP). REDD+ forms part of a nested approach to forest governance in Ethiopia, with Oromia currently acting as the pilot state for REDD+ implementation in the country. As part of a ten-year agreement, the World Bank acts as the primary funder of the pilot program in Oromia, with the Norwegian government providing additional financial support (Bekele et al. 2015). 
Nono Sele REDD+ Project In this research, the selected study area was the REDD+ project in the Nono Sele district, in the Illubabor zone of Oromia, managed by Ethio Wetlands and Natural Resources Association (EWNRA), a domestic environmental NGO that works on natural resource and forest management at the project level in Ethiopia. The Illubabor forested landscape has become under threat from deforestation, partially driven by the intensification of agricultural processes (including of coffee agroforests) in the region (Tadesse et al. 2014; Vanderhaegen et al. 2015). Through financial support from the Norwegian government, the Nono Sele REDD+ project seeks to incentivize farmers in the district to reduce levels of deforestation and to maintain and enhance existing forest stocks. Current efforts are focused on capacity building and livelihood development, with verified emissions reductions purchases expected at a later stage of REDD+. 
Table 2 
Source of REDD+ Funding in Ethiopia
Funding BodyAmount Pledged (in US$)
NICFI (Norwegian government) 8 million 
UK government 6.6 million 
FCPF 3.6 million 
Food and Agriculture Organization 830,000 
Funding BodyAmount Pledged (in US$)
NICFI (Norwegian government) 8 million 
UK government 6.6 million 
FCPF 3.6 million 
Food and Agriculture Organization 830,000 

Note: Data from Climate Funds Update (2016).

Methodological Approach

To examine the underlying justice norms in the REDD+ discourse, we undertook document analysis and in-depth interviews among each of the relevant multiscalar REDD+ actors (see Figure 2; see also Tables 3 and 4).

Figure 2 

Multiscalar Actors Interconnected in the Norwegian–Ethiopian REDD+ Agreement

Figure 2 

Multiscalar Actors Interconnected in the Norwegian–Ethiopian REDD+ Agreement

Table 3 
Methodological and Analytical Approaches Adopted
 OutlineSampling TechniqueNumbers
Document analysis An examination of key policy documents from multiscalar REDD+ actors: Norwegian and Ethiopian state bodies, the World Bank and the UN, and Norwegian and Ethiopian environmental NGOs. The analyzed documents comprised evaluations, reports, assessments, project papers, and presentations. Sourced from the institutions’ online databases and web pages, documents were selected for analysis through purposive sampling based on their relevance to the enquiries of the research. Although determined by the availability of relevant documents, we generally sough to analyze a balanced number of texts from each organization. Altogether, sixty documents related to REDD+ published between 2007 and 2017 were analyzed across the multiscalar institutions. 
Institutional texts that related to different dimensions of justice (implicitly or explicitly), such as the safeguards framework or benefit sharing, were chosen. Documents that indicated interaction between the REDD+ actors were also prioritized, owing to the multiscalar nature of the research design. 
In-depth interviews In-depth interviews were conducted at policy and community levels. These were qualitative and semistructured. To communicate with a non-English-speaking community in Nono Sele, the interview questions were asked by a translator in the local dialect. To ensure accurate translation (notably of technical terms that may not have direct translations), we worked closely with EWNRA and the translator beforehand. The field site was located in two villages (Gago and Yakama) in Nono Sele, selected in coordination with EWNRA, largely based on pragmatic reasons, e.g., ease of access into the area and the availability of a translator. Within the villages, the participants were accessed in coordination with EWNRA and were selected based on their availability and willingness. The cohort of interviewees incorporated a mixture of genders, ages, and backgrounds (e.g., coffee farmers, subsistence farmers), in seeking a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives. At the policy level, sixteen interviews were conducted with representatives from each of the policy institutions (see Table 4). At the community level, twenty interviews were conducted with community members participating in the Nono Sele REDD+ project, equaling spread across the two villages. 
Critical discourse analysis (CDA) This is a form of textual analysis that considers language to be constitutive; to underpin grounded, material realities; and to be embedded in contingent power relations (Fairclough 2003; Van Dijk 2001). In this research, we understand justice norms to be discursively constructed and to be performative, which, we suggest, may inform and justify competing REDD+ actors’ preferences and strategies and configure what may or may not be possible in REDD+ interventions. N/A All of the documents and interview transcripts across the multiscalar REDD+ actors were examined using CDA. We qualitatively coded the textual material in alignment with Fairclough’s (2003) guidance. This included examining the use of grammar by the policy actors (e.g., sentence structure, tense), inconsistencies or contradictions, semantics, and the underlying assumptions or ideas that may underpin arguments. The coding was both descriptive and analytical, whereby the microscale linguistic analyses of texts were interpreted in their sociopolitical, institutional, and ethical contexts, i.e., “textual” and “contextual” (Dittmer 2010). 
 OutlineSampling TechniqueNumbers
Document analysis An examination of key policy documents from multiscalar REDD+ actors: Norwegian and Ethiopian state bodies, the World Bank and the UN, and Norwegian and Ethiopian environmental NGOs. The analyzed documents comprised evaluations, reports, assessments, project papers, and presentations. Sourced from the institutions’ online databases and web pages, documents were selected for analysis through purposive sampling based on their relevance to the enquiries of the research. Although determined by the availability of relevant documents, we generally sough to analyze a balanced number of texts from each organization. Altogether, sixty documents related to REDD+ published between 2007 and 2017 were analyzed across the multiscalar institutions. 
Institutional texts that related to different dimensions of justice (implicitly or explicitly), such as the safeguards framework or benefit sharing, were chosen. Documents that indicated interaction between the REDD+ actors were also prioritized, owing to the multiscalar nature of the research design. 
In-depth interviews In-depth interviews were conducted at policy and community levels. These were qualitative and semistructured. To communicate with a non-English-speaking community in Nono Sele, the interview questions were asked by a translator in the local dialect. To ensure accurate translation (notably of technical terms that may not have direct translations), we worked closely with EWNRA and the translator beforehand. The field site was located in two villages (Gago and Yakama) in Nono Sele, selected in coordination with EWNRA, largely based on pragmatic reasons, e.g., ease of access into the area and the availability of a translator. Within the villages, the participants were accessed in coordination with EWNRA and were selected based on their availability and willingness. The cohort of interviewees incorporated a mixture of genders, ages, and backgrounds (e.g., coffee farmers, subsistence farmers), in seeking a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives. At the policy level, sixteen interviews were conducted with representatives from each of the policy institutions (see Table 4). At the community level, twenty interviews were conducted with community members participating in the Nono Sele REDD+ project, equaling spread across the two villages. 
Critical discourse analysis (CDA) This is a form of textual analysis that considers language to be constitutive; to underpin grounded, material realities; and to be embedded in contingent power relations (Fairclough 2003; Van Dijk 2001). In this research, we understand justice norms to be discursively constructed and to be performative, which, we suggest, may inform and justify competing REDD+ actors’ preferences and strategies and configure what may or may not be possible in REDD+ interventions. N/A All of the documents and interview transcripts across the multiscalar REDD+ actors were examined using CDA. We qualitatively coded the textual material in alignment with Fairclough’s (2003) guidance. This included examining the use of grammar by the policy actors (e.g., sentence structure, tense), inconsistencies or contradictions, semantics, and the underlying assumptions or ideas that may underpin arguments. The coding was both descriptive and analytical, whereby the microscale linguistic analyses of texts were interpreted in their sociopolitical, institutional, and ethical contexts, i.e., “textual” and “contextual” (Dittmer 2010). 
Table 4 
List of Interviewees
 Interviewees
Norwegian government NICFI (three representatives); Norwegian embassy in Addis Ababa (one representative) 
Ethiopian government Ethiopian REDD+ Secretariat (two representatives) 
World Bank Two representatives 
UN UN-REDD Secretariat (two representatives); UNDP (two representatives); UNEP (one representative) 
Norwegian environmental NGOs Rainforest Foundation Norway (one representative); Friends of the Earth Norway (one representative); Development Fund (one representative) 
Ethiopian environmental NGOs EWNRA (two representatives); Farm Africa (one representative) 
Forest-dependent communities Twenty participants across two villages (Gago and Yakama) 
 Interviewees
Norwegian government NICFI (three representatives); Norwegian embassy in Addis Ababa (one representative) 
Ethiopian government Ethiopian REDD+ Secretariat (two representatives) 
World Bank Two representatives 
UN UN-REDD Secretariat (two representatives); UNDP (two representatives); UNEP (one representative) 
Norwegian environmental NGOs Rainforest Foundation Norway (one representative); Friends of the Earth Norway (one representative); Development Fund (one representative) 
Ethiopian environmental NGOs EWNRA (two representatives); Farm Africa (one representative) 
Forest-dependent communities Twenty participants across two villages (Gago and Yakama) 

The Dominant and Marginalized Conceptions of Justice in the REDD+ Discourse

The discourse analysis in this research indicated the prominence of utilitarianism and “neoliberal conceptions of justice” at the policy level and of egalitarian norms at the community level (see the appendix for the definitions of each of the justice conceptions that emerged in the data).

Utilitarianism

In these findings, utilitarian ethics primarily emerge in the policy discourse through three discursive constructions of REDD+: (1) achievement of results in REDD+, (2) a global framing of REDD+ outcomes and benefits, and (3) a prioritization of the long term in devising REDD+.

First, the findings indicate the high valuing and prioritization by the policy makers of the cost-effective and large-scale reduction of international GHG emissions in REDD+ over and above all other outcomes, most pertinently those that are livelihood or development based. To varying extents, all of the policy makers demonstrate the pursuit of cost-effective GHG emissions as the primary motivating factor in their REDD+ engagement. For NICFI, this is explicitly evident in its stated “core objectives” in the Norwegian–Ethiopian REDD+ partnership:

  • 1. 

    To work towards the inclusion of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in a new international climate regime;

  • 2. 

    To take early action to achieve cost-effective and verifiable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions;

  • 3. 

    To promote the conservation of natural forests to maintain their carbon storage capacity.

In the first two objectives, NICFI positions REDD+ as a cost-effective and large-scale climate change mitigation strategy, indicating this to be the institution’s key priority in designing and implementing REDD+. “Cost-effectiveness” is a framing device that is utilized throughout NICFI’s policy discourse when highlighting the benefits and outcomes of REDD+. The significant emphasis placed on REDD+ as a cost-effective response to the climate crisis indicates NICFI’s ultimate priority: reductions of international GHG emissions, wherever these may be the cheapest.

However, in none of NICFI’s core objectives are the development, poverty alleviation or livelihoods benefits of REDD+ present. This is in line with what was found in the policy discourse more broadly, whereby these aspects of REDD+ tend to be discussed or highlighted to a much lesser extent than are the carbon-oriented goals. The livelihoods or development aspirations of REDD+ are largely referred to by the policy-makers as “co-benefits” or “non-carbon benefits.” The labeling of “co-benefits” or “non-carbon benefits” in itself frames these as supplementary, whereby they are defined in opposition to the primary intended outcomes of “carbon benefits.”

Additionally, NICFI’s use of “verifiable” in its “core aims” is revealing, indicating the importance of results for the institution. Indeed, all of the policy makers refer consistently to “verified” emissions reductions and place emphasis on measuring and monitoring the rates of deforestation in the recipient nation. This is often supported by concrete, detailed, and highly technical frameworks, in contrast with the lack of clarity surrounding the wider potential development-oriented benefits of REDD+. Indeed, it is rarely discussed how the proposed “co-benefits” of REDD+ may be achieved or how they may be measured, suggesting that these act as rhetoric for the policy makers, rather than forming the thrust of their REDD+ interventions.

Additionally, the discussions of poverty alleviation that are present in the Norwegian–Ethiopian REDD+ policy discourse tend to relate to its implications for deforestation rates. Associations between poverty alleviation and reductions in deforestation levels are frequently made, suggesting that the primary motivation for the policy makers’ engagement in co-benefits is for their instrumental rather than intrinsic values, given the benefits that these may provide for the institutions’ primary aims.

Overall, the findings indicate a consistent and significant focus by the REDD+ policy makers on the achievement of end results, referring in this context to the maximization of reductions in international GHG emissions and to ultimately reducing the likelihood of future dangerous climate change. Here attention is directed away from precisely how these emissions cuts are realized and what effects these have on the forest-dependent communities involved in REDD+ practices. Accordingly, these findings suggest an account of consequentialism in the REDD+ policy frameworks that privileges the interests of actors and institutions in the Global North.

Second, the global outcomes and benefits of REDD+ are consistently emphasized in the policy discourse. The idea is that REDD+ (and the sustainable management of tropical forests more broadly) is in the interests of everyone and produces global benefits, in terms of averting dangerous levels of climate change. A “global” framing of the ultimate benefits of REDD+ interventions is evident in all of the policy discourse, but particularly that of the multilateral institutions. For instance, a UN interviewee stated the following:

I believe that if we continue with the level of current deforestation, the earth will be worse off and the global economy will also be worse off. You’ll simply see disruptions in agricultural production, you’ll see disruptions that result in social and economic unrest, those are all very undesirable and I think making sure that more forest is being protected to counter those risks is in the interests of everyone.

Here the UN interviewee frames tropical deforestation primarily in global terms, with REDD+ intervention “in the interests of everyone.” The interviewee suggested that continued high levels of tropical deforestation mean that “the earth will be worse off,” in this way acting to construct these challenges primarily at the planetary scale. The interviewee posits that by working toward REDD+, benefits related to addressing climate change and deforestation can emerge for all of humanity.

Throughout the policy discourse, a global understanding of REDD+ is emphasized over and above its specific regional or local implications. Notably, policy makers consistently profile REDD+ recipient nations at the national scale, with little recognition of regional heterogeneity or sociocultural diversity. NICFI’s country-scale socioeconomic analysis of Ethiopia tends to incorporate elements that have implications for the global community (e.g., monitoring mechanisms, carbon stock densities) to a greater extent than those that specifically relate to local and regional levels and that are often harder to measure or verify.

A globalized framing of REDD+ policy reflects utilitarian ethics and the pursuit of the “greater good.” In reducing the likelihood of future dangerous climate change for all of humanity, “overall utility” can be considered maximized. From a utilitarian perspective, REDD+ could be morally justified based on its perceived global benefits, even if there may exist some localized, short-term “pain.” As Okereke and Dooley (2010) have previously argued, a utilitarian approach to REDD+ is based on the needs of the majority, meaning that community-level issues, concerns, and injustices are likely to be marginalized.

Third, throughout the policy discourse, REDD+ is framed in relation to its perceived long-term benefits and the ultimate aversion of future dangerous climate change. A long-term orientation of REDD+ is constructed through the consistent use of “future”-driven language in relation to the benefits of the initiative in Ethiopia, for example, “will be,” “going to be,” “set to.” It positions the beneficial outcomes of REDD+ as primarily being realized in the future and as long-term aspirations.

More broadly, NICFI’s selection of recipient countries reflects the government’s pursuit of long-term effectiveness in its REDD+ agenda. Its justification for selecting these in its policy texts is driven by the pursuit of the advancement and strengthening of the REDD+ agenda globally and, ultimately, maximizing the effectiveness of GHG emissions in the long term. In particular, engagement with Brazil and Indonesia is justified based on the large scale and high carbon densities of their forests. For instance, NICFI states in its 2007–2013 evaluation report that “through its partnerships in Brazil and Indonesia … NICFI aims to influence national governments responsible for 15% of the world’s forested land area and some 55% of GHG emissions from deforestation.” This reflects the broader justification given to engagement with Brazil and Indonesia, whereby these countries become framed primarily in terms of the contributions that they can make to the effective, large-scale, and long-term reductions of GHG emissions.

On the other hand, NICFI has also established agreements and relationships with recipient nations that are comparatively low forest and carbon stocks, including Ethiopia, which does not easily align with its overarching “core aims.” The analysis suggests that NICFI’s partnership with Ethiopia is justified primarily based on its geographic location and political influence. Notably, on NICFI’s website, the importance of REDD+ interventions in Ethiopia is framed primarily in terms of the country’s situation in sub-Saharan Africa, as “somewhat different from REDD+ implemented in the Amazon region or Southeast Asia.” Relatedly, emphasis is also placed on the “leading” and “active” climate policy role that Ethiopia has adopted in the African Union and in broader climate change negotiations, implying that Ethiopia’s regional influence has influenced NICFI’s decision to engage with it on REDD+.

By establishing agreements with wide-ranging profiles of REDD+ countries, including those with smaller forest stocks or that are based in “eclectic” geographic and political contexts, NICFI can seek to demonstrate the “success” of REDD+ interventions in multiple contexts, as Hermansen and Kasa (2014) previously suggested. Accordingly, we propose that NICFI’s engagement with Brazil/Indonesia and with low-forest/low–carbon dense nations like Ethiopia reflects the institution’s ultimate pursuit of the advancement of the REDD+ agenda globally and the maximization of international GHG emissions reductions in the long term.

With NICFI’s REDD+ directive indicated to be primarily driven by the pursuit of an effective climate change mitigation strategy that is beneficial in the long term, it could be proposed that NICFI’s REDD+ agenda forms part of an equitable response to the climate crisis, as Caney and Hepburn (2011) have argued elsewhere. Given that the most severe impacts of climate change are likely to be felt by the poorest and most vulnerable worldwide, it can be argued that climate action that is effective is also, by its very nature, pro-poor. However, there is little evidence in the REDD+ policy discourse that this is the case: the idea of benefiting a future global poor is not articulated at all and cannot be assumed, considering the lack of priority given to the contemporary poor by the policy makers. Rather, the policy discourse implies a sidelining of the needs, values, and interests of marginalized, forest-dependent communities and insufficient attention paid to the multiple-benefit potential of REDD+. Indeed, a NICFI interviewee explicitly outlined the ultimate drive behind the selection of the REDD+ recipient countries:

It’s not the most deserving countries somehow but it’s the countries where we see the biggest potential to actually change deforestation and maximize the emissions reduction somehow.

Although a long-term orientation could form part of a number of justice frames, in this context, it is specifically invoked as part of a utilitarian viewpoint, in which the global impacts of climate change for future generations are sought to be reduced. The aim by REDD+ policy makers to maximize international GHG emissions reductions reflects a bigger-picture narrative, whereby positive outcomes are sought across the world for future generations. Accordingly, limited attention is given to support that specifically targets marginalized and poor communities in the Global South or to the just distribution of climate change mitigation burdens.

Neoliberal Conceptions of Justice

Okereke (2008) proposed that “neoliberal conceptions of justice” underlie dominant market-led responses to environmental challenges and crises. Here, the primacy of the market is valued in determining just and equitable solutions to climate change. “Neoliberal conceptions of justice” emerged in the analysis of the REDD+ policy discourse in two primary forms: (1) aversion to welfare-based resource redistribution and (2) emphasis on free-market solutions to environmental problems.

Aversion to Welfare-Based Resource Redistribution: Analysis of the policy discourse largely suggests that the existing REDD+ agenda is calibrated toward the interests of the Global North. A broad aversion to resource redistribution emerges through an orientation of REDD+ as a cost-effective mechanism that sidelines development or poverty alleviation aspirations and the Global North’s responsibility for climate change. The pursuit of cost-effective reductions in international GHG emissions by the REDD+ policy makers is driven by neoliberal managerialist logics and economic rationality and is bound up with maximizing reductions in international GHG emissions in the policy discourse. Notably, the NICFI web page on REDD+ in Ethiopia states the following:

The green development plan alone could give reductions of 4–5 times Norway’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions. That is substantial. (Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative 2016)

Here emphasis is placed on the greater reductions in international GHG emissions made possible by Norway’s engagement in REDD+ compared to its domestic emissions cuts. NICFI makes use of figures (“4–5 times Norway’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions”) and persuasive language (“substantial”) to support its underlying argument: that efforts to combat climate change can be maximized through Norway’s engagement in international initiatives. International, cost-effective strategies have formed the cornerstone of Norway’s environmental governance since the early 1990s (Angelsen 2016; Hermansen and Kasa 2014; Lahn and Rowe 2014). As suggested elsewhere (Hovden and Lindseth 2004; Okereke 2008), an aversion to resource redistribution has often come under the guise of cost-effectiveness in the climate negotiations.

Elsewhere, the policy makers invoke minimal engagement with responsibility for climate change. On only two occasions in the policy discourse does NICFI refer explicitly to responsibility or burden sharing, while it does not once mention Norway’s role in extracting and exporting fossil fuels (and therefore GHG emissions) worldwide. While placing considerable emphasis on the significant, multifarious contributions that it has made to the international REDD+ agenda, the Norwegian government shifts attention away from the country’s economic dependence on an expansive petroleum industry. This implies that, to a certain extent, and as suggested elsewhere (Angelsen 2016; Hermansen and Kasa 2014), NICFI is acting to “politically offset” the inaction by the Norwegian government on scaling back its expansive petroleum industry through its REDD+ leadership.

For the multilateral REDD+ policy actors, there is also limited discussion of responsibility for climate change and burden sharing, alongside a discourse of “shared responsibility.” The prevalence of “shared responsibility” in the REDD+ policy discourse acts to shift the focus away from the Global North’s responsibility for climate change. There is also an emphasis on Ethiopia as a beneficiary of REDD+, implying that the agreements are akin to an equal deal, with both sides profiting from the arrangement, as evident in the following quote from a UNEP interviewee:

I think there’s an obligation from the international community, but those forests also contribute to the well-being of people and to the economy of the developing countries themselves, so there should be a shared responsibility there.

The idea that, without sufficient focus and pro-poor orientation, Ethiopia can act as a beneficiary of REDD+ to the same extent as Norway or other REDD+-funding nations contrasts with recent climate justice theorization (Armstrong 2016; Page 2016). Considering the inattention paid to climate change responsibility and the sidelining of livelihoods aspirations in the policy discourse, it can be suggested that REDD+ policy makers are inadequately responding to the needs and interests of marginalized forest-dependent communities and the injustices at the heart of the climate crisis. Given this, it may be that global inequalities and injustices are perpetuated, rather than redressed, under such a REDD+ framework.

Emphasis on Free-Market Solutions to Environmental Problems: Although the sourcing of REDD+ funding is fragmented and remains unclear, analysis of the policy discourse highlights evidence of neoliberal logics and assumptions, particularly of NICFI. On one occasion, a NICFI interviewee explicitly claimed that “we like the idea of REDD+ being market-based.” However, the favoring of free-market solutions to environmental problems in the REDD+ policy discourse tends to emerge more implicitly through a cost-effective narrative.

We suggest that the REDD+ policy actors tend to frame the forests in a commoditized sense. Throughout the policy discourse, Ethiopian forests are more frequently referred to as “carbon stocks” or “carbon sinks” than as a source of livelihoods for the communities. In particular, the Ethiopian government consistently equates deforestation with the “loss of carbon stocks” and forest conservation with the “enhancement of carbon stocks.” Here forests become instrumentalized and fundamentally defined by a set of constraining calculable and verifiable carbon sequestration services rather than livelihood values. As scholars have argued elsewhere (Bastakoti and Davidsen 2017; Suiseeya 2016), a forests-as-carbon discourse reflects the universalized values of the policy makers, acting to potentially displace the cultural, social, or livelihood values of forests locally.

Elsewhere, there is significant evidence in the policy discourse that market-based sources of funding for the Norwegian–Ethiopian REDD+ partnership are favored and naturalized as solutions. To varying extents, all of the policy makers assume, implicitly and explicitly, that REDD+ funding will ultimately be sourced through neoliberal-led market-based mechanisms. This emerges in the policy discourse through a language of certainty and inevitability (e.g., “will be,” “surely”), bound up with the seemingly inherent flaws and limitations of continued public funding of REDD+ that are consistently highlighted throughout the policy discourse.

Notably, the UN and the World Bank’s policy discourse places considerable emphasis on the need to move beyond public sources of funding in Ethiopia if REDD+ is ultimately to succeed. Additionally, a NICFI interviewee explicitly stated on one occasion that “obviously we cannot do it [achieve significant deforestation reductions] through public financing.” The use of “obviously” here acts to naturalize the idea that market-based mechanisms function as the most effective and efficient form of REDD+, with public financing inherently constraining to its ambitions. Throughout the policy discourse, there is a sense that it is unreasonable to expect progress in REDD+ without including market-based finance.

Debate surrounding the role of the market in the Norwegian–Ethiopian partnership is consistently sidelined, and if issues arise with market forces in REDD+ strategies, these are framed on multiple occasions in the texts of NICFI and the multilateral institutions in relation to Ethiopia’s “weak” institutional or financial capacities or its perceived political ideology, for example, not being “open” for big companies or being a “different” type of government. A clear dichotomy emerges in the policy discourse between the “crucial” need for market-based funding and the constraints of facilitating this in the REDD+ recipient nations. Accordingly, the adoption of neoliberal-led, market-based solutions to the climate crisis is naturalized and perpetuated in the REDD+ policy discourse.

Egalitarianism

We identified the prominence of egalitarianism in the community-level discourse. During their interviews, the community members in Gago and Yakama placed significant emphasis on the importance of equality. In this context, equality largely referred to the “equal rights” of community members and the “equal sharing” of the benefits of sustainable forestry management in the community, as in the following examples:

In sharing the profits, after we sold, the profit is equally shared between us after calculating the amount of money that we borrowed.

Every community has equal rights in regards to protection, use and planting of this forest, as well as regarding sharing ideas with each other. This is based on the community’s interest.

The findings suggest that the priority for the communities is to equally and fairly distribute the benefits gained from sustainable forest management and REDD+ engagement. The interviewees made associations between the equal rights to make use of forest resources and equal responsibilities to protect the forest. Indeed, the majority of those interviewed offered that by having equal rights in the community, and therefore access to the associated benefits, they were more likely to take equal responsibility for the forest, as part of a communal sense of dependence. A similar relationship between equal rights and responsibilities was identified in the rural communities of Rwanda by Martin et al. (2014).

Relatedly, injustice within the forest-dependent communities was partly characterized as arising from the unequal treatment of others. On a number of occasions, interviewees indicated the punishments that may be incurred for those who abused the forest governance system. Here injustice is articulated in terms of the equal and fair treatment of others; everybody has the same responsibilities for sustainable forestry management, and if they do not take these responsibilities, there are punishments. Thus, the interviewees identified people being treated differently to others as unfair and part of a relational conception of justice.

Moreover, the interviewees indicated that while the profits gained from sustainable forest governance would be allocated according to “participation” (i.e., those who actively carried out the forest management), these tended to be used to benefit the entire community. For instance, in Yakama, multiple interviewees suggested that a number of community-wide benefits emerged from the PFM project, including the purchasing of communal cooking oil or sugar from the profits. In Gago, some of the project profits were put toward extending a road that is conducive to local economic activity for the majority in the village and would provide community-wide benefits. Thus, the benefits that have emerged from the PFM project in Nono Sele have tended to be oriented toward the community as a whole.

The interviewees articulated concerns and needs more often in relation to the community and community livelihoods than in relation to individuals. There is frequent use of “our” and “we” in the community discourse when referring to forest management, for example, “our” forest, “our” lives, “we need to pass the forest from generation to generation.” Here valuing the forests is indicated to be intimately tied up with maintaining and strengthening intergenerational community livelihoods and functioning, aligning with findings in other contexts (Martin et al. 2014; Schlosberg 2012).

More broadly, the egalitarian principles that underpin the community discourse are tied up with the norms articulated by EWNRA, in the running of the PFM project. Throughout the interviews, it is proposed that the communities feel an enhanced sense of equality following the introduction of EWNRA and the project, as in the following two examples:

When we compare now with then, there is a great difference. … We have awareness about equality, about an equal use of the forest.

There is no violation of human rights around here. … The rights of every community are protected equally. … This organization has strengthened our rights.

These examples reflect a widespread consensus in the interviews that the project’s introduction has facilitated an enhanced sense of equality in the communities. On multiple occasions, the interviewees directly link concepts like “equal rights,” “equal decision-making,” or “equal use of the forest” to the values of EWNRA and the project, indicated to have been brought about through enhanced awareness raised by EWNRA, as well as a strengthening of community rights. Thus, participants’ responses generally indicate a broad alignment between the egalitarian norms of the community and the rights-oriented and livelihoods-led approach taken by EWNRA.

However, the consistently positive references from the participants toward EWNRA and its ethics of egalitarianism must be interpreted in light of our perceived close association with the NGO as gatekeepers in the fieldwork. Given our positionality as researchers, it may be that the community interviewees’ responses emerged in this context in order to align with the position, values, and ethics of EWNRA, forming part of a performative “adaptation strategy” of sorts, as Ayana (2014) found elsewhere. Indeed, research has highlighted a temporary character to PFM strategies in Ethiopia that exist only as long as the NGO project timeline (Mohammed and Inoue 2012).

Discussion

Utilitarian conceptions of justice in the REDD+ policy discourse primarily emerge through the policy makers’ fundamentally outcome-oriented ambitions and form through an understanding of REDD+ as an effective climate change mitigation strategy on a global and long-term scale. Utilitarian ethics and a bigger-picture narrative underpin and morally justify a carbon-centric and cost-effective vision of REDD+ and the marginalization of the livelihoods or development aspirations of communities in the policy discourse. The dominance of utilitarianism in the REDD+ policy discourse aligns with what climate justice scholars have found in other policy contexts (Edwards 2015; Sikor et al. 2014) and with previous analyses of Norway’s environmental governance (Hovden and Lindseth 2004; Okereke and Dooley 2010).

Although we are unclear yet as to the exact consequences and manifestations of such a policy orientation, we argue that the dominant utilitarian norms present in the REDD+ policy discourse are closely bound up with the interests of the Global North, as has been intimated elsewhere (Bastakoti and Davidsen 2017; Mathur et al. 2014; Suiseeya 2016). The analysis indicates a “leveraging” of the global by the industrialized nations, in which the framing of REDD+ as an effective (and cost-effective) international climate change mitigation strategy allows for reduced climate change commitments in the Global North and disruption to industrialized economies, and for some of the burdens of climate change mitigation to be effectively discharged to the Global South. Framing climate change as a global crisis with global outcomes and responses can mask the distributive inequalities and the deeper injustices at the heart of the climate crisis. More specifically, the Norwegian government appears to be using REDD+ as a tool for “politically offsetting” its continued dependency on an expansive petroleum industry and the role that it plays in exporting GHG emissions worldwide, as suggested elsewhere (Angelsen 2016; Hermansen and Kasa 2014).

The objective for the policy makers here is to maximize “overall utility,” even if this may compromise community-level rights and needs. Evidence in other REDD+ contexts has highlighted adverse impacts on livelihoods through, for instance, community resettlement or economic exclusion. Given that these potentially justify such community-level impacts, the dominant utilitarian ethics in REDD+ policy discourse can be considered as inappropriate in “a setting of pronounced economic inequality” (Sikor et al. 2014, 537) in the Global South.

Simultaneously, “neoliberal conceptions of justice” emerged as prominent in the findings. Despite the lack of clarity over the future sourcing of REDD+ funds, the policy discourse suggests the presence of broader neoliberal logics and assumptions and the naturalization of these. This analysis is supported by previous scholarly critiques of REDD+ as a neoliberal form of environmental governance (McAfee 2014; Suiseeya 2016) and of forest carbon commodification (Bumpus and Liverman 2008; Osborne 2015).

However, we argue that neoliberal forms of environmental governance act as the means rather than the ends of justice concerns in the REDD+ policy discourse. In other words, aligning with Edwards’ (2015) recent work, market-based mechanisms are the vehicles for achieving more fundamental justice outcomes, in this case, utilitarian ethics. Indeed, significant synergies are identified in the policy texts between neoliberal forms of environmental governance and utilitarianism. Notably, the carbon-centric and cost-effective narrative that is prominent in the REDD+ policy discourse is grounded in neoliberal ideology and market-based logics but is fundamentally motivated by underlying utilitarian ethics that understands REDD+ as an effective global climate change mitigation strategy for averting dangerous climate change.

Thus, we suggest that the REDD+ policy makers are not driven by the realization of neoliberal conceptions of justice (Okereke 2008) per se but rather by how neoliberal mechanisms can enable them to achieve utilitarian outcomes. From this perspective, neoliberal environmental governance is not just or unjust in and of itself but is rather underpinned by more fundamental justice norms (Caney and Hepburn 2011). In drawing out the synergistic linkages between neoliberal environmental governance, utility maximization, and the prioritization of global climate change mitigation outcomes, these findings build on recent theoretical developments in climate governance scholarship (Büscher 2010; Edwards 2015; Mathur et al. 2014).

Formulated as technical practices, the consistent injustices associated with neoliberal forms of environmental governance are not foreclosed or inevitable, as more broadly proposed by Ferguson (2009). Additionally, a conceptualized utilitarian–neoliberal nexus allows us to better understand the contingency of market tools in REDD+, whereby, despite the prevalence of neoliberal rhetoric and logics in the policy discourse, there is nevertheless ample evidence that public actors continue to remain in primary control of the REDD+ processes (e.g., governments, multilateral organizations), with a REDD+ market having thus far failed to materialize (Turnhout et al. 2017).

Moreover, analysis of the community level highlighted the importance of equality in the design and implementation of the REDD+ PFM project for the forest-dependent communities in Nono Sele. These egalitarian norms challenge, and exist alongside, the utilitarian–neoliberal nexus at the policy level. Accordingly, these findings suggest significant divergences between the values and interests of the REDD+ policy makers and those of the communities, largely supporting what scholars have found in other contexts (Mathur et al. 2014; Sikor et al. 2014). The fundamental tensions between multiscalar actors are likely to drive the debate on REDD+, and how these are resolved is likely to determine the equity and effectiveness of the initiative (Dawson et al. 2018; Okereke and Dooley 2010).

Aligned with the construction of certain knowledge “truths” about forests, the dominant universalist ethics of the policy makers are leveraged to direct present and future orientations of REDD+. Alternative perspectives and understandings of the environment at community levels are marginalized, as environmental justice research has previously drawn out (Suiseeya, 2016; Martin et al. 2014). Thus, despite the evolution of REDD+ frameworks and the integration of safeguards into the REDD+ agenda, concerns can be raised over the extent to which the (culturally oriented) needs and interests of the forest-dependent communities are to be actively considered and valued by REDD+ policy makers.

Conclusions

This article has assessed and evaluated REDD+ discourse from a multiscalar and justice-led perspective, in the specific context of the Norwegian–Ethiopian partnership. Through a critical discourse analysis, this research has extrapolated the justice norms that underpin and justify REDD+ discourses at community and policy levels. It has highlighted the dominance of a neoliberal–utilitarian nexus in the REDD+ policy discourse, conflicting with the egalitarian norms present at the community level in Ethiopia. We argue that the Norwegian–Ethiopian REDD+ partnership is currently discursively positioned in the interests of the Global North and away from those of the marginalized rural communities in Ethiopia.

In unpacking the dominant and marginalized justice norms in REDD+ discourse across policy and community actors, this research builds on emerging multiscalar and justice-led analyses of REDD+ and international forest conservation initiatives. This article provides further supporting evidence that conflicts in REDD+ policy design, implementation, and management are underpinned by, and reflect, more fundamental divergences in multiscalar actors’ norms and ethics.

A multiscalar and justice-led analysis can allow NGOs and community groups to better understand how to fundamentally appeal to policy makers and practitioners working on REDD+ interventions in terms of underpinning values and perspectives. Meanwhile, this analysis can aid policy makers in shifting toward REDD+ strategies and approaches that are better aligned with community values and perspectives and can provide them with the necessary insight to be better prepared to tackle the multiscalar conflicts and challenges associated with REDD+ interventions in tropical-forested nations.

Based on the findings, we propose, in line with other climate justice scholars (Chomba et al. 2016; Suiseeya, 2016), a shift toward a bottom-up integration of contextually dependent and culturally oriented, community-level needs, interests, and values in the design and development of REDD+ policies. This research highlights the need for a more nuanced and sophisticated policy understanding of (in)justice that is better aligned with the lived experiences of forest-dependent communities across the world and the need to shift away from narrowly defined, technocratic policy frameworks. To deliver an orientation of REDD+ that is equitable and effective, community-level norms, values, and narratives must be represented and mobilized in policy debates and strategies, that is a “pluriversal” REDD+ framework (Collard et al. 2015).

Given that REDD+ at a discursive level remains understudied, we propose further discourse analyses of REDD+ partnerships in other contexts at the intersection of justice, scale, and power. We recognize that the conceptions of justice that emerged in these findings are contingent on the specific REDD+ context and on the particular actors driving the REDD+ processes, for example, Norway’s documented ideological and historical preference for market-based approaches to environmental governance. At an early stage of REDD+ in Ethiopia, discourse analysis can act as an important indicator of how REDD+ will manifest in the country and whose interests it will serve. However, it may prove fruitful to return to this context at a later stage of REDD+, notably when the results-based payments have begun.

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Appendix: Definitions of the Identified Conceptions of Justice in the REDD+ Discourse

Utilitarianism

A consequentialist form of justice which places priority on maximizing overall ‘utility’ in society (most notably conceptualized in terms of ‘overall happiness’). It is concerned with the end result of an action, over and above its processes or history (Okereke 2008; Sen 1999). For utilitarians, policy is to be designed based on attaining the ‘greater good’ in society, i.e. the maximum happiness among the greatest number of people. This was originally seen to counter moral elitism; however, there are clear issues in defining what is ‘utility’ and whose interests the definition serves. Additionally, in aggregating overall ‘utility,’ individual rights may be sacrificed (Okereke 2008; Sandel 2009).

“Neoliberal Conceptions of Justice” (Okereke 2008)

A theory of justice comprising of libertarianism and justice as ‘mutual advantage’ (Okereke 2008). Libertarianism places individual liberty as a cornerstone of justice and values freedom in all things, including in the market, over and above all other socio-political ideals (Okereke 2008; Sandel 2009). Moreover, a theory of justice as ‘mutual advantage’ proposes that justice should be pursued according to the gains that can be maximized for the participating parties, relevant to other parties, as part of an agreed institutional framework (Sen 1999). These two understandings of justice are understood to have overlapping worldviews and align with the rise of neoliberal governance and free market ideology in recent decades (Dryzek 2005; Okereke 2008). Formed together, as proposed by Okereke (2008), ‘neoliberal conceptions of justice’ values the primacy of the market in determining just and equitable outcomes to environmental challenges and crises.

Egalitarianism

A justice norm which broadly seeks to ensure that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable in society are met. However, there are multiple forms of egalitarianism that determines how this is specifically done: pure egalitarianism, sufficientarianism, prioritarianism, Rawlsian liberal egalitarianism (Crisp 2003; Rawls 1999). While pure egalitarianism values the reduction of the inequality gap, regardless of other consequences, the other two forms of egalitarianism more specifically give precedence to those below an attributed poverty threshold, placing significance on the eradication of poverty in and of itself, for absolute, rather than relative reasons (Crisp 2003).

Author notes

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We express our gratitude to the anonymous reviewers for providing invaluable feedback on earlier drafts of the manuscript. We also thank Professor Sue Charlesworth for her support, comments, and guidance in developing this research. This research project was supported by a Coventry University research grant.