Interrogating intervention pathways, landscapes and livelihoods in African forests

This is one of a series of case studies showing how STEPS Centre projects have used methods and methodologies in particular settings.


What difference does carbon make? Interrogating intervention pathways, landscapes and livelihoods in African forests

New deals on climate change are giving increasing value to carbon – in market-based carbon trading and offset schemes. There has been a proliferation of funding and investment mechanisms under the new architecture of climate aid and finance, and this has resulted in a massive growth of projects, consultancies, private sector firms and advisory groups, aiming to capture the new value of carbon through a range of approaches, notably forest conservation and smallholder tree planting. These processes are already having a major impact on land and livelihoods in Africa, with important consequences for land governance, local politics and the relationship between local land users and the state and markets.

While this field is becoming a major focus of research, much of this is operational in nature, focused on getting projects to work better. Instead, the STEPS ‘political ecologies of carbon in Africa’ project is taking a step back, to explore the political ecology-economy of forest carbon projects in historical context, as part of longer-term landscape change, intervention histories, and changing market and valuation processes. The project is asking:

How is carbon commoditisation/marketisation interlocking with long-term pathways of landscape and governance, and so reshaping livelihoods and ecologies? Who are the winners and the losers? What new political and ecological dynamics are emerging as forests are re-valued for carbon?

Or put more simply – amidst ongoing pathways of change, what difference does ‘carbon’ make?

The project’s overall methodology combines an Africa-wide review and mapping of forest carbon interventions and policy processes – drawing on the ever-increasing grey and online literature available, but inevitably partial as the field is changing so fast – with a series of case studies of particular project interventions. The case studies, all conducted by national researchers, address a range of project types in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.


Case study methods

Each case study has explored a similar range of issues and questions, albeit adapted to the setting and context. These are indicated here, together with methods that the researchers have found helpful:

1. The policy context, the project design and its assumptions, including:

  • The underlying ‘policy narratives’ informing the projects, and the sources of data and expertise used to justify the intervention
  • An evaluation of the assumptions used in constructing the carbon baselines and change scenarios, including the use of primary and secondary data, reference areas and carbon pool models
  • The longer term environmental and social history of the project area, and how the project plans intersect with this.

This has involved documentary analysis: of project design documents, of national and local policy documents relating to forests and carbon, and of the formal methodologies prescribed to justify the certification of carbon credits, as associated with the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS), Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) or others. Interviews – of an open-ended nature – have also been carried out with project promoters and developers, and relevant staff in government agencies, companies and NGOs. The aim is to identify the narratives, or storylines, that different actors use to construct a forest or climate change problem, and to justify how a carbon project will address it. Formal carbon methodologies, measurement protocols and models, we have found, often rely on and serve to support and reproduce such narratives (see Leach and Scoones 2013). By triangulating with histories of the project area, constructed from secondary literature and oral histories the sometimes faulty assumptions in such narratives (eg. that linear deforestation is ongoing, and local farmers are to blame) can be revealed.

2. The project impact and perceptions amongst local people living in the project areas, including:

  • Settlement histories – how and when communities/families arrived, environmental changes over time, and how these relate to the project’s assumptions/baselines/scenarios.
  • Livelihoods and resource use – How different people (gender, age, long-term residents and in-migrants) make their livelihoods – and in particular what forest resources are used, and how people understand changes in the landscape
  • Project perceptions – How different people (gender, age, long-term residents and in-migrants) perceive the project and its different project elements. How do they relate these new experiences to past ones?
  • Local perceptions – What are local understandings/definitions of forest change? Climate change and its causes? Forest-climate links? ‘carbon’, ‘REDD’ and other relevant new terms?

To explore these issues, researchers have conducted local-level fieldwork, combining semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions with ethnographic observation and participatory methods. A particular way of focusing interviews, pioneered in several of the case studies, can be described as ‘intervention histories/futures’ – gearing a discussion to tracking how a series of interventions in the landscape are perceived and experienced, and their successive impacts on livelihoods and ecologies. Some case study researchers have combined interviews and ethnography with participatory mapping, working with groups of community members – differentiated by age, gender, migrants vs. long-term residents etc – to map project boundaries, activities and livelihood impacts, and to use the map to focus and facilitate discussion. Transect walks through the landscapes affected by a project, together with different community members, have also been used to visualise and generated informal, frank discussion about ecologies, livelihoods and project impacts on them. Finally, interviewing has been used to explore local definitions and logics surrounding key terms – such as ‘climate change’ and ‘carbon’.

Open-ended questions, without prompting, have produced some remarkable responses that contrast very sharply with formal scientific and project definitions, but prove to make perfect sense when interpreted within local historical and cultural logics. Thus in Sierra Leone, young men said ‘when Reg comes he will buy the bush!’ REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), a term that people have heard in project and media discussions, is thus translated as a person – a foreigner – who is coming to extract a saleable commodity from their forests – a bit like diamonds or timber, whose exploitative foreign extraction have been repeated themes in the country’s history.

Taken together, then, these methods have been used to open up and explore alternative local narratives that capture people’s own experiences and logics around carbon projects; to understand how the pathways consolidated and shaped by carbon interventions interact materially with livelihoods and ecologies, and which groups of people have lost or gained.


Drawing out themes, learning lessons

At a workshop, all the case study researchers came together to share their findings around the questions above. Through a series of individual presentations, group discussions, paired writing exercises, and further group discussions, the team drew out a set of emergent cross-cutting themes, including: Techniques, measurements and their consequences; political economy, history and context of commoditisation; varying roles of the state; diverse livelihood interests, diverse alliances (migrants vs. indigenous groups; gender); tenure – negotiation of rights and access amidst fluid ambiguous arrangements, and marketisation – how imagined and invoked. These were in turn related back to each case study, providing the basis for individual researchers to construct a report/chapter outline that adapted themes to the realities of their  particular case. As these case studies are further elaborated and assembled, they should provide the basis to draw more general lessons about ‘what difference carbon makes’ to interventions in African forest landscapes, and to open up debate about how alternative pathways and ‘just deals’ that benefit poorer forest users might be constructed in policy and practice.