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REDD+ as the Stranger-King


Keith H. Hirokawa is Professor of Law at Albany Law School.

This post is part of an ongoing series on Just Transitions.


Deforestation is an insidious enemy. The continuing loss and degradation of forest resources in areas such as Brazil and Panama accelerate the threats of the oncoming catastrophes of climate change by eliminating nature’s ability to absorb carbon emissions. To combat this enemy, the international community has designed the “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation” program, commonly known as REDD+, which focuses on slowing deforestation in the developing countries of the southern hemisphere. Under REDD+, developed nations pay developing nations to forego economic development that would deplete forest resources. In theory, this program is designed to be a win-win: it brings capital to economically struggling communities while ensuring that forests worldwide are protected for the good of the global community. However, despite the good intentions behind this program, it is worth considering the broad colonialist pattern that it follows. Indeed, as colonialists have often harbored good intentions, we should heed Max Liberion’s warning that “environmentalism does not usually address colonialism and often reproduces it.” 

The What, Why, and How of REDD+

The productive forests of developing nations provide a critical contribution to offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climatic changes. Preventing the loss of such resources is, therefore, an international priority in the fight against climate change. However, climate change is likely to cause the greatest adverse impacts on those nations and communities that have contributed the least to it, which coincidentally are the nations that have seen the least economic growth from exploitation of natural resources. To mitigate the appearance of heavy-handedness in protecting the forests of developing nations, REDD+ builds off the framework of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” a principle that recognizes a shared obligation to address climate change while recognizing that states do not share an equal responsibility toward environmental protection. As a means of preventing developing nations from capitalizing on their natural resources through harvest and extraction, REDD+ offers a presumptively equitable solution: a transfer of resources from developed to developing nations, to offset the burden of forgone economic development.         

The financial incentive scheme envisioned in REDD+ builds from the ecological economics of ecosystem services, the idea that humans receive benefits from functioning ecosystems. REDD+ employs “payment for ecosystem services,” under which a beneficiary of ecosystem services compensates those in control of the land for leaving ecosystems intact. REDD+ investments may go to protect a forest from timber harvest or conversion to agriculture or, in the case of a nation or state, to develop programs that will keep forests intact. Sequestered carbon in forests is secured for some defined period of time and constitutes an asset that may be sold: financial incentives under REDD+ act as encumbrances on the land that restrict certain types of development activities, ensuring the purchasers that they have acquired something of value and helping developed nations to meet their common but differentiated responsibilities. Assuming that REDD+ transactions can be structured in a way that furthers what David Takacs refers to as “ecological democracy,” this constitutes a win – win.

The Stranger King and the Covert Colonialism of REDD+

Yet, as theory of the Stranger King makes apparent, some colonialist approaches are softer and gentler than others—colonizing as invitees, rather than by force. The Stranger King story begins as the foreigner encounters a stateless and decentered society that senses its own existential vulnerabilities due to war and inter-tribal strife; essentially, the foreigner finds a Hobbesian, chaotic state of nature, bound by constant threats that locate residents in a dangerous and unforgiving world. However, the thought goes, with the help of an objective and impartial application of justice, these threats could be manageable. Enter the Stranger King. Foreigners, presented as objective and impartial, are able to help resolve community needs without resorting to aggressive intervention methods. In such cases, outsiders may be welcomed with open arms and allowed (invited) to govern.

Although developed nations under REDD+ may not encounter the warring, non-state cultures found in the original Stranger King narrative, the circumstances are otherwise identical. Developed nations (the Stranger Buyers) appear at the doorstep, casting the threat of climate change as existential and unpredictable, chaotic and dangerous – essentially, as the Hobbesian state of nature. Developing nations respond by seeking guidance and salvation. The Stranger Buyer, with its capacity to resolve the danger with climate science and big ideas, is welcomed into communities to adjust local practices, customs and norms.     

One might reasonably object to this characterization of REDD+ as the colonialist displacement of culture and sovereignty: REDD+ does not involve the use of physical force, requires respect for sovereignty, requires local participation, and is based on voluntary, negotiated agreements. Yet the objection is only persuasive if one ignores the cascade of power disparities that inhere in REDD+ negotiations: As Katharine Farrell has argued, “decisions regarding which parts of an ecosystem should be preserved, and which not, cannot be separated from the purposes and preferences of those who have the power to decide how the ecosystem will be managed.” REDD+ negotiations are shaded in suspicious exchanges, where a Stranger Buyer would be “likely to use its position of privilege and power to maximize the benefits it receives and minimize its costs, even at the expense of justice or equity.”  Not surprisingly, REDD+ payments are premised on agreements that insure Stranger Buyers receive the benefits of the exchange.

Moreover, the benefits that Stranger Buyers demand do not align with the ecosystem services that would otherwise benefit locals: Stranger Buyers seek to leave forests intact to protect carbon storage (enjoyed remotely); local beneficiaries of ecosystem services may place a greater value on the production of goods (such as logging, farming and other culturally significant practices) and provision of potable water (local benefit flows). In many cases, local participants do not have access to REDD+ programs in early design stages (when many decisions about trade-offs and economic value are determined) and are cast as beneficiaries of a type of wealth they do not value, suggesting significant equity concerns and a need to discuss a just transition.  

Unless checked, REDD+ negotiations can exacerbate pre-existing, post-colonial power asymmetries between buyers and sellers of ecosystem services (as well as between the local wealthy and poor or national, subnational and local) in a way that “make sense, and even seem right (to some).” Because the Stranger Buyer shows up with cash, adding to the purported benefits of deferring to outside influence, REDD+ makes it easy to overlook the needs of specific forest-dependent communities, particularly the economic equity problems arising from disruptions in local economic and indigenous practices. In the meantime, we see cultural displacement as local wealth in the form of natural capital is suddenly replaced with currency in the commodification of natural capital. It is not a new story and rings of bell hooks’ observations on American urbanization and Black cultural displacement: “Without knowing the appropriate language, I understood that advanced capitalism was affecting our capacity to see, that consumerism began to take the place of that predicament of heart that called us to yearn for beauty. Now many of us are only yearning for things.” And as noted by Mateo Taussig-Rubbo, “outsiderness is complemented by techniques of domestication.”            

As in every instance of such “domestication,” cash is a poor substitute for natural capital. Cash gives the appearance of wealth as it enables participation in a transboundary, global economy that measures wealth based on the import and export of goods. Injecting cash into the economies of developing nations may provide the ability to compete in global markets, but it does not lead to wealth accumulation of social stability. A system that exacerbates existing inequities by exchanging natural capital (place-based wealth) for cash, together with terms that are designed to ensure compliance in a characteristically liberal “rule of law” paradigm, is a thinly-veiled form of displacement. Cultural practices and self-determination are effectively exported abroad to where they are not valued, where they will fester, and where they will soon be forgotten.