Ask the Expert: Dr. Matthew Sommerville

Matthew Sommerville, PhD, is the Chief of Party of USAID’s Tenure and Global Climate Change Program. This week, Dr. Sommerville presented on USAID’s work to clarify and strengthen land and resource tenure for REDD+ projects at the Global Landscapes Forum in Paris. Dr. Sommerville also demonstrated a new open-source technology that USAID currently using to map, record, and certify rights to customary lands in Zambia. As part of our Ask the Expert series, we asked Dr. Sommerville to describe some of his work on climate-change and tenure for USAID.

Question: Tell us about yourself, what is your professional background?

Answer: I manage a multi-country project for USAID that explores the relationship between secure land and resource tenure with climate change mitigation and adaptation primarily through two pilot projects in Zambia and Burma.

I have an academic background in the behavioral economics of natural resource management, particularly around structuring positive incentives (payments) and negative incentives (law enforcement), which included field research on payments for biodiversity conservation in rural Madagascar.

In 2009 when there was a big push for a climate agreement, I was part of an organization that was tracking international environmental negotiations and for the next two years, I worked on UN climate negotiations, where I developed a fond place in my heart for the unique world that the Global Landscapes Forum is a part of. When USAID started the first generation of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) projects in 2010, there was a lot of momentum for a cap-and-trade compliance market for credits in the US and I had the unique opportunity to work on consolidating the lessons learned from early adaptation and REDD+ as well as land tenure projects.

Question: You have done a lot of research on REDD+ and land and resource tenure. What is REDD+ and why is it important?

Answer: Changes to land-use is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases globally and for many of the countries where USAID works, deforestation and forest degradation are by far the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases. REDD+ projects promise economic incentives for reducing or reversing deforestation and forest degradation and early versions of these projects were assumed to be a low-cost way to reduce emissions.

However, over the past decade it has become increasingly clear that REDD+ is not strictly about stopping deforestation in isolated patches of forest within countries, but rather that REDD+ requires a much larger national or jurisdictional scale and often significant policy and capacity development, including in regards to land tenure. While national policy engagement adds a complex layer to project implementation, it provides great opportunities to achieve broader land use governance objectives.

Question: Why does land tenure matter for REDD+?

Answer: REDD+ is not only about providing people with financial incentives to stop cutting down trees, it is also about developing effective forest governance by establishing and implementing rules at the national and jurisdictional levels and applying monitoring and enforcement for these incentives.

Structuring positive incentives largely boils down to land and resource rights. If a stakeholder has legitimate rights, then she may be entitled to receive a payment or compensation, but if she lacks legitimate land and resource rights, she will bear the costs of enforcing her rights.

One of the main challenges that we face with land tenure and natural resource policies is that existing legal frameworks may not recognize the de facto rights of local stakeholders. So improving the legal framework to include customary land use practices is important to develop secure tenure systems and prevent deforestation.

Question: What are some ways that strengthening land and resource tenure benefits REDD+ implementation?

Answer: Clarifying and strengthening land and resource rights for local members of communities that neighbor forests provides these groups with stronger negotiating power to REDD+ activities. It allows local actors to receive greater benefits and places more responsibilities with these local stakeholders. Strengthening tenure is increasingly being recognized as a crucial component of REDD+ implementation where, for example, community lands will be demarcated or officially recognized prior to establishing land and natural resource management agreements.

Question: Describe USAID’s work under the Tenure and Global Climate Change Program in Zambia. What does this project plan to achieve? What are some of the key challenges and lessons learned so far?

Answer: In Zambia, USAID’s Tenure and Global Climate Change project works with district land alliances to support traditional leaders by mapping customary lands for land certificates to communities and households within their chiefdoms.

This mapping of village boundaries, resources and individual household land rights, provides a powerful tool for land-use planning and helps some chiefs better understand the remaining wetland and forest resources within their jurisdiction. It also helps these chiefs engage in longer-term land-use planning, management and monitoring of the resources within the chiefdom.

Increasingly, the Zambian government is interested in supporting chiefs and rural communities to manage their resources. The availability of registered rights provides a powerful tool for resource planning and creates incentives for households to engage in climate-smart agricultural practices, like agroforestry.

Question: How do you think open-source technology can help secure land rights and help prevent deforestation?

Answer: Putting tools in the hands of local decision makers is an important step in truly testing whether local communities can manage their resources as effectively or more effectively than central governments. There is a great deal of information and tools to help with decision making at the local level and providing local actors with access to these tools information is a challenge that open-source technology can help resolve.

Question: Community participation is an integral part of the mapping technology being used in Zambia, why do you think community participation is key to this process?

Answer: USAID’s work on the Tenure and Global Climate Change project is an attempt to document existing resource rights that have been negotiated over decades by community members, village leaders, and chiefs. A crucial part of this project is creating multiple stages that allow for community feedback to improve the process. While we are trying to map land rights at a low cost, we are also ensuring that local institutions have a real chance to verify claims.

Question: Why is the Global Landscapes Forum important? Why do you think it is significant that USAID’s Tenure and Global Climate Change project be presented here? What do you hope people take away from your presentation?

Answer: The Global Landscapes Forum is likely the biggest annual gathering of people who make decisions regarding the integration of climate change, forests, agriculture and land-use planning. There are too many people who believe that while land tenure is a critical issue, it is also too complex, too political or too sensitive to deal with. USAID’s Tenure and Global Climate Change is at the Global Landscapes Forum to stress that strengthening land tenure and resource governance does not require dramatic agrarian land reform, but rather that there are incremental steps that can support strengthening rights over time. By sharing these experiences, particularly from a wide range of USAID projects, we hope to create a momentum for strengthening land rights as both an enabling condition for adaptation and mitigation interventions and also as a key element of successful interventions.