Interview with Minnie Degawan, Senior Advisor for Social Safeguards

Posted on 09 July 2013

 Minnie Degawan is the Senior Advisor for Social Safeguards with WWF’s international Forest and Climate Initiative (FCI). She works directly with indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) to ensure that they participate in REDD+ dialogue and decisions both at the national and global levels. 
 Interview Minnie Degawan, Senior Advisor for Social Safeguards


Minnie Degawan is the Senior Advisor for Social Safeguards with WWF’s international Forest and Climate Initiative (FCI). She works directly with indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) to ensure that they participate in REDD+ dialogue and decisions both at the national and global levels. 

Q: What is your role with WWF's Forest and Climate Initiative?

I am the Senior Advisor for Social Safeguards. In my role, I look at the social issues with REDD+ in our priority landscapes, and at the same time I look after the indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) aspect of FCI’s work and collaborate with IPLCs to ensure that their rights are taken into account in REDD+ activities.

Q: How did you personally become involved in social safeguards and IPLCs?

As an indigenous person myself (part of the Igorot group in the Philippines), I was very much involved in the defense of our ancestral lands against development aggression in the 1980s. At that time, there were clashes between indigenous groups and developers over dam construction in the Cordillera. Some indigenous leaders were killed during the clashes, and the indigenous groups of the area managed to file a legal case in Manila. I was in Manila at university and was already part of the movement against martial law, but the experience supporting this case was the start of my involvement in the indigenous peoples’ movement.  The work we did helped me understand how many challenges there are to retaining rights over ancestral lands. Based on my discussions with leaders at that time, I also came to realize that there are a lot of things that people who can get educated can do for the overall indigenous peoples’ movement.

After finishing my studies, I went back to the Cordillera and joined the newly formed regional indigenous peoples organization the Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance (CPA).  Part of my role in the CPA was to represent us at international forums, such as the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations which was tasked with drafting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Throughout this time, I was exposed to indigenous peoples not just from the Philippines but from around the world. As a group, we decided to form an international coalition, which led to the creation of the International Alliance of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests. This group included representatives from Africa, Asia and Latin America and focused specifically on many of the relevant issues facing indigenous people in forest areas like mining, dams, etc.  Through my work with this group, I gained experience in international policy negotiations.

I have been involved with this movement for a long time, and when I joined the FCI team last year, I did so with the hope of seeing the results of international lobbying translated to community benefits.   After 20 years of lobbying and negotiation work, I realized that I needed to get back to the communities.  Ensuring that indigenous rights are recognized at the local level in REDD+ is so very important.  Focusing on safeguards at a community level is a good way to test whether those rights that we have fought for so hard at the international scale can actually improve the lives of people on the ground.

Q: What is a safeguard for REDD+?

The most relevant safeguards for REDD+ activities that resonate with IPLCs are secure land rights and sustainable livelihoods. Securing indigenous peoples’ rights to forests and ensuring that they have sustainable livelihoods are absolutely key to the viability and sustainability of REDD+.  While this may sound too broad and some might argue even goes beyond REDD+, in my mind, it is the only assurance for REDD+ success.

Q: Why are safeguards needed?

In any activity that involves forests, I think the people who are dependent on the forest are often overlooked – from protected areas to conservation schemes and now in REDD+. It is important that the people who are dependent on the forest are included in the discussions and activities. If their rights are not recognized, then whatever good intentions we have can not come to fruition because there is not any sustainable way for action to be taken.

Q: What's the difference between Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) and safeguards?

FPIC is a process. It’s a process that ensures that safeguards, if there are agreed upon safeguards, are actually addressing people’s concerns. So, FPIC is both a safeguard in itself and also a process. We should not mistake one for the other and say that if there is FPIC there are automatically safeguards in place or vice versa. FPIC makes sure people are included in the process, and safeguards can be one of the “products” (among many) of an effective safeguards process.

Q: How do gender or age play into the landscape of safeguards?

I think it is important to recognize that there are different gender and generational roles when it comes to the forest, and when development or conservation groups come to meet with communities they often have a set idea that they will talk to the leaders or elders. However, there is a misconception that all indigenous communities look to elders for advice and leadership – that is not always the case. The reality is that women and youth should always be involved in conversations about forests because each group has a unique relationship with the forest based on their roles within the community. For example, in most forest communities, women don’t cut down trees because that’s a male responsibility, but women do collect other forest products and thus have an in-depth understanding of the relationships between and among species. The same can be said for youth, as young people often spend time in the forest as part of their rites of passage to adulthood and have a different perspective on the forest ecosystem.  If groups come into communities and only speak with elders or with men, these cultural nuances and knowledge are lost. Women and youth should be involved in REDD+ safeguards conversations because they bring unique and important perspectives to the table.

Q: What can we do to make sure these groups are involved in the safeguards process?

This is where the value of WWF’s years of experience comes into play. WWF focuses on building long-term relationships with communities. When we build trust with groups, we can set the foundation for successful REDD+ work. REDD+ is not a short-term fix or a one-shot deal, but should be a broader approach to forest management and conservation taking local needs and capacities into account. By working with communities and taking the time to learn the unique roles that men, women, elders and youth play, WWF can help ensure that all groups have a place at the table when it comes to decisions about REDD+ and safeguards.

Q: What is WWF's role in promoting safeguards?

WWF is recognized internationally as a very credible organization and can help make the issue of safeguards part of the global dialogue around REDD+. WWF is also experienced in presenting successful case studies of work on the ground with communities at international events such as the United Nations global climate summit. In my eyes, WWF’s role is incredibly important in making sure that safeguards and IPLC issues are included in policy negotiations, and I want to make sure that FCI continues to promote examples of good practices on the ground.

Q: Where have you seen examples of social safeguards working for REDD+?

At this point, we are still in the REDD+ readiness phase, and I am happy to say that thus far safeguards have played a very important role. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Indonesia, two countries that have historically not been as open to IPLC rights, the fact that governments there are willing to sit down with indigenous peoples and develop guidelines and laws – FPIC guidelines in DRC and reviewing forest laws in Indonesia to be more attuned with international norms – is a huge step forward. If we continue to focus on safeguards during this REDD+ readiness phase, I believe that safeguards will continue to be strengthened when a REDD+ mechanism is in place on the ground. 

Q: How does WWF monitor safeguard compliance?

This is a big challenge and something that still needs to be defined at an international level. That said, safeguard compliance is an ongoing process, and because WWF builds relationships with communities, it is in a good position to be able to get honest feedback on whether safeguards are working. When communities know and trust WWF, they are more likely to speak up when the safeguard system is not meeting the local needs.  Again, this highlights the importance of relationships and trust in having an effective safeguard mechanism. In the absence of a safeguard mechanism, having templates for how safeguards should be monitored, building long-term relationships and creating open dialogues with IPLCs is the best way to go.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you see when working with IPLCs on REDD+ safeguards? 

One of the biggest challenges is that issues get muddled when ideological discussions come into play. For example, there is a very vocal anti-REDD+ movement, and it’s difficult to meet with communities and have productive dialogues when the first thing either side discusses is carbon credits and money.  REDD+ is about more than carbon credits, so while that is of course a big part of what REDD+ is, it is not the whole picture. The anti-REDD+ group is active and vocal, and sometimes communities may find it hard to go against that tide. It is difficult to even talk about safeguards when going for REDD+ is seen by some groups as “selling out”.  We have to be honest and recognize that there are ideological differences when it comes to REDD+, not everybody agrees, and we are working through that to find the best way forward for both people and forests.

The other challenge we face with safeguards is educating governments, and especially forest departments, about the importance of working with IPLCs. For many years forest departments of national governments looked at forests as sources of income, and that to gain the benefits you needed to move the people out of the forests. So this is another shift in thinking that we’re working on – that we can work to conserve forests in a way that benefits and respects local people, too.

Q: Beyond safeguards, are there other social elements that are important for REDD+ when it comes to IPLCs?

An element that is sometimes left out of safeguards discussions is the importance of ensuring the cultural integrity of the communities with whom we work. Benefit sharing often involves cash, and when communities are not equipped to handle the influx of funding, it can harm cultures, values and relationships among communities. This is an important aspect that should be considered when talking with communities – that funding is a big part of REDD+, but that it is not the only part of REDD+. We do know that communities need to have income streams and need to develop basic services; however, we should frame discussions about funding carefully. For example, it shouldn’t be a question of needing schools and doing REDD+ to get the money to fund them, but rather, if you need schools, and if the schools will be funded using REDD+ money, what kind of schools will we establish and how we will run them?  This focus on holistic benefits is something that donors need to address – the way we frame REDD+ discussions from the beginning has a huge impact on how communities see it. The benefits of REDD+ are not just monetary, and we need to be sure that this message is clear from day one when working with IPLCs. 

Q: Where do you see the future of REDD+ safeguards?

I really believe that safeguards for REDD+ and IPLCs are already a given. I think that all the REDD+ activities that we are going to develop in the future will include safeguards. The challenge will be to ensure that  safeguards are actually implemented. We often talk about respecting FPIC, but how we operationalize safeguards will be so important for our success in the next few years. I’m looking forward to building the capacity of communities so that they can monitor and report on safeguard implementation. I am also thrilled that national level laws developed in DRC and Indonesia recognize IPLCs, and I hope we see more of that in other countries soon. 

Reporting by Breen Byrnes, Communications and Learning Program Officer.

Media contact: Jennifer Ferguson-Mitchell, Communications Director, 

Minnie Degawan, WWF FCI Social Safeguards adviser
© Minnie Degawan/WWF