As 'REDD' projects to protect forests in developing countries gain pace, campaigners and other groups representing indigenous peoples have warned that the plans could offer little benefit to local communities that depend on the forests for their livelihoods.

REDD — reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation — is touted by proponents as win–win for both conservation and poverty reduction. It is based on taking money from polluters in the developed world and channelling it to tropical nations for use in protection of carbon stocks. The agreement that covers such projects, signed at the United Nations climate meeting in Cancún, Mexico, last year, includes environmental and social safeguards that call for respect for the rights of local and indigenous peoples. But forest-dependent communities and human-rights organizations fear that these provisions offer weak and ineffective protection.

These concerns are starting to play out on the ground. A study by UK-based human-rights group the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), which looked at nine REDD pilot projects in Cameroon, warns that forest communities there have not been adequately consulted on efforts to move on from the pilot schemes to develop national REDD plans. In addition, the national plans include no measures to protect the rights of these people — such as seeking their free, prior and informed consent to projects that may affect them — nor to ensure that they benefit.

REDD was always going to have teething problems, and there will be opportunities to address these concerns. Eyes are already on an upcoming meeting of the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) — a global fund administered by the World Bank to help developing nations to devise national REDD plans. At the meeting on 20–22 June in Oslo, Cameroon will present its plans, and will ask for up to US$3.6 million to start implementing them.

Will attending conservation organizations such as the WWF, which led the development of Cameroon's REDD plans, have time to note and attempt to rectify the shortcomings identified by the FPP in time for the meeting? Perhaps not, but a subsequent meeting of scientists, international organizations and donors to discuss the social sustainability of REDD will certainly have the opportunity to examine them. The Oslo REDD Exchange will take place on 23–24 June.

An important first step would be for organizations involved in funding and driving REDD projects, such as the World Bank, to take the involvement of local communities more seriously. The FCPF has yet to finalize standards and safeguards for activities it funds, for example, those governing human rights. And it remains unclear what standards REDD projects will be measured against, given that the FCPF is just one of a number of donors. Until these issues are resolved, it will be impossible to tell whether adequate precautions are in place.

Many who follow these issues closely argue that the World Bank must lead by example, and could start by bolstering its own policies on the rights of indigenous peoples. Currently, the bank requires indigenous peoples to be 'consulted' on funded projects that may affect them. Human-rights campaigners would like to see this provision strengthened so that 'consent' is required. They are hoping that this will be a key feature of a review the bank launched last month to examine its operational safeguard policies.

The REDD initiative is too important to be undermined by a reckless disregard for indigenous peoples. It is vital that key players use this year's opportunities to steer it back on course. To ensure that projects on the ground run straight, funders must set a good example. Otherwise, a major opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and improve people's livelihoods will fail before it has a chance to succeed.