Deforestation is a primary contributor to global climate change. When the forest is felled and the vegetation is burnt or decomposes, carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is released into the atmosphere. An approach designed to stem climate change is Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), a global financial mechanism that requires intricate governance requirements to be met—a significant challenge in the developing areas. In Panama, the government is responsible for designing and implementing a national REDD+ strategy with support from multilateral organizations. This case study is built through the experience of a public hearing on the potential implementation of REDD+ in the highly contested Upper Bayano Watershed in eastern Panama. The Upper Bayano Watershed is composed of vast and diverse forest ecosystems. It forms a part of the Choco-Darien ecoregion, a global biodiversity hotspot, and is home to two Indigenous groups (Kuna and Embera) and populations of migrant farmers (colonos), all with different histories, traditions, and worldviews concerning forests and land management, often resulting in territorial conflicts. A major socioecological issue facing the region is deforestation, which is driving biodiversity loss and landscape change and threatening traditional livelihoods and cultures. The public hearing stimulates difficult discussions about access to land, tenure security, biodiversity conservation, poverty reduction, identity, power, trade-offs, and social justice. The case is designed to confront participants with the challenges of implementing ambitious, international, and often-prescriptive natural resource policies at local levels.
Users of this case will (1) develop an understanding of the complex interactions between socio-economic, cultural, and political components of coupled natural and human forest ecosystems in eastern Panama, (2) learn to articulate different stakeholder perspectives on tropical forests and climate change policy issues using the case of REDD+ in Panama, and (3) gain insight into some of the challenges and opportunities facing coordinated policy responses to tropical deforestation.
Forests and Climate Change
Forests play a fundamental role in the global carbon cycle, serving as both sinks and sources of carbon dioxide (CO2) , a greenhouse gas that is the primary contributor to global climate change . When forests are felled or degraded, carbon is released back into the atmosphere in the form of CO2 if the vegetation is left to decompose or burnt. Between 1990 and 2015, the global rate of deforestation decreased, but remained alarmingly high with a net loss of 129 million ha, mostly in the tropics . During the same period, Panama lost 423,000 ha of forest . In the Upper Bayano Watershed, an analysis by Vergara-Asenjo et al. , based on maps by Hansen et al. , revealed that 17,901 ha were lost between 2001 and 2012, representing an annual rate of deforestation of 0.42%, while the national rate was 0.35%. Globally, deforestation and forest degradation account for ~9% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions .
Introduction to Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+)
Recognizing that deforestation and forest degradation are important contributors to climate change, a proposal was put forward by the governments of Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica in 2005  to include actions aimed at “reducing emissions from deforestation” (RED) as a part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Also referred to as “avoided deforestation”, this proposed RED mechanism was deemed one of the most cost-effective strategies to fight climate change . The concepts of RED and avoided deforestation have now morphed into REDD+ [10, 11]. REDD+ is a policy instrument by which developed countries may partially offset their CO2 emissions and thus mitigate global climate change, by financing developing countries to reduce deforestation and degradation, and enhance forest carbon stocks through forest conservation, sustainable forest management, and afforestation and reforestation [11, 12]. REDD+ may also achieve various co-benefits including biodiversity conservation, rural development, poverty alleviation, and improved forest governance [13–15].
REDD+ Opportunities and Challenges
No other international mechanisms on forests or climate change have generated as much interest, debate and controversy as REDD+ . It has spawned a deluge of research and publications in both academic and policy circles, been the theme of myriad conferences and meetings, and drawn the mass attention of media [17, 18]. An interest in REDD+ stems from the multiple benefits it may generate, including mitigating the impacts of climate change and protecting and restoring large swaths of forests and the ecosystem services they provide . If well designed, REDD+ could also generate valuable revenue and employment for local communities, thus improving their livelihoods . In addition, the mechanism could lead to more secure land tenure rights, as the clarification of tenure by governments is necessary to provide assurances to investors that forests are under the stewardship of those receiving payments . Furthermore, REDD+ could result in improved forest governance  by stimulating reforms in support of the mechanism.
However, several challenges with REDD+ have been articulated [23–26]. Concerns over the infringement of human rights of forest dependent and dwelling people have percolated REDD+ discussions . There are fears that REDD+ might stimulate land grabbing and invasions by elite groups (e.g., governments and large landholders) wanting to capitalize on carbon offset payments . Uncertainties regarding land and carbon tenure, and thus the potential for the inequitable distribution of benefits,  as well as the exclusion of minority perspectives in decision-making, have also been key sources of tension between REDD+ proponents and potential beneficiaries [14, 28–32]. The capacity of developing countries to enact changes in forest governance is also highly debated, particularly in “fragile” states fraught with corruption, widespread poverty, poor enforcement capacity, gross social discrimination, and economic inequalities [33–36]. However, in balance, there appears to be enough institutional backing and impetus behind REDD+ for it to move forward .
REDD+ in Panama with Indigenous Peoples
Panama was among the first countries to begin to prepare for REDD+ in 2008 by developing and strengthening the social, technical, and institutional capacities necessary for the mechanism. At that time, 54% of remaining mature forests in Panama were located in Indigenous territories ; so the participation of Indigenous peoples was deemed essential to the success of REDD+. However, progress was hampered by complaints against the Government of Panama and the United Nations Collaborative Programme on REDD+ (UN-REDD), by the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of Panama (COONAPIP), for not guaranteeing the respect of Indigenous peoples’ human rights or ensuring their full and effective participation in REDD+ [39–41].
In early 2013, COONAPIP withdrew from the REDD+ process, but later that year made amends with UN-REDD and the Government of Panama. Eventual fractures within COONAPIP resulted in some Indigenous groups expressing an interest in REDD+, others rejecting it, and some failing to define a position, a situation that remains. The only known experience with REDD+ in Indigenous territories in Panama, a forest conservation and restoration project in an Emberá community in eastern Panama, suggests that state support would be a necessary condition for the success of REDD+ initiatives given promising community-level adoption .
The Upper Bayano Watershed Socioecological System (SES)
The 3,695-km2 Upper Bayano Watershed (Figure 1), located 90 km east of Panama City along the Pan-American Highway, is a part of a complex SES  and biodiversity hotspot  that houses forests that extend contiguously ~250 km eastward into the province of Darien. This SES hosts one of the last remaining stands of pristine, tropical forests in Mesoamerica [45, 46], which is under threat by competing development interests [47, 48]. Widespread illegal deforestation (Figure 2) has raised concerns over the future of this region’s natural and cultural heritage [48–50].
The Upper Bayano Watershed has been the stage of long-standing territorial conflicts between Kuna and Embera Indigenous peoples and farmers, known as colonos (i.e., individuals colonizing the agricultural frontier), who migrated from central and western Panama in search of land for subsistence farming and cattle ranching [51–53]. These conflicts, catalyzed by the forced displacement of local population during the construction of the Bayano Hydroelectric Complex in the 1970s, have yet to be fully addressed [53, 54], despite a 2014 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that requires the government of Panama to resolve the problem of insecure land tenure . Differing worldviews about land management, land invasions by colonos, and poor enforcement of land tenure have been sources of disputes between these groups and drivers of landscape-level changes, primarily along the Pan-American Highway [5, 46, 56–58]. Conflicts between Kunas and Emberas center on overlapping land delimitation. In general, these two Indigenous nations live alongside with little interaction. They collaborate occasionally, most recently through the case brought forward to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights demanding indemnification for the loss of ancestral lands due to the construction of the Bayano Hydroelectric Complex .
This case study explores how different stakeholders, who share a common landscape and value forests in fundamentally different ways, view the potential for REDD+ to contribute to sustainable development. It is structured around Ostrom’s  framework for analyzing SES, with a focus on stakeholders (i.e., resource users) and how they may exercise their agency to either accept or reject REDD+.
Stakeholders in the Bayano
emberas The Emberas migrated to eastern Panama from Colombia starting in the nineteenth century . Their presence in the Bayano region is reported in the 1940s in isolated home sites along the Bayano River and its tributaries [51, 59]. Recognizing the value of collective action in dealing with the government, the Emberas settled in villages in the 1950s and 1960s [51, 59]. With the construction of the Bayano Hydroelectric Complex, they were re-settled in three territories, Ipeti, Piriati, and Majé (Figure 1). With the passing of law No. 72 in 2008 , which established the norms for adjudicating collective lands to Indigenous communities outside of comarcas (i.e., legally declared Indigenous territories), the Emberas politically organized themselves as the Tierras Colectivas Embera de Alto Bayano (Figure 1). After almost 40 years, Piriati and Ipeti received their land titles in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Majé, which not only has the highest percentage of remaining forests but is also the most threatened due to illegal logging and land invasions, has not received its title as of 2017 .
Historical logging, land invasions by colonos, and agriculture carried out by the Emberas have resulted in the loss of important tracts of forest [61, 62]. Since REDD+ is performance based  (payments are made against proof that rates of forest carbon stocks losses have been curbed), the onus would fall on the Emberas to protect what remains of their forest. The Emberas have a strong connection to the forest but due to deforestation are no longer able to benefit as much from traditional uses. Community members are facing difficulties with finding medicinal plants, wild meat, and places to enjoy nature. It has become harder for the Emberas to access natural construction materials, which along with the challenges of maintaining traditional homes, has led to a widespread shift from traditional Embera architecture (Figure 3) to building methods employed by colonos. Traditional huts, built on stilts with forest materials, have given way to ground-level cinder block homes with metal zinc roofs.
The Emberas in the Bayano have experience with carbon sink projects, including a native tree species reforestation and forest conservation project in the community of Ipeti established to offset a Panama-based research institution’s CO2 emissions . Despite this, the Emberas have not formally accepted to participate in the national REDD+ strategy.
kunas The Kunas in the Bayano region are remnant Indigenous population from a migration toward Panama’s Caribbean coast in the eighteenth century from the province of Darien , abutting Colombia. They were adjudicated legal title in 1996  to 2,318.8 km2 (Figure 1), also the result of the forced displacement of their communities during the construction of the Bayano Hydroelectric Complex and subsequent flooding of their ancestral lands . The Comarca has 14 villages, and all have been built according to traditional norms, using materials from the forest (Figure 4).
The Kunas maintain the largest tracts of forest, particularly north of Lake Bayano (Figure 1). The region of the Comarca near the Pan-American Highway continues to be subject to invasions by colonos. Agreements have been reached with some colonos so that they can remain on Comarca lands, but waves of migrants have continued to arrive, resulting in occasionally violent confrontations between both groups. Some invasions have also begun to occur in the more inaccessible lakeside region.
Like the Emberas, the Comarca Kuna de Madungandi has opted not to participate in the REDD+ mechanism . Among their arguments, is their incongruent view of the forest with those who advocate for REDD+. In their view, REDD+ proponents consider the forest, in essence, an absorber and repository of carbon, while for the Kunas, trees are considered their brothers . Despite these cultural norms, some villages have established forestry concessions with logging companies . The leaders of the Comarca have also begun to revisit the issue of REDD+ following meetings with representatives from the Government of Panama, while still not committing to participate in the mechanism.
colonosColonos began to arrive in the Bayano in the 1950s, with colonization steadily increasing with the construction of the hydroelectric dam and the Pan-American Highway . These farmers migrated in search of land and implemented their traditional agricultural practices of subsistence farming, followed by pasture establishment for low-density cattle ranching . They mostly manage small farming units (Figure 5). Few colonos have formal land title. Instead, many have possession rights, i.e., tenure of land without a government-issued title [66, 67]. Possession rights are reversible and thus may impede the colonos from accessing REDD+ benefits.
Some colonos who invaded Indigenous lands in the 1970s and 1980s have signed agreements with the Kunas to work in their lands, but their tenure status is precarious. New waves of colonos continue to arrive in the region, often invading Indigenous lands. These do not have any arrangements with the Indigenous authorities and evictions are continuous and tend to be violent. Unlike the Emberas and Kunas, they are not accustomed to work collaboratively and, generally, lack organizational structures that represent their interests [56, 66]. A previous study  explored opportunities and challenges for implementing REDD+ with colonos and found that unless REDD+ reconciles farmers’ cultural uses of lands and avoids disparities in the sharing of benefits, it would likely not succeed. This same study, however, revealed that colonos value forests and may conserve these ecosystems if conferred formal land title by the government .
government of panama The Ministry of Environment is leading national REDD+ efforts in Panama, in close collaboration with UN-REDD. Internationally, Panama has positioned itself as a leader on the mechanism. For example, it presided over the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, an intergovernmental organization that addresses issues of tropical forest sustainability, and led the creation of the International Center for the Implementation of REDD+ . Through it, Panama is pursuing an ambitious reforestation initiative, called the Alliance for one Million Hectares (hereafter Alliance), working with government agencies and local NGOs to restore degraded lands over the next 20 years.
Locally, however, the government-led REDD+ process has encountered difficulties, particularly in their engagement with Indigenous peoples. The Ministry of Environment took more than three years since problems with COONAPIP emerged to initiate the consideration of safeguards to reduce the deleterious impacts and maximize the benefits of REDD+ on stakeholders . The Ministry of Environment is now holding discussions individually with Indigenous authorities, and in the case of the Upper Bayano Watershed, these have centered on restoring degraded and invaded lands as a part of the Alliance. With a history of land grabbing ; unclear, insecure, and poorly enforced tenure regimes [5, 48]; and a system of social and environmental safeguards whose implementation is yet to be operationalized, questions remain about the government’s capacity to ensure that REDD+ meets its full intent.
CASE STUDY QUESTIONS
For this case study, participants should be divided into four groups that represent the Emberas, Kunas, colonos, and government officials (for more details, see Teaching Notes). Each group will articulate their position on REDD+ while role-playing in the context of a public hearing. Like in real life, those representing the Kunas, Emberas, and colonos will either opt in or opt out of REDD+, conditioning their participation or justifying their nonengagement. The government’s role is to encourage the participation of the other three groups, as without them—particularly Indigenous peoples—REDD+ is likely to have limited impact on Panama’s efforts to mitigate climate change.
The course instructor should serve as a chairperson of the hearing, representing an independent consultant leading a study on the prospects and viability of REDD+ in Panama. The chairperson is encouraged to initiate by providing (Supplementary Materials, Teaching Notes) an overview of REDD+, the process underway in Panama, stakeholders, and REDD+ relevant issues taking place in the Bayano, namely:
REDD+ is considered one of the most cost-effective mechanisms to mitigate climate change globally . If well designed, REDD+ could also contribute to conserving biodiversity and ecosystem services and improving the livelihoods of the rural poor [19, 20].
Internationally, Panama has been a leader in REDD+. Nationally, engagement with Indigenous peoples has alternated between periods of collaboration and tension . The government continues to make efforts to improve their rapport with Indigenous peoples.
Indigenous peoples are the primary stewards of remaining forests in Panama  and therefore could expect to benefit more from REDD+ than other stakeholders. In Bayano, the Kunas have the largest forest estate and hold title to this land. The Embera territory of Majé has the second largest forest estate, but the Emberas have not been conferred formal title to this land. Majé overlaps with a hydrologic reserve, which is subject to government management, and is undergoing a rapid process of deforestation.
Avoiding the loss of ~5,000 ha of forests to land invasions could potentially generate ~US$330,000/year in the Bayano through REDD+ revenue, enough to deploy key strategies to protect and restore forests and to provide income to local communities .
To date, the Kunas, Emberas and colonos have not agreed to take part in REDD+. However, the government continues to meet them regarding plans to reforest one million hectares of land over 20 years, which has sparked the interest of all groups.
Each group should prepare to present and defend their position based on internal consensus. If divergent views between the four groups are put forward, they should develop recommendations on how to potentially reconcile these contrasting perspectives on REDD+. The following questions should serve to incite discussions:
What conditions would have to be met for REDD+ to be adopted in the Bayano by the different groups, and what actions would be required for these conditions to be met?
What management tools/approaches may stimulate adoption of REDD+ by the different groups?
What role does each group play in protecting and/or felling and degrading forest areas that could be slated for REDD+?
What are the broader political economic conditions that affect/influence decisions around the use of natural resources?
In the context of Panama and the Bayano, what elements may generate power asymmetries and influence REDD+ adoption or rejection?
How could local stakeholders resist or support REDD+ programs? Who would be their allies locally, nationally and internationally?
What opportunities and challenges do deforestation and climate change mitigation-related policy initiatives face in Panama? How might community and policy responses be more effective?
Conceptualization, investigation, methodology, project administration, visualization, and writing (original draft, review, and editing): JM-V. Conceptualization, methodology, project administration, and writing (review and editing): AKS and GMH. Conceptualization, funding acquisition, investigation, methodology, project administration, supervision, and writing (review and editing): CP.
JM-V and CP are grateful to the traditional Indigenous authorities of the Comarca Kuna de Madungandi and the Tierras Colectivas Embera de Alto Bayano, and farmer groups in the Upper Bayano Watershed for facilitating access and research in this region over the course of more than 20 years. JM-V, AKS, and GH extend a special thanks to the organizers, particularly Cynthia “Cindy” Wei, and participants of the “Workshop on Teaching Social-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies”, hosted by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Annapolis, MD, in July 2015, for their insightful and helpful ideas in crafting case study. The authors also wish to acknowledge and thank the useful comments by Liba Hladik, Managing Editor, and Iara Lacher, Section Editor (Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation) of Case Studies in the Environment and three anonymous reviewers who helped to strengthen this case study.
This study was supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation DBI-1052875. In addition, case study authors were supported by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, McGill University, the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, and the Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación de la República de Panamá.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Appendix 1: Classroom management
Appendix 2: Proposed grading rubric
Appendix 3: Background to the case study