Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) offers developing countries an opportunity to engage in global climate change mitigation through the sale of carbon credits for reforestation, avoided deforestation and forest conservation projects. Funding for REDD+ projects has increased in recent years and REDD+ projects have proliferated, but relatively few studies have, as yet, examined their implementation. Here, we present a synthesis of the challenges and lessons learned while implementing a REDD+ project in an Emberá community in Panama. Our case study, documented in four cycles of collaborative action research over 11 years, examines how local communities sought to reduce emissions from deforestation and benefit from carbon offset trading while improving local livelihoods. Through semi-structured interviews and participatory methods, we found that success with REDD+ hinges on broader issues than those widely discussed in the literature and in policy circles. Though economic incentives for participants and the equitable distribution of benefits remain important to project participants, our study finds that, in adapting REDD+ strategies to best suit community needs, the role of a support system for implementation (“bridging institutions”) and REDD+’s potential as a conflict resolution mechanism for tenure issues deserve more attention as key factors that contribute to meaningful participation in REDD+.
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