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Mount Kahuzi volcano emerges from a bamboo forest habitat in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The forests of Kahuzi-Biega Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been pillaged for timber, minerals and wild game. But thanks to an ambitious environmental proposal, their most valuable resource may be the carbon in the trees.

The project, called REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), has a clunky name but comes with promises of billions of dollars in funding and the hope that it can reduce both deforestation and climate change.

Under the proposal, developed countries will pay communities in developing countries to keep their forests standing, a bill that could amount to $28-billion (U.S.) a year.

REDD+ is expected to become a key part of a "post-Kyoto Protocol" global climate-change agreement. In anticipation, 17 donor countries have already spent more than $4-billion helping 50 poor countries build systems to monitor forests. Canada has given $71.5-million to support "REDD+ readiness" projects.

Local communities and the private sector also have big plans. The Kariba REDD+ Project, launched in July, 2011, in Zimbabwe, is a community-based forest conservation project managed by South Pole Carbon, a private company that specializes in emissions-reduction projects.

"What we did is offer support to local communities and a local private investor to sort out how much deforestation is occurring and why," said Christian Dannecker, director of forestry at South Pole Carbon. Conservation activities, such as planting trees for firewood, are now planned. "The difference in biomass [before and after these activities] will be converted into carbon credits," Mr. Dannecker explains. The project is expected to run until 2040, and the value of the carbon credits could be hundreds of millions of dollars.

REDD+ was first proposed at the 2005 United Nations climate talks in Montreal, as a response to two startling facts. Deforestation generates around 20 per cent of all greenhouse-gas emissions. And illegal logging is almost 90 per cent of the forestry business in the largest timber-producing tropical countries.

Traditional approaches had failed to stop illegal logging. So the radical idea of issuing carbon credits for avoiding deforestation was proposed. This is "one of the first times that there's been … a large enough financial incentive for communities to think about more sustainable solutions than deforesting," said Matt Leggett, head of policy at the Global Canopy Programme, a British environmental think tank.

International watchdog groups, however, warn that REDD+ could help crooks more than trees. "We can see where REDD+ has weakness – fraudulent manipulation of forest measurements, claiming more carbon than there is. It's ripe for corruption," said Davyth Stewart, a criminal intelligence officer at Interpol, the international police organization.

Now, Mr. Stewart said, criminals are getting ready for future REDD+ money – with "carbon cowboys," for instance, looking to gain access to forest land, often through forgery or illegal contracts.

From 2002 to 2010, the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility, an international partnership, gave Uganda $34-million in loans and grants to manage conservation areas. Most of that has now disappeared, with few projects to show for it, the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre in Norway said in a 2012 report.

Illegal logging has since become more sophisticated. The practice generates between $10-billion and $23-billion worth of timber every year, according to Transparency International. Mr. Stewart said Interpol knows about at least 30 types of logging scams, such as mixing legal and illegal timber into pulp and paper for legal sale, and hacking websites to steal permits.

So opposition to REDD+ has been growing. Bolivia has proposed an alternative that would focus on land management rather than carbon credits. "Yesterday forests were turned into carbon-market businesses," Bolivia's Environment Minister Jose Antonio Zamora Gutierrez warned at the Doha climate talks last December. "The planet is not for sale," he added, "nor our life."