Do carbon credits really help communities that keep forests standing?

Cambodia 26 January 2024 Blog/Podcast/Vlogs/Opinions
John Cannon

Roeung Haeng points out recent clearance inside the boundaries of her community’s government-designated forest. Photo Credit: John Cannon/Mongabay

This commentary was originally published on Mongabay.com

Tucked away in a little-visited corner of eastern Cambodia is a tiny “sea of forest” that undulates near Roeung Haeng’s home.

Here, the songs of yellow-cheeked crested gibbons pierce the quiet canopy in the early mornings. Later in the day, the rising hum of male cicadas contorting their ribs and females snapping their wings in response erupts in a deafening cacophony that’s absent from lands stripped bare of their forest habitat.

For Roeung’s community, members of the Bunong Indigenous group, the forest is also a source of fruit, honey and mushrooms, as well as medicine and resin, which brings in some cash. The forest also houses sacred areas for the Bunong.

Roeung and other residents of Pulung village worked for years to secure its official recognition as the Ngleav Krach Community Forest in 2016. Along a road built in 2012 that cuts through the forest, she points with pride to the topographical map sketching out the boundaries of its 2,282 hectares (5,639 acres). The sign suggests a permanence to the forest’s protection, and that the boundaries outlined on the map have the official backing of the Cambodian government.

But tears run down Roeung’s face when she talks about what’s facing her beloved forest now. For several years, rumors have swirled around a push to make way for 230 families on some 650 hectares (1,600 acres) of the forest to establish a new community. Then, in early April, the chainsaws came.

Secretive loggers mostly operate at night to avoid detection by residents of the Pulung community, who Roeung said are opposed to the destruction of their community forest. They left behind cleared land scarred by black patches where the loggers had tried to burn the trees and vegetation they felled.

“I just want to die because I feel so disappointed about this,” Roeung told Mongabay. “I regret the forest and also the wildlife that has been lost.”

She said she’s protested the move to Cambodia’s environment, land management, agriculture and interior ministries, as well as the country’s anticorruption unit, even taking the issue to officials in Phnom Penh, a six-hour bus ride away. But she found little support, faced accusations of being “antidevelopment,” and was even arrested at one point. (She said she was out on bail when Mongabay spoke with her in April.)

Roeung said she’d heard about a forest conservation initiative called REDD+, and that other communities were benefiting from it around Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in another part of Mondulkiri province, not far from the roadside cafe and traditional grass-roof Bunong house she rents on Airbnb.

Though she said she didn’t understand how REDD+ worked exactly, she was intrigued by the idea that the carbon held by forests of other Bunong communities could translate not only into renewed protection of their lands but also funding for education, health care and employment.

“We’re not well-educated, so the land and forests … are where our Indigenous community can make income,” she said.

Despite high levels of poverty, Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) like Roeung’s hold the key to sustainable coexistence with the forest, research has shown. Their stewardship often maintains or even boosts the climate benefits of the forests they manage, not to mention the other ecosystem services and habitat for biodiversity that healthy forests provide.

Globally, Indigenous-held lands — some of which are officially recognized, many of which are not — hold 80% of the world’s biodiversity, according to data from the World Bank. Their lands also house nearly a fifth of the world’s forest carbon, according to a 2018 report from the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global coalition. But in many parts of the world, including Cambodia, Indigenous land rights are tenuous, if they’re legally recognized at all.

REDD+, short for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, was designed in part to help forest-dependent communities on the frontlines of forest loss. Scientists estimate that more than a third of climate change mitigation could come from nature-based solutions like REDD+ by reducing the emissions associated with deforestation and forest degradation.

REDD+ relies on supporting communities in managing their forests in the face of increasing pressure from activities like logging and conversion to agriculture. The reduction in emissions can be sold as carbon credits, and part of the proceeds are supposed to be channeled back into forest conservation.

But the approach is contentious. Investigations and research have shown that many projects may lead to fewer climate benefits than claimed. The pursuit of profits from the trade of carbon has forced communities off their lands, and other cases have been tainted by allegations of abuse at the hands of project staff. These concerns have led to calls for the reform of REDD+ and the voluntary carbon trade, or for ending the practices entirely.

Rewarding stewards of the forest

At 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres), Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary covers a much larger area than the Ngleav Krach Community Forest. More than 1,000 known species of plants and animals live within Keo Seima’s borders. And critically, loggers, plantation firms and hunters have put that richesse in danger. Those threats made it an attractive candidate for the REDD+ project that began in Keo Seima in 2010.

But which communities and forests fit into REDD+ schemes isn’t always clear to people like Roeung who live closest to the forests and may be looking for support in finding ways to protect them. For their part, the people who run these projects admit that a focus on the immediate project area means they cannot help everyone.

Around the world, some IPLC leaders have publicly backed REDD+. An international group of Indigenous organizations voiced their support for REDD+ in an open letter in May. They acknowledged that REDD+ isn’t perfect, but they said they see it as a pathway to recognize communities’ efforts to conserve forests and to finance their efforts, preserve their cultures and traditions, and support economic development.

“We believe that carbon markets are an important tool, but we need to redesign it,” Levi Sucre Romero, an Indigenous Bribri leader from Costa Rica and the coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB), said during a press briefing at COP28, the 2023 U.N. climate conference in Dubai. “We need to refocus it within the respect of Indigenous peoples’ rights and to have a more open dialogue with those who are paying for these carbon credits.”

REDD+ has given communities tools that allow them to continue protecting their forests, said German Qaghay Sedoyeka, a member of the Datooga ethnic group and a project manager with the Yaeda Valley REDD Project in northern Tanzania. Prior to partnering with Carbon Tanzania, a “social enterprise” business registered in the U.K., villages like Qangdend where he grew up faced an influx of people to their region. Many of these outsiders didn’t have the same relationship with the landscape that the Datooga and allied Indigenous hunter-gatherers like the Hadza have.

“They’re really custodians of the forests in their villages, and they have been safeguarding the forests for centuries,” Sedoyeka told Mongabay.

With the support of the Yaeda Valley project, community members were able to obtain legal certificates establishing what’s known in Tanzania as “customary rights of occupancy.”

“This helps the community to strengthen the protection of their land and forests, which safeguards the livelihood of the community in the villages,” he said.

Beginning in 2012, Bunong communities living around Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary were among the first in Cambodia to obtain collective land titles under the country’s 2001 Land Law as part of a REDD+ project led by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Experts say these rights are critical for the conservation of forests, their carbon and their biodiversity in Keo Seima and elsewhere.

The projects in Tanzania and Cambodia also provide support for education, health care and employment.

“We really appreciate that nowadays [the world has] come to realize and recognize the contribution of the local communities and Indigenous people,” Sedoyeka said.

Yet even with that acknowledgment, many Indigenous leaders say they still don’t feel that their voices are being heard. Some have said they’d like to weigh in on the types of support that would be most useful to their communities, or where funding should be directed.

“We need to really push climate solutions,” said Deborah Sanchez, a member of the Miskitu Indigenous community in Honduras and coordinator of forest, climate and biodiversity with AMPB, which signed the May 2023 REDD+ letter. “But at the same time, we need to push that these solutions [don’t diminish] the rights of some of the people that are living in these territories and forests.”

Other rights advocates have voiced similar fears, even as the world relies on these communities to maintain the last remaining terrestrial carbon sinks — at least in part so that wealthier parts of the world can continue their carbon-intensive lifestyles. In effect, they say, these projects could be viewed as a form of “carbon colonialism.”

Communities face down ‘carbon cowboys’

Globally, some actors have looked to carbon credits as potential profit-making ventures, in some cases, trying to secure the rights to forest carbon credits with little consultation or consent from the communities that would be most affected by these projects.

Mongabay first reported on an agreement to monetize carbon and other ecosystem services from the forests in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo in November 2021. The deal, orchestrated and signed behind closed doors by a few state leaders and representatives of companies from Australia and Singapore, included natural capital rights for some 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres).

The agreement covered more than one-quarter of the state’s land area, but the state’s Indigenous peoples largely didn’t “know that their jungles have been conserved,” said Peter Burgess, CEO of a company involved in the deal called Terra Australia, in an interview with Mongabay. Proponents of the agreement have since declined to speak with Mongabay.

The arrangement rankled Indigenous and human rights organizations in Sabah and further afield. Local groups say they would have supported a more transparent and inclusive way to market those ecosystem services as a way of jump-starting sustainable economic development in the state. Many observers saw the agreement as little more than a land grab designed to make money for a select few. (More than two years later, the deal is moving forward, even though proponents have yet to clarify key provisions, including where most of the forests are located in Sabah.)

Elsewhere, consultation efforts with local communities seem to have lacked the depth necessary to communicate the implications of agreements, which can last a century or more. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, an India-based company called Kanaka Management Services (KMS), with little apparent experience in carbon markets or REDD+, began soliciting local communities for permission to market carbon creditsfrom their forests in late 2021.

Mongabay’s reporting revealed that the people hired to gather signatures were spending as little as 35 minutes speaking with people about the project. KMS has also reportedly secured carbon rights in Papua New Guinea, which holds part of the world’s third-largest tropical rainforest.

KMS hasn’t answered specific questions about the project, despite repeated requests from Mongabay since May 2022.

Concern for the loss of land rights has led another Indigenous-led coalition, the Pathways Alliance for Change and Transformation (PACT), to call for a moratorium on the land-based carbon credit trade.

Critics of REDD+ and the voluntary market say the lack of consideration for IPLCs is part of a larger problem — one in which representatives of these communities aren’t included from the outset in designing the projects they’re expected to carry out.

“In too many cases, Indigenous peoples and local communities are not being treated as equal partners,” Katherine Lofts, a senior research associate at McGill University who studies the connections between human rights and climate change, told a panel in September. Free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is included in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The challenge is really that the voices of these communities and peoples are legitimately heard but also taken into consideration, and that’s where the ‘prior informed consent’ comes into play,” Marco Aurelio Chávez Coyoy, coordinator of the legal department of the Community Forestry Association of Guatemala (Utz Che’) and a Maya K’iche’ community member, said during the same panel.

IPLC leaders also say they should be receiving more funding for their efforts. A 2021 report from the Rainforest Foundation Norway found that less than 1% of climate-related aid went to supporting IPLC land and tenure rights. And even concerted efforts to route money to these groups often fall well short of their goals.

Such frustrations and the slow flow of promised financing have led Indigenous groups to create their own funds, such as the Nusantara Fund in Indonesia and the Mesoamerican Territorial Fund in Mexico and Central America, that aim to funnel donor money for climate- and conservation-related action directly to communities.

Finding ways to support these groups is key to progress, according to Josh Tosteson, president of the REDD+ project marketing firm Everland.

“The most important component [of REDD+], of course, is the change-making work on the ground. It’s the work by, and in partnership with, communities and other stakeholders to intervene in the system that is causing deforestation and transforming those dynamics,” he said. “The substantial majority of the money has to flow to the stakeholders who have a say in what happens in the forest. That’s the bottom line.”

What qualifies as ‘additional’?

From a REDD+ perspective, an issue that arises for many communities is that the protection they’ve provided may be too good.

To qualify for REDD+ project status and subsequent funding through carbon crediting, project developers must demonstrate that a project would actually reduce emissions. In other words, they must show that the emissions reductions wouldn’t have happened if the project wasn’t there. Requiring this “additionality” is increasingly seen as a component of the integrity of the credits that are supposed to represent tangible progress toward climate change mitigation.

The tools of REDD+ are designed to work in forests under immediate threat, Tosteson said.

“REDD+ is urgent care. You’re intervening and using the medicine of REDD+ when you’re in trouble,” he added. In places where forests aren’t under immediate threat, “REDD+ is actually not the [appropriate] mechanism” to support these communities, he said.

But not everyone agrees that communities should be left out if their forests aren’t threatened.

“This is totally unjust,” Samuel Nguiffo, director of the Cameroonian NGO Centre for Environment and Development and an author of the PACT position paper, told Mongabay. “Their way of life is very sustainable, and they are punished for that.”

Tosteson agreed that IPLCs that have protected their forests should be supported and compensated.

“Their forests are not threatened because they’re wise stewards,” he said.

Tosteson pointed to the Forest Peoples Partnership that, like the Nusantara and Mesoamerican funds, aims to channel more financing to IPLCs while ensuring they’re involved in decision-making.

More broadly, being left out may lead these groups to lose faith in the process, said Frances Seymour, who was a distinguished senior fellow with the World Resources Institute at the time she spoke with Mongabay.

“I worry that some very well-intended people who are focused on maintaining the environmental integrity of carbon markets may have lost sight of what carbon markets are for, which is protecting the climate,” said Seymour, who is currently with the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate in the United States, though her views do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government or the Special Presidential Envoy.

“In the case of Indigenous peoples dying on the frontlines when they’re trying to defend their territories from the illegal loggers — to say that this is not additional is just insulting to the people [who are] risking their lives,” said Seymour, who at the time of the interview was also board chair of the organization Architecture for REDD+ Transactions (ART), which runs The REDD+ Environmental Excellence Standard(TREES).

At a national scale, Guyana and Gabon are considered high-forest, low-deforestation (HFLD) countries. While many factors have allowed them to hold on to their forests, observers cite interventionist government policies as partly responsible for why their forests remain relatively healthy.

“If the carbon market rules are designed in such a way that it excludes those examples of where Indigenous peoples or governments like Guyana and Gabon are taking proactive actions to protect forests and as a result of those rules, we end up losing those forests, that’s a perverse outcome,” Seymour said.

Some climate experts have argued that ART’s issuance of $750 million in credits from Guyana didn’t represent the full suite of climate benefits claimed because it included forests that weren’t threatened with imminent clearance. But Seymour said it’s nearly impossible to identify where the next deforestation frontier will be.

“The pressures are relentless,” Seymour said, “and we’re seeing HFLD jurisdictions suddenly experience upticks in deforestation.”

ART makes a special category of TREES credits available to HFLD areas, in addition to the more traditional removals and reduced emissions categories.

Sanchez likewise said the additionality discussion is myopic because it’s too focused on demonstrating the threat of deforestation to sell more carbon credits.

“When we see the maps, the only forest that is really still remaining is the forest where we live, the forest that we steward, the forest that we see as home,” she said. “It’s not always about carbon, but it’s always about people and about climate justice.”

Outsiders used to come to the community where Sanchez grew up in Honduras and accuse her father of laziness because he hadn’t cleared the forest to make way for cattle and the purported riches it could bring.

But the value his family saw in the forest was worth more to him than raising livestock, she told Mongabay. They used timber for houses and canoes, they collected medicinal plants, and the rivers and streams provided them with fish.

Sanchez’s family’s experience speaks to a fundamental difference in the way that many Indigenous and local communities view their forests. Compensation, she said, should flow directly to people on the ground — the site of “the change-making work,” as Tosteson put it.

To some, REDD+ and the voluntary market may seem like a viable avenue for achieving that goal. But there’s so much more to healthy forests that these markets can’t capture, Sanchez said. It’s part of the reason the world is turning to Indigenous approaches to conservation as solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises. They’re effective, she added, and that’s something that the architects of these projects haven’t quite understood yet in her view.

“The Global North has to learn the way we see the world, in the way that we are learning the way that they see the world,” Sanchez said.