California is world famous for its visionary environmentalism. So the state's Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32), intended to reduce carbon emissions from nearly all sectors of the economy, was welcomed as forward-thinking legislation. Yet good intentions may turn sour if California decides to use rainforests in Mexico and Brazil as sponges to absorb its emissions instead of reducing pollution at source.
The state has proposed to buy carbon credits from Chiapas and Acre to meet its climate targets, provoking much discontent. Now, California's Air Resources Board (CARB) is about to decide whether or not to include international forest offsets in AB32. If so, California would become the first sub-national state in the world to develop forest offsets.
This would not only advocate a false solution to climate change, creating a dangerous precedent, but also would make it difficult to reverse a much-contested policy that perpetuates power structures central to the climate crisis.
California dreamin' or nightmare?
As of now, CARB's plan allows California's largest polluters like Chevron to buy carbon credits from Chiapas, Mexico, and Acre, in the Brazilian Amazon, to compensate for their pollution. This plan is known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), a carbon offset scheme originally tabled at the United Nations.
Inherited from the Clean Development Mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol, it permits big polluters to use forests as carbon sponges instead of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions at source. REDD puts forests in the carbon market in the form of forest carbon offsets.
This is how it works. To measure a tree's carbon sequestration, you measure its diametre, then enter it in an equation, which in turn gives you the amount of carbon the tree captures. Once trees are measured, you get an estimate of the total carbon stored in a forest. Then big oil companies like Chevron buy those trees' carbon credits in Chiapas so that they can keep polluting California. Such pseudo-scientific methods are used to commodify environmental worth, and turn forests into private assets.
The problem with REDD is not only how it works, but also where it works. The trees that will supposedly sponge up California emissions are located in regions infamous for human rights abuse and land dispossession. In 2010, Governor Schwarzenegger proposed California could meet its climate change goals through carbon trade deals with Chiapas and Acre. California's REDD Offsets Working Group (ROW) has been exploring agreements among subnational governments and recommending implementation practices.
Although political elites in Acre and Chiapas were happy to set up carbon trade deals, California's REDD plan was not well received among forest-dependent communities. Indigenous farmers foresee land conflict and the loss of their livelihoods. Monoculture plantations are considered forests under REDD, and communities fear their traditional crops will be replaced by palm oil plantations, as happened in Indonesian Borneo. They also fear losing access to forests they have preserved for centuries.
Acre, located in the Brazilian Amazon, is mostly covered with native forests, half of which are in protected areas. Although the best way to keep forests standing is to grant land rights to the communities who have safeguarded them for centuries, REDD often involves their eviction.
Opposition to adopting REDD into AB32 has been as fierce as it has been diverse. Chiapas villagers mobilised against the sub-national REDD project. Their open letter asking California to stop the carbon credit deal accuses the Mexican technical expert responsible for validating the project's environmental credentials to securing business interests more than guaranteeing forest diversity and indigenous territorial rights.
Acre's Xapuri Union of Rural Workers, once led by environmental activist Chico Mendes, firmly rejects REDD and warns of the problems it will bring to the Amazon and its inhabitants. In the US, Oilwatch International put out a statement slamming Shell Oil's dabbling in California REDD initiative. Indigenous leaders denounced its ethical breach and researchers cautionedGovernor Brown against California using REDD offsets.
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Some REDD-like initiatives have gruesome records. Most forests in the world are located on indigenous land, and forest carbon projects often adversely impact indigenous peoples. In Brazil, Chevron, General Motors and American Electric Power handed over $18m to the Nature Conservancy to invest in forests to offset their emissions.
The Guaraquecaba Climate Action Projectis being implemented on ancestral Guarani territory. Armed guards called “Green Force” keep local communities off their forests, jailing and shooting at trespassers.
Existing safeguards are easily bypassed. Indigenous peoples like the Matses peoples, in the Peruvian Amazon, are victim to fraudulent contracts by carbon cowboys who trick them into signing carbon contracts for perpetuity in English. Most often, REDD-like projects are developed without the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples.
The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador opposes all REDD-type policies, but that has not stopped Ecuador's government from developing them anyways.
In Africa, forest carbon projects are resulting in servitude and massive evictions. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Batwa Pygmies were reported to be suffering conditions of servitude on the World Bank Ibi-Bateke Carbon Sink Plantation. One of the worst cases of land-grabs is perhaps the forced eviction of over 22,000 farmers for a forest carbon project in Uganda in 2011.
Security forces violently dispossessed thousands of farmers in the Mubende and Kiboga districts to make way for the British New Forests Company with World Bank financing and UN accreditation to trade carbon credits. Local homes were bulldozed, farmers forced out of their homes at gunpoint were left landless, and eight-year-old Mukamperezida was burned to death when his house was set ablaze.
Tom Goldtooth, Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, has repeatedly denounced REDD as potentially genocidal. Around the world, mobilisations against REDD are gaining momentum. The launching of the No REDD in Africa Network at the World Social Forum in Tunisia is only the most recent manifestation of a global movement against carbon markets and REDD.
Independent scholars and activists have long denounced the carbon scam. First, REDD-like projects do not reduce greenhouse emissions. On the contrary, it encourages business as usual. Offsets guarantee that pollution continues with a façade of climate preservation. This means that Contra Costa County will remain one of the most dangerous places to live in the US; that accidents like the explosion at Chevron's refinery last summer will continue to threaten Richmond residents.
There is no shortcut to cutting carbon emissions. We need to stop burning fossil fuels. A recent report by the non-profit Carbon Tracker and the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics estimates that at least two-thirds of the world's estimated coal, oil and gas reserves must remain underground if we are to keep global warming beneath the 2 Celsius degree goal.
Second, displacing peoples and destroying forests is at best a form of land-grabbing and at worst carbon colonialism. It dispossesses farmers from their land, violates indigenous rights to self-determination over their territory, and disrupts ancestral relationships between peoples and forests. It destroys indigenous cultures and monocultures destroy biodiversity.
For Nnimmo Bassey, Alternative Nobel Prize Laureate and former Executive Director of ERA/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, REDD is no longer just a false solution but a new form of colonialism. REDD may be one of the biggest land grab of all times, driving land grabs so massive in Africa that some denounce it as a continent grab.
If REDD makes it into AB32, California's big polluters will pay corrupt governments to offset their carbon responsibility instead of reducing industrial emissions. Communities in California will continue to suffer asthma and cancer. Forest communities in Mexico and Brazil will lose access to their livelihoods, and evictions will force them into homelessness and poverty. Pollution will not be curbed, and global warming will get worse.
For anyone who still finds it difficult to grasp the forest offset business, suffice to look at who is in favour of REDD and who is against to understand the dynamics at play. REDD supporters are organisations like the World Bank and companies like Shell, Rio Tinto and Chevron-Texaco which are successfully buying their way out of reducing greenhouse emissions at source. Opponents are many indigenous peoples' networks, working class people living in polluted industrial neighborhoods, independent civil society groups, and people who believe corporations should not be allowed to control the world. That says a lot.
Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.