The climate gamble on African soil

Environmental rights groups say internationally backed carbon capture schemes distract from real climate justice needs.

Soil Africa
Profits will mostly stay in the global North, even though projects are implemented in the South [Erin Gray/Mercy Corps]

The earth swirls into rising dust as the parched lands of northeast Kenya crack beneath Hassan’s feet. The goat herder makes his way to a nearby water pump, paying a few shillings so his remaining livestock can get a drink of fresh water.

Hassan used to have 130 goats before the drought. Recently, he told Mercy Corps – an aid agency working to provide assistance to drought victims in Kenya – that only 30 goats have survived.

Life in Arbajahan in Kenya’s Wajir County wasn’t always like this, Hassan said.

Wajir once had large stretches of green and fertile land, there was regular rainfall, and people owned herds of healthy livestock. Before the drought, Hassan had enough to provide for two wives, 11 children, and a large herd of goats.

“It is very tough to look after them all [the family] and get by because of the drought. I feel bad that I could not do anything to keep my animals alive. They were the only way to provide for my people,” Hassan said.

Across East Africa, drought and famine, increasingly worsened by the harsh effects of climate change, have displaced thousands from their homes and lands.

While some aid is now available, world bodies like the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) acknowledge that measures have remained largely reactive – even though the crisis did not come as a full surprise.

The FAO has called for investment in rural development, and the reconstruction of sustainable livelihoods, to prevent other similar disasters from occurring.

As part of land based efforts to tackle climate change, promote food security, and help people like Hassan, the FAO and other bodies like the World Bank have rallied behind processes like soil carbon capture.

Soil carbon capture

Carbon dioxide and other green house gases entering the atmosphere are the key culprits exacerbating the change in global temperatures.

With soil carbon sequestration (or capture), excess carbon dioxide is re-invested into the soil in organic form, to counteract the harmful emissions that enter the atmosphere via fossil fuels and other carbon-heavy processes.

View Al Jazeera’s special coverage of the famine

The offsets that come from soil carbon capture schemes have been marketed by world bodies as a means to rechannel money back into climate-friendly agriculture.

However, environmental rights groups say the work of offsetting these emissions – and trading credits associated with the process on carbon markets – is where the big business lies.

“Instead of meeting obligations and reducing emissions
in their own countries, instead of changing their
lifestyles, [developed countries] are finding it cheaper
and easier to put the burden onto poor countries and poor people,” said Harjeet Singh, international climate justice co-ordinator at the non-profit organisation ActionAid.

Through the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), industries in developed countries can “offset” the effects of their own hazardous emissions by paying to implement projects in developing countries.

This has included other carbon capture schemes – such as tree-planting or reforestation projects. Soil carbon capture is not currently part of the CDM, and soil carbon credits are only sold on the voluntary carbon market.

Bodies like the World Bank are trying to get soil carbon capture recognised under CDM and the credits traded on the compliance market.

“The World Bank and its allies want it to be included in CDM so that they have a bigger market,” Singh said.

The World Bank touts soil carbon capture as a “triple win” solution for developing countries, saying that the improved agricultural practice it fosters will have the potential to sequester about 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year.

Through improved agricultural processes, it sees soil carbon capture as a means to increase food security for African farmers. It also sees the process as a way of mitigating global warming, by offsetting green house gases; and as a way for African farmers to adapt to climate change, through the investment in climate-friendly agriculture.

Environmental rights groups, however, call it a “triple injustice” for African farmers.

“Soil carbon markets leave poor farmers vulnerable to land grabs, dependent on unpredictable funding from markets, and forced to shoulder the mitigation burden of a climate crisis they did not cause,” Singh said.

Shouldering the burden

A climate change specialist who works closely with African governments, providing advice on sustainability issue, thinks the carbon market is “a mechanism by which the rich countries reduce emissions in developing countries and earn credits for it”.

“It is not really funding for developing countries to reduce their emissions; it is funding for developed countries to transfer the burden of their own emissions elsewhere,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisal.

The specialist said that although there is agreement that emissions have to be offset on a global level, the question is who reduces them.

“Is it the poor Ethiopian farmer who lives off the land, or the American with the Hummer who lives on 20 gigatons of emissions a year?” he asked.

“A trivial amount of money goes to farmers involved in the process,” the specialist added. “It is cents really.”

Rights groups have questioned who really reaps the benefit for reducing carbon emissions, when the carbon credits are sold on international carbon markets, a far way away from the farmers who do the actual work offsetting them.

“Most of the money stays in the global North, even though projects themselves are in the South,” said the environmental rights group, the Gaia Foundation, in a statement earlier this year.

“Those that benefit most from carbon trading are financial speculators such as JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Merryl Lynch, who buy and sell carbon credits like they do any other internationally tradable commodity.”

“These projects are unlikely to deliver any benefits to the communities … They will certainly not benefit the climate. But they will be hugely profitable to financial speculators,” the Gaia Foundation said.

Doreen Stabinsky, a professor of global and environmental politics at College of the Atlantic in the US who consults with international environmental groups, agreed that the amount of money each farmer would make off the scheme is negligible.

“Four dollars a ton is what the World Bank says they will pay farmers per year,” Stabinsky said. Others have estimated that this amount may actually be more like $1 per ton once other costs are factored in.

“The average farmers own 0.6 hectares, and an average estimate is that each farmer will yield half a ton of carbon per hectare per year, so that is not a lot of money,” said Stabinsky.

“And after the World Bank pays farmers those dollars, it can then trade it on the secondary market for a higher amount. [The carbon credits are] theirs; they can do whatever they want with it.”

‘Icing on the cake’

The World Bank says environmental groups are approaching the issue from the wrong perspective.

“Carbon markets and credits are the wrong framing of this,” said Patrick Verkooijen, head of agriculture and climate change at the World Bank.

“The farmers themselves consider this as icing on the cake. The reason they do this is to increase productivity in the soil. Carbon sequestration is for them an add-on. So a few dollars a ton is indeed modest, but nevertheless, it generates additional income.

“With this triple win, they are not just focusing on one thing,” Verkooijen said.

“The long-term implications for smallholder farmers remain to be seen,” he admitted. “But the empirical data that has been gained is that the revenue goes straight to these farmers.”

Although there are, as yet, no formal soil carbon sequestration projects implemented in Africa, the World Bank has initiated the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project, a pilot project in Kisumu in western Kenya, on 45,000 hectares of land and involving 60,000 farmers.

“We need to avoid a situation where a consultant earns
$1 million a year and farmers earn just a dollar”

Anne Maina, climate change worker

The Kenyan environmental ministry, however, was unavailable to comment when asked about the project.

Agriculture contributes more than 27 per cent to Kenya’s GDP, the World Bank stated. Almost 70 per cent of that agriculture is provided by smallholder farmers, said rights group the African Biodiversity Network (ABN).

Anne Maina, who works with the ABN on issues of climate change and advocacy among smallholder farmers in Kenya, said most farmers there do not understand the issues.

“They come into it thinking they are going to benefit from the carbon credits. But I can’t say I know of one community that has benefited from the credits. It’s the brokers who benefit.

“I see it as immoral that the consultants who don’t do the work get the majority of the money. We need to avoid a situation where a consultant earns $1 million a year and farmers earn just a dollar.”

Maina said governments and world bodies need to support processes to improve agriculture and sustainable development, especially given the drought in the region. By linking to projects that involve carbon markets and credits, “the real issues are not being addressed,” she said.

Land grabs

Soil carbon capture schemes require massive initial investment, because of the technical aspects involved in capturing and measuring carbon in the soil, the Gaia Foundation reported.

“Vast public funds” will actually be used to develop these projects, diverting money away from the actual agricultural needs of subsistence farmers, the group added.

ActionAid’s Singh said that instead of more money going to rural farmers, soil carbon capture “will in fact reduce the amount of public money going into agriculture in general and it is unlikely you will get adaptation money for these farmers”.

ActionAid believes such schemes will also increase the likelihood of land grabs in African countries.

Stabinsky said: “African governments see money; and the picture that the World Bank is painting is a very worthy one. The more land you have, the more soil carbon you can sell. And there is so much land tenure based on customary tenure in Africa; lots of people don’t have private title of their land.

“So if you really can create the need for a verifiable commodity [in carbon], there may be a reason for governments to go in and claim that land. And the government can do it if they want,” she said.

Soil carbon capture schemes also require farmers to sign deals allowing developers to lease their lands for many years, even decades. As part of these agreements, farmers would also be confined to using specific agricultural practices on their lands.

These so-called agro-ecological or “climate smart” farming practices – which include things like non-tilling of the soil, to ensure minimal disturbance of the captured carbon – are central to achieving the “triple win” solutions of climate change adaptation, mitigation and food security, the World Bank said.

However, Stabinsky said: “If you are a farmer dealing with the varies of climate change, you may have to do something different on the soil the next year. The flexibility needed by a small farmer living on the edge may not be the same as what the World Bank needs to be done.”

The climate change specialist who advises African governments said that even though implementing agro-ecological processes has benefits, “you don’t need a carbon market to do that; these are processes that we should be promoting anyway”.

Environmental rights groups say market-led approaches to agriculture and climate change mitigation in Africa only create climate refugees, but do not address the core problems.

Instead of investing in carbon markets and offset schemes that pass the burden to the developing world, farmers and rights groups say that what is needed is public finance based on debt and historical responsibility.

The situation in the Horn of Africa will only increase in frequency and intensity, the climate change specialist said. “African governments should listen first to their farmers, and what we are hearing at least from East African farmers is they are concerned.”

Singh said: “African governments and bodies like the World Bank think that soil carbon capture will be a silver bullet. But when African governments realise it won’t work, they will lose five more years and billions of dollars into setting up these carbon markets, before they can do anything.”

For people in East Africa – like Hassan in Wajir Country – who are losing their homes, livelihoods, cattle, and lands fleeing the harsh effects of drought and climate change, waiting five years for a policy turnaround is five years too long.

*Reporting and information from Wajir, Kenya, provided by Erin Gray/Mercy Corps

Source: Al Jazeera