Environmental and human rights organizations call on California to reject REDD forest offset credits

Note: Global Justice Ecology Project has been tracking the California-Acre-Chiapas REDD deal since it was unveiled at the UN climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico in 2010.  In 2011, GJEP’s Co-Director/Strategist Orin Langelle and Communications Director Jeff Conant travelled to Chiapas, Mexico to the Village of Amador Hernandez, an Indigenous village in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas threatened with relocation due to the REDD project.  Langelle took hundreds of photos in the community and the region which were assembled into a poignant photo essay.  And GJEP’s work in Chiapas broke the story of and documented the emerging impacts of REDD.  In 2012, GJEP released a short documentary from the trip, A Darker Shade of Green: REDD Alert and the Future of Forests, highlighting the California REDD deal.

-The GJEP Team

May 7, 2013. Source: Global Justice Ecology Project

Photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

Photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

We appreciate the opportunity to submit comments on the REDD Offsets Working Group “Recommendations to Conserve Tropical Rainforests, Protect Local Communities and Reduce State-Wide Greenhouse Gas Emissions” for the state of California. California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, AB32, and the goals of reducing emissions from deforestation of remaining tropical rainforests are important and admirable efforts. However, in order to achieve the goals of AB32 and reducing deforestation we believe that allowing jurisdictional REDD offset credits to meet California’s emissions reduction targets will not be effective. REDD credits threaten to diminish the results of AB32 in California and the efforts of partner jurisdictions, including Chiapas and Acre, to protect their forests. Using subnational REDD initiatives, financed through offsets, to meet the targets of AB32 will be inefficient, ineffective, and create unintended consequences.

Our concerns are three-fold: member states lack the capacity to provide verified emissions reductions; REDD+ countries suffer from serious concerns regarding equity, which this program will exacerbate; and domestic environmental justice concerns are wholly disregarded. Taking these issues into consideration, it becomes clear that REDD+ credits mainly act as a policy “fix” for corporate polluters in California to reduce the cost of meeting emission reduction targets, rather than a true solution to the climate crisis. It is clear, as well, that using REDD+ credits to meet California’s emissions reduction targets will place undue burdens on environmental justice communities in California as well as indigenous peoples and local communities in Chiapas and Acre. The benefits that supposedly accrue to local communities are not substantiated; as currently designed the primary beneficiary of this program will be the corporate polluters. Ironically, it is the activities of the same polluters that are the primary cause of the climate crisis; a program that offers them loopholes to meet mandated reduction targets without in fact reducing their emissions at the source, and which allows them to maintain a ‘green veneer’ by supporting REDD+ efforts in partner jurisdictions, is a program that is bound to fail ecologically, ethically and economically.

While these comments focus on the situation in Chiapas, which the Global Justice Ecology Project has done profound research, we also support similar concerns expressed by NGOs and social movements from Acre, Brazil. We refer to the “Open Letter” from the state of Acre for more information pertaining to Acre.

REDD+ projects in Chiapas have not yet generated verified carbon emissions reductions (VERs). This is an accountability issue now and especially will be in the future if REDD+ credits are used in the California market. This comment first explains why the projects have not met the requirements of VERs and then why promises from the state government to meet the verification requirements in the future may not be sufficient.

A 2012 Greenpeace International report found that there are currently not mechanisms in place in Chiapas to ensure Monitoring,Verification and Reporting (MRV), permanence nor additionality, all necessary requirements for VERs (Greenpeace 2012). Chiapas is in the process of creating its monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) system but in the meantime project developers have a limited ability to measure their reductions and to claim additionality of their projects. Chiapas has a complex topography, a patchwork pattern of land use and a low technological capacity to carry out MRV. These factors make it very difficult to assess the existing carbon stocks in the state. Land title is not clearly delineated in many parts of the Lacandon region and there are no official maps of the area from the Ministry of Environment and Natural History (Greenpeace International 2012). As of July 2012, the margin of error for reporting was as high as 44% (EPRI 2012).

The Greenpeace International report from September 2012 makes strong arguments against state-based REDD+ projects (the form of the GCF) on the grounds of leakage. If Chiapas enters into a REDD+ deal with California, this is no assurance that neighboring states such as Oaxaca will not become the site of further deforestation (Greenpeace International 2012). The UNFCCC intentionally crafted REDD+ as a nation-based program and state-level project developers have yet to prove how they are protecting against leakage.

Chiapas has still not determined an official reference level for deforestation, making it unclear whether existing projects are “additional” or not. The payments in the Lacandon Community purport to protect an area of 614,000 hectares, which is approximately the size of the Lacandon Community Reserve, 614,321 hectares (Greenpeace International 2012). With this project, the Chiapas government hopes to claim and sell REDD+ credits for an area in an existing ecological reserve. As the reserve already exists, the additionality of these credits should be questioned. In regards to permanence, the REDD+ payments to communities in the Lacandon Rainforest were started with no clear plan for funding or permanence and the state budget crisis caused the payments to stop when the Velasco administration came into office (Greenpeace International 2012, and personal communication January 2013). The permanence of REDD+ pilot projects in general is questionable as they tend to rely on short-term fund transfers and permanence is hard to guarantee with any natural carbon stocks, especially in light of the increased risk of fire and storms triggered by climate change itself.

The July 2012 EPRI report from that the state body to develop and enforce safeguards had not formed in Chiapas (EPRI 2012). The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples guarantees the right to Free, Prior and Informed consent on all projects on indigenous territories (FPIC). The Chiapas climate change legislation, which is driving REDD+, does not include the right to FPIC. There is draft legislation at the national level to ensure FPIC, but with less stringent requirements than the UN standard (EPRI 2012). FPIC is a requirement for REDD+ projects and Chiapas has yet to prove they are getting the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of indigenous peoples.

These issues cannot be addressed post facto; they must be integral throughout the REDD+ process to ensure accountability and build stakeholder support. There is also a broader risk that even if the state government goes through with the requirements for generating VERs and resolves these problems technically, it will not be in a fashion that is transparent, reaches all stakeholders or represents actual changes on the ground. The financial incentive of REDD+ could cause the government to prioritize expediency over adequate policy processes in the interest of a fast disbursement of REDD+ funding. This would not be unprecedented in PES in Mexico, as experiences with the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) show (Corbera and Jover 2012). While Chiapas is early in the REDD+ process, the political and historical context of the state may prevent the seemingly straightforward solutions to ensure VERs from being successful.

Critics are also concerned that the state government is not being transparent about the development of REDD+. These concerns have factual basis in Chiapas; it was one of five states in Mexico that a federal institute found to fail to meet the minimum standards of transparency and accountability stated in Article 6 of the Mexican Constitution. The state has failed to provide an adequate reporting of public funds and revenues as required by law (Greenpeace International 2012). The Climate Change law, which is fueling REDD+ development, was not properly consulted on in the state, and instead presented jointly between the former Governor Juan Sabines and Conservation International (Castro Soto 2012).

Track records of PES systems broadly and Chiapas in particular show that the financial incentive of REDD+ credits may induce the state to meet the bureaucratic expectations for these issues without taking the time and resources necessary to resolve them justly and in respect of indigenous peoples rights. Mexico was one of the top four participating nations in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which is an important policy precedent for REDD+. Esteve Corbera and Noelia Jover studied the effectiveness of CDM projects in Mexico and found that it was not always clear that projects were “additional” and therefore eligible for credits. They warn that, “Host country governments may favor a ‘soft’ regulatory approach in order to capture foreign direct investment and facilitate projects’ development regardless of their local development implications” (Corbera and Jover 2012, 51).

Government agencies treat the regularization of land title and monitoring systems as apolitical, technical processes. The introduction of more monitoring technology is likely to be resisted by groups who distrust government incursions to the area, given they have historically been associated with counterinsurgency operations and conservation organizations which have appeared to care more about trees than people in the rainforest (O’Brien 1998). Conservation International, which is a member of the REDD+ working group in Chiapas, has historically tracked perpetrators of deforestation in the rainforest, and acknowledged being part of government efforts to displacement settlements in the rainforest (CAPISE 2002).

There are several indicators that Chiapas is still a highly conflictual state that struggles to put policy into practice. Previous experiences in market-based conservation in the Lacandon region indicate that existing conflicts can be exacerbated by the imposition of new policies that require the definition of clear property rights (Ervine 2012). There are 120 ongoing social conflicts in Chiapas, according to a 2012 report (Greenpeace International 2012). The profit motive of REDD+ creates the risk that tensions between indigenous groups or between indigenous groups and the government will worsen. What previously were latent conflicts can become more volatile if groups feel they are competing over financial resources. Kate Ervine wrote a detailed account of how the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor spurred disputes between the Lacandon Community and other indigenous peoples in the Desempeño region of the Lacandon rainforest in the mid-2000s. A series of negotiations between the Lacandon Community and other indigenous communities granted all but four communities land title. When these four communities resisted relocation they faced violent backlash. Four people were killed in Viejo Velasco in November 2006. While the causes of these conflicts were complex, it is clear the imperative of defining property rights for the Biological Corridor drove the communities to seek retribution (Ervine 2011). Ervine writes that “by requiring clear ownership rights over those resources ‘to be’ commodified, the project itself intensified the need to ‘resolve’ pre-existing disputes” (Ervine 2011, page 74).

Turning over the provision of REDD+ credits to the state government puts communities without legal land title at risk of land grabs, at worst, and at best serves to exacerbate land conflicts between indigenous groups or between indigenous peoples and the state. As early as 2007 in Forest Peoples Programme report “Seeing RED?” indigenous groups expressed concerns that REDD+ projects would go forward without FPIC (Griffiths 2007). Unfortunately, this right does not seem sufficiently secure in Chiapas. The establishment and ‘protection’ of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve has required the gradual dislocation of over twenty indigenous communities (Misión Civil 2012). In April 2011, the state cut off medical services to the community of Amador Hernandez, one of the few remaining un-authorized communities in the Reserve. Residents linked this to the implementation of REDD+ (Global Justice Ecology Project 2011). The state government in 2011 rejected an agreement made between the Lacandones and several communities adjoining their territory to be added to the Lacandon Community. In rejecting the agreement they stated the only activities allowed in the Reserve area—-“are (in this order) ‘tourism, scientific and technological research, and the controlled, not destructive, use of resources” (Misión Civil 2012, 12 author’s translation). It is clear that the needs of communities seeking access to land will be subordinated to REDD+ development. Considering the large number of unresolved land conflicts in the state, this position is very concerning for the future of these communities.

Based on interviews conducted by researcher Martha Pskowski in January 2013, interview subjects who work on environmental and agrarian issues in Chiapas stated that a lack of accessible information about REDD+ made them concerned about its implications for communities. Their logic was that the lack of information about the programs made it more likely that communities would agree to deals that took advantage of them and would result in them losing access to their lands. There are several documented cases of “carbon cowboys” offering bogus carbon deals to indigenous communities in other parts of Latin America (Bartlett 2012). Carbon markets and REDD+ are highly complex and local organizers point out the necessity to make information clear and accessible to rural communities. This involves providing information in indigenous languages and holding informational events outside of the urban areas of the state.

To summarize the issues of safeguards, MRV and ensuring VERs:
We are concerned that state officials will steam-roll through the process required to address these questions of land title and MRV and prioritize the sale of credits over the resolution of local issues, due to the state’s financial interest in moving forward with REDD+. Reasonable implementation of any program that will impact on land and forest governance requires, at minimum:

  • Clear, coherent policies, laws and regulations;
  • Effective implementation and enforcement of, and compliance with, those policies, laws and regulations;
  • Transparent and accountable decision-making and institutions;
  • The full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and local communities in project design and implementation, as required by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
  • Binding and enforceable grievance redress and conflict resolution mechanisms.

The existing problems of land disputes and transparency in the state government cited above are evidence that, at present, the state of Chiapas lacks the minimum capacity to mitigate risks and provide verifiable and rights-ready REDD+ offset credits.

We also have major doubts about the claimed development and poverty reduction benefits of REDD+. This is due both to the difficulty of implementing market-based land policies in Chiapas and the distribution of benefits. These concerns are based in previous experiences in Chiapas and Mexico including PROCEDE, voluntary carbon forestry and the CDM.

Previous market-based rural development programs have failed in Chiapas due to ongoing territorial and political conflicts in the state. PROCEDE is the program introduced after the 1992 Agrarian Reform law, that required ejidos (communal land plots distributed during land reform) to be re-titled. This was deemed necessary to open the ejidos to new forms of investment. Chiapas is the state in Mexico with the lowest adoption rate of PROCEDE. As of 2003 only 27.6 % of the social sector (ejidos and communal land) land area in Chiapas had been certified (Osborne 2010). It is possible that REDD+ would have to contend with equally low acceptance rates.

For the communities that do chose to participate in REDD+, previous experiences in PES show that the goals of market efficiency and poverty reduction often conflict and development goals are de-prioritized (McAfee and Shapiro 2010, Corbera, Brown and Adger 2007). REDD+ credits are not a reliable or redistributive approach to development and pose dangers for poor rural communities. Chhatre and Agrawal (2009) found that several factors were important for securing livelihood benefits in forest carbon projects. Larger project areas were associated with higher livelihood benefits as well as greater local rule-making autonomy (Chhatre and Agrawal 2009). Writing about the Mexican national PES system, now known as PROARBOL, McAfee and Shapiro found that the reforms to the program to include more provisions for poverty reduction (which social movements fought for) ultimately conflicted with the market basis of the program. These reforms were necessary to gain popular support for the programs and advance national goals yet created conflict with international bodies such as the World Bank. In an assessment of the program, World Bank advisers wrote that targeting poverty reduction, “risks undermining [the] primary objective of generating valuable ecosystem services” (McAfee and Shapiro 2010, 593). This shows how economies of scale and efficiency in producing carbon offsets will take precedent over the redistributive or poverty-reducing potential of the program. Commodification will slant the benefits toward larger land-holders and those with access to technology and technical information for the program because they will have a comparative advantage in providing REDD+ credits (Osborne 2011).

Previous carbon offsetting projects in Mexico, such as those implemented in Chiapas by AMBIO, a ROW member, the national PES program PROARBOL, and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) were found to have unequal social development benefits when they were linked to a carbon market (Osborne 2011, Corbera, Brown, and Adger 2007). Osborne wrote about the AMBIO carbon forestry projects in Chiapas that when they were linked with the carbon market the pro-poor and development aspects were gradually de-prioritized to meet the demands of the carbon market (Osborne 2011). There are also concerns that women are marginalized in market programs, which Corbera, Brown, and Adger (2007) found to be the case in AMBIO projects (Corbera, Brown, and Adger 2007). While some development benefits may result from REDD+ projects, women, small landholders and the poorest populations are unlikely to see these benefits (McAfee and Shapiro 2010, McAfee 2012, Corbera, Brown and Adger 2007).

The uncertainty of carbon offset prices, acknowledged in the ROW recommendations and the GCF report of July 2012, will put participating communities at risk to suffer from price drops (EPRI 2012). Interviews in January 2013 also confirmed that the payments were not sufficient; Gustavo Castro Soto of Otros Mundos said in an interview, “The 2,000 pesos that the state government has paid [the Lacandones] don’t mean anything. The people can earn more money selling any other product or migrating to work” (Castro Soto 2013).

REDD+ perpetuates mistakes of previous conservation policies in Latin America that have not considered the needs of local communities. REDD+ limits resource access to forest- dependent communities that have little responsibility for carbon emissions (Greenpeace International 2012). Additionally, the definition of forests under REDD+ creates a risk that monoculture tree plantations will be eligible for REDD+ credits (ATALC 2012). Many areas targeted for REDD+ are also seeing expansion of biofuels. Chiapas is no exception and the south-eastern coastal area near Tapachula in particular has seen a large increase in biofuel plantations (Marotta and Coute-Marotta 2013). While monoculture plantations may absorb some level of carbon they are clearly not comparable to standing rainforests in terms of biodiversity and cultural value. The conversion of forests to tree plantations for biofuels also poses risks to local communities.

Carbon offsetting allows CA industries’ impacts on environmental justice communities to continue and “greens” the environmentally destructive practices of fossil fuel corporations. Instead of building a strong movement for climate action in California, the inclusion of REDD+ credits will further alienate the environmental justice community in California. We need policies that will build grassroots support for climate action. (Sze et al 2009). Shell, Chevron and other fossil fuel corporations in California seeking offsets have sordid histories of environmental destruction and human rights abuses world-wide. Shell and Chevron are responsible for environmental disasters in Nigeria and Ecuador, respectively. Shell has already committed to buy 500,000 forest carbon credits domestically, and we can imagine they would purchase REDD+ credits in the future. By allowing these companies to purchase REDD+ offset credits the California carbon market misses an opportunity to be a true leader in the field and jeopardizes the support of important constituencies.

For these reasons we oppose the inclusion of REDD+ credits in the California carbon market. The doubts are too great as to whether they actually provide emissions reductions, whether the rights of indigenous peoples will be respected in the process and whether local development benefits will accrue.

While the ROW recommendations include many suggestions for addressing technical aspects of REDD+, they do not question the implicit logic of the mechanism– that the location of emissions reductions should be based on comparative advantage and that developing countries and forest-dwelling peoples should be primary actors of climate change mitigation.

To be a true environmental and climate leader, California should adopt policies that address the root drivers of climate change – the extraction and burning of fossil fuels – ensure that those most impacted by climate and environmental pollution stand to benefit, and guarantee that people and jurisdictions with the least historical responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions do not bear the responsibility for mitigation.

Global Justice Ecology Project, Buffalo, New York


Carbon Trade Watch– Barcelona, Spain

Cornucopia Network– New Jersey and Tennessee Chapters

Caney Fork Headwaters Association– Tennessee

Cumberland Countians for Peace & Justice– Tennessee

Global Forest Coalition– Asunción, Paraguay Heartwood–Gosport, IN

Labour, Health and Human Rights Development Centre– Lagos, Nigeria

Network for Environmental & Economic Responsibility of United Church of Christ

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