How Carbon Offsets Will Change The World As We Know It


This is the second article in a two-part series. Read the first instalment here.

Efforts to protect biodiversity in the dwindling wildlands of the world have increasingly run into a discomfiting tension between the impulse toward absolute preservation and the needs of people — many of them indigenous — who have lived sustainably in forestlands for decades or centuries. Such tensions are playing out in the new economics of carbon offsets.

With a preserve designed in large part to safeguard stored carbon, a new set of imperatives comes into play. Turning trees into carbon credits requires knowing how to extrapolate from carbon measurements to determine a forest’s potential as a carbon sink. It requires knowing as precisely as possible how many trees there are and of what size — which means minimising the unpredictable activities of human beings, as small scale as they might be.

For many generations, the Guaraqueçaba forest in Brazil was home to the Guarani Indians, but their dominion waned as the Brazilian government encouraged subsistence farmers to settle and clear the land. Today the two populations coexist, living alongside the reserves or in communities nearby and relying on what remains of the forest for everything from food to building materials. There are more than a dozen villages around the three reserves, linked by dirt roads and river tributaries travelled by canoe. Most are home to just a few dozen people living in structures of wood and reeds.

Jonas de Souza is a 33-year-old farmer who grew up a quarter of a mile from this forest. His family grows bananas, cocoa, and coffee on a small plot. He remembers hunting for small prey — roast paca, a large rodent, is a local delicacy — and collecting seeds and hearts of palm. But now, signs have gone up at the edge of the forest: No hunting, fishing, or removal of vegetation. The Guaraqueçaba forest is now part of Cachoeira reserve — a carbon offset project run by the US-based Nature Conservancy and funded by one of the planet’s leading carbon emitters: General Motors. A state police force — the Força Verde, or Green Police — patrols the three reserves, as well as a larger state-sanctioned preservation area, to enforce the restrictions.

"Now," says de Souza, "I don’t have the right to go out and do what I used to do when I was 12, 14, 15 years old. I’d grab my fishing rod and get a fish to bring to my family or to feed myself. You don’t have the right to walk into the forest to go and cut a heart of palm to eat. I’ll get arrested and I’ll be called a thief."

De Souza says he’s found numerous relics of the Guarani — pipes, an axe, pottery, and burial items. The forest is valuable today, he notes, because his community and those who were here before them have taken good care of it. "We have been here, and still the forests haven’t disappeared. Still the rivers aren’t contaminated. Still the biodiversity isn’t extinct."

One of the goals of the Green Police is to prevent large-scale poaching, particularly of the endangered and highly valuable hearts of palm, as well as exotic primates and birds. Yet officers cited few arrests of individuals linked to major logging, palmito, or wildlife-smuggling enterprises when I joined them on patrol. Many of their enforcement efforts have focused on local people cutting a single palm for its succulent heart — or collecting wood to build their homes. "They’re afraid of us," said Captain Lestechen, a patrol leader, as a group of young boys sitting on a bench eating a heart of palm quickly scattered at the approach of the Força Verde jeep.

Visiting the villages without the Força in tow, I heard numerous stories of people being harassed, arrested, and shot at while looking for food, wood, or reeds. Antonio Alves, a 35-year-old farmer and carpenter — we spoke as he carved a 15-foot log canoe — said he was arrested this year for chopping down a tree to fix his mother’s home in Quara Quara.

It’s a stretch to call Quara Quara a village: It’s a cluster of five cabins perched at the end of a small, silted waterway. The only way in is by canoe. Three of the homes have been abandoned — the residents left, Alves said, because they could no longer hunt and gather food in the forest. After his arrest, Alves spent 11 days in jail in Antonina, a one-hour canoe ride away. The lawyer defending him at trial, pro bono, was the town’s mayor, Carlos Machado. Sitting in his expansive office in the town’s colonial-era city hall, Machado told me that he’s represented a string of people like Alves, villagers hauled into court on charges of violating the strict prohibitions in the reserves.

"I know he didn’t go cut that tree down to speculate on the wood," Machado said. "It’s one thing, the wood seller who is destroying [the forest]— this is very different from a caboclo [farmer]who cuts down a tree to build a fence." These distinctions, he said, have been missing from the policies created by the reserves and enforced by the Green Police (whose officers have received training from the Society for Wildlife Research and Environmental Education, the Nature Conservancy’s Brazilian partner).

Machado has noticed a stream of migrants from the backwoods to his town which is buckling under the strain. "Antonina is a small town that has few resources for generating income, few possibilities for people who come from the rural zone without skills and without the defences to live in the urban environment. They stay on the outskirts of town, in the mangrove swamps, in irregular, inhospitable situations. It creates a lot of social problems for us … Through those conservation projects, they created a poverty belt around our town." The migrants also move west to Curitiba, said Machado, where they’re often steered into prostitution or the drug trade.

By excluding villagers from the forests, says Jutta Kill, a researcher with the Forests and the European Union Resource Network who has spent months interviewing locals about the project, the reserves are pulling out the communities’ lifeline. "In this area," she says, "everyone is cash poor but no one goes hungry. If you take the forest away, you take away everything. The preservation projects here are designed to generate offsets for the largest polluters, and they’re doing it by cutting off people from the land." Few of the people here have motors on their boats, she notes; even fewer own cars. People with some of the smallest carbon footprints on Earth are being displaced by companies with some of the biggest.

Back in Curitiba, Manyu Chang, a forest scientist who is the coordinator for climate policy for the state of Paraná, told me that the conservation groups were trying to create a "zero disturbance" environment in their forests. "Maybe that’s a little obsolete," she said. "Maybe you [should]have 90 per cent conservation, not 100 per cent. That way you could include the community of people who live there." But that could undermine a system based on assigning a stable, reliable and tradable value to a living ecosystem.

"The carbon idea is not really tangible to people in the community," Miguel Calmon, the Nature Conservancy’s director of forests and climate in Latin America, acknowledges. Calmon says the conservation groups initially sponsored training programs for local community members in alternate sources of income — cultivating honeybees, organic bananas, local crafts — but the money ran out. Now, he says, the rules are clear: "You can’t go into these private reserves. That land is not their land anyway. If you used to go [into the forest]from your house across the road, now you can’t. That land is already owned."

This article was first published in Mother Jones magazine and released in collaboration with Frontline/World, the public television investigative series. Watch a video version of the story here.

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