How Carbon Offsetting Can Build a Forest

November 09, 2021

Nov, 2021

In Colombia’s Selva de Matavén Unified Indigenous Reserve, we can see what the REDD+ financing framework for carbon offsets can mean for the people living in the forests they sustain.

(Photo by John Myers)

“This thing used to be the size of a chicken coop,” Cacique Matsulu said to me as we arrived to ACATISEMA's new offices in Cumaribo. “Now look at it.” A Sikuani man in his early 50s with a tight flat top, kind eyes and generous smile, the Cacique—or Chief—is the Selva de Matavén’s Zone 1 coordinator, one of its most important leaders.

The Cacique proudly toured us around the modern, two-story building—including several offices and meeting spaces. Upstairs, two women were crunching numbers on Excel spreadsheets. “We're working on next year's budget,” explained accountant Neila Parra, accounting for requests submitted by the reserve's 16 sectors and 315 communities. The sale of carbon credits from the REDD+ project accounts for 100 percent of ACATISEMA's operating budget, around $5 million in 2022. In addition to covering the salaries of the Indigenous guard, stationed throughout the reserve to protect the forest, the project finances programs for potable water, food security, education, solar power, and transportation.

After visiting the newly constructed health clinic, which is also funded by the REDD+ project, we traveled across the savanna to Cumariana, entering the reserve for the first time. “There are some people who don't understand our REDD+ project, say bad things about it or may want to even take it away from us,” the Cacique announced to the hundred or so primarily Sikuani speakers who turned up:

“The people who criticize it are far away, sitting in offices in Bogotá or Europe; John, Lorena and Daniel are here to see the Selva de Matavén. There is an important meeting coming up about climate change, where governments from around the world will make important decisions that determine whether our Mother Earth will live. Live because we help her and do our part. Or die. Die because some people would rather fight about what to do, instead of taking action now.”

Detoxifying the Debate

A United Nations-backed framework that endeavors to curb climate change by halting deforestation, REDD+ stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation,” with the “+” signifying the role of conservation, sustainable forest management, and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks. REDD+ was formalized by the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFFCCC) in 2005, having evolved over the previous decade under the handle of “Avoided Deforestation.” According to Ecosystem Marketplace’s 2019 report Shades of REDD+, “If richer countries really believed that the forests in poor countries were worth more alive than dead, the reasoning went, then rich countries would put their money where their mouth is to help save those forests.”

The Paris Agreement recognizes that better forest management can provide 25 percent of the mitigation necessary to keep global warming below 2 °C by 2050. REDD+ is a mechanism that can create a virtuous and reinforcing cycle to save the climate through the cooperation of governments, the corporate sector, and Indigenous communities.

To make progress toward this goal in Glasgow, we need to detoxify the carbon offset debate. Critics tend to focus on two unrelated issues: calculating deforestation rates for a project (which is highly technical and still a work in progress) and corporate greenwashing. Robust scientific debates are happening at all levels and will almost certainly result in the necessary evolution and recalibration of verification standards. As for the latter, truly tackling climate change requires that governments, NGOs, donor agencies, and corporations work together in good faith toward a common goal. This is very difficult to do if governments are unable to effectively communicate with and regulate the rapidly evolving carbon offset sectors in their respective countries. And it will be nearly impossible, in the absence of clearer more enforceable offset standards, to have confidence that no one is gaming the system.

The meeting of world leaders at COP26 is an opportunity to support a carbon offsets standardization. In Glasgow, groups like the Group of Seven (G7) and the Group of Twenty (G20) need to listen to leaders from the Global South to jointly develop a realistic but effective proposal that recognizes the paramount importance of projects like Matavén and the Indigenous communities on the front lines of climate action. Organizations like ACATISEMA (Association of Councils and Traditional Indigenous Authorities of the Selva de Matavén) represent an innovative model for preserving both cultural and biological diversity, including forests, and they should not be expected to defend arguments around the validity of the market approach. Unfortunately, as we observe the debate between REDD+ watchdogs and VERRA, the philosophical objection to the market has clearly infected the technical question of how to calculate scientific baselines (by people completely lacking the technical expertise to do so). This is not the way forward.

Forest-dependent Indigenous communities like those in Matavén are nimbler than governments when it comes to reducing deforestation. REDD+ projects—and the communities they benefit— are the building blocks of a climate change solution, but we must compensate them generously for this life-giving service. Carbon offsets are one of the only solutions that the world has come up with to do this. Improving the science of measuring carbon and creating an offset market that enables fast action by the corporate sector to finance community-led climate mitigation should not be delayed further.

A Closer Look

The 1.86 million-hectare Selva de Matavén is larger than more than a few countries. In a transition zone between the Amazon and the llanos—the tropical savannas of the Orinoco basin shared between Colombia and Venezuela—it’s home to a network of forests, winding rivers, oxbow lakes, and tropical savannas, huge swaths of which flood when rivers swell during the rainy season. It’s under-studied and relatively poorly understood. For decades, it was off limits to biologists and scientific exploration, because Vichada and neighboring departments were strongholds of the FARC, Colombia's largest guerilla group, which only signed a peace agreement with the government in 2016. But thanks to recent studies by the Instituto Humboldt, Instituto SINCHI, and the Fundación Omacha, however, we know that Matavén is not only home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and plants, it is an important repository of aquatic life and a global epicenter of fish diversity.

It is also home to 16,000 Indigenous people, belonging to six ethnic groups (Sikuani, Piaroa, Piapoco, Puinave, Curipaco, and Cubeo). Sixteen Indigenous reserves were established here in the 1980s, formalizing land tenure and territorial rights for the small communities along the region's principal rivers. With the help of Global Environment Facility funding, Etnollano led a process to consolidate the 16 reserves, as well as some additional unincorporated territories, into one contiguous unit.

ACATISEMA came into existence in September of 2001 as part of the same process. Its purpose is to articulate and implement the programs necessary to govern the massive reserve in a region where Colombia's national government is almost completely absent. In 2002, then President Álvaro Uribe signed the reserve into law, creating what is today the fourth largest Indigenous reserve in Colombia. In 2012, Mediamos F&M—a consulting company in Cali, Colombia—signed an agreement with ACATISEMA to develop one of Colombia's first REDD+ projects.

On the first morning in the village of Matsuldani, I spoke with two 15-year-old boys named Edilson and Edgar. When I asked them what the point of the REDD+ project was, Edilson told me it was about reducing the impacts of climate change by not cutting down the forest. And that in exchange for not cutting down the forest, they received resources and training to advance activities related to their community's plan de vida. This could mean projects to plant cacao, yuca brava, or bananas in their conucos, or access to school supplies and grants. Often it meant requests for practical things like motorcycles, outboard motors, and corrugated tin roofs.

After visiting Barranco Colorado and learning about their efforts to position the community as a destination for sportfishing and birdwatching, we merged onto the swirling Orinoco River, later tucking in to the other-worldly Caño de Matavén, a blackwater creek running east-west through the heart of the reserve. Following a quick visit to the village of Serrapia we took a moment to marvel at the stunning blackwater bays of the Caño de Mataven. “This is a good spot for toninas,” said our boat captain Gregorio as he turned off the motor and thumped the boat's hull four times. Within seconds a pink river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis humboldiana) surfaced, shot water from its blowhole, showed us its dorsal fin and disappeared, reappearing moments later with its calf.

After regrouping for a night in Inírida, we visited ACATISEMA’s local office to meet Yesenia Cayupare Saenz, the 31-year-old-Puinave Governor of the reserve’s remote Berrocal-Ajota sector. While women now chair or co-chair six of Matavén's eight Coordinating Committees [Health, Education, Human Rights, Territory and Environment, Life Plans, Youth, Programs and Women's] Yesenia is currently the only woman among her 16 Cabildo Governor peers and just the second woman ever to be Cabildo Governor in ACATSEMA’s 20-year history. “I have a lot of support in my community and from my husband,” the Cabildo Governor told us. “But I am still expected to tend to our home, the family, and our children, which is not the case for the men I work with.”

(Map by Andrea Leon Parra and Parques Como Vamos)

Our plan for the second leg of the trip was to head up the Guaviare and Uva rivers to the village of Cumaral, where we would attend a workshop focused on managing the critical final stages of harvesting, fermenting and processing cacao (the raw ingredient used to make chocolate). From here, we'd set up our hammocks for three nights while staging visits to a handful of communities further afield, on the reserve's remote southwestern flank.

In Cumeral, I spoke with Edwin Leonardo Lopez Navarro. The reserved 26-year-old had left Cumaribo as a young teenager to work at the illegal gold mines inside Venezuela's Cerro Yapacana National Park. He explained that miners were paid with a percentage of the gold they mined, but that the work, which involved using mercury, was dangerous. One day while working in the mine he watched as his father was shot and killed right in front of him, apparently over a debt. Edwin left the next day with his wife Amanda Dacosta, 28 and eventually returned to Inírida and Cumaribo. The couple recently had a baby boy and is guardedly optimistic about their future prospects, which involve growing cacao in Cumaribo.

When we returning to Inírida, a naval unit stopped our boat, reviewed our documents, and asked us what we were doing. After our story checked out, we chatted cordially with the soldiers. At least half were Afro-Colombian or Indigenous and nearly all from the poorest or most violent regions in Colombia, including Cauca, the Chocó, and the Guajira peninsula. As we departed, the soldiers reminded us to please wear our life jackets.

During the 10 days of our trip, that was our only encounter with the national government. The only other institutions I’d seen were some former Panda colleagues of mine from WWF, a woman from Cali starting a new job with the Norwegian Refugee Council and a sizeable group of evangelical Christians traveling in three motorized canoes. Thanks to German-American missionary and evangelist Sophia Müller, who spent 60 years travelling the region's rivers and translated the Bible into more than a dozen Indigenous dialects, evangelism and volleyball are alive and well here. Unfortunately, the movement Müller led to evangelize Indigenous communities, el Movimiento Misionero Nuevas Tribus, is the main reason traditional Indigenous music and dance have all but disappeared from this corner of Colombia.

“One of the things that’s changed since the REDD+ project began,” anthropologist and Etnollano director Antonio Lobo Guerrero told me from the NGO’s offices in Bogotá, a few days after I'd returned from Matavén, “is that first we had ACATISEMA, which was created to govern the Selva de Matavén and now we have ACATISEMA, MEDIAMOS and the SELVA DE MATAVEN REDD+ project structure. The project pays a lot of salaries, and that has created a different reality.” Antonio's parents founded Etnollano in 1984. As a result, he spent a lot of time in Indigenous communities across the Colombian llanos and Amazon as a youngster.

Hot Air

In June, the Belgium-based Carbon Watch Group, in collaboration with the Latin America Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP) and Colombian journalist Andrés Bermudez argued that large-scale forestry projects in Colombia create more credits than the amount of emission reductions that they actually achieve. They contend that the Matavén project used an inflated baseline to calculate the rate of deforestation, greatly increasing the amount of credits issued by the project, meaning companies could offset or neutralize their emissions by purchasing over-valued carbon credits instead of paying a carbon tax (thereby depriving the Colombian Government of much-needed tax revenue). Based on this analysis, the Carbon Watch Group recommended that investors stop purchasing carbon credits from the Selva de Matavén Project and that Verra de-list or decertify the project on its registry.

(Image by Monica Betancourt)

Both Verra, the largest voluntary carbon market registry in the world, and MEDIAMOS F&M roundly reject the Carbon Watch Group's findings. The Verra response can be found here (replete with carbon speak and industry jargon), as well as the Carbon Watch Group’s response here.

The Carbon Watch Group report overplays its hand by claiming that the Matavén project is selling “hot air” and calling for investors to stop buying carbon credits issued by the project. The Matavén project’s deforestation baseline and reference (or proxy area) used to calculate it were all created according to the Verified Carbon Standard that existed before Colombia's Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development developed a national regulatory framework for REDD+. The Matavén project was validated and audited three times (more than any other project in Colombia) using this standard. What the Ministry should have done when they finally developed their own inchoate guidelines in 2019 was communicate and provide guidance to all previously established REDD+ projects so that those projects could adjust their baselines accordingly. This never happened.

Neither the Carbon Watch Group nor the Latin America Center for Investigative Journalism (which receives funding from the Pulitzer Center) actually visited Matavén before concluding that the project was selling hot air. Had they visited, they would have seen that the project is reducing deforestation; according to IDEAM and SIAC (Sistema de Información Ambiental Colombiano) between 2019 and 2020 the municipality of Cumaribo reduced deforestation by 1,244 hectares. They would have also seen that the Indigenous communities living in the Selva de Matavén, where the Colombian government is absent, are compensated by the REDD+ project in ways that help them meet their basic needs. The research for the article, which relied heavily on anonymous sources, was conducted from Brussels and Bogotá.

(Meanwhile, Colombia's largest climate change mitigation project seems to be getting a free pass. Visión Amazonía, which is administered by Colombia’s Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, appears to be falling on its face. After receiving $85 million over the last five years from Norway, Germany, and the United Kingdom, the project is failing in its stated objective to reduce deforestation.)

Colombia is considered by many to be a leader in climate policy and finance. One reason for this is the country's progressive carbon tax, established by former President and Nobel Prize laureate Juan Manuel Santos during his second term. Additionally, the active participation and strong leadership from ASOCARBONO, an association of project developers, registries, NGOs and corporations, is effective at promoting inter-sector dialogue within Colombia and building the confidence of investors abroad.

At a pre-COP Climate Summit hosted in Cartagena from October 6-8, I got a chance to see how the sector was preparing for the upcoming climate COP in Glasgow. The Summit got off to an auspicious start as USAID Colombia Mission Director Larry Sacks implored the 300 representatives in attendance from across Latin America and the Caribbean to “think about the communities that live in the forest and generate opportunities for them, forging partnerships with the private sector that jumpstart green businesses, ecotourism projects, renewable energy.”

Once protocol was out of the way, however, a day and a half of lackluster discussions ensued as Colombian Government officials and those trying to paint a more favorable picture of Visión Amazonía carried on at length without saying much of anything. Colombia needs clearer rules, better regulations, more transparency they said. But whose job is it to regulate the carbon sector and show that donor funding is having an impact?

On the last morning, I contemplated bailing and going for a walk to buy a new linen guayabera before noticing that Conservation International’s Angela Andrade, who also chairs the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management, was on deck to lead a session called REDD+: 20 years of lessons learned implementing projects. Among her panelists was Jair Mosquera, a young Afro-Colombian leader who shared how REDD+ projects in the Colombian Pacific were not only generating revenue for communities through the sale of carbon credits, they were helping keep environmental activists and social justice leaders alive. Less than two months earlier Global Witness had published a new report indicating that, for the second year in a row, Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmental leader.

Civil engineer Roberto León Gómez, who’s worked for 28 years to advance forest conservation issues in Colombia, anchored the panel. He shared how USAID's Paramos y Bosques project was taking lessons learned from seeding community-managed REDD+ projects in the Pacific and applying them to curb deforestation in municipalities prioritized for rural development as part of the 2016 peace agreement. In addition to receiving technical assistance to complete pre-feasibility studies and gauge the viability and profitability of REDD+ projects, participants learn how to negotiate favorable long-term agreements with project developers.

Following the panel, event coordinator and press liason Ana María Rocha pulled me into the green room, where Argentina's Climate Secretary Patricio Lombardi was preparing his final remarks. Secretary Lombardi, the Summit's highest-level official and guest of honor, greeted me warmly, sharing that today he completed one year in office. “Usually, our countries are the ones in debt to the countries in the north,” Secretary Lombardi began, gesturing towards a delegation from West Africa sitting nearby. “With climate change it’s different. With climate change the countries in the north are in debt to us.”

I asked the secretary about his impressions of the Summit and his hopes for the upcoming COP. “We need to inject some soul into this discussion,” he said. “We are talking too much about the markets. Too much narrow discussion about what counts and what doesn't count. Carbon is life. We are carbon. Not commodities. Europe has lost its forests. Africa, the Americas, Papua New Guinea have not. The stakes for this COP are high. They must be high.”


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