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Carbon-Trading Plans Are Thinly Veiled Land Grabs That Displace People Globally

The COP28 climate summit is in danger of codifying carbon-trading schemes that often displace Indigenous people.

Activists protest against what they call the sham of carbon offsetting on day eight of the COP28 climate conference at Expo City Dubai on December 8, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

While King Charles was being wined and dined during his recent state visit to the country, Kenyan authorities were brutally evicting up to 700 Ogiek Indigenous people from their ancestral homes in the Mau Forest. This is just one in a long string of violent evictions that the Ogiek have had to endure, usually leading to the theft of their land by the government and the subsequent logging of the forests they call home. But for this most recent wave of evictions, the Ogiek and many activists suspect that what is happening on their land is linked to a particularly ominous development whose implications extend beyond Kenya to the rest of Africa and much of the Global South: the growth of conservation-based carbon credit markets.

These market-based offsetting projects and related “nature-based solutions” to climate change have already led to the eviction of many Indigenous peoples around the world and the commodification of their land and resources. If negotiators from powerful countries like the United States and from corporate conservation organizations get their way at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) summit, the number of evictions is likely to soar. Negotiators at the conference are discussing and may approve the establishment of a new carbon market with global reach.

The idea behind carbon markets is that polluting companies, instead of reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions, buy carbon credits supposedly resulting from carbon emissions being reduced somewhere else. Mostly this has involved schemes where forests or other ecosystems in the Global South are claimed to be protected. Companies that continue to put out emissions will thus have their dirty production “offset” by the conservation of forests somewhere else. First introduced in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, carbon markets are ostensibly supposed to generate a flow of money to developing countries to help them preserve carbon sinks and develop their economies along low-carbon lines.

But carbon markets don’t work as advertised. Multiple studies and independent research suggest that more than 90 percent of rainforest offset credits by the leading carbon certifier result in “phantom credits” that do not actually represent any real carbon emissions reductions. So, polluting companies carry on polluting because they’re able to “offset” (aka greenwash) their pollution with these worthless credits, meaning that real greenhouse gases keep on increasing in the atmosphere.

Carbon markets also give a strong incentive to governments and corporations to engage in land grabs. After all, planting new trees or “protecting” existing forests to reach the mythical “net zero” requires an enormous amount of land. Carbon markets are thus intimately related to land theft and human rights abuses. As Ninawa Huni Kui of the Huni Kui people in Brazil put it in a damning assessment of carbon offset projects, “Nature is being traded. Water now is being sold, as is the forest, the air and the Earth.”

Trade on such markets amounts to traffic in blood carbon.

While there is much talk of the appetite of multinational corporations and governments for carbon markets, the role of conservation organizations has rarely been put under the spotlight. Yet many carbon offset schemes are being managed, run or even developed by big conservation organizations like The Wildlife Conservation Society and Conservation International as a way to get new funding for the protected areas they are already involved in.

Many of the national parks, wildlife reserves, forests or savannahs now under “protection,” especially in Africa and Asia, are the ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples. It is they who took care of them, protecting the flora and fauna and making those places exceptional biodiversity hotspots, until first colonial powers and then conservation organizations violently evicted them. Today’s dream eco-tourist locations for Western elites, many of them UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage sites, are frequently also militarized areas where rapes, killings and torture are common, and where local people face hunger because they can’t access their land and feed their families.

Having already been sacrificed in the name of conservation, Indigenous peoples are now facing further atrocities in the name of climate mitigation.

As one Bunong farmer who is impacted by the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary carbon offset project in Cambodia told us, “For generations we were able to support ourselves and the needs of our children, but look at us now, we are sitting here in fear.” The farmer, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her safety in a situation where she has seen violent repression unleashed against activists who criticize logging projects or the government, added: “We are stuck like chickens in a cage…. When [rangers] see us on our farms they demand money from us; if we are not there, they will destroy our crops. If they keep oppressing us, what will happen to us?”

Having already been sacrificed in the name of conservation, Indigenous peoples are now facing further atrocities in the name of climate mitigation. A recent report by Survival International, “Blood Carbon: How a Carbon Offset Scheme Makes Millions from Indigenous Land in Northern Kenya,” shows how pastoralist communities, among the least responsible for climate change, are losing their livelihoods and being blamed for environmental destruction, in the name of an offset scheme. While the project is doing nothing to benefit the climate, it allows polluting companies like Netflix and Meta to claim they are achieving net-zero targets. To put it in the words of Emanuel, a member of the pastoralist Rendille people whose ancestral land has been turned into a source of profit for the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT), and who asked to be identified by first name only to protect his safety, the conservation organization that manages the carbon project: “These people have sold our air.” An alarming statement from the Borona Council of Elders, an Indigenous institution in the region, says that there have been “gross human rights violations by NRT against the Indigenous pastoral communities in Northern Kenya.”

If companies, governments and conservation organizations continue to engage in fraudulent carbon schemes instead of tackling the climate crisis for real, the future looks bleak for Indigenous peoples and the planet alike.

The recent brutal evictions of the Ogiek people are just a tiny foretaste of what may come if powerful nations and corporate conservation organizations get their way. The latest round of evictions in Kenya began two months after the country hosted the first African Climate Summit. The focus of this summit was on positioning the continent as the new champion in fighting climate change, while also, simultaneously, opening the continent to a new wave of investors, this time in the name of climate mitigation. As a sign of its commitment, the Kenyan government signed an agreement — just days before carrying out the Ogiek evictions — that would concede millions of hectares of its territory for the production of carbon credits.

COP28 will be a crucial moment in the debate around carbon offsets. Corporations and conservationists will argue that offsets are an essential weapon in the battle to reduce fossil fuel emissions and channel funds to the Global South. But the signs are ominous. The deal to offset carbon from Kenyan land involves a company called Blue Carbon, which is linked to members of the ruling family in the United Arab Emirates, the sixth-largest carbon polluting country per capita in the world. Similar deals have been signed already with several other African countries, securing land the size of the United Kingdom for offset projects. These projects could be used to claim that the Emirates’ own emissions are being “offset.” Critics such as Power Shift Africa’s Mohamed Adow have excoriated wealthy nations’ failure to mitigate their emissions at the source, and their turn instead to offsetting schemes such as Blue Carbon. For Adow, these schemes constitute a form of “carbon colonialism.”

COP28 is being presided over by the UAE, and its president is Sultan Al Jaber — who runs the nation’s oil and gas company, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Not surprisingly this COP28 is the set for an aggressive carbon offsetting push instead of real reductions of climate destructive emissions. One of the key outcomes of this COP is in fact expected to be a new global carbon trading scheme to be established under the UN. Detailed proposals for this scheme have already been published, and appallingly, they lack any real safeguards against the abuse of Indigenous rights, lands and livelihoods. Rather than attempting to rein in the damage done by existing carbon markets, the new scheme is likely to greatly expand and exacerbate them.

These plans must be stopped. Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations are fighting against incorporation of carbon offsetting schemes in agreements currently being negotiated. We add our voices to theirs in the struggle to ensure that COP28 will not be remembered as the Blood Carbon COP.

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