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COP19 Promotes Carbon Colonialism With New REDD+ Deal
(Photo: / Flickr)

COP19 Promotes Carbon Colonialism With New REDD+ Deal

(Photo: / Flickr)

At COP19, REDD+, a global carbon trading scheme, was passed. This jeopardizes the rights and resources of local communities throughout the global south, because of the prevalence of carbon-market-driven land grabs.

In protest of inaction on climate agreements, more than 800 attendees in environmental and development groups walked out of the recent COP19 UN climate summit in Warsaw. Their action followed a walkout of the G-77 group of developing nations. However, inaction did not pose the only threat to the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Rather, the REDD+ agreement reached at COP19 puts developing countries under threat of being colonized for their carbon.

There’s a reason why REDD+ was the only agreement reached at COP19 – it serves the big polluters’ interests. If it actually benefited local communities rather than corporate interests, it certainly would have stalled like the other plans on the table.

ALSO SEE: Colonialism and the Green Economy: The Hidden Side of Carbon Offsets; Colonialism and the Green Economy: Villagers Defy Pressure to Forfeit Farms for Carbon-Offset; Colonialism and the Green Economy: Environmental Justice, Refineries and California’s Cap-and-Trade Program; Saving or Selling the Planet? REDD, Climate Change and Indigenous Lands.

REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) has been in the works for years, with pilot programs in various countries in the Global South. It ostensibly protects forests by offering payments to countries that might otherwise cut them down. In an ideal scenario, the payments would end up in the hands of the small landholders who must give up cultivation, or better still, allow small-scale farmers and forest dwellers to continue using the land to support their needs in sustainable ways. But the corruption of REDD’s predecessors such as the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) foreshadow the anguish that REDD+ may bring – and is already bringing to some.

Land Grabbing and Community Rights

A major problem with REDD+ is that it could hand over cash to overseas speculators and corrupt governments that seize the land rights of local communities, particularly indigenous peoples. Overseas “carbon pirates” already have come into a number of REDD zones and, through coercion or outright theft, taken land from locals. Governments now have greater motivation to force indigenous communities and others off their traditional lands as well. Thus, REDD+ poses a serious threat to the rights of the world’s most marginalized peoples. In fact, Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, calls REDD+ “potentially genocidal.”

As far back as 2001, REDD+ was spoken of as “a colonial mechanism to enclose lands.” That’s because it’s a top-down solution in which so-called world leaders govern how small-scale farmers throughout the Global South manage their land. While proponents claim it will require strong human rights practices, it incorporates no means of ensuring that land theft does not occur. Worse, because the industry is so new, “experts” are few and far between – meaning there is likely to be a revolving door between oversight and speculation. Furthermore, other carbon trading schemes like the CDM have failed to ensure that the human rights of all involved communities are respected, with coercion and outright theft a common occurrence. In many cases, communities have been forced off their traditional land, which has been re-categorized as a pristine nature reserve that humans must not set foot in – nevermind that it is “pristine” precisely because of the care its people maintained in their use of it.

Indeed, land theft already is occurring, as potential profiteers seize the chance to buy up land while the getting is good. In Kenya, residents of the Mau forest are being forcibly evicted, often violently. In Papua New Guinea, villagers say carbon traders coerced them into signing away their forests. Such coercion has occurred often, in carbon trading land grabs, through failing to inform villagers how the deal will affect their use of land and resources, bestowing false promises, and telling lies about what will happen if they don’t sign over their rights. In the case of the Kamula Doso people of Papua New Guinea, their leader, Abilie Wape, was reportedly kidnapped at gunpoint by police demanding that he surrender his people’s rights to the forest. In No REDD! A Reader, Khadija Sharife quotes Abilie Wape’s description of the incident in a news article: “Police came with a gun. They threatened me. They told me, ‘You sign. Otherwise, if you don’t sign, I’ll … lock you up.'”

Ignoring the Root Problem

The thrust of the argument for REDD+ is the notion that small-scale farmers and forest-dwellers in poorer countries need persuasion from leaders in wealthier nations to manage their lands sustainably – which many are now calling “carbon colonialism.” Negotiators ignore that the same free-trade policies robbing these peoples of their ability to make a sustainable living also are allowing “carbon pirates” to steal their land and make a profit. Without dramatically restructuring the current system of trade laws, climate progress based on this type of financial persuasion not only won’t work, it will cause great suffering for many people in the Global South.

Massive resistance to agreements like the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that would give outside corporations greater ability to profit from locals’ land and resources will play an important role in forging a just future. The TPP would expand corporations’ ability to ignore borders and local laws, meaning any attempts to improve oversight of local laws in preparation for REDD+ could be rendered moot – as some REDD+ proponents may well know.

Maintaining Status Quo Pollution

REDD’s alleged ability to protect forests is also misguided. At best, REDD+ will maintain status quo pollution – which is why it’s the only agreement that made progress in COP19 this year. Preserving one forested tract of land so a company can pollute elsewhere will not mitigate climate change disaster. A tract of forest would be preserved specifically so a company could continue polluting elsewhere, which would maintain, at best, a constant level of pollution.

Further, because the preserved trees often sit hundreds or thousands of miles from the site of pollution they are offsetting, environmental sacrifice zones can continue wreaking havoc on surrounding communities. For this reason, as Goldtooth argues in No REDD! A Reader, REDD+ is responsible for pitting local communities against one another. Whenever a forest community signs a contract that allows a corporation to pollute or extract elsewhere, another community suffers.

And because REDD+ considers plantations like palm oil monocultures to be forests, the environmental value of a REDD+ project plummets even farther.

In short, by allowing a wealthy few to increase their profits without mitigating climate change, REDD+ could make carbon trading the world’s biggest scam.


Many indigenous peoples and advocacy groups believe that improving local communities’ rights will benefit forests far more than a top-down scheme. The Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Assessment Initiative has demonstrated that when indigenous peoples gain land tenure, it benefits the land far more than a global scheme. Independent assessment also has confirmed that community-managed forests fare far better than forests categorized as pristine nature reserves. Locals who depend on their forest will continue using it even if laws deny them this access, if it is their only or best way of achieving a livelihood or feeding their family. Interfering with their right to use this land in traditional ways only disrupts the balance of this relationship while putting them in an even more vulnerable position.

Global alliances of marginalized communities – and resistance by individual communities – are therefore growing. At the 2011 COP, the Global Alliance of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities against REDD and for Life demanded a moratorium on the REDD+ program. Indigenous communities and councils in places like Chiapas and Honduras have refused to consider participation in the REDD+ program. Their strong stance against the program – and the global powers imposing it on vulnerable communities – sets a valuable precedent for others.

Shining a spotlight on the often violent struggles of communities being forced off their land has become even more important, now that REDD+ has passed in COP19. With the stage primed for a new wave of land grabs, communities and allies need to remain vigilant and vocal in their resistance. Only through a bold and strongly networked social movement will we move toward a just – and sustainable – future wherein forests are viewed not as market commodities but as homes, as habitat, as integral to every aspect of human life.

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