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What’s wrong with forest carbon finance? The Green Belt Movement lists the problems

Last week, at a side event in Durban, the Green Belt Movement presented what they have learned so far about forest carbon finance. A paper released at the side event explains the problems with relying on carbon trading to finance forest projects, with important lessons for REDD.

The Green Belt Movement was founded by Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. GBM focussed on tree planting, environmental conservation and women’s rights. “You cannot protect the environment unless your empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them,” Maathai said.

In 2005, GBM started a clean development mechanism project in Kenya. The project aimed to replant indigenous trees on 1,600 hectares of land in the Aberdares and Mt. Kenya. GBM explains that,

Our aim was to learn from and experiment with how such projects could contribute towards community livelihoods through payment for ecosystem services, while mitigating against the impacts of climate change, and scaling up conservation of biodiversity in highly degraded areas.

GBM also has a project at the southern end of the Mau forest ecosystem, with Clinton Climate Initiative, Narok County Council and Enosupukia Community Forest Association. The project is planting indigenous tree species on 1,350 hectares and aims to restore degraded forest land and improve the livelihoods of local communities. It will also, according to GBM, sequester 440,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

In a post on Practical Action’s website, Francesca de Gasparis, the Europe Director of GBM, explains some of the implications of the problems that GBM ran into with its forest carbon projects:

Current technical requirements mean it is unlikely community groups, without support from NGOs with technical capacity, would be able to start up a climate finance project. Furthermore, from GBM’s experience, until governments put in place strong forest governance, carbon projects and REDD projects will be unlikely to succeed. Therefore these projects will remain in the hands of private companies and consultants, rather than being vested in rural communities who live in and/or rely on these forests for their livelihoods.

In its paper, “The Green Belt Movement Community Forest Climate Initiatives“, GBM lists the lessons learned (so far) from its involvement in forest carbon finance:

GBM’s experience has shown that unless a number of issues are addressed, these projects and other similar projects, including REDD, will not meet expected goals.
FINANCIAL CONSTRAINTS: The way most forest carbon projects are currently set up, the rules that have to be followed during implementation result in high costs for project development.
In addition, lack of upfront funding and the many years that the communities have to wait before realizing financial returns from the carbon credits make it impossible for the local communities to initiate and scale up such forestry projects. This essentially leaves such projects to the few who can mobilise funds from other sources to invest in the project.
Even with upfront funding, the experiences from the ground have shown that the investments needed for these projects are more than the financial returns from the carbon credits.
BIODIVERSITY: Afforestation and reforestation (AR) can have positive or negative impacts on biodiversity depending on the ecosystem being rehabilitated and the management options being applied. AR activities that emphasize species selection and site location can promote the return, survival, and expansion of indigenous fauna and flora population. In contrast, clearing native forests and replacing them with a monoculture plantation of exotic species would have a highly negative impact on biodiversity.
GBM experience has shown that uncontrolled pressure to start and scale up forest carbon projects can be disastrous to biodiversity, water resources, food security and rural community livelihoods.
Lack of clear laws and national policies, zoning maps, and institutional infrastructure often lead to unfavourable competition from logging and paper industry for ‘forest land’ at the expense of highly threatened biodiversity and watershed restoration.
An increased emphasis on carbon projects can encourage the planting of exotic trees which are fast growing and give quick return on carbon credits compared to indigenous trees that grow much slower, hence have a low return on carbon credits.
GBM places great emphasis on the difference between a plantation of exotic trees and a native forest. A plantation is a monoculture farm of exotic trees. We cannot afford to reduce natural forests and replace them with exotic plantations that eliminate the multiple benefits that forests provide such as water catchment, climate regulation, biodiversity and use of non-forest products like medicine and food.
In addition, some of the rules in these carbon projects, such as the 1990 eligibility criteria for degraded forest for AR CDM projects, further discourages conservation efforts and biodiversity restoration in rural areas. This is because only sites that were deforested before 1990 are eligible for rehabilitation without any regard to the general health of the ecosystem as a whole. Such rules have been forcing the communities to prioritize sites based on year of deforestation at the expense of the prevailing biodiversity threats and watershed restoration needs in the critical water catchment areas therefore undermining the goals of livelihoods improvement.
LOCAL COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION: Projects should respect communities rights, culture and livelihoods. GBM experience has been that this can be achieved if the project allows for full and effective participation of rural communities.
This requires sufficient investments in education and empowering communities, and developing grassroots governance structures so as to ensure free prior informed consent, enforcement of agreements, safeguards, clear and equitable benefit sharing and conflict resolution guidelines. In the absence of these, the project can fuel community conflict.
LEAKAGE: Planting and protecting trees in ;one forest without addressing the drivers of deforestation in the country as a whole would merely transfer deforestation to other parts of the forest, if not lead to worse damage elsewhere. While it is possible to address leakage, this can only be achieved in countries where governance issues have been well addressed and solutions provided for the actual drivers of deforestation and forest degradation. This requires planned investments from the start of the project in capacity building at both grassroots and national level to develop such structures.
GBM has been mobilising and empowering communities to introduce zero grazing and agroforestry programs on their private farms to address needs for firewood and fodder for livestock and reduce pressure on forest resources.
INSTITUTIONAL FRAMEWORK: GBM experience has been that well established and strong institutional frameworks play an integral role in the success of forest carbon projects. The office of the Designated National Authority (DNA) plays one of these critical roles in the approval and registration of carbon finance projects in a country. While this is extremely important so as to ensure that the projects are aligned to the sustainable development goals of the country, and also to avoid bogus projects, such institutions also have contributed to delays in project registration and in some cases, failure of these projects. Despite the willingness to support rural communities, the offices of the DNA have been hampered by lack of skills, policies and finances to adequately handle these projects. Unfortunately, in the few cases where these skills are developed, change in staffing adversely affects efforts made.
The National Forest Authority is another critical player in the implementation of carbon projects. National Forest Authorities in most countries in Africa have the mandate of providing technical guidance on matters related to forestry as well as being the custodians of state forests. Unfortunately, these institutions often lack sufficient finances and staff to adequately provide the highly required advice to rural communities during the implementation process as well as to protect the forest.
GBM experience showed that in the absence of a strong National Forest Authority, the survival of planted seedlings cannot be guaranteed due to lack of forest policies, laws and enforcement strategies to ensure that such trees protected from uncontrolled grazing, hazards and illegal cultivation in the forest. Even though GBM has invested heavily employing Green Rangers to support communities in protecting their trees, it would still be a challenge for the Green Rangers and rural communities to enforce the law without the support of the National Forest Authority.
Until governments put in places strong national forest authorities, these AR carbon projects and REDD projects cannot work in Africa.
COMPLEX METHODOLOGIES: Rural communities are required to demonstrate that their project area is eligible for a carbon project before they can start the project. This means huge investments in satellite imagery, software, GIS kills, and extensive baseline surveys, among others. Such costly investments lock out rural communities from engaging in such projects or create dependency on external support for project development.
The validation process in forestry carbon projects is important so as to ensure that these projects actually follow stipulated rules, procedures and methodologies. Unfortunately, validations processes have been slow, mostly due to the steep learning curve required for external validators and project developers. If professional validators struggle to catch up with changing methodologies, it is completely impractical for rural communities to understand these processes and take their project through validation and registration. Overall, the extra efforts, skills, costs and time that rural communities are required to invest in project design documentation (PDD), development and continuous monitoring of carbon projects is not practical. While it is realistic for rural communities to plant trees and keep track of the numbers of trees planted and those that survive to maturity, it is infeasible for them to package a PDD and continuously measure and monitor changes in carbon stocks.
Until these methodologies are simplified, it will remain impractical for grassroots communities to develop forestry carbon projects. Therefore these projects will only remain in the hands of private companies and consultants rather than being vested in the intended rural communities who live in and/or rely on these forests for their livelihoods.


GBM has been engaged in building the capacity of local communities to fully and effectively participate in the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) Readiness process in Kenya so as to ensure that REDD addresses their needs, as well as helping to promote transparency and accountability in decision making.
The Kenyan government has made a commitment to REDD to give greater value to standing forests. If implemented correctly REDD could contribute to the well-being of local communities by protecting the resources that their livelihoods depend on. However, REDD initiatives implemented without sufficient safeguards and free informed and prior consent of the local communities will surely have negative impacts. Ultimately, this would end up jeopardizing the success of the REDD intervention itself.
Over the past three decades, GBM has mobilized and supported grassroots communities to plant more than 47 million trees in forest lands, public spaces and private farms. GBM’s experience and successes in Kenya demonstrated that forests play an important role in the livelihoods of these communities. However, without environmental and social integrity, the introduction of climate finance projects could easily undermine the rights and livelihoods of rural communities.
A case in point is when governments and private enterprises support REDD, but at the same time support plantations of exotic trees like the pine and eucalyptus at the expense of indigenous forests; they are supporting practices that are incompatible. This is especially true for countries like Kenya, where indigenous forest cover is a mere 2% and is mainly located in watershed areas.
For REDD to succeed, all governments must demonstrate a real commitment to standing forests and the rehabilitation of degraded forests. This can only be done if national laws that encourage continued deforestation and forest degradation are reformed and communities are supported to respond to the challenges of climate change. Governments need to protect vulnerable communities from companies and carbon markets, motivated more by a search for profits and offsets than the long-term welfare of communities. If these do not happen, considerable financial resources will be invested without achieving the reductions in poverty and other development gains promised by REDD.


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  1. The observations listed in this article are consistent with our experience. The rules make in virtually impossible to qualify, and ultimately the investors are the true beneficiaries. If these issues can be resolved we can get the job done. If not, we will all fail and suffer the results.