By Chris Lang
An article in Bloomberg last week takes a detailed look at the Alto Mayo REDD+ project in Peru. Covering an area of 182,000 hectares in the San Martín region of northern Peru, the project is run by Conservation International together with Peru’s National Service for Natural Protected Areas Protected by the State (SERNANP).
Sales of carbon offsets from the project have raised a total of US$30 million, with the Walt Disney Company buying more than half of the offsets. Other companies on Alto Mayo’s offset buyers list include mining giant BHP, Microsoft, United Airlines, and Gucci. In 2015, Pearl Jam bought offsets from Alto Mayo to offset emissions from its concert tours.
According to the most recent Verified Carbon Standard monitoring report for the project, since June 2008 the project has generated more than 7.4 million carbon credits.
Fortress conservation and the rondas campesinas
Bloomberg’s journalists Zachary R. Mider and John Quigley travelled to the Alto Mayo forest and spoke to local communities living there. They found the community split between those in favour of the project, and those opposing it. Conservation International offers coffee seedlings and fertilizer to anyone who promised to stop clearing the forest. About half of the families living in the forest have joined Conservation International’s programme.
“Once-rampant deforestation has slowed,” Mider and Quigley write. But the REDD project has “inflamed a long-standing conflict between the government, which claims the land as a national park, and thousands of people who live there.”
Fidel Mendoza moved to Alto Mayo in 1977, when he was 15. He bought a plot of land informally. In 2001, more than 20 years after he arrived, he found out that the land belonged to the state. “You can’t be here,” a government official told him.
The forest became a protected area in 1987, but it wasn’t until the REDD project started in 2008, and Disney’s money started flowing the following year, that signs appeared stating that Alto Mayo is state property. Patrols by park rangers increased.
Villagers in Alto Mayo are organised in rondas campesinas – self-defense groups that control parts of the forest. In August 2016, about a dozen rangers were detained and beaten. In September 2016, about 200 ronderos held 31 policemen, prosecutors, and park rangers captive for 19 hours. The rangers were forced to walk barefoot for four hours and were beaten. The ronderos were accused of illegal logging and were threatened with being evicted out of the national park.
In 2018, the head of Conservation International’s Alto Mayo operation had to flee the area after receiving violent threats.
Mendoza and other ronderos that Bloomberg’s journalists met said they had nothing to do with “some of these acts”. But they said that using force was their lawful duty. They are the true stewards of the land, they said.
They argued that the government wants to evict settlers and use the forest for mining and oil concessions. But they had little evidence to back this up.
In 2018, Peru’s then-prime minister, César Villanueva Arévalo, travelled to Alto Mayo. He promised to restore the government’s authority in the area. Villanueva flew over the forest for 45 minutes and said that he had seen extensive areas of possibly illegal crops and the destruction of “vast areas of forests”. Since his visit, police helicopters now fly regularly over the forest from a nearby army base.
In June 2019, ronderos blocked the highway with boulders for four days, after National Police attempted to evict 7,000 inhabitants of Aguas Verdes. Feliciano Burga, a local leader of the ronderos told La República that,
“The State wishes to evict us under the pretext of labelling us as terrorists, traffickers, loggers, criminals and squatters; but that is a lie. We are farmers and we are on the regional border, we are the exit and entry gate from the north and east, between the departments of San Martín and Amazonas, and thus they have forgotten us, leaving us without electricity, or drinking water.”
Burga said that since the National Police had come into the area, teachers had been ordered not to teach, affecting more than 300 primary and secondary children. Burga listed the protesters’ demands:
“We are not going to lift our protest until a high-level and decision-making commission arrives to solve the problem. First that the Police withdraw from the scene. Second, that the UGEL [Local Educational Management Unit from Rioja] send teachers back so that our children can study. And third, that our small town of Aguas Verdes is recognised, we are allowed to carry out our agricultural activities, and electricity is installed as well as drinking water and sewerage.”
The protests were dispersed by hundreds of riot police firing tear-gas, Bloomberg reports.
In December 2019, the police set up a base in the Candamo sector of Alto Mayo, an area where deforestation is still taking place. Between 2001 and 2018 more than 2,000 hectares of forest was lost in the Candamo sector. The Minister of Environment, Fabiola Muñoz, the Minister of the Interior, Carlos Morán, and the head of Sernanp, Pedro Gamboa turned up at the opening of the base. About 100 armed policemen will patrol the forest from the base.
Conservation International: “These are complex areas”
Conservation International is keen to promote Alto Mayo as a success – for obvious reasons, given the amount of money it’s receiving from Disney and other polluting corporations. The ronderos who are still resisting the REDD project are a “disgruntled minority”, a Conservation International official told Bloomberg.
Claudio Scheider, from Conservation International in Lima, told Bloomberg that, “These are complex areas, you know? Most of the people are in favour of the project, and I think we have reached a critical mass.”
Mider and Quigley spoke to Norbil Becerra, who moved to Alto Mayo in the late 1990s. He grew coffee and raised cattle. Later he worked as a carpenter and illegal logger. Today, he runs a bird sanctuary with Conservation International’s help.
A few hundred bird watchers turn up each year. Becerra told Bloomberg, “Instead of chopping down and clearing the last of our forests, you can do this sort of work. And it’s a better way to live.”
Conservation International estimates that the rate of deforestation has been halved, and that 500,000 tons of CO2 emissions have been avoided.
The Mickey Mouse baseline
But Disney is relying on a fairy tale to give the impression that it is attempting to address climate change. Mider and Quigley write that,
Forest offsets have their detractors. Measuring a project’s true carbon impact is always a matter of guesswork. Sponsors must estimate how much deforestation would take place if they didn’t do anything to stop it. If their tree-saving work outperforms that baseline, the difference becomes a carbon credit. Real-world climate impact hinges on the accuracy of a made-up scenario.
In the case of Alto Mayo, Conservation International used a vastly inflated baseline in order to generate more carbon credits, as REDD-Monitor pointed out in 2013:
Of course that generated more money for forest protection, but it also helped greenwash more of Disney’s “real-world climate impact”.
Mider and Quigley note that “Conservation International projected a rate of deforestation without intervention averaging about 5,000 acres a year over a decade—more than triple the already blistering pace set in the mid-2000s.”
Agustin Silvani, a Conservation International executive told Bloomberg, “We don’t develop the methodologies. We just follow them.”
As Larry Lohmann, writer and activist at The Corner House, points out, “the problem is not ‘bad baselines’ but the concept of counterfactual baselines itself.” It’s impossible to check what would have happened without the REDD project, for the simple reason that the REDD project went ahead.
Disney’s ever increasing emissions
The ronderos know that Disney is funding the management of the national park, but they have no idea why. “That’s what we want to find out – what Disney’s angle is,” Jose Gilmer Vasquez told Bloomberg.
Here’s how Dr Beth Stevens, Senior Vice President of Corporate Citizenship at Disney, explains “Disney’s angle” in a 2014 Conservation International promotional video:
“Disney has a long legacy of caring about nature. We want to get to zero net direct greenhouse gas emissions. The only way to get to zero carbon emissions is to have a really strong approach, where you say, ‘OK, first we have to reduce our use of fuels. Second, we have to look for what are the alternatives that are lower carbon, and then finally, when you’ve done all of those things, then you look to carbon offsets to get the rest of the way.’
We are very focussed on forest offsets, if we can slow deforestation then we are slowing the amount of carbon emissions that are going into the atmosphere.”
Disney buys about 850,000 carbon credits each year, according to the company’s 2019 Corporate Social Responsibility report. About half of them coming from Alto Mayo. As a result, millions of dollars have gone through Conservation International towards managing the national park.
Meanwhile, Disney’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, partly as a result of Disney’s cruise ships.
In addition to theme parks and films, since 1996 Disney’s business empire includes Disney Cruise Line which now owns four huge cruise ships: Disney Magic; Disney Wonder; Disney Dream; and Disney Fantasy.
Disney Dream was launched in 2011 and Disney Fantasy in 2012. Both weigh about 130,000 tons, are 340 metres long, and have 1,250 passenger cabins. Before these two ships were built, the two smaller cruise ships accounted for about half of Disney’s carbon dioxide emissions.
And Disney Cruise Line has big expansion plans with a new ship planned for completion in 2021, another in 2022, and yet another in 2023. The three new ships will be even bigger than the Dream and the Fantasy.
Because of the coronavirus, Disney’s emissions will be lower this year, meaning that fewer offsets will be needed from Alto Mayo. Disney’s ships are not sailing, and most of the theme parks are still closed. But that’s just a temporary blip, to be reversed as soon as possible. Disney World workers have set up a petition urging Disney to delay reopening its theme parks in Florida.
Mider and Quigley conclude that,
The black smoke that until recently rose from the stacks of the Disney Dream attests to the pollution pumped out in the name of ever-greater consumption. And the Alto Mayo has become part of the system that maintains that consumption, allowing the pollution to continue unabated even as graphs in Disney’s annual reports show net emissions moving steadily downward.
This post is part of a series of posts on REDD-Monitor looking at REDD and environmental injustice in the Andes Amazon.