By Chris Lang
Yesterday, Dr. Lauren Gifford appeared on Earth Watch, a weekly segment on Sojourner Truth with Margaret Prescod, broadcast on California’s KPFK public radio station. Gifford did part of her PhD research in the Alto Mayo Protected Forest in Peru. Her PhD thesis is titled, “See the Carbon Through the Trees: Market-Based Climate Change Mitigation, Forest Carbon Offsets, and the Uneven Power of Carbon Accounting.”
The following is a transcript of the Earth Watch programme.
Margaret Prescod: We are going to kick off our show today with our weekly Earth Watch. And I’d like to welcome our guest, Dr. Lauren Gifford. She is a human-environment geographer exploring the intersections of global climate change policy, conservation, markets, and justice. Her work asks how, and by whom, climate and conservation policies are enacted. She teaches at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Metropolitan State University of Denver, and she is a Visiting Researcher at the Environmental Justice / Climate Justice Hub at University of California, Santa Barbara. She conducted research on forest carbon offsets in Alto Mayo Protected Forest in Peru, and used it as a case study in her doctoral dissertation.
Dr Lauren Gifford, thank you for joining us.
Lauren Gifford: Thanks Margaret, happy to be here.
Margaret Prescod: OK. So refresh our listeners, who are totally confused about carbon offsets. Exactly what are they, and what is the problem with them?
Lauren Gifford: Well, there’s many different types of carbon offsets. I particularly focus on forests, that get included in climate change mitigation programmes. And the Alto Mayo Protected Forest that I think we’re going to talk about is one of them.
So the idea is by preventing deforestation, or replanting forests, we can contribute to sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Sort of mitigating climate change by protecting forests.
Margaret Prescod: Right, OK. So then let us get to what we are going to be mainly talking about, which is the Alto Mayo Protected Forest and Disney. What’s going on with that?
Lauren Gifford: The Alto Mayo Protected Forest is a REDD project, a forest carbon offset project in north central Peru. REDD stands for reduced emissions from degradation and deforestation. So reducing carbon emissions by preventing deforestation.
It’s a project that’s been around since about 2008. I have been visiting there since 2012. It’s largely sponsored by Walt Disney, and that’s why it gets a lot of news coverage, because the programme is used to offset the emissions from Walt Disney’s cruise ships, which are incredibly polluting and dangerous for the environment – cruise ships in general.
The idea is that Disney made initially a US$4 million investment, I’m sure it’s been more over time, into protecting this vital watershed, the Alto Mayo Protected Forest in northern Peru as a means of maintaining and slowing deforestation in the region.
But there’s been incredible conflict, almost since the beginning but it’s really ramped up more recently, between the local communities who live in and around the Alto Mayo, and the administrations who are applying the carbon offset management plan.
Margaret Prescod: Right. And tell us a bit about the split in the community, between people who are in favour of the project and people who are opposed to the project.
Lauren Gifford: There’s not a binary. It’s not a direct split, there are many different perspectives and takes on what’s happening and what’s causing conflict.
One of the main issues is that this protected area was not heavily managed as a protected area prior to 2008, because of lack of resources from the Peruvian government. So then, once they apply the carbon offset project to this area, what we see is essentially it becomes a carbon management programme, and that’s the type of dominant governance regime in the Alto Mayo, and this is true in any place where we see a forest carbon offset project.
But it’s an example of what we often call carbon colonialism. So when forest carbon sequestration for climate mitigation is privileged above all other forest uses, it then deprioritises other forest uses, other livelihoods, cultural uses, traditional industries, things like that, that rely on the forest. And a focus of forest carbon privileges the interests of the carbon offset developers, over other forest users and interests.
There are other people who are living here, who have settled here, there are communities of up to 5,000 people in this forest programme, and they are suddenly told, ‘You can’t deforest. You can’t cut down trees for agriculture and logging and other activities.’ And they’re saying, ‘Well, we don’t recognise you as the leader here, we don’t recognise you as someone who can tell us how to manage our land.’
So there are conflicts over who owns the land, the land tenure, you hear this term come up a lot when we talk about forest carbon in any type of carbon offset, who has tenure and recognised rights to the land, so there’s conflict over that. And there’s conflict over people saying, ‘Disney and Conservation International you can’t come in and tell us how to behave in our land and in our place.’
Margaret Prescod: Yeah. I mean, complicated indeed. The cruise ships, as you say, very, very polluting. Disney, that doesn’t have a reputation for exactly treating its workers in the United States, paying a decent wage etc. But you have these large corporations who could put themselves forward as environmentalists and you know, we’re doing the right thing on the one hand, like Disney. Disney also very exploitative in factories in Haiti where they are refusing to pay, not even US$5 dollars a day for people who are working there. Then you have Disney basically saying they have a long legacy of caring about nature, they want to get to zero net direct greenhouse gas emissions. So I understand the complexity of the problem on the ground, and the other is how sincere are companies like Disney, and should people be concerned when they say, well we are for nature and we’re putting money into these carbon offsets that then can have a positive impact in terms of saving the forest, but then also up against the community living in the forest and on the land. Dr Lauren Gifford.
Lauren Gifford: Right. It becomes an issue of, or a tool for corporate social responsibility, which we know is often used as greenwashing, for a lot of the reasons that you address.
And sometimes I have wondered when I’ve been in the field, I’ve been in the Alto Mayo, ‘Why are we asking these poor farmers, campesinos, to radically change their behaviour when could just spend more money on, you know, not going on cruise ships, hopefully, or greening the cruise industry, greening our electrical grid and things like that, moving towards sustainable renewable electricity. Instead of aggressively asking really poor folks to change their behaviour.
Margaret Prescod: Yeah, and I mean globally there is a crisis of poverty, and I’ve found I mean talking with people up from the Global South, myself from an impoverished village in the Caribbean, but increasingly there is some discussion about, you can’t really fully address what is happening with the environment, saving forests in particular, without also looking at what is happening with poverty. In Haiti, for example, you see people who are basically stripping trees of bark etc. just so they can make charcoal, so that they could make a little money. I mean Haiti is the most impoverished place in the western hemisphere. So it really is a fusion isn’t it, I mean is it possible to really talk about environmental justice without social justice and economic justice? Your thoughts on this Dr Lauren Gifford.
Lauren Gifford: Right, absolutely not. So we need to think about people and we need to think about social justice before we’re going to get anywhere with environmental justice. We need to care about the people who are being exposed to toxins, who are being exposed to air pollution, whose livelihoods are being squashed, before we can appropriately address the natural environment.
And one thing that’s happening and why there’s a lot of violence around this erupting in the Alto Mayo is because many of these people, they’re small farmers, they’re poor, they’re young, and they actually believe that they had land tenure. They were sold the lands by other people.
So they believe that they own the land and then another organisation is coming in and saying, ‘No, actually you don’t own this land. You need to leave, or you need to behave in the way we want you to behave in this place. And that is much of the root of the conflict.
Margaret Prescod: And I imagine, I know your focus is what is happening in this particular region, but given your work as a human environmental geographer, we see these kinds of conflicts don’t we, not only in the region that you have focussed on but I was just reading about the killing, the dying of elephants in Botswana which is very, very alarming and the government was saying something like, ‘We have to balance out how the resources that we’re putting in to assist people as opposed to resources to fundamentally save the environment, including the animal world.’ It does seem as though there’s a false distinction at least from where I sit on this. Just give us some final thoughts, putting what is happening in Alto Mayo Protected Forest within this global discussion, really important discussion that’s happening right now, Dr Lauren Gifford.
Lauren Gifford: That’s a great question Margaret. I would say the details are specific and unique to a place but the broad story is the same. Capitalism is spreading and it doesn’t want to bend, so investments are being made in places like the Amazon to offset things that are happening in South Florida, and in the Caribbean. And I think we really need to address human rights and worker rights and look at the legacies of the environmental justice as a social movement, civil rights movement, workers movement, labour movement, and look at successes that have happened there and draw on them to address the conflicts that are arising from these new types of carbon developments and climate change mitigation and problems that are coming from that.
Margaret Prescod: Right, well Dr Lauren Gifford we appreciate you taking the time to join us, and we appreciate your work. We also want to thank the Global Justice Ecology Project, our partners for our weekly Earth Minute, and our weekly Earth Watch. Dr Lauren Gifford, thank you.
Lauren Gifford: Thank you, Margaret.
PHOTO Credit: Bruno Locatelli, CIFOR.