By Chris Lang
Earlier this year, Greenpeace Italy commissioned a report to review the Luangwa Community Forests Project in Zambia. The Italian oil and gas corporation Eni has committed to buy carbon credits from the project until 2038. In August 2021, Eni became the latest company to claim to have delivered “carbon neutral” liquefied natural gas to Taiwan. Eni’s carbon credits were sourced in part from the Luangwa Community Forest Project (LCFP).
Covering an area of 943,646 hectares, the LCFP is Africa’s largest REDD project. The project was started in 2013 by a company called BioCarbon Partners.
The company was registered in the tax haven of Mauritius on 5 January 2012. As journalist Will Fitzgibbon pointed out in a 2019 “Mauritius leaks” article, in addition to the tax benefits of registering in Mauritius,
Another benefit of a headquarters on Mauritius: opacity. Transactions to and from Mauritius to local units – that can have huge impacts on tax liability – are tucked away in confidential financial reports filed on the island.
In a recent article on the World Economic Forum website, the company states that it has made “direct transformational payments of $4.76 million to 12 communities partnering in the Luangwa Community Forests Project”. That sounds like a large sum of money, but as there are more than 170,000 people living in the project area, it amounts to only US$28 each.
BioCarbon Partners’ director is Hassan Sachdina, who was born in Kenya. His father is Kenyan and his mother is from the USA. Sachdina describes himself as “a career conservationist with 20 years plus experience”. Before founding BioCarbon Partners, Sachdina was Vice President of Wildlfe Works Carbon, a controversial REDD project developer.
In a 2021 interview with the podcast Memorandum of Understanding Sachinda explains that,
When we started BCP we wanted to develop a market-based model that fairly rewards African communities and citizens for the globally valuable services they provide in terms of emissions reductions.
But Sachinda doesn’t mention the climate implications of rewarding “African communities and citizens” by selling carbon credits to Eni to greenwash its massively polluting operations.
BioCarbon Partners runs another REDD project in Zambia, the Lower Zambezi REDD+ Project, which is a much smaller project next to the Luangwa Community Forests Project:
The baseline story
The project description document, which was prepared by BioCarbon Partners with funding from USAID states that, “The project is implemented on communal land in 12 chiefdoms falling within Game Management Areas (GMA) and two private ranches”. A Game Management Area in Zambia is a buffer zone around a national park. Licensed safari hunting is allowed, as is subsistence hunting. Game ranches consist of fenced off areas in which wild animals are hunted for sport.
The project estimates emissions reductions at almost three million tons CO2e per year. It does so by claiming that, “The baseline scenario is unplanned deforestation driven primarily by the expansion of subsistence agriculture.”
Greenpeace Italy’s report found that the reference area that was used to create the counterfactual story about what would have happened in the absence of the project “is not ‘similar’ to the project accounting area as the project claims”.
Greenpeace Italy found “significant differences between the two areas in terms of rainfall, elevation, and population density”. The area cultivated per household in the reference area is larger than in the project area. The forest types are different.
According to BioCarbon Partners population density is the main driver of deforestation in the project area. Yet population density in the reference area is much higher than that in the project area. To make matters worse, BioCarbon Partners used an estimate of what the population in the project area will be in 2045 when the project ends, not what it is today. Even with this exaggeration of the population density, the population density in the project area (19.3 people per km2 – 2045 projection) is still lower than that in the reference area (29.6 people per km2).
Greenpeace Italy writes that,
Given these large differences in population density, any extrapolation of the deforestation trend that is precipitated by population density from the reference area to the project accounting area in the baseline is highly suspicious and probably misleading.
Of course the problem here is not just that BioCarbon Partners is exaggerating the amount of emission reductions as a result of the Luangwa Community Forests Project. The problem, as Larry Lohmann, a writer and activist with The Corner House and World Rainforest Movement, points out “the concept of counterfactual baselines itself”.
When Italy24News asked Eni about the Greenpeace Italy report, Eni replied that,
[T]he scientific community has long recognized that deforestation is one of the main causes of the increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and for this reason the company has decided to engage in the fight against deforestation, in the belief that the private sector can play an important role in mobilizing the resources necessary for the protection of forests, in particular the primary and secondary ones in the tropical belt.
Obviously Eni doesn’t want to talk about the fact that the scientific community has long recognised that burning fossil fuels is causing the climate crisis. This is a good example of REDD and Natural Climate Solutions as a dangerous distraction from the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground.
Eni told Italy24News that the project was developed only after the free, prior and informed consent of the local communities.
But a 2019 USAID report about the US government’s support in setting up the LCFP REDD project states that “insufficient long-term community engagement” was a “notable shortcoming in the implementation of the project”.
The USAID report states that,
While an FPIC [free, prior and informed consent] process was undertaken, a more sustained effort by BCP [BioCarbon Partners] to engage with local communities might have included community level trainings, meetings to outline CFP [community forests programme], greater attention to income generating activities, and mechanisms to work with communities beyond the chiefs and CRBs [Community Resource Boards]. Because this engagement work was weak, there is still significant confusion, suspicion and misunderstanding about what the CFP is and what BCP does.
ENI becomes an “active member of the governance of the Luangwa Community Forests Project”
In November 2019, Eni announced that it had become an “active member of the governance of the Luangwa Community Forests Project”.
One year later, Eni announced that the company had bought 1.5 million carbon credits from the LCFP. In its report, Greenpeace Italy shows when these credits were generated:
Of course the problem is that when Eni’s oil and gas is burned, the greenhouse gases are released to the atmosphere. Eni and BioCarbon Partners claim that these emissions are “offset” by the Luangwa Community Forests Project. But to address the climate crisis we urgently need to stop burning fossil fuels. Shuffling emissions from one place to another is just a distraction.
To make matters worse, Eni’s offsets are moving carbon from the slow carbon cycle (in which carbon is stored safely below ground as fossil fuels) to the fast carbon cycle (in which carbon circulates between the atmosphere, land, and oceans).
According to a 2019 Eni report titled, “Carbon neutrality in the long term”, Eni plans to buy about 30 million carbon offsets by 2050. (According to the Greenpeace Italy report this figure is 40 million.) “This would require more than 13 projects similar to the LCFP, which is the largest [carbon] forest project in Africa,” Greenpeace Italy writes. ENI’s carbon forests would need to cover an area significantly larger than the area of forests in Italy to generate 40 million carbon credits.
Greenpeace Italy calculates the cost to Eni of this massive land grab at 0.8% of its annual profit, (using 2019 profit, and an average price of carbon credits from the LCFP of US$4.50 each).
According to BioCarbon Partners’ 2020 Impact Report, in 2019, ENI, Peace Parks Foundation, and BioCarbon Partners signed a Memorandum of Understanding to develop 10 million hectares of REDD projects in Africa.