By Chris Lang
The Peruvian government established the Alto Mayo Protected Forest, covering an area of 182,000 hectares, as a protected area in 1987. It extisted as a “paper park” until 2008, when Conservation International signed an agreement with the Regional Government to manage the area. In 2013, the Walt Disney Corporation bought 437,000 carbon credits from the project at a cost of US$3.5 million.
By 2020, sales of carbon credits from the project had raised a total of US$30 million. In addition to Disney, other companies buying carbon credits from the project include BHP, Microsoft, United Airlines, and Gucci.
On its website, Conservation International claims that the project is a success:
The project demonstrates how multi-sector partnerships among government officials, the private sector, civil society and local communities can have an enormous impact. By providing benefits to local communities in the Alto Mayo region, Conservation International and its partners are offering people the opportunity to become conservation allies — seeing them not as enemies of the forest, but as its guardians.
The reality however is more complex. In order to generate carbon credits, Conservation International has to be able to argue that deforestation is reduced as a result of the project. This involves creating a story about what would have happened in the absence of the project.
Conservation International claims that “As of 2020, deforestation in the Alto Mayo Protected Forest has declined by 59 percent since the project began.” But this is based on an avoided deforestation methodology that inflated the rate of historical deforestation by a factor of three.
In 2020, Zachary R. Mide and John Quigley, two journalists with Bloomberg Green travelled to the Alto Mayo Protected Forest. They found a community split between those in favour of the project, and those opposing it.
Heavily armed park rangers patrol the forest and there have been several violent conflicts with villagers living inside the protected area. In December 2019, the police set up a base inside the Alto Mayo Protected Forest. About 100 armed police patrol the forest from the base.
Lauren Gifford, a researcher at the University of Arizona’s School of Geography, carried out part of her PhD research in the Alto Mayo Protect Forest. She describes Conservation International’s REDD project as “carbon colonialism”.
Failure discourse in conservation
A recent paper published in the journal World Development includes a case study of the Alto Mayo Protected Forest. Written by Josephine M. Chambers, Kate Massarella, and Robert Fletcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the paper is titled, “The right to fail? Problematizing failure discourse in international conservation.”
The paper looks in detail at how failure has been dealt with in conservation and development over the years. And how a narrative has developed that failure is “an essential step in the path to our ‘success'”. The researchers explain that conservation’s newfound attention to failure replicates what James Ferguson calls “The Anti-Politics Machine” based on his classic study of a World Bank development project in Lesotho.
Under this approach, the political questions of who did what, and to whom, are carefully swept under the carpet to be replaced by questions of how implementation can be “improved” within the constraints of the project.
This post focusses on the paper’s analysis of the Alto Mayo Protected Forest in Peru.
Conservation agreements and organic coffee growing
In 2008, Conservation International started to sign conservation agreements with families living inside the Alto Mayo Protected Forest. These conservation agreements required families to comply with existing deforestation restrictions in the protected area in exchange for technical support for organic coffee growing and alternative livelihoods.
“The first attempt at using a CA [conservation agreement] went horribly wrong,” a Conservation International project manager said in a 2013 interview. “There was violence and the population did not want to work with us.”
The researchers write that,
The population’s response was influenced by the incredibly challenging history of the park, where the state’s initial fortress approach had exacerbated tensions with an increasingly defensive local population.
Nevertheless, Conservation International did sign conservation agreements with several families to create organic coffee demonstration plots. A 2011 monitoring report acknowledged problems:
What was observed during the first nine months of implementation of the CAs reflects that all subscribers have the predisposition to replicate the proposal; However, for economic reasons, few can do it in its entirety (particularly for the purchase of organic fertilizer).
Conservation International continued to sign conservation agreements and by 2016 about 850 had been signed. But half of the families experienced an overall income decline and 39% chose not to renew.
In 2016, a Conservation International manager said that,
According to our analyses, we know that the populations are working with us only for the benefits, not because they are properly motivated for conservation, because when there are problems, their first support should be the conservation agreements, but nevertheless either due to pressure or due to fear, they change their minds. Likewise, the leaders were subscribers and now they are on the opposite side.
Wealth, not poverty, is driving deforestation
The researchers write that,
in direct contradiction to the theory of change informing the interventions, wealth (not poverty) is driving deforestation inside AMPF . . . As a result, those most likely to deforest have used their resources and networks to acquire additional land and evade restrictions, while the poorest families bear the burden of restrictions.
Conservation agreements have brought some benefits, the researchers write, but the benefits have been “highly uneven and broadly insufficient”. These dynamics have sparked conflicts inside the Alto Mayo Protected Forest.
A Conservation International park manager explained that it would have been better from the beginning of the project to talk about communal benefits such as health and education that would hopefully result from the project. This “would have avoided many unnecessary conflict,” the Conservation International representative said.
The researchers note that,
However, the state had refused to allow collective benefits inside the park, and the individual agreements made it easier to prove additionality to carbon donors. As a result, park staff – genuinely seeking to do the best they can amidst broader constraints and a highly challenging situation – have adopted a pragmatic fail forward mentality wherein they search for small wins within fixed protectionist and incentive-based intervention strategies and neglect broader political economic forces that heavily constrain what is possible.
Failure acknowledged but funding expands
The researchers ask an interesting question: “Given the acknowledgement of failure by implementation staff on the ground, why has funding for AMPF expanded in recent years?”
They argue that,
[T]he explicit attention to failure and learning through quantitative impact monitoring has paradoxically furthered the international ‘sale’ of the same conservation model that continues to constrain possibilities for success on the ground. CI’s approach to generating global impact through local trialing has prioritized quantitative measures, such as the number of signed agreements and trainings delivered, expansion of park guards, farm yield and income levels, and avoided deforestation – as calculated using a Verified Carbon Standard methodology.
These indicators “were externally used to ‘sell’ success and guarantee continued funding”. In other words, Conservation International continued to promote the project to the outside world as a success – despite the ongoing problems on the ground.
The researchers argue that this is not simply a matter of failures being hidden or sugarcoated into project success. Instead, they argue that,
‘failure’ and ‘learning’ (to address failure) have themselves become discursive commodities that further the selling of success, aided by particular frames that are inherently predisposed to emphasize partial success and hide the roots of ongoing failures, backed by ‘objective’ language to affirm the rigor of assessments.
For example, a 2016 Conservation International monitoring report acknowledges that selected measures could not demonstrate success. The researchers note that the “awareness of ongoing challenges and risks was stressed to celebrate how the initiative was proactively learning from failures and thus poised for success”. They give the following quotation from Conservation International’s report to illustrate this point:
Additional risks that could prevent the expected benefits regarding Community and Biodiversity aspects were identified. Among them are risks posed by the coffee diseases, such as coffee rust (Hemileia vastatrix); lack of livelihood alternatives, particularly the dependence on coffee as the sole source of income; the long-term sustainability of technical assistance, social conflicts, and effects of climate change. For each of these risks we have identified specific actions . . . that will be developed and implemented in a participatory manner with project beneficiaries to increase their level of resilience to these potential risks.
Meanwhile, Conservation International’s website claims that the project is a success. And Big Polluters continue to buy bogus carbon credits from the project. Recent purchases to allow continued emissions come from Disney, BHP, Southwire, Planetly GmbH, Salesforce, and National Geographic.
The researchers conclude that,
A more reflexive approach would critically examine the politics behind why failure so often leads not to its correction but instead further failure – an approach that can also draw insights from other fields such as critical studies of medicine and development. Such an approach would foreground critical reflection on the key questions of who is in the position to frame failure and whose framing of failure counts most in deliberation and policymaking – making it an explicitly political approach to understanding failure.
And they point out that, “it is important that conservationists acknowledge and take seriously the implications of failed interventions for people living in conservation-critical areas who are being asked to change their lives to facilitate conservation outcomes.”