By Chris Lang
In December 2021, the Brazilian investigative journalism website Pública published a report on the Ecomapuá Amazon REDD Project on Marajó Island, in the Brazilian state of Pará. The project overlaps areas of the Mapuá and Terra Grande-Pracuúba federal Extractive Reserves (Resex). Villagers living in the Resex questioned the legitimacy of the REDD project. The company running the project, Ecomapuá Conservação, sells carbon offsets without directly transferring the money to the communities that live in and preserve the forest.
The project started in September 2002 with the publication of a report that estimated the rate of deforestation over then next 30 years. The report was commissioned by a company called Ecomapuá Ltda, which was registered on 19 July 2001 with the following aim: “development of sustainable development projects, clean development mechanisms, carbon sequestration”.
The project covers an area of 86,270 hectares in five properties owned (according to the project description document) by Ecomapuá: Bom Jesus, Brasileiro, Lago do Jacaré, São Domingos, and Vila Amélia.
Four of these properties overlap in part or completely with the Resex Mapuá and Terra Grande-Pracuúba.
Pública calculated that 65% of the REDD project is in reserve areas. The map below, produced by Pública, illustrates the problem (Resex Mapuá is coloured orange, Resex Terra Grande-Pracuúba is pink, and the properties are shown shaded):
The companies: Ecomapuá Conservação, Bio Assets, and Sustainable Carbon
The company running the project, Ecomapuá Conservação, is headquartered in Belém, capital of Pará. The company is owned by Chan Lap Tak and Bio Assets Ativos Ambientais. Chan Lap Tak is also a senior partner and founder of Bio Assets.
The project description document explains that, “Conservation activities involve the banning of logging in the project area as of the project start date, which invoked a strong reaction from the community upon its implementation.”
A company called Sustainable Carbon wrote the project documents and sold carbon offsets from the project. In May 2014, VCS (Verified Carbon Standard – now renamed as Verra) teamed up with SOCIALCARBON to make registering project and selling carbon offsets “a whole lot easier”. Three months later, SOCIALCARBON and VCS announced that they had verified their first joint project: The Ecomapuá Amazon REDD project.
Since then, the project has sold more than 2 million carbon offsets. Business is booming. In December 2021, when Pública published its article, the project had sold at 1.48 million. Buyers include Banco Santander do Brasil, Instituto Unibanco, the Brazilian branch of Deloitte, the maritime service provider Swire Pacific Offshore, Air France, the Inter-American Development Bank, Nespresso, Rabo Bank, and the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Resex leaders told Pública that they do not have direct access to the money received from the sale of carbon offsets and don’t even know how much money has been raised from the sale of offsets.
Adimilson Barbosa is the president of the Assication of Residents of the Mapuá Extractive Reserve (Amorema). He told Pública that he only became aware of the REDD project activities years after the project had started selling carbon offsets. He tried to read the project description document. “It’s over 90 pages, all in English,” he told Pública. “We managed to translate 15 pages only. How can the community be aware of the project if no one speaks English?”
In December 2018, Amorema went to court against Sustainable Carbon and Deliotte Brasil. They want the company to pay the people who live in the area for managing the forest.
Ecomapuá Conservação and Sustainable Carbon question the existence of the extractive reserves. The project description document doesn’t even mention the overlapping of the properties with the Resex territories.
Carbon Check (India)’s 2020 audit
But a 2020 audit carried out by Carbon Check (India) Private Ltd, raised questions about land ownership. The report states, “Finally, it’s worth mentioning for legal purposed (land ownership, land management and VCUs tituarity) that around 60% of the Project area is overlaping [sic] two Federal conservation unities (RESEX).”
Elsewhere, the same report states that, “The total overlapping area between the project area and both Federal Conservation Units is of 64,187ha, approximately 74% of the Project area . . . ”
The audit team checked with the CAR (Cadastro Ambienal Rural) Pará state database and discovered that all five project properties are “pending” because of overlapping land claims.
However, the auditors issued a Corrective Action Request and stated that “Due to the complexity of the territorial planning in the Amazon” the situation “should be re-evaluated in the next monitoring period.”
Pública reports that in response to the auditors’ questions, the companies argued that the decrees creating the Resex had lost their validity and therefore Ecomapuá Conservação owned the properties. The company cited a 1962 law which gave two years for the Resex to take over the land, including paying compensation to the owner of the land.
The auditors decided that Ecomapuá Conservação owned the credits issued in the five year period from 2013 to 2017.
Adriano Camargo Gomes is one of the lawyers representing Amorema. He told Pública that Ecomapuá Conservação’s interpretation is “fragile”. Gomes said that Chan Lap Tak would need to declare the Resex invalid. “It’s not enough to just have the title to the property,” he says.
On 15 December 2021, in response to Pública‘s questions, Verra responded as follows:
The rights of Indigenous people are critically important to Verra. All standards programs that we manage include safeguards that address the rights of Indigenous and local communities.
The VCS Standard contains safeguards that state: “Project activities shall not negatively impact the natural environment or local communities. Project proponents shall identify and address any negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of project activities, and shall engage with local stakeholders during the project development and implementation processes.” These requirements are set out in detail in Section 3.16 of VCS Standard v4.1.
During the validation process, an independent expert auditor reviews whether a project complies with all rules and requirements of the VCS, including the above requirement.
Information about the number of carbon credits issued by the Ecomapua Amazon REDD Project since 2013 is publicly available on the Verra Registry and accessible through the “View Issuance Records” in the “Project Summary” section.
That, of course, is a description of what is supposed to happen under Verra’s system, not what has actually happened in the case of the Ecomapuá Amazon REDD Project.
The VCS Standard states that “The project proponent shall conduct a local stakeholder consultation prior to validation as a way to inform the design of the project and maximize participation from stakeholder.” The audit carried out in 2020 – 18 years after the project started! – states:
[A]ccording to the information gathered during site interviews, most of the stakeholders were not fully informed about Project activities, especially . . . one of the most relevant and representative actors in the region . . .
Pública’s latest research reveals that Ecomapuá Conservação no longer has ownership of the properties
A recent article by Pública reports that “certificates of ownership chain issued by the Notary of the Island – 1st Office of Breves at the request of ICMBio, the managing body of the Resex, after the publication of the report, indicate that the registrations of the five properties are cancelled.” That means that Ecomapuá Conservação no longer has ownership of the properties.
On 27 April 2022, Adimilson Barbosa, the president of Amorema, called the sale of carbon offsets by Ecomapuá Conservação and Sustainable Carbon “illegal”.
In a statement, Barbosa wrote that,
These companies have justified the commercialization of credits on the false grounds that (a) they would be contributing to traditional populations when, in fact, they economically exploit the forest preservation carried out through the culture and way of life of these populations; and (b) the areas where the carbon credits come from, which have considerable overlap with Extractive Reserves and territories of traditional populations, would be their private domain when, in fact, they are areas of public domain.
The lawyer Adriano Camargo Gomes notes that the companies should have informed Verra that the registration of the ownership of the properties had been cancelled. “Most of the commercialisation (of the carbon offsets) took place after the cancellation, and this information is public,” Gomes told Pública.
Chan Lap Tak and Sustainable Carbon did not respond to Pública‘s questions, including questions about how much money the companies had raised from the sale of carbon offsets from the project.
Another response from Verra
On 28 April 2022, Verra responded to Pública‘s questions about land ownership and offered to contact TÜV Rheinland Greater China, the company that carried out the validation of the project in 2013, to get more details. “But that will take a while,” Verra’s press office wrote.
“The benefit-sharing issues you raise are concerning,” the press office added, “but it will take time to look into them.” The press office explained that “In the past few months, the number of media and general information requests have increased geometrically, along with demands for auditing and stakeholder support.”
On 2 May 2022, Verra sent the following response to Pública:
As a standard-setting body, Verra oversees the creation of standardized methodologies that reflect the majority vies of most experts, and then we create a process through which independent auditors can valdate and verify projects under those methodologies. Then Verra checks their work and takes care of tacking and tracing credits to avoid double-counting. This project was audited by several VVBs under both VCS and the Social Carbon standard. I can reach out to all of them for comment and then cross-check their answers with our team, but to do so I will need either time to read all of these through, which I haven’t yet had, or some very clear and concrete questions from you. You asked about ownership, and I told you what the VVB that did the initial validation said, and I’m reaching out to the others as well, but I want to come to them with clear and concrete questions that aren’t answered elsewhere.
Pública contacted several of the companies that bought carbon offsets from Ecomapuá. They explained that they trusted Verra’s process. Air France, for example, wrote that,
As part of the VCS (Verified Carbon Standard, international standard used to certify the project) registration process, physical properties and ownership of carbon credits are specifically studied by independent auditors. According to documents publicly available on the VCS website, ownership of the carbon credits is attributed to Ecomapuá, and will be rechecked by the independent auditor in the next verification phase. The company believes in the certification process. Regarding the judicial part, the company informs that it has not yet been officially notified of the process.
Displacing the problem, not solving it
Pública‘s research reveals serious problems with Verra’s validation and verification process. If the companies involved don’t pass on relevant information to the auditing company, that information can be very difficult (and time consuming) to uncover. The auditing company is paid by the company that it’s auditing – which is a clear conflict of interest. The auditing companies have no incentive to spend time finding out about the the actual situation on the ground, and every incentive to take what the company tells them at face value.
Incidentally, the Ecomapuá Amazon REDD Project is one of the projects that the carbon rating agency Pachama promotes as part of its “global portfolio of high-quality forest projects”. Pachama even states on its website that, “Each project is carefully vetted by Pachama’s technology and forest scientists to make sure your investment reduces carbon, restores wildlife and supports local communities.” It’s a good illustration of the problem of relying on remote sensing and “technology” in situations where the on the ground political economy is complex.
Meanwhile, Verra’s response amounts to asking the auditing company about the audit they carried out. And even that, “will take a while”.
On the ground, local communities are protecting the forests, while corporations are profiting from the sale of carbon offsets. Big Polluters are buying the offsets to give the impression that they are doing something about the climate crisis, while continuing business as usual.
Fabrina Furtado, a professor at the Department of Development, Agriculture and Society at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, has carried out research on the relationship between REDD project and violations of traditional rights. She told Pública that,
“The structuring issue is the idea that these projects can offset corporate emissions, which means hiding those responsible for deforestation. And if, on the one hand, it is hidden, on the other hand, the responsibility passes to communities and peoples, who have historically protected nature, including having a different type of relationship with the environment where they live. You displace the problem, but you don’t solve it: you don’t solve the causes of deforestation, climate change, you don’t discuss the production and consumption model.”