By Chris Lang
Fábio Alkmin is a Brazilian geographer, a member of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO) and currently a PhD student at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. Since 2010, he has studied autonomous Indigenous territories in Latin America and is currently researching this topic in the Brazilian Amazon. This video, produced during his fieldwork in March 2020 gives an example of Alkmin’s work:
Alkmin asked for an interview with REDD-Monitor, which is posted in full here:
Fábio Alkmin: As an introduction, please describe who you are and what is the REDD-Monitor project.
Chris Lang: I trained as an architect, but in the early 1990s I got involved in environmental activism. I took part in the anti-road protests at Twyford Down, and helped set up an environmental campaigning organisation. In 1996, I studied forestry at the Oxford Forestry Institute. My MSc thesis was titled, “Reforestation in Vietnam in the context of the globalization of the pulp and paper industry”.
From Oxford, I moved to Bangkok and worked with TERRA, an environmental and social justice NGO working on the Mekong Region. My work focussed on TERRA’s publication, Watershed. I’ve written a series of reports and articles for NGOs including the World Rainforest Movement, FERN, Urgewald, Friends of the Earth International, and The Corner House.
Since 2008, I’ve been working on REDD-Monitor, a website that looks at the contradictions and controversy behind the idea of Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD). REDD is a carbon trading scheme that allows Big Polluters to continue burning fossil fuels by claims of offsetting emissions against “avoided deforestation” in the Global South.
Fábio Alkmin: In Brazil, REDD+ has been presented as a “great possibility” of financing the autonomy of indigenous peoples, combining conservation with self-management of their territories. What would you have to say about this discourse?
Chris Lang: The argument that REDD could finance the autonomy of Indigenous Peoples requires ignoring the political economy of Indigenous Peoples’ rights. It requires ignoring colonialism, extractivism, over-consumption, inequality, and the destruction of the environment associated with capitalism.
The reality in far too many cases is that REDD projects are exacerbating existing problems such as fortress conservation. For example, in Peru, the government created the Cordillera Azul National Park without the consent of the Kichwa Indigenous People whose traditional lands are inside the park. In 2021, the Kichwa community took the Peruvian Government and the management of the park to court. The Kichwa community is challenging the Peruvian State’s failure to title their traditional lands, as well as the imposition of exclusionary conservation and a REDD carbon trading scheme on their lands – all without their consent.
Fábio Alkmin: Based on the experiences listed by the REDD-Monitor project in recent years, in general terms, what has been the impact of REDD+ projects in indigenous territories in Africa, Asia and Latin America? Please could you cite some concrete cases?
Chris Lang: A 2018 paper in Conservation and Society looks at “Actually Existing” REDD in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. They found that local communities were “confused” about REDD, financial benefits had not been delivered, and REDD projects were leading to social tension, without addressing ongoing deforestation.
Instead of addressing land tenure, REDD projects simplified tenure claims exacerbating social tensions and restricting access rights. One example of this is the Oddar Meanchey REDD project in Cambodia where indigenous communities were issued with communal titles that covered a much smaller area of land than the area the communities customarily used. The project utterly failed to stop deforestation.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, research published in 2021 by Action pour la Promotion et Protection des Peoples et Espèces Menacées (APEM) and Rainforest Foundation UK revealed that two REDD projects in Mai Ndombe province failed to get the free, prior and informed consent of local communities for REDD activities. Promised benefits were not delivered, or communities were dissatisfied with their implementation. The failure to strengthen communities’ tenure security left them vulnerable to land speculation and migration. And the REDD projects had little impact on reducing deforestation and degradation.
Brazil is perhaps the most extreme example of how REDD has failed to address deforestation. Deforestation in Brazil fell dramatically in the three years after 2004 – before REDD started. At the end of 2008, the Norwegian government started “result-based” payments to Brazil. For a few years deforestation continued to fall but since 2014 it has been increasing, and under the Bolsonaro regime deforestation is back to record highs. And Indigenous Peoples are seriously threatened by increased mining and destruction of the forests. Brazil’s Articulation of Indigenous People (APIB) has accused Bolsonaro of genocide at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Fábio Alkmin: What has been the relationship between REDD+ projects and land grabbing processes in peripheral countries?
Chris Lang: REDD builds on the colonial model of conservation where millions of people were evicted to make way for protected areas. REDD is a form of carbon colonialism through which rich countries and Big Polluters restrict the livelihoods of some of the poorest people on the planet in order that they can continue the business as usual for as long as possible.
The oil industry is currently promoting “natural climate solutions” as a way of giving the impression that they are doing something to address the climate crisis. There are two fundamental problems with this.
First, we cannot offset our way out of the climate crisis. Addressing the climate crisis means leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Offsetting allows the continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels. It is a massive, and dangerous, distraction from the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground.
Second, the oil industry is talking about grabbing a vast area of land in order to “offset” its continued destruction. Shell is working with The Nature Conservancy to generate offsets from natural climate solutions. In 2018, Shell’s CEO Ben van Beurden announced that “Another Brazil in terms of rainforest” would be needed to address climate change. Obviously, Van Beurden did not say where this other Brazil actually exists on planet earth – for the obvious reason that so much land is simply not lying around waiting for a massive land grab by Shell and other Big Polluters. At the same time, Van Beurden made clear that “Shell’s core business is, and will be for the foreseeable future, very much in oil and gas.”
In March 2019, Eni announced that it would develop REDD projects in Africa covering a total of 8.1 million hectares.
Both of these companies are already buying carbon offsets from REDD projects.
Fábio Alkmin: Which are the main countries promoting the REDD+ mechanism? By which interests? Do you believe these processes are related to a new type of imperialism?
Chris Lang: In 1992, during the Earth Summit in Rio, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) put forward a proposal to cap emissions and create a carbon market to trade emission allowances and carbon credits. The proposal came from Michael Grubb, then-Professor of Petroleum Economics at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
In 1999, the first meeting of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) took place – in Shell’s headquarters. IETA was founded by Big Polluters and is one of the largest and most influential industry associations at the UN climate meetings.
In 2019, IETA launched its “Markets for Natural Climate Solutions” during the UN climate meeting in Madrid (COP25). IETA’s advisory panel for this initiative includes representatives from Conservation International, Environmental Defense Fund, Earth Innovation Institute, and The Nature Conservancy.
Norway has poured more money into REDD than any other country. Norway launched its plans to spend more than US$500 million per year to save the rainforests at a meeting in Oslo in 2007. Norway’s oil industry was involved right from the start. Three people presented the plan: the Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg; the Minister of the Environment, Erik Solheim; and Åslaug Haga, the Minister of Petroleum and Energy.
I don’t think this is a new type of imperialism. I think this is the same old imperialism but painted green.
Fábio Alkmin: Some authors have been linking REDD+ projects to a process of transnational management of ethnic territories, within a “Neoliberal Climate Governance Regime”. Please, what is your opinion about this statement?
Chris Lang: REDD is a neoliberal carbon trading mechanism through which control over Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ territories are taken by rich countries, Big Polluters, and Big Tech companies, which are predominantly US-based. As such, “Neoliberal Climate Governance Regime” is a good description of this process.
One example of this process is the Alto Mayo REDD project in Peru. The project was set up by Conservation International, one of the big US-based NGOs that has been pushing REDD since the beginning. The rate of deforestation was exaggerated to create false baseline to give the impression that the project was successful even if deforestation continued.
Carbon offsets from the project go to Disney, allowing Disney to greenwash its continued pollution, for example through its cruise ships. Disney has plans to add three new massive cruise ships to its business empire.
Meanwhile communities living in the REDD project area are face with an increasingly militarised version of fortress conservation. In 2019, the police set up a base in the project area from where about 100 armed policement will patrol the forest.
Lauren Gifford, a researcher at the University of Arizona’s School of Geography, describes Conservation International’s REDD project as “carbon colonialism”.
Fábio Alkmin: USAID has been investing large amounts of money in carbon trading projects in the Amazon. What are the interests behind this process?
Chris Lang: USAID has supported many REDD projects over the years. In 2014, then-secretary of state, John Kerry, announced that USAID would give US$138.8 million to a private corporation called Althelia Climate Fund. Under the deal USAID guaranteed 50% of the loans that Althelia made to REDD project developers. Althelia is registered in the tax regime of Luxembourg.
USAID has funded the development of REDD projects, including the Luangwa Community Forests Project in Zambia. That project was started by a company called BioCarbon Partners, which is registered in another tax haven, Mauritius. The project sells carbon offsets to the Italian oil and gas corporation Eni, which claims, as a result, to deliver “carbon neutral” fossil fuels.
In 2021, USAID put out a statement together with the governments of Peru, Germany, Norway, and the UK stating that it was strengthening a partnership to preserve the Amazon rainforest. But none of the countries were promising anything new. Meanwhile Peru is planning to build a road that would cut through the Amazon rainforest, including through the Sieraa del Divisor National Park.
In Colombia, USAID helped greenwash a coal mining company called Prodeco, a subsidiary of Anglo-Swiss mining giant Glencore, with the help of Conservation International and carbon offsets from a REDD project. From 2011 to 2015, USAID ran a US$32 million programme in Colombia called BioREDD+.
USAID also funds the Stand for Trees website that sells carbon offsets from 15 REDD projects. Among the projects Stand for Trees supports is the Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project in Cambodia that has seen evictions, violence, and burning of people’s homes in the name of conservation.
USAID’s interests are, of course, perfectly aligned with the US government’s interests which are to give the impression of doing something about the climate crisis, while in reality doing nothing to implement the structural societal and economic changes that are necessary.
Fábio Alkmin: Could “payments for environmental services” represent a new model of “accumulation by dispossession” (David Harvey)?
Chris Lang: One of the serious risks of “payments for environmental services” schemes is that they could lead to a massive land grab as polluting corporations use the “services” provided by Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ land in order to claim that they are taking action to address the climate crisis. Once a price is put on nature, and nature becomes “natural capital”, the danger is that nature can be appropriated by whoever can afford it. At a time when fossil fuel corporations are among the richest and most powerful institutions in the world, the financialisation of nature is a terrifying concept.
In that sense, REDD and payments for environmental services are part of a privatisation and commodification of the commons. The financialisation of nature is an expression of a neoliberal approach to conservation. A few years ago, I interviewed Michael Schmidlehner who has lived and worked in Acre in Brazil for many years. I think he summed up the problem very well:
In the international context, REDD aims at shifting the responsibility for the climate crisis from industrialized societies to forest communities, from north to south. REDD (as well as payments for so-called Environmental Services) actually reproduces colonial power relations. Being presented as if it was a solution to the crisis, REDD tends to mask the real problem (which is basically the burning of fossil fuels) as well as preventing societies from recognizing its urgency and the need of addressing the root causes (the excessive production and consumption by wealthy societies).
Fábio Alkmin: From the cases you have followed in the last years, what has been indigenous peoples’ best strategy of territorial resistance to facing the new challenges of the climate emergency and green capitalism?
Chris Lang: I believe that the Indigenous Peoples’ struggle for their rights to manage their territories is crucially important. Indigenous Peoples’ rights are now recognised under international law and even in the constitutions of several countries. Clearly though, Indigenous peoples and local communities face serious threats from the expansions of mining, logging, fossil fuel exploration and extraction, road-building, hydropower dams, industrial tree plantations, cattle ranching, industrial agriculture, as well as discrimination, lack of access to justice, and the denial of their rights.
The climate crisis threatens to wipe out large areas of the Amazon rainforest if a tipping point is reached. And that tipping point could be terrifyingly close. The Brazilian Amazon is already a carbon source, not a sink.
In 2018, a meeting took place in Zapuri on the 30th anniversary of the murder of Chico Mendes. The meeting was organised by Friends of the Earth Brasil, the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), and World Rainforest Movement. The meeting put out a statement opposing the false solutions of green capitalism. The Xapuri Declaration describes “sustainable development” and the “green economy” as a farce:
We denounce this farce and demand: the immediate suspension of all commercial logging projects and all environmental and climate compensation policies that have been grown out of the false solutions of green capitalism; the demarcation of all territories of indigenous peoples and an agrarian reform rooted in popular sovereignty.
Fábio Alkmin: Finally, considering that the Brazilian government is currently regulating the carbon market (Bill 528/2021), would you like to add something that you consider essential and that was left out of the interview?
Chris Lang: As I mentioned earlier, not long ago REDD proponents described Brazil as a success story. It’s true that from 2004, deforestation in Brazil fell dramatically. It’s difficult though to point to a single reason for this. Commodity prices fell, the government implemented the Forest Code, and the Soy Moratorium was in place. All of these things helped. But Norway’s US$1 billion REDD deal with Brazil played little or no role. Deforestation rates have since increased, and under Bolsonaro deforestation is soaring once again.
Carbon markets will not address this deforestation crisis, because they do not address the underlying drivers of deforestation: extractivism, capitalist modes of production, over-consumption, colonialism, and economic growth. With a growth rate of 3%, the global economy doubles every 24 years. Then it doubles again. In the three decades since 1990, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its first report, we have emitted more CO2 than we did in all of history before that date.
REDD does nothing to address the crisis of endless economic growth. Instead it is a mechanism for Big Polluters to continue polluting. As such it is part of the problem. To address the climate crisis we have to leave fossil fuels in the ground, not find ever more elaborate market mechanisms for continuing the destruction.