By Chris Lang
For forest-dwelling and forest-dependent communities living in the heart of the Congo Basin, the introduction of an inclusive, participatory REDD program represents an opportunity for those communities to benefit for the long-term. A significant portion of the Revenues from carbon offsets will go towards sustainable infrastructural projects designed by communities.
In a recent article in the German newspaper Die Zeit, journalist Jonas Gerding spoke to Epoka Malanda who until recently was the chief of a small village called Mekiri in Mai Ndombe. Malanda told him that the villagers got scared when the foreign company came. They didn’t understand why their forest – of all places – should be used to fight climate change. “There was an uproar,” Gerding writes, “some people threw stones, someone shot at Malanda’s house.” Malanda told Gerding that, “In their view, I had sold the forest.”
In March 2012, researchers from Forest Peoples Programme and Cercle pour la Défense de l’Environnement, an NGO in the Democratic Republic of Congo, visited Mai Ndombe. They found that, “none of the communities had been informed about what the carbon market actually is, or how it works”. They were not told what the impacts of the project might be on their livelihoods, nor were they aware what they might gain from the project. At least one community refused to collaborate with Ecosystem Restoration Associates’ project.
13 million carbon offsets sold
In 2012, Ecosystem Restoration Associates and a company called Wildlife Works Carbon LLC submitted project documents to Verra, the Washington DC-based standards setting organisation for carbon offsetting projects. In October 2013, Wildlife Works Carbon bought out Ecosystem Restoration Associates and took over the project.
The project has sold more than 13 million tons of carbon offsets. Wildlife Works Carbon would not tell Die Zeit how much money it had received from the sale of these carbon offsets.
Gerding notes that “there are doubts about the success of the WWC project in Mai Ndombe”. He points out that Rainforest Foundation UK and the Rights and Resources Institute have published reports that criticise the project.
Gerding highlights two key problems with the project:
- Free, prior and informed consent: Eleven years after the project started, villagers like Epoka Malanda still do not understand how and why their forest is supposed to help reduce the emissions of polluting corporations from the Global North.
- Additionality: The question of whether the CO2 emissions avoided in the Mai Ndombe forest are really the result of Wildlife Works Carbon’s project.
Gerding writes that,
Anyone who talks to experts and scientists about the project, who travels to Mai Ndombe to talk to villagers and to see Wildlife Works Carbon’s efforts on the ground, will come across many questionable things.
A solar powered well and a field
Gerding is taken on a tour by Fiston Mputu Mwilondo through Nselenge, a village in Mai Ndombe. Mputu is one of Wildlife Works Carbon’s “village ambassadors”. Mputu shows him a well that uses solar panels to get clean water out of the ground.
He also shows him an agricultural project – a field of ploughed soil with a few seedlings growing. It covers about one hectare. Tomatoes, soya, and onions are supposed to grow here. But it is not a productive vegetable plot. Mputu admits that villagers are not really interested in working in the field.
Apart from the solar powered well and the field, not much has happened in Nselenge in recent years. Four unfinished buildings stand near tree stumps at the edge of the forest. It’s supposed to be a school. Wildlife Works Carbon has built only 12 out of 28 planned school buildings so far.
Wildlife Works Carbon has not yet started work in some villages, including Mekiri, where Epoka Malanda lives.
Wildlife Works Carbon’s Mike Korchinsky: This is a 30 year project
Gerding speaks to Mike Korchinsky, the founder of Wildlife Works Carbon. Korchinsky points out the successes: agroforestry projects in other areas, 21 fish farms, seven wells, a health centre, and much more. 400 people are permanently employed, Korchinsky says.
In the early years of the project, sales of carbon offsets did not bring in enough money to finance all the planned activities. “This led to some disappointment in the past,” Korchinsky tells Gerding.
But this is a 30 year project, Korchinsky explains, and there’s still enough time to build the schools that are planned. In any case, the villages of Nselenge adn Mekiri are not close to forest that is part of the CO2 stock that has to be protected. That’s why, so far, they have not been a priority for Wildlife Works Carbon.
Gerding responds as follows:
How is a school that is yet to be built supposed to stop forest clearance today? How can a trial field with a few seedlings possibly stop the inhabitants from cutting down trees and burning them?
Providing 400 jobs sounds like a lot. But more than 32,000 people live in the project area. Most of them see the forest as crucial to their livelihoods.
Villagers told Gerding that they continue the same activities in the forest as they did before the project. They continue to enter the forest and cut down trees as usual. Gerding notes that the loss of forest can be seen in satellite images.
Wildlife Works Carbon’s bogus baseline
Wildlife Works Carbon does not deny that deforestation continues in the project area. Jean-Robert Bwangoy, the local project manager, tells Gerding that between 2013 and 2000, Wildlife Works Carbon has reported the loss of 10.4 million tons of CO2. But Bwangoy adds, without the project it would have been four-and-a-half times as much.
Gerding speaks to Alain Karsenty, an economist at the French research institute Cirad. In 2016, Karsenty co-authored a study that looked at the counterfactual baseline used by the project developer to claim what would have happened in the absence of the project.
Karsenty told Die Zeit that Wildlife Works Carbon is exaggerating what would have happened without the REDD project. Wildlife Works Carbon claims that the REDD project stopped industrial logging. But the logging concessions were cancelled in 2008, years before Ecosystem Restoration Associates and Wildlife Works Carbon appeared in Mai Ndombe.
A 2020 video made by Filip Agoo for Everland, a company set up by Wildlife Works Carbon to market carbon offsets, describes how damaging the logging operations were for local communities in Mai Ndombe. “But everything changed in 2008,” Agoo narrates, “following a governmental revision of the DRC National Forest Code, 91 of 156 logging concessions were suspended in an effort to address corruption in the sector.”
Agoo says that “it was at this time that Wildlife Works Carbon implemented the REDD+ conservation strategy, to prevent two of the logging concessions from being restored to logging.” That’s not quite true. Ecosystem Restoration Associates signed the carbon rights agreement in April 2011, and Wildlife Works Carbon formed a joint venture with Ecosystem Restoration Association in March 2012.
Wildlife Works Carbon told Gerding that it had information that the government wanted to hand out logging concessions in the project area despite the ban on new logging concession in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But Wildlife Works Carbon did not provide any evidence to back up this claim. The Congolese Ministry of the Environment told Die Zeit that it can no longer find the relevant documents. And the logging company has since changed owners.
Karsenty notes that this is problem for many offsetting projects. “No one can know exactly what would have happened if the project had not existed,” he tells Gerding.
But as Larry Lohmann pointed out in a response to REDD-Monitor’s post about Karsenty’s paper about the Mai Ndombe baseline, this is a problem for any projects that rely on counterfactual baselines. “The problem is not ‘bad baselines’ but the concept of counterfactual baselines itself,” Lohmann writes.
REDD project developers use stories about what might have happened if the project didn’t go ahead in order to create a fictitious commodity called “carbon offsets”. It would be bad enough if the scam stopped there. But project developers sell carbon offsets to Big Polluters to enable them to carry on profiting from destroying the climate.
Buyers of carbon offsets from Mai Ndombe include Nespresso, Marathon Oil Company, Boom Technolog (which is designing a supersonic airliner), crypto company Toucan, luxury fashion company Burberry Group, South Korean industrial conglomerate Daelim Group, and Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management.
Verra’s response: “Baseless assertion”
Predictably enough Verra backed up Wildlife Works Carbon, telling Gerding that without the REDD project in Mai Ndombe, industrial logging would have occurred. The accusation that the project does not sufficiently support the local population, is a “baseless assertion”, according to Verra.
But as Gerding concludes, many villagers in the project area have so far gained little. “Many people here wonder what they get out of all this,” Gerding writes.
Epoka Malanda from Mekiri would also like to know. But in eleven long years, the project operator has not managed to give them an answer.