Planning for Climate Disaster: Resilient Communities Respond

2 03 2013

From the latest issue of Race, Poverty & the Environment

By Jeff Conant

After months of silence on the presidential campaign—preceded by years of denial by big industry—climate change was forced back into the national political conversation last October by Hurricane Sandy, which swept across the northeastern U.S. A New York Times opinion piece entitled, “Is This the End?” ran with a photo of the Statue of Liberty underwater;[1] and a front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that “water levels in San Francisco Bay could rise 16 inches or more by 2050, inundating shoreline habitat and infrastructure.”[2]

Meanwhile, 14,000 public-housing tenants in New York were left for weeks without electricity or running water in the wake of Sandy.
After President Obama’s reelection, California Senator Barbara Boxer predicted that several of her colleagues would be quick to introduce climate legislation in the new Congress—a move that had been considered political suicide since the Waxman-Markey bill was killed by a Republican Senate in 2009.[3]

But will legislation considered politically realistic be enough to address the scale and urgency of the climate crisis? And will it address the equity crisis? Imara Jones wrote in Colorlines, “Sandy smashed into the world’s wealthiest city but hit its poorest neighborhoods the hardest.”[4]

Climate change has been called the “greatest market failure in history,”[5] but as with all market failures, those most affected have historically been excluded from the benefits of the market.

“The reality of ecological disruption is that instability and unpredictability, not just in the climate, but in the economy itself, are the new normal,” says Gopal Dayaneni, an organizer with the Bay Area-based Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project. “We have to innovate on our organizing strategies if we are going to navigate these changes.”

To that end, as organizers in New York set up emergency relief efforts following Sandy, Movement Generation released a statement calling for a focus on community resilience in the age of climate disasters.

“There will be many more shocks—acute moments of disruption, such as extreme weather events—and slides—incremental disruptions, such as sea level rise—that play out over longer timeframes in devastating ways, if we are not prepared,” they wrote. “The question is how can we prepare to harness these shocks and slides to win the shifts we need in favor of people and the planet?”[6]
The statement went on to cite the work of organizers from New Orleans to Haiti to New York and beyond, who offer both practical solutions and a larger vision of a “just transition” to “new economies defined by public transit, zero waste, community housing, food sovereignty, wetlands restoration, clean community-owned power, and local self-governance: all efforts that foster community resilience and to cut the carbon emissions and change the economic system that is driving global warming.”[7]

Frontline Communities Demand Real Solutions
“Communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis have never been silent about the solutions that will save our planet and our soul as a society,” says Cecil Corbin-Mark of WE ACT for Environmental Justice in West Harlem. “We have advocated for bus rapid transit, affordable safe housing and resilient communities, green jobs through public investment, and policies that cut and eliminate carbon.”
But resiliency-based responses to the climate crisis are nowhere on the mainstream policy agenda.

On November 14, as communities in New York and New Jersey were still shivering in the dark without electricity, food, or gasoline, one of the nation’s most closely watched efforts to regulate climate pollution—an auction of carbon emissions allowances—was launched in California as part of the state’s new cap-and-trade system.

More than 70 companies submitted bids for the price they were willing to pay to continue releasing greenhouse gases, with the price for a ton of emissions swinging as low as  $10.09, just above the $10.00 floor price set by the California Air Resources Board (ARB).[8] Of the total number of emissions allowances distributed, 10 percent were sold and 90 percent given away, in an effort to maintain a comparative advantage between California companies and out-of-state businesses, and to appease utilities.[9]

ARB Chair Mary Nichols declared the auction a success.[10] Groups, such as Environmental Defense Fund, agreed, noting that the demand for credits was a market signal that the cap-and-trade program was here to stay.[11]

Bill Gallegos, executive director of Communities for a Better Environment, rebuts those assertions. “The cheap price of credits in the recent auction came as no surprise—they follow the pattern that [occurred] repeatedly in Europe and offer an ‘out’ for big polluters like oil refineries to buy their way out of cleaning up local and global pollution without providing an environmental benefit. This system could even allow big polluters like Chevron’s Richmond refinery to refine dirtier grades of crude oil.”

Cap-and-trade means putting a declining “cap” on total emissions, while allowing trading of pollution permits. Regulators in California will set a ceiling on CO2 emissions from utilities, oil extractors, and fossil fuel-burning factories and require them to pay for their pollution by buying carbon allowances in quarterly auctions. In year one, the program is expected to generate between $660 million and $3 billion in auction proceeds. By 2020, cap-and-trade could send $8 billion into state coffers annually.

But will it reduce climate pollution?

Cap-and-Trade: More Loopholes than Benefits
Although environmental justice groups rallied to keep the fossil fuel industry from overturning AB 32 in a referendum in 2010, they have been deeply critical of cap-and-trade.

“Cap-and-trade has not been shown to actually work to reduce greenhouse gas emission,” says Sofia Parino, senior attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE).

Many cap-and-trade critics believe that the untested system is packed with loopholes and dangerous possibilities for financial gaming.
“CRPE and our communities are opposed to a trading scheme because of the inherent inequities for communities of color and low income communities, and the missed opportunities for real localized emission reductions,” Parino says.

These concerns led CRPE, along with Communities for a Better Environment, to take the Air Resources Board to court in 2011 to challenge AB 32’s cap-and-trade provision. The lawsuit eventually lost, leading some environmental justice groups to push for legislation directing a percentage of revenue from carbon allowances to vulnerable communities, enabling them to receive some benefit from the state’s new carbon market. (See story on SB 535 and AB 1532).

“The recent auction did not change our position on cap-and-trade,” Parino says. “A cap-and-trade system will not succeed in addressing the problem of superstorms. And, even if it were to reduce emissions, the reductions would not be enough to affect the changing climate.”

The most problematic aspect of the California system is that it allows greenhouse gas reductions to be made through carbon offsets rather than actual reductions in production.

Offsets are reductions in emissions made in one place or sector in order to compensate for emissions elsewhere: for example, a landowner is paid not to cut down his forest so that it can continue capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. Purchasing this offset allows owners of a coal-fired power plant to burn extra coal. While such offsets are considered indispensable to keeping cap-and-trade affordable, experience in Europe has shown no net reduction in greenhouse gases. By permitting burning above the cap for a given source, the likely result of a carbon offset is not a decrease in emissions, but an increase.

Overcoming the Fatal Flaw in Cap-and-Trade
Many of the climate policies promoted at state and national levels seek to tinker with the symptoms of the crisis without addressing root causes. Contrary to such approaches, Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan of Movement Generation says, “Our social movements need to be ambitious and bold—to articulate what is truly materially and culturally necessary to tackle the crisis at hand.”

A few bold organizing strategies that Movement Generation cites as key to building grassroots resilience include WE ACT’s fight for bus rapid transit and public sector jobs. There is also the work of groups—such as Right to the City, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, Picture the Homeless, and Make the Road—to end displacement and economic inequity, which they see as integrally connected to climate change. The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, for instance, works to protect communities from the compounded burden of toxic inundation when hit by storm surges like Hurricane Sandy.

There are widespread efforts to reclaim vacant lots for community gardens and build regional food systems by groups from Detroit to Haiti. “Zero waste” solutions are promoted by Ironbound Community Corporation, the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, to create recycling and composting jobs while drastically reducing climate and toxic pollution from landfills and incinerators. And, as a direct alternative to the false promise of cap-and-trade, the Indigenous Environmental Network works to free indigenous lands and communities—and our collective atmospheric space—from fossil fuel development, such as tar sands and the Keystone XL, Kinder Morgan, and Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines.

Such efforts do not fall in line with conventional legislative approaches, rather they mirror direct action strategies that are more common internationally—the land takeovers of Brazil’s Movimento sem Terra; or La Via Campesina’s international peasant farmers’ movement with its  slogan, “Peasant farmers cool the planet.”
“Social movements must be unafraid to put forth a holistic vision and real solutions, and build and model them in the world in a way that contests for power,” says Mascarenhas-Swan. “This means transitioning out of an economy that lets some populations and communities profit at the expense of others, toward an economy that works for people and the planet.”
That’s a far cry from cap-and-trading our way out of the crisis.

1.     James Atlas, “Is This the End?,” New York Times, Nov. 24, 2012. <>
2.     Peter Fimrite, “West Coast at risk for hybrid storms, too,” San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 3, 2012.
3.     Jean Chemnick, “Emissions legislation poised to make a comeback in new Congress – Boxer,” E&E News, Nov. 27, 2012.
4.     Imara Jones, “What Hurricane Sandy Should Teach Us about Climate Justice,” Colorlines, Nov. 15, 2012.
5.     Nicolas Stern, “Stern Review on Climate Change,” Oct. 30, 2006. <>
6.    <>
7.    Ibid.
8.    capandtrade/auction/november_2012/auction1_results_2012 q4nov.pdf>
9.     Rory Carroll and Dan Levine, “California Chamber of Commerce seeks to stop cap-and-trade,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 13, 2012. <>
10.    Lynn Doan, “California Carbon Allowances Sold Out at $10.09 in Auction,” Bloomberg, Nov. 19, 2012.
11. Dana Hull, “California’s first cap-and-trade auction sells out, declared ‘a success,’” San Jose Mercury News, Nov. 20, 2012. < business/ci_22028077/californias-first-cap-and-trade-auction-sells-out>


A Darker Shade of Green: REDD Alert and the Future of Forests

24 01 2012

I directed and produced this video with Global Justice Ecology Project and Global Forest Coalition. Have a look:

Do Trees Grow on Money?

8 09 2011
A UN-Backed Plan to Address Climate Change by Slowing Deforestation Sounds Like a Good Idea. Unless You Live in the Forest.

By Jeff Conant (from the Autumn, 2011 issue of Earth Island Journal)

In Mayan cosmology, the ceiba tree, with its elephantine, silver-grey trunk that towers above the jungle, is the tree of life, shoring up the corners of the sky and sending its roots deep into the underworld. In the centuries following the conquest of the New World, Mayans by the thousands were forced to work in monterias, or timber camps, and the ancestral role of the ceiba as a bridge between the world above and the world below gave way to the board-feet of timber the trees surrendered when felled. The ensuing rush for sugar, for rubber, for minerals, and for cattle left the jungles of Mesoamerica reduced to a fraction of their original area and devastated the peoples who once thrived there.

Today, another vision is shaping the jungles of southern Mexico: The idea that protecting forests is central to the struggle against global warming.

aerial photo of a tree plantation

photos courtesy Orin LangelleUnder REDD, “forests” may also mean plantations.

photo of two women conversingTropical deforestation and forest degradation contribute between 12 and 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, as some 13 million hectares of forest are lost annually. The Lacandon Jungle on the border of Chiapas and Guatemala is a case in point: Only about 10 percent of the jungle remains intact. Saving forested areas like the Lacandon is key to reducing the impacts of runaway climate change.

Past efforts to reduce deforestation, like setting up protected areas or promoting sustainable land-use practices, have had limited success. That’s because the drivers of deforestation – agriculture, mining, fossil fuel extraction, paper demand – offer rich financial rewards. But what if forests were more valuable left standing than cut down?

A new policy mechanism is being developed to do just that. Dubbed REDD, for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, the mechanism (along with a list of spin-offs such as REDD+ and REDD++) is backed by major multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank. Support for REDD spans the spectrum of green groups, from market-minded conservation NGOs like Environmental Defense and Conservation International to more capital-skeptic outfits like Greenpeace.

At a high-level event during COP16, the UN climate summit last year in Cancún, Mexico, pilot REDD projects were hailed by heads of state and a gamut of global figures including primatologist Jane Goodall, Walmart CEO Sam Walton, and billionaire philanthropist George Soros. The World Bank’s Robert Zoellick called REDD “the best chance, perhaps the last chance, to save the world’s forests.” Zoellick admitted that the policy still has some kinks, but closed his remarks to great applause with one of the mantras of the summit: “Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.”

After the applause died down, Linda Adams, the head of California EPA, took the stage and announced that, as one of his last acts in office, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had signed a carbon trading agreement, predicated on a REDD scheme, with the state of Chiapas. Adams called the plan “a way for California to help the developing world by investing in forests.”

“Saving our forests is good not only for the atmosphere,” she said. “It’s also good for Indigenous Peoples.” Chiapas Governor Juan Sabines, on hand to promote his state’s comprehensive Climate Change Action Program, nodded in vigorous agreement.

But as official delegates applauded REDD in Cancún’s plenary halls, grassroots activists in the streets were staging protests against the policy. Benign as it may appear, what outsiders see as forest protection many locals see as the potential loss of their homes. REDD is fiercely contested by many human rights advocates and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, who see in it the continuation of colonial resource extraction at best, and at worst perhaps the largest land grab in history.

Tom Goldtooth, Director of the North America-based Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), has called REDD “a violation of the sacred, and the commodification of life.” Goldtooth warns that the policy won’t actually reduce emissions, that it is already violating communities’ rights, and that it relies too much on the market. IEN, along with the Global Forest Coalition, World Rainforest Movement, Friends of the Earth International, and La Via Campesina, the world’s largest federation of peasant farmers, came away from Cancún charging that the UN, in promoting REDD, had become “the World Trade Organization of the Sky.”

“When a natural function like forest respiration becomes a product with a price, it’s easy to see who’s going to end up with control of the forests.”

The REDD scheme unfolding in Chiapas offers a particularly compelling test for this controversial idea. Home to most of Mexico’s tropical trees, a third of its mammal species, and half of its bird and butterfly species, the Lacandon is also, famously, home to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the insurgent rebel group that rose up in 1994 to demand that Indigenous Peoples be allowed to control their own territories. That struggle, and the Mexican government’s response, has engendered paramilitary massacres, years of counterinsurgency, and tens of thousands of displaced people – and it can be traced, in part, to a decades-old agreement that took as its pretext the protection of the Lacandon. The region’s rich biodiversity, open conflicts over land tenure, and the potential investment from California make Lacandon a fascinating test case – or an instructive cautionary tale – of what REDD may bring.

REDD, in Black and White

REDD works like this: Because trees capture and store CO2, maintaining intact forests is essential to mitigating climate change. REDD proposes that governments, companies, or forest owners in the global South be given financial incentives for keeping their forests standing. REDD was formally taken up by the UN-sponsored climate change talks in Bali in 2007. Since then it has moved rapidly to the forefront of the climate agenda. Norway, its biggest donor, has pledged upwards of $120 million to the UN REDD program, and given $1 billion each to Indonesia and a confederation of Amazonian states to establish the program. In December 2010, REDD was adopted into the UN’s Cancún Agreements, the closest thing to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol.

While paying to preserve forests appears to be a long-overdue gesture of goodwill, it brings up an array of thorny questions. For starters, what is meant by “forests”? Because the UN’s definition is unclear, “forests” under REDD may include monoculture tree plantations or even genetically engineered trees. Since timber, paper, and biofuel plantations are more lucrative than natural forests, REDD could fund the destruction of native forests and their replacement with tree plantations.

Beyond the ecological concerns, REDD is proving exceedingly elusive to put into practice. One fundamental question is: Where will the money come from? At present, there is no “compliance market” for REDD – meaning it is not yet part of any mandated legislative effort to reduce emissions. Of numerous government-sponsored REDD projects worldwide, the agreement between California and Chiapas, expected to come on line by 2015, is the most advanced.

The most likely source of funding for REDD is a combination of private investment and multilateral funds, boosted by a huge dose of carbon offsets from industry in wealthy nations. An offset-based REDD will allow those who protect forests to earn carbon credits – financial rewards based on the amount of CO2 a forest can store and a market-derived price per ton of CO2. Governments (or NGOs, or local communities) that protect forests can then trade these credits to industrial polluters for revenue that, in theory, provides incentive not to cut down trees.

But if the money comes from carbon offsets, as the UN and the California protocol propose, this means that even if deforestation is reduced, industrial emissions – the main driver of climate change – will not be.

The offsets component brings REDD strong support from the fossil fuel industry. BP (yes, that BP) recently became the first company to join the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, which will allow the company to offset its emissions. REDD’s market-share potential has also attracted the financial services industry – Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley – the same Wall Street speculators that threw the global banking systems into a tailspin.

The whole idea is based on the notion of “Payment for Environmental Services.” To the market-minded, this is a pioneering method for quantifying the worth of ecosystems, thus incentivizing their preservation. Many in the global South, however, see it as the rationale for a wholesale privatization of territories and natural resources. Gustavo Castro of the Chiapas-based NGO Otros Mundos says, “When a natural function like forest respiration becomes a product with a price, it’s easy to see who’s going to end up with control of the forests.”

That is, the people who have the cash to put up the protection money.

REDD Alert in Chiapas

Amador Hernández is a village of about 1,500 Tzeltal Mayan peasant farmers set deep inside the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in the Lacandon Jungle. Three months after the Cancún talks, as darkness fell over the village assembly hall there, a few dozen villagers gathered in the dusty glare of a single solar-powered lightbulb to talk about the climate policies that were lapping at the edges of their territory like the first ripples of an oncoming flood. One villager, Santiago Martinez, explained REDD to the assembly in broad strokes: “REDD is a program the government is promoting to do what they call ‘capturing carbon,’ and conserving the jungle,” he said. “From what we’ve heard, it’s a global program led by rich people, businessmen, Europeans.”

Martinez was opposed to the program; among the reasons was concern that it would require abandoning their lands and traditional farming methods. The worries were fueled by recent government messages warning that a team would come through the village shortly to measure property lines and evict any ‘irregular settlers.”

The villagers clearly perceived this as the legacy of a land tenure arrangement that has been at the heart of conflicts in the Lacandon for decades. In 1971, the Mexican government ceded over a 1.5 million acres to the Lacandon tribe – one of the six Indigenous groups in Chiapas – which at the time consisted of only 66 families. Seven years later, the government created the 800,000-acre Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, overlapping the Lacandon territory. In order to give the first chunk of territory to the Lacandones, and to protect the second as a reserve, 2,000 Tzeltal and Ch’ol families – 26 villages – were moved. Among the displaced were some families who later came to form Amador Hernández.

The resulting tension between the Lacandones and the rest of the region’s Indigenous groups led to the formation of several peasant farmer organizations demanding redress; some of these groups later coalesced into the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. The militant response made it impossible for the Mexican government to draw solid boundaries around the land in question. Now, with the promise of financing under REDD, the government is making a renewed attempt to get the boundaries drawn, to expel anyone without land title, and to inventory the Montes Azules Reserve to quantify, and then bring to market, the area’s carbon storage potential.

Earlier this year, the Chiapas government began distributing 2,000 pesos a month (roughly $200) to each Lacandon landholder. The payments were authorized, according to a government statement, “to allow the completion of the forest inventory so that [the Lacandon community] can access federal and international funds, as well as complement these funds with projects such as agricultural conversion outside the Reserve with species such as oil palm and rubber.” In the abstract, the money is incentivizing forest protection. But in the words of the villagers of Amador Hernández, the purpose of the payments is “to guard the border against their neighbors – that is, us.”

The most publicized aspects of REDD in Chiapas are the payments to the Lacandones and a program to train them as “environmental police.” As a Lacandon man named Chankayun said, “Yes, there are other poor Indigenous communities living in our territory, and I hope we can come to a peaceful agreement for them to find another place to live.” Governor Sabines speaks openly about the need to resettle jungle communities, and makes regular visits to the Lacandon to distribute funds and good will. “The jungle can’t wait,” he said in June. “Of 179 ‘irregular’ settlements within the jungle’s protected area, most have been removed and only eleven remain. Of these, some are Zapatistas. We hope they leave voluntarily, but if they want to stay, they stay.”

But what Governor Sabines describes as voluntary resettlement takes on a darker shade from the viewpoint of those with no land rights. At the village assembly in Amador Hernández, villagers stood up one by one to denounce what they perceived as a land grab. A year before, the villagers said, all government medical services, including vaccinations, had been cut off; several elderly people and children died due to lack of medical attention. This neglect, they believed, was due to their refusal to capitulate to the demands of REDD. “They’re attacking our health as a way of getting access to our land,” Martinez said.

The case of Amador Hernández appears extreme, but it’s hardly unique. As preparations for REDD are laid around the world, Indigenous communities in other countries – Ecuador, Peru, Congo – are saying, with increasing urgency, that forest protection without land rights represents a direct threat to their ways of life.

The Price of an Arm and a Leg?

A cornerstone of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a provision called Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. FPIC, as it is known, offers a theoretical bulwark against human rights abuses by declaring that Indigenous Peoples must have a say in projects that affect them. It is central to debates over REDD. Some argue that REDD can work as long as it includes FPIC safeguards. But FPIC is nonbinding, and as the case of Amador Hernández shows, it rarely works.

In Chiapas, where the Zapatista movement rose up in arms precisely because Indigenous voices had been disregarded for five centuries, “informed consent” has never been a consideration. Gustavo Castro says: “There’s a lot of talk in the government’s documents, in the REDD scheme, of the need for consultation. But there haven’t been any consultations, and I don’t believe there will be.”

photo of a girl carrying a package in a field

photos courtesy Orin LangelleWhat outsiders see as forest protection many locals see as loss of their homes.

photo of a man and a boy

Discussing the practical aspects of community participation, Castro is dour: “When we talk about consultations, we have to take into account who does it, and what we mean by ‘prior’ and ‘informed.’ What they say to the communities is, ‘We’re protecting the planet, we’re fighting climate change, and we’ll pay you to help.’ So then the consultation consists of one question: ‘Are you with us?’ And the answer you can expect from rural communities is, ‘Of course we are.’”

There’s little doubt that pouring money into rural communities involves serious challenges. As Miguel Angel García, whose NGO Maderas del Pueblo supports ecological projects in the Lacandon, says, “This whole thing is bringing on a terrible cultural transformation. Putting forests, a common good, into the market has the effect of tearing the social fabric and generating economic interests that go directly against the interests and values of the Indigenous peoples. And it’s causing death; not only physical death, but the death of a culture, and of a cosmovision. It’s an ethnocide.”

To be clear: Groups that oppose REDD are not against receiving funds from wealthy nations to maintain forests. The social movements that oppose REDD generally favor the creation of a fund to pay for the resources that industrialized nations have consumed. This is the idea of “climate debt.” Led by Bolivia, a coalition of more than 50 governments has submitted a proposal to the UN demanding that the costs of adapting to the climate crisis be borne by the countries that created the crisis, as a kind of reparations. It’s not that they don’t want payment; it’s that they don’t want payment based on pollution permits and market speculation.

Pablo Solon, until recently Bolivia’s Ambassador to the UN, offers a haunting analogy: “Through REDD they want to put a price on nature. Our point of view is that you can’t do that, and I’ll explain why: In Bolivia, if you lose an arm or a leg, you receive compensation of around $1,000. But can you imagine a situation where you create a market for arms and legs for $1,000 each? Sure, we need the money to pay for the operation. But the intention is not to commodify your arm.”

Solon’s analogy points to the core tension in the REDD scheme: We should protect forests because, like our own limbs, they have intrinsic value.

To think that global policy will ever be guided by the principle of forests’ inherent worth and Indigenous Peoples’ rights is perhaps naïve. But no less naïve, and certainly no less dangerous, is faith that the market, and the industrial society that drives it, can solve the global catastrophe it precipitated.

As global climate negotiations continue to generate friction without momentum, the world’s forests continue to burn in great blazes and to fall before an onslaught of mining, agribusiness, and timber plantations. REDD’s proponents envision a way to buy our way out of the cycle of destruction. And those who have inhabited and protected the world’s forests for millennia – and whose cultures have been devastated by the race to exploit resources – continue to press for a better deal.

Leap of Faith

One reason why REDD appears compelling is that, given the rapacious demand for resources, it is difficult to imagine a counterforce strong enough to halt forest destruction. Another is the deadlock in the UN negotiations. Nations’ resistance to binding emissions reductions makes REDD one of the only games around.

But even such a bastion of market fundamentalism as The Economist magazine suggests that “REDD may not be possible at all,” due to factors including corruption and the fact that most of those who live in and care for forests do not have legal title to their lands.

Still, if there is an opportunity for business, business will be done. New private carbon-marketing firms are springing up daily to prepare for the windfall from REDD. One such firm is Boston-based Ecologic Development Fund. Ecologic’s director, Sean Paul, has years of experience promoting Payment for Environmental Services projects. Paul appears genuinely devoted to preserving forests; REDD is one way to do this, and Ecologic supports it, including a REDD initiative in the Lacandon. Yet Paul himself is ambivalent: “Part of the challenge of REDD,” Paul says, “is that a lot of people see a gravy train, a gold rush. I see a lot of investors excited at the prospect of carbon trading. But all that excitement is around the trading – it has so little to do with the people, and the forest.”

Pavan Sukhdev, former head of the UN Environment Programme’s Green Economy Initiative, estimates the value of global ecosystem goods at $4.5 trillion per year. “The rewards are very clear,” Sukhdev says.

The problem is how to generate these rewards, literally out of thin air. The offsets-based REDD scheme that is in the pipeline requires a stable and reliable carbon market. And so far there isn’t one.

The US Government Accountability Office reports that carbon offsets are impossible to verify, warning that “it is not possible to ensure that every credit represents a real, measurable, and long-term reduction in emissions.” The US Congress failed to pass a national carbon-trading initiative last July, and the European Carbon Market – the largest in the world – is proving fatally flawed, with uncontrollable price volatility and regulations that seem to incentivize more climate pollution, not less. After European emissions rose to unprecedented levels in 2010, Friends of the Earth-Europe called the system “an abject failure.”

But in business, failure can be generative: Billions have been made through ventures that failed, such as subprime mortgages and derivatives. For the believers, faith in the market remains strong. At a Carbon Expo in Barcelona this summer, representatives of Point Carbon, a global firm that provides technical support for business, wore buttons that read, “I can’t help it – I still believe in markets.”

In Blow to Big Polluters, Judge Halts California’s Cap and Trade Program

25 05 2011

— by Jeff Conant

Cross-posted from Alternet

May 23, 2011, San Francisco — San Francisco’s Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE) announced today that it received the judge’s writ in its lawsuit against the California Air Resources Board (CARB). The writ gives the green light to most of the policies advanced under AB32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, but puts a permanent hold on cap and trade.

“Judge Ernest Goldsmith of the San Francisco Superior Court ruled that CARB violated CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) when, among other things, it failed to properly consider alternatives to a ‘cap and trade’ program in its Scoping Plan to implement AB 32,” CRPE’s statement says. “The Court’s Writ, issued Friday, enjoins, or stops, all implementation and actions in furtherance of cap and trade until CARB completes a lawfully adequate CEQA review.”

CRPE’s Brent Newell, the lead council on the case, called this “the best possible outcome we could have hoped for. The judge essentially gave us the writ exactly as we submitted it.”

“[CARB is] enjoined now from doing anything on cap and trade,” Newell told me, in a mood that can only be described as giddy, immediately after receiving the news on Friday.

The ruling, Newell said, “allows the good parts of AB32 to go forward.”

Beyond its now defunct cap-and-trade provision, AB32 contains 68 other regulations, from motor vehicle fuel standards to renewable energy mandates, aimed at reducing California’s greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020.

While cap and trade failed in Congress last year, and the European carbon market has shown itself to be ineffective at actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the California Air Resources Board chose in 2008 to make cap and trade — which CRPE has called “a Wall Street trading scheme” — the centerpiece of the state’s plan to confront global warming, rather than requiring major greenhouse gas sources like refineries, power plants and factories to reduce their emissions.

Bill Gallegos, executive director of Communities for a Better Environment, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said, “We are encouraged that the judge is now requiring CARB to take a hard and honest look at cap and trade. We have even more evidence now that cap and trade does not work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the European Union, emissions have increased by 3 percent in the past year under their program, and we also know that cap and trade has the worst impact on health in low-income communities and communities of color.”

CARB must now look at alternatives to cap and trade; according to Newell, CRPE’s position is to push for direct regulations, to cut emissions directly at the source.

A major question hanging in the air upon announcement of the ruling is, what does this mean for California’s agreement with Chiapas, Mexico and Acre, Brazil?

Last November, then-Governor Schwarzenegger signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with both foreign states to begin advancing direct carbon trading mechanisms predicated on the emerging, and highly embattled, forest carbon scheme known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), and, in its more comprehensive incarnation which includes protections for biodiversity and accounting of carbon sequestration in soils, as REDD+.

Since late March, when the program in Chiapas began to come under intense scrutiny by local community-based organizations and international environmental rights advocates, the governor of Chiapas, Juan Sabines, has grown increasingly vocal in his promotion of the program. The governor has made several highly publicized visits to communities in the Lacandon Jungle to hand out funds associated with REDD+, but until last week it was unclear where the money was coming from, given that the deal with California was still in the pipeline.

It is unknown whether his administration is aware of the lawsuit, which has now effectively put an end to the promise of funds from California in the foreseeable future.

In a May 17 article in Mexican daily La Jornada, Sabines elaborated on the REDD+ program: “We made an agreement with California, the most polluting state in the world. The objective of the polluting governments is to clean their consciences by paying for carbon credits under REDD+.”

Sabines told La Jornada that a forest inventory is being prepared with the participation of the environmental organization Conservation International, and that inhabitants of the jungle will be trained to participate in this inventory, to define “how many trees there are and how many tons of greenhouse gases they can capture.” The Lacandon jungle, along with the Amazon, are the areas of the Americas that capture the most greenhouse gases; therefore, said Sabines, “the international resources will go directly to the communities.”

In February of this year — three months after signing the MOU with Schwarzenegger — Governor Sabines began distributing payments of 2000 pesos a month to members of the Lacandon Community (as reported here). The payments, Governor Sabines said at the time, were “to allow the completion of the forest inventory so that [members of the Lacandon Community] can access federal and international funds, as well as complement these funds with projects such as agricultural conversion outside the Reserve with species such as oil palm and rubber.”

“You conserve the earth, and I pay you to conserve it,” Sabines told the recipients of the first REDD+ payments. “I don’t buy the land; I commit you to conserving it.”

La Jornada reported last week, that “the 2000 pesos a month [per landowner within the designated Lacandon Community] come from a tax on vehicle registration, because, as of yet, California is not able to put up the money.”

“Our goal,” Governor Sabines told La Jornada, “is that the entirety of the surface of Chiapas will enter into the market for carbon credits and methane credits, beginning through agreements with polluting sub-national states, like California.” Last Friday’s writ on AB32, however, prevents any such agreement from going forward. What this means for the Chiapas state government and its plans to put the entirety of its forests into sub-national carbon markets remains to be seen. With no money forthcoming from California, it is unclear how, and whether, the governor of Chiapas will be able to continue paying the Lacandon Community.

Late on Friday afternoon, as Newell celebrated CRPE’s court victory in his San Francisco office before heading home to spend the weekend relaxing with his family, I asked him what it was about cap and trade that persuaded him to take on the crusade. “Poor people are getting screwed on both sides of the transaction,” he said. “Only the polluters are benefiting. It’s just [expletive deleted] wrong.”

“If I go around selling someone else’s home out from under him, well, he’s going to get angry”

12 04 2011
Santiago Martinez collecting medicinal plants Photo; Jeff Conant

An Interview with Santiago Martinez of Amador Hernández, Chiapas

Santiago Martinez is a community health worker from the village of Amador Hernández in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas, Mexico. Amador Hernández, a village of about 1500 people, sits at the biological center of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, and at the edge of a roughly 500,000 hectare area of jungle known as the Lacandon Community Zone, which was deeded to sixty-six families from the Lacandon tribe, and a few communities of the Tzeltal and Ch’ol ethnicities, in the 1970’s. The conflicts that have ensued since then have given birth to many local campesino and indigenous organizations, the most famous of which is the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

The community of Amador Hernández is historically allied with the Zapatista movement, and is now facing a new threat: the delineation of the Lacandon Border (la brecha Lacandona), which may force the community to abandon its territory, due to the fact that the villagers have never had legal title to the land they occupy.

On March 25, 2011, in Amador Hernández, I had the chance to speak with Santiago about the situation. Following is a part of the interview I conducted with him. The text of the interview is transcribed and translated, but is edited minimally, with little background, in the hope that Santiago’s perspective might come through as clearly as possible. – Jeff Conant

Jeff Conant: There are plans for the ‘brecha lacandona’ to pass through your community. What is the brecha lacandona, and how will it affect your village, Amador Hernández?

Santiago Martinez: The brecha lacandona came to be in the year 1972. It hasn’t just appeared as a problem today, but was a problem born many years ago, in our grandparents’ time. Our parents and grandparents had to confront it, they organized, and they never allowed it to be completed. The original intention was that gringo companies had to define the limits of what is called the Lacandon Community, because these companies, one was called Maderera Maya, wanted to be able to extract precious wood, especially Mahogany. But there was no area defined where they could extract the wood from. At that time, our parents did not allow the brecha to be drawn, because they didn’t want any company taking out wood. Not on this side of the brecha, and not on that side. They had to be very organized, and they managed to prevent the brecha, always with the idea that we were born on this land, and on this land we will die.

Montes Azules from above Photo: Jeff Conant

JC: It appears that the brecha lacandona is the local manifestation of the REDD Program [Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation]. What do you know about REDD? What is REDD?

Santiago Martinez: Supposedly, from what we’ve heard about this REDD program, it’s a global program that’s lead by the rich people of the world, the businessmen, the Europeans. They think because they’re rich and they have a lot of resources, they can do whatever they feel like. We’ve heard that REDD is a program that the government is promoting to do what they call “capturing carbon,” and conserving the jungle. As indigenous people, we’re accustomed to working in the milpa [the traditional agricultural plot of maize, beans and other native crops], but now the rich are saying to us, it’s no good to work in the milpa, that we’re destroying the jungle, that when we make the milpa by burning in the forest, we are causing contamination. This is what they tell us.

But we make our milpa every year, and those who are supporting REDD, they came up with the idea of REDD because of the change in the climate, because of flooding, because of too much heat, because people are losing their crops, so they came to ask, what is the main problem causing climate change? And they decided that it had to do with us, that we cut down the forest, and with that idea they went and developed this program.

But we, as indigenous peoples, since many years ago, since the beginning of the brecha lacandona, they’ve always blamed us, they’ve always tried to find ways to prove that we’re the cause of the problem, but in reality we are not what they say we are. In this program they’re saying again that we’re destroying the jungle, so we need to stop planting our milpa. They say this is the main cause of climate change. But the climate, just as much global warming – we haven’t done this ourselves, it’s the fault of the factories, of cars, of industrial production in many countries. In contrast, what we do is get around by walking, we move our products on horseback, on mules, and we produce what we need to eat ourselves. In exchange, they need to use gasoline, in the case of the industries, they’re the ones who burn petroleum everyday, and this is the main source of pollution and of climate change.

Photo: Jeff Conant

They won’t stop this in one day. And that’s why we know that this REDD program that they’re pushing on us, that they are the guilty ones for what the world is suffering. We’re seeing that people are suffering from floods, from being forced off their lands, from vast changes in their lives, but those who have caused it aren’t us, it’s them. They are promoting the idea of giving carbon credits to these industries, so they can continue contaminating.

JC: If you could speak with the Governor of Chiapas, what would you tell him?

Santiago Martinez: If I had the chance the chance to speak with the governor, I’d tell him that we’re extremely angry for the injustice that they’re forcing on us, and for the lies that they’re telling us. We’d tell him that we know that he’s not just pushing these programs here in the area of Montes Azules, but also in Marqués de Comillas [a municipality to the south and east of Montes Azules, on the border with Guatemala]. There, Governor Juan Sabines is promoting projects of African oil palm so that they can take the oil and use it to make fuel. They’re doing this because they think one day soon the petroleum will run out, and this is a good business for them. So they’re saying it’s also a good business for the indigenous people, that instead of planting maize, we should plant African palm. But we’ve talked to the people who are planting it, and they’re having a hard time feeding themselves and living as they did before, because the price isn’t as good as the government told them it would be.

So, the governor always goes around speaking in other states, in other places; for example, we know that he went to the state of California in the United States to promote the sales of carbon credits, and to the part of Brazil called Acre. We know he goes around selling all these projects, but without being the one who owns the land. If I go around selling someone else’s home out from under him, well, he’s going to get angry. So, for that reason, since he goes around selling our land, our very Mother that supports us, well, it makes us very angry. If we had the opportunity to speak with him, this is what we would say.

Village scene, Amador Hernández Photo: Jeff Conant

Declaration of Patihuitz: Divided We Become Allies of the Government

5 04 2011

Women from Amador Hernández preparing traditional medicines. If their community is forced to relocate, they fear that much of their traditional knowledge and their way of life will be lost. For the people of this region of the Lacandon Jungle in Chiapas, the defense of biodiversity is a daily practice, expressed in their traditional medicine and their way of life. Photo: Langelle/GJEP

Members of Global Justice Ecology Project traveled in late March to Chiapas, Mexico, to investigate the emerging local impacts of the REDD+ Program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), and specifically the REDD Agreement signed between Chiapas and California. What we found was an astonishingly complex web of economic development projects being imposed on campesino and indigenous communities without any semblance of free, prior, and informed consent. Among these projects is a government program to delimit Natural Protected Areas in order to generate carbon credits, and to pay some indigenous communities to protect these areas, to the detriment of others. As we’ve seen in other parts of the world, the REDD Program, in both intention and in operation, divides communities and breeds conflict.

Our visit coincided with numerous events, including the inauguration of a “Sustainable Rural City” (apartheid housing for the displaced), a public protest by a community that had previously been evicted from the Montes Azules biosphere Reserve, and the first efforts at community education about REDD in the Lacandon region. To this end, several local campesino organizations convened a gathering in the village of Patihuitz, in the cañada of Ocosingo, April 2 and 3. GJEP was invited to send a message to the gathering on behalf of ourselves and our allies, as an effort to build bridges across struggles and across borders.

Following is the declaration that emerged from that gathering.


“Divided, we become allies of the Government”

During the days April 2 and 3, 2011, more than 300 delegates of regional campesino and indigenous organizations gathered in the Forum: Indigenous and Campesino Prespectives on the Climate Crisis and the False Solutions, to dialogue and analyze the situation in which our communities are living right now. During these dialogues, the memory of our compañero Porfirio Encino was present among us; eight years after his passing, his acts and his thinking continue to live in our hearts.

We came from different parts of the State of Chiapas to unite with our brothers and sisters from the jungle of Ocosingo; over the course of two days we shared the challenges that we see arising at the local, state, and national level.

Following our discussions, we conclude:

1. The peoples and communities of Chiapas reject policies that benefit only large national and international capital interests. These policies are manifestations of the neoliberal project that dominates the planet, and is provoking more poverty, marginalization, and exclusion of campesinos and indigenous peoples in Chiapas and around the world

2. The poorest of the poor find ourselves in a permanent crisis. In the world and in our country, we hear about the food crisis, the climate crisis, and the economic crisis. But in our communities we have a permanent crisis whose history is in the history of the Conquest and in the governments whose prime objective is the continual enrichment of the dominant class. Public money is used to enrich the political and economic classes of this country, with only crumbs given to the people through poverty alleviation programs, which, themselves, are a business for corrupt bureaucrats and service providers. These programs do not address the root causes of poverty.

3. As indigenous and peasant communities we are being denied the responsibility of feeding our people. Now, it is the transnational corporations that produce, distribute, and commercialize food, and who also want to appropriate the seeds that we’ve developed and improved over the course of thousands of years. The government would prefer that our communities be fed by foreigners, rather than desiging and promoting public policies that support the production, distribution, and sale of food from our own communities, which would simultaneously serve to strengthen peasant and indigenous agricultural production.

4. The current food crisis also signifies an increase in the price of food, which means that every day we have less economic capacity to purchase basic staples. In indigenous and campesino communities, access to food is made even more difficult due to our low levels of income and because the marginalization we suffer makes price increases that much more difficult to bear. For this reason, it is necessary that we be able to continue producing our own food and that small-scale agriculture be recognized as the most viable method for food production and for cooling the planet.

5. Our lands and territories are at risk. The conservation programs that are being implemented today have as their primary goal the transformation of our natural resources into commodities.

6. We express our urgent concern about disinformation regarding the REDD Program as it is being implemented in the Lacandón Jungle. We consider that in the medium and long term it will not benefit the peoples and communities that live here, but that it will benefit the transnational corporations that stand to make huge profits from the carbon market. It will generate the privatization of forests, the expulsion of communities, and increasing financial speculation. Carbon markets are one of the false solutions to global warming being promoted by transnational corporations and governments.

7. In Chiapas, the operation of REDD has already begun stimulating landgrabs from pueblos and communities. Three facts confirm this: 1) the agreement signed between the government of California, USA (the most polluting state in the world) and the government of Chiapas for the sale of carbon credits; 2) the decree of the Law for Adaptation and Mitigation of Climate Change in the State of Chiapas on December 7, 2010, and 3) the signing of the Pact for Respect and Conservation of the Lacandón Jungle in December of 2010 to give economic support to the landholders of the Lacandon community to preserve the jungle and allow the sale of carbon credits to the government of California.

8. Global warming will not be solved by the privatization of natural resources. Its root causes can be traced to current models of production, distribution, consumption, and commerce, which are based in the concentration of capital (more wealth for the few); massive consumption of fossil fuels (oil); overproduction and free trade. All of these are characteristics of transnational capital, which is seeking to continue expanding its dominance over the entire planet.

In these moments, in which peoples and communites, and specifically the Lacandón jungle, are subject to the multiple pressures of landgrabs, incomplete processes of agrarian reform, extreme poverty and conflict over natural resources, indigenous and campesino organizations manifest that:

1. We need access to adequate information in order to decide how to best confront global warming. The Federal and State governments give priority to solutions proposed by transnational coprorations and international governments, rather than hearing the demands voiced by campesinos and indigenous peoples.

2. The REDD program is not a solution to global warming. Its objective is the privatization of carbon, land, air, seeds, water and other resources. Its final objective is that industrialzed countries “buy” the right to pollute, at the cost of the lands, territories, and natural resources of the indigenous peoples and peasant farmers.

3. We demand that conservation programs must be sustained by the vision and practice of indigenous and campesino communities. We are convinced that smallholder peasant farming and community forestry can cool the planet.

4. The production of food is a family and community obligation. The policies of the Federal and State governments should be oriented toward the food sovereignty of our peoples. We close the door to the transnationals.

5. Those of us in this Forum value sustainable peasant agriculture. For this reason we insist that it is the solution to both the food crisis and the crisis of global warming that we are suffering today.

6. We demand that primary and secondary education take into account ecological perspectives on global warming, and the solutions proposed by our peoples. But it is also important that we design and implement our own programs of environmental education, in ways that are autonomous and in solidarity with civil society organizations whose ethic is to accompany popular struggles. We reject those who join our work in order to attempt to discredit us later.

7. As peoples and communities we take the conservation of natural resources into our own hands. We will be fomenting new forms of organization for action and protest to make our initiatives and our proposals heard.

8. We are moving toward a constant mobilization to awaken the consciousness of our compañeros and compañeras throughout the region. We need to generate more information in our communities, aware of the fact that television and the press are all in the pocket of the government, and always speak in the government’s favor. We are aware that the reality behind what the media portrays, is other.

9. We promote the defense of our native seeds, which is necessary to recuperate and restore our agrarian history, in order to improve our crops. We resist the privatization of seeds by interests such as Monsanto.

10. We will implement community laws to procure the conservation of natural resources and the establishment of agroecology for food production.

11. We call for an immediate halt to the theft of lands, territories, and natural resources in the Lacandón Jungle. Respect for the word and the life of those who live here.

12. We reject the rights recently approved by the Congress, which puts our lands and our indigenous and campesino territories at risk. No to the sale of land in our communities! We defend our right to live.

13. This Forum appreciates the message sent by the compañeros of the Global Justice Ecology Project of California and Vermont in the United States of America. In the same sense, we are committed to strengthening and linking our struggles in order to achieve climate justice.

14. We offer our solidarity to the Tzeltal educational project of Guaquitepec in the municipality of Chilón, promoted by Patronato Pro educación Mexicano AC. We denounce the government’s contribution to the theft of lands by those who have appropriated the social and educational infrastructure of indigenous education.

15. From Patihuitz Ocosingo, we send our voice in solidarity with the 35 families of the OCEZ-CNPA-MLN in the municipality of Chicomuselo, who suffered the burning of their houses and the theft of their belongings. We demand punishment of those responsible, whoever they may be.

16. We call for the unity of all peoples and indigenous and campesino communities, and for all of our organizations to defend our lands, our territories, and our natural resources. We call for a struggle in defense of life.

Walk without hurry, but with meaning and with conviction.

Porfirio Encino Hernández


Comisión Ejecutiva Nacional


Comisión Ejecutiva Estatal


Coalición de Organizaciones Autónomas de Ocosingo (COAO Ocosingo)

ARIC Independiente y Democrática

Coordinación Región Avellanal

Coordinación Región Patihuitz

Coordinación Región Agua Azul

Coordinación Región Amador Hernández

ARIC Unión de Uniones

Coordinación Región Patihuitz

Coordinación Región Batzil Winiketie

Yachil Atel

Organización Regional de Cafeticultores de Ocosingo (ORCAO)


Unión Democrático del Pueblo (UDP)

Patronato Pro-Educación Mexicana AC

Patihuitz, Ocosingo, Chiapas. April 3, 2011

Massive UN-Supported African Palm Plantations Leading to Oppression, Kidnapping and Murder

16 02 2011

Since the 2009 coup that overthrew the government of President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, the countryside of the lower Aguan Valley, a long embattled region and one of Central America’s richest agricultural areas, has undergone a brutal rash of kidnappings, murders, detentions and intimidation.

The region has been long marked by conflicts over land and land reform; but today in the Aguan Valley — prime real estate for plantations of African palm — the stakes have increased dramatically. With the global biofuel rush, and with the expansion of carbon markets, which can provide massive underwriting for projects that appear “green,” but in many cases may be anything but, the promise of carbon credits and free money from climate-financing schemes like the U.N.-backed Clean Development Mechanism, appear to be among the causes of renewed violence.

A signal occurrence was the recent kidnapping of a local campesino (peasant farmer) named Juan Chinchilla. Chinchilla is a leader of the Unified Peasant Movement of the Aguan (MUCA in its Spanish acronym) and a member of the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), a movement that rose up after the 2009 coup that ousted President Zelaya. On January 8, Chinchilla was on the road when his motorcycle was fired on. He was quickly taken captive by men identified as wearing police and military uniforms and uniforms of the private security guards of Miguel Facussé, a Honduran businessman who owns vast plantations of African palm in the Aguan Valley.

By the time Chinchilla managed to escape two days later, he had been burned and beaten, though suffered no critical injuries. When he was interviewed, Chinchilla said his captors included “several foreigners who spoke English, and another language I didn’t recognize.” When asked why he thought he’d been kidnapped, Chinchilla said, “We’re in a war with the landowners. We know that our enemies are Miguel Facussé, Rene Morales, and Reinaldo Cabales, and that the government sides with them, not with the people.”

In poring over accounts from the Aguan Valley, including frequent reports by Italian journalist Giorgio Trucchi who has been in the Aguan during much of the past year, the name Facussé comes up again and again. A widely known figure in Honduras, Facussé owns thousands of hectares of African palm, among the fastest-growing biofuel feedstock crops. His agribusiness consortium, Grupo Dinant, has reportedly received millions of dollars from International Financial Institutions. If its registration is approved in coming weeks, one of Grupo Dinant’s key projects will become the latest of about sixteen projects in Honduras — including hydroelectric dams, biomass electricity, and methane capture projects — to receive financing under the Clean Development Mechanism.

What Is The Clean Development Mechanism?

The Clean Development Mechanism, or CDM, is a policy approach to mitigating climate pollution built into the Kyoto Protocol, and likely to be extended under the recently signed Cancun Agreements. When the Kyoto Protocol mandated that signatories reduce their domestic emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels in the period 2008-2012, industrialized countries saw the challenge as too great to undertake through actually cutting emissions, so several market-based “flexible mechanisms” were developed. One of these market-based mechanisms, the CDM, was designed to allow industrialized countries to reduce emissions wherever in the world those reductions are cheapest, and then count those reductions toward their national target.

In theory, the CDM works like this: an investor from an industrialized country, or an industrialized country government, can provide financing for a project in a developing country that reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to what would have happened without the CDM. The investor then gets credits toward meeting their Kyoto target. Third-party consultants are hired to validate that the projects being funded will actually result in reduced emissions in relation to what might have happened in the absence of CDM funding. Such an approach, byzantine as it may be to actually implement, monitor, and oversee, is lustily perceived by green investors as a “win-win.”

Such a speculative approach, however, leads to many problems. The most widespread criticism of the CDM is that a project’s legitimacy is based essentially on guessing what a country’s emissions rate would have been without the project in question — a number that is clearly impossible to quantify. A second problem involves the fact that many CDM projects are based on simply substituting fossil fuels with some alternative, such as waste-to-energy schemes, where trash is burned instead of coal to generate electricity, or biofuel refineries and biofuel feedstock plantations, where green carbon (living vegetation) replaces black carbon (petroleum) as a liquid fuel. The problem here is that most of these imagined clean energy schemes, analyzed over a project’s lifetime, can churn out as much or more greenhouse gas emissions than oil or coal; considering such schemes according to a truly ecological metric sends the “win-win” up in a puff of smoke.

Further, many critics call the CDM a “zero sum game.” In the words of Almuth Ernsting, a researcher with the European NGO BiofuelWatch, “for every ton of CO2 supposedly ‘saved’ in the South, another additional one is emitted in the North.”

Another problem — evidenced by the situation in Honduras — is that CDM projects, by raining money from the sky, may incentivize land grabs, corruption, and human rights abuse. While the sums involved are relatively small compared to the investments already made by multilateral banks, CDM financing lends credibility to biofuel plantations, regardless of the associated human rights abuses, and thus attracts investment.

Viewed as a global phenomena, the concern is that, what the fossil fuel industry has done to get at the oil it needs — disastrous spills, human rights atrocities, and a global game of Risk with the oil industry and the military on the winning team — could be replicated by the biofuel rush. Only, oil reserves are where you find them, while biofuel feedstocks can be grown virtually anywhere.

The Violence in Bajo Aguan

While such global policies pretend to confront the climate crisis and the inequities between north and south by stimulating green investment, they appear to be causing what reporter Giorgio Trocchi calls “an agrarian conflict fueled by African palm and by monocultures in general, causing poverty and environmental destruction, while enriching very few.”

In April 2009, some months before President Zelaya was removed from office, he oversaw the passage of a law called Decree 18-2008, that would promote agrarian reform by giving land titles to peasant groups across Honduras, including the MCA (Movimiento Campesino del Aguan) and the MUCA (Movimiento Unificado Campesino del Aguan) in the Aguan Valley. When Zelaya was forced out in June of that year, this law, like many other progressive policies he had endorsed, stagnated. A national resistance movement rose up, and the peasant organizations of the Aguan joined. By December 2009, the MUCA decided that the only way to carry out land reform under the coup government was to do it themselves, and they began an effort to recuperate lands held by the Aguan’s large landowners, Facussé chief among them.

Since that time, dozens of members of the peasant movement have been killed.

Somewhere near the heart of the land struggle in the Aguan is a 5,000-hectare property formerly known as the Centro Regional de Entrenemiento Militar, the Regional Center for Military Training, or CREM in its Spanish acronym. A U.S. military training center during the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, the land has changed hands several times since then, and in May, 2000, a year after Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras, the land was occupied by 1,000 peasant families who had lost everything in the storm. The families built a village there, which they named Guadelupe Carney, after a Jesuit priest who’d been famously disappeared in the ’80s, and they formed what soon became the Campesino Movement of the Aguan (MCA). The MCA began a long, uphill struggle to gain legal title to the land under Honduras’ much-neglected agrarian reform laws.

“It’s only just,” one of the leaders of the MCA, Donaldo Aguilar Valle, told me in 2001, shortly after their takeover. “As campesinos, we are agrarian reform.”

Unfortunately, the conflict does not end there. Several years ago, Miguel Facussé planted 700 acres of African palm on the former CREM land, and running gun battles have been a constant. Between August 2008 and September 2009, as many as 19 deaths resulted from conflicts between the peasants of Guadalupe Carney and the landowners.

By April 2010, after months of escalating violence, an agreement was signed between the MUCA and current President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, under which some 11,000 hectares of land would be turned over to the peasant movements in the Aguan, through the intermediary of the National Agrarian Institute (INA). In May, 2010, the INA turned over the first 3,000 hectares, and more than 2,500 campesinos were moved onto six newly established settlements.

At that same time, Miguel Facussé began a campaign to dismantle the reforms, pursuing legal injunctions against the families who were given land, accusing the peasant movements of guerrilla activity, and, according to many witnesses, sicking his private military guards on movement leaders in numerous violent confrontations.

On August 17, three members of the MUCA whose families had received new land, were killed by unknown assailants in the community of Aurora, near the town of Tocoa. On November 15, five more campesinos were killed, this time in broad daylight: a reported squad of more than 200 men, uniformed as private security guards of Miguel Faccusé, entered the community of El Tumbador, on the contested edge of the CREM property where Facussé had his 700 acre palm plantation, and opened fire with high-caliber weapons.

When the government failed to denounce the violence, a state of impunity began to grow throughout the region. On November 23, 500 federal troops appeared at the regional campus of the INA, in what became a two-month occupation. On December 7, the MUCA orchestrated a protest, blocking the main highway through the valley for nine hours. Two days later, on December 9, dozens of soldiers entered the nearby community of Paso Aguan and evicted all of the residents. Another eviction occurred on December 15, when 600 troops entered Guadelupe Carney without a judicial order and turned out the residents of El Tumbador.

Throughout the repression, the peasant organizations have resisted peacefully. “They want us to react with violence, to justify their repression,” said Jose Santos Cruz, a leader of the MCA. “But we won’t.”

When the two-month siege of the National Agrarian Institute was lifted suddenly on January 20, workers there entered their offices to find filth, damaged computers and disarray. Esly Banegas, president of the Tocoa local of the Union of Workers of the INA said, “We have no doubt that the attack on our offices here was the first stage of a nationwide escalation of the conflict. All they gained was making us lose two months of work without any reason, stalling agrarian reform programs and impacting peasant families.”

African Palm and the CDM Connection

Human rights organizations monitoring the situation express little doubt that the violence is fueled by lure of profits from African palm. Gilberto Rios, the Honduras Country Director for the human rights group FIAN International says “All around the [African palm] plantations in the hands of the large landowners, they’ve created belts of poverty. The workers live in conditions of exploitation, without labor rights, without social services. There is no interest in investing in food security; on the contrary, the only effort is to strengthen the model of production for export.”

Following the coup in 2009, Rios says, the government of Honduras has “privatized natural resources and basic services, nullified the [previous] gains of the labor movement and social movements, made work precarious, and criminalized protest. What we’re witnessing is an accelerated accumulation of money and power by the national oligarchy of Honduras.”

Father Fausto Milla, a member of a Truth Commission newly established to redress the violence, says the number of murders in the region has reached 35, and sees the reign of terror as a means of maintaining control over workers whose conditions he equates to slavery.

“There is no law in Honduras,” said Milla. “In order for African palm to reap profits, it must be planted on a grand scale. In order to do that, they need slaves.”

As the crisis in Honduras begins to gain international attention, the German environmental organization Rettet den Regenwald (Rainforest Rescue), along with the European-based NGOs CDMWatch and BiofuelWatch, have raised concerns that human rights and ecological impacts should prohibit Grupo Dinant, Facussé’s company, from receiving CDM financing. The groups are bringing the issue to the attention of the UN-based CDM Executive board as well as project backers, including the UK government.

“Unfortunately, the norms of the CDM don’t include consideration of human rights impacts, and we consider this unacceptable,” says Almuth Ernsting, a researcher with Biofuel Watch. Ernsting charges that allowing Grupo Dinant to receive CDM money “will aggravate the human rights situation in Honduras by authorizing additional profits for a company known for spending large sums of money to pay armed paramilitaries and causing grave human rights violations.”

If the project is registered, Ernsting estimates that CDM credits paid to Exportador del Atlantico, the agricultural division of Grupo Dinant, could amount to 276,000 Euros annually, at 12 Euros per tonne of Co2.

“And,” she adds, “they’re applying for two CDM projects at two locations, which would roughly double the annual payments they’d get.”

Last month, advocacy efforts paid off when one of the consultants that prepared the CDM application, Perspectives GmbH, agreed to withdraw. The hope among Rainforest Rescue and its allies is that the same concerns will send a signal to other parties involved, such as the UK government, to withdraw their approval.

The UN body in charge of the CDM, the CDM Executive Board, will decide the fate of the project in the coming months. But current CDM rules tend to allow financial interests to trump potential human rights abuses, even in the case of a coup government. And, if a CDM host country claims that a CDM project “contributes to sustainable development” — a key requirement of the CDM — there is no process to evaluate or dispute the claim.

“In the case of Aguan, it is hard to believe that the project auditors, [a consulting firm called TÜV SÜD] have actually visited the project site and talked to anybody but the project developers,” said Eva Filzmoser, program director at CDMWatch. “Had they done so, they would have been informed about the real situation on the ground.”

According to Biofuel Watch, aside from the potential earnings from CDM credits, Grupo Dinant has received significant aid from International Financial Institutions, including US $7 million from the Inter-American Investment Corporation (part of the InterAmerican Development Bank); US $30 million from the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank; and US $77 million from Banco Financiera Comercial Hondureña S.A. The latter, along with several other Central American banks, have in turn received a credit line of US $45 million from the Netherlands Development Finance Corporation and the German Investment and Development Company, as part of a loan portfolio for the agro-industrial business sector in Central America.

Sustainable Development?

As a piece of the Kyoto Protocol, the Clean Development Mechanism has a mandate to promote sustainable development. But, just as the definition of “forests” under U.N. rules includes industrial plantations of African palm and even GE trees, definitions of sustainable development tend to favor the developer. One of the terrible ironies is that, while the Clean Development Mechanism pours funds into monoculture plantations and the attendant concentration of land in the hands of corporations and large landowners, small-scale, sustainable production of crops for local consumption is increasingly recognized as one of the keys to confronting both the climate crisis and the world’s growing food insecurity.

Ten years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a week encamped in Guadelupe Carney, not as a journalist, but as a researcher looking at the bare bones of ecological development. The MCA — 1,000 families with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs — had occupied this land, and they were planting a dream of agrarian reform from the bottom up.

They spoke to me at the time of their ambitious goals: to reforest the slopes and the banks of lagoons, to plant diversified, organic crops, to establish a free university to teach ecological agriculture, women’s studies and economics. One of their staunch defenders, a Jesuit priest named Pedro Marchetti who’d followed in the footsteps of Guadelupe Carney, walked me around the CREM and offered lessons in local history.

“One of the greatest threats we face,” he told me then, “is African palm.”

Mere weeks after my visit, Father Marchetti was forced to flee the country in fear for his life. Years later, his prediction has proved true: African palm plantations dominate the Aguan Valley, with the looming promise of CDM funding to ensure they reap a hardy profit.