“Our Struggle is for the Permanence of Agriculture”: Interview with Alberto Gomez of La Via Campesina, Durban South Africa

26 12 2011

While in Durban, South Africa for UNCOP17, I conducted several interviews with members of La Via Campesina. This one, with Alberto Gomez, of UNORCA in Mexico, was posted on the home page of La Via: have a look:

“Our Struggle is for the Permanence of Agriculture”: Interview with Alberto Gomez of La Via Campesina



After COP17….

20 12 2011

Between November 28 and December 12, I attended the United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP17) in Durban, South Africa, where I played a multitude of roles: Primarily I was there as the Comunications Director for Global Justice Ecology Project.  In that capacity, I also coordinated the media work for Global Forest Coalition, and liaised with the media for Climate Justice Now! and other allied groups to help amplify the voices of climate justice activists and front line groups.  I also produced my own reports, which are posted at Earth island Journal, and are linked below, from the last to the first:

African Soil in the Blood and Dust of COP17

by Jeff Conant – December 10, 2011

Last hours of Durban Climate Negotiations Indicate Kyoto Protocol is Set to Lose Its Heart

The rallying cry of the South African hosts of COP17, repeated throughout these two weeks, has been “The Kyoto Protocol will not die on African soil.”

The theatrics of these UN events revolves around a kind of ritual called “high-level negotiations” during which the nations of the world don their battle armor and enter into the fray. The drama reaches a climax in the middle of the second week, when heads of state arrive prepared to defend their national interests at any cost. The drama’s denouement, after two bloody weeks, is the achievement of consensus. On Friday night, as the negotiations stretch into the wee hours in what some describe as a “war of attrition” in which the countries with the strongest reserve troops win, the drama of COP17 is drawing to a close.

To read on, go here.

“We’re Not Very Excited About Kyoto,” the US Says

by Jeff Conant – December 6, 2011

Neither Are People’s Movements in the South – But for Different Reasons

The big question here in Durban during the UN climate negotiations (COP17) is: Will the Kyoto Protocol live or die? The halls are filled with young people waving posters that declare “Save Kyoto,” delegates wearing t-shirts saying “I heart Kyoto,” and rallies by Greenpeace, Tcktcktck, the Sierra Club, and other NGO groups defending “the KP,” as it’s called in the lingo.

But let’s step back for a moment and look at this love for Kyoto. The United States never ratified the agreement, and its position at the COP, today as ever, is summed up by a statement from US Envoy Jonathan Pershing a few days ago: “There is nothing for us to do here.”

Ironically, one of the slogans of Global South social movements – whose positions are as far from the US government as you can possibly imagine – is quite similar.

To read on, click here.

What Will Save Our Forests?

by Jeff Conant – December 2, 2011

Critical Insights from Indigenous Peoples in and around UNCOP17

In this article I wrote for Earth Island Journal earlier this year detailing the fatal flaws of the climate mitigation scheme known as REDD (for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), I quoted World Bank President Robert Zoellick as calling REDD, “the best chance, perhaps the last chance, to save the world’s forests.”

photo of two women conversing

photo courtesy Orin Langelle


Well, I hope I did a fair job of gracefully skewering the Bank president’s arrogant and unfounded assessment of what I perceive as the deranged, colonialist, land-grabbing nightmare scenario that REDD represents. Even if I did succeed in my humble aspiration, an important question remained unanswered: If top-down, financially-incentivized, multilateral-driven climate mitigation programs don’t work, then what does?

To read on, click here.

A View of the UN Climate Talks in Durban, South Africa

by Jeff Conant – November 28, 2011

Of Elephants and Blind Men and Noah’s Ark and Elephants Again

Like the parable of the three blind men coming upon an elephant and determining, each on his own, that this thing before them is a tree trunk, or an enormous boulder, or a thick scaly snake, one’s perspective on the events here at COP17, the UN Climate Summit kicking off today in Durban, South Africa, reflects one’s position and willingness to grope with searching hands in the dark.

But no matter where you come from, if you are actually concerned about the climate crisis, it’s going to be an ugly two weeks.

To read on, click here.

“Cap and Trade Will Fail”: An Interview with Alegria de la Cruz of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment

17 11 2011

Alegria de la Cruz is the Legal Director for San Francisco-based Center On Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE). Along with Oakland-based Communities for a Better for Environment (CBE), CRPE launched a lawsuit in early 2010 against the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to challenge the Cap and Trade provisions in AB32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act. The two environmental justice groups charged that the law would place continued pollution impacts on low-income communities of color in California (for additional background and analysis at the time, see this article).

At the time of the interview, the lawsuit had gone through numerous twists and turns. The suit was filed in March, 2010; in May, a Superior Court judge ordered CARB to halt any action on Cap and Trade and to conduct an analysis of alternative methods for meeting the state’s emissions reduction targets as mandated under AB32 (see this article). CARB immediately appealed, and petitioned to continue developing the program, even as it studied the alternatives. In June, CARB produced an alternatives analysis for public viewing. In July, before the court’s final ruling had come down, CARB announced a decision to delay implementation of the Cap and Trade rules until 2013, in order to address numerous concerns (which, as de la Cruz points out, are largely the concerns of industry). In August, after a 30-day comment period during which the public was invited to share its concerns about the alternatives analysis, CARB announced its decision: Cap and Trade would go forward. In 2012, industries would begin receiving pollution permits in order to stimulate the market in emissions trading, but mandatory emissions caps would not be applied until 2013.

Jeff Conant: Can you summarize the stages that the lawsuit has gone through?

Alegria de La Cruz: After the Superior Court’s decision to require CARB to do a new alternatives analysis, CARB filed an appeal, and also filed a writ of supersedeas, to completely stay, or put on hold, any reach that the Superior Court’s decision would have in regard to its decision to pursue Cap and Trade. We opposed that request for a writ, and we also filed a cross-appeal.

CARB has attempted to ostensibly comply with the Superior Court order by doing a new alternatives analysis, and has gone back to Superior Court to request that the court release its stay. There is still some possibility that the Superior Court finds that, not only did CARB not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) with its alternatives analysis, but that CARB also went forward with the Cap and Trade rulemaking, and that those two actions at once violated the court order.

JC: What has been your concern with the alternatives analysis itself?

AdlC: At the Superior Court level, the judge was concerned with the lack of deep analysis of alternatives to a Cap and Trade plan. He felt that CEQA required CARB to look at a range of alternatives, like a Cap and Fee, a Cap and Tax, a Cap and Dividend, and direct regulations. He also, in his order, talked about the importance of making some space between its alternatives analysis and its moving forward with the Cap and Trade rule, because basically with the two proceedings moving forward concurrently, there was a real risk that any new analysis that CARB undertook was really going to be a post-hoc rationalization for the choice it had already made. And that’s exactly what CARB did: it moved forward concurrently with these two proceedings.

The new alternatives analysis thus suffers from that fundamental illegitimacy – I wouldn’t know how else to characterize it. It would make it impossible then, if the alternatives analysis did find an environmentally superior alternative to Cap and Trade, for CARB then to adopt that alternative. So that fundamental problem really taints the entire analysis.

That said, the analysis itself, outside of that fundamental problem, still remains woefully inadequate, especially regarding the health impacts for communities of color that we know will result from Cap and Trade’s implementation.

It’s even more clear the extent to which these impacts will be felt by environmental justice communities as CARB has moved forward with its Cap and Trade regulation. Ten days before the final approval of that regulation, CARB released something called an “adaptive management plan” which both recognized the risk that greenhouse gas emissions and toxic co-pollutants would increase in environmental justice communities, and purported to address the associated health concerns. The idea that this plan, released a mere ten days before final approval of the rule, could purport to address those health concerns, was frankly insulting to environmental justice advocates who have raised these concerns for years.

Some ten days before the regulations go into effect, this plan comes out, and the plan is vague, the plan is unenforceable, the plan relies much too highly on CARB’s discretion, and the plan creates some impossibly high hurdles for CARB to jump before it could take any action to protect people’s health as a result of increased emissions.

JC: Does anyone know about this plan outside of the courtroom?

AdlC: It was illustrative of the plan’s flaws that you had air district managers at the final Cap and Trade rule who all stood up together, from all the air basins that are most polluted, with real concern that there was no plan for CARB to reach out to these district managers who would have the real data, the real information, and the on-the-ground perspectives that CARB needs to understand, when emissions go up, how they have gone up and what kind of impacts that is having on local communities. So each of them gave that testimony and said how important it was for CARB to use their expertise, to use the information that they collect in a way that is timely and enforceable, because at this point the plan lacks teeth, and lacks any requirements for CARB to engage with the experts in this field.

JC: So is this actually a big step backwards in regards to what Environmental Justice communities have been fighting for? Will this lead to decreased regulation and increased emissions?

AdlC: Well, the adaptive management plan as CARB characterizes it allows for action if emissions increases happen. But CARB has said that if it finds there are increases, it has to find that emissions increased as a result of the Cap and Trade rule. Those causal connections will make it nearly impossible for CARB to take any action when emissions increases happen. Given these two impossibly high hurdles – showing overall emissions increases, and linking these to Cap and Trade – this adaptive management plan will most certainly not address health concerns raised by the Cap and Trade rule.

Environmental Justice communities have long advocated for direct regulations; that advocacy will not stop as a result of Cap and Trade being passed. But it does make it increasingly difficult for EJ advocates to ask for direct regulations on those industries now governed by the Cap and Trade rule. So in that regard, it does make it more difficult for direct regulations around those covered industries to go forward, as CARB now claims that they are quote unquote “covered”, or regulated. And those are the industries that are hurting people the most in California today.

JC: What’s your take on the delay in implementation that was passed some months back?

AdlC: That decision was surprising, to say the least, given that five days before the decision was announced, CARB had gone to the appeals court and talked about how important it was for them to push through Cap and Trade as fast as it possibly could because it was under these very strict timelines to get this plan off the ground, to enforce it, to implement it, and after the court ruled in their favor and allowed them to move forward with the Cap and Trade rules, some mere five days after that decision they announced that they were delaying enforcement for a year.

If I’m seeing the silver lining on this massive cloud of pollution that is Cap and Trade, the delay in enforcement shows that there are some real concerns that ALL stakeholders have with the Cap and Trade regulation, But given what they’ve done to the rule, all of those changes have been in response to the polluters’ concerns and not to the communities’ concerns. And so, if anything, I think this year of continued implementation with no enforcement is going to allow the entities with power to keep pushing CARB to do what they want them to do, which is what they’ve done throughout this entire process. It’s been a very political process, completely controlled by the polluters’ interests. CARB has really not shown that it’s representing the interests of all Californians.

We made the point during the last hearing that not only does AB32 require that CARB design regulations in a way that does not disproportionately impact vulnerable communities, but it also has to respect California’s non-discrimination provisions. There are very clear state laws that say that CARB can’t discriminate against people of color, and it is very clear that this rule will do exactly that. This rule will impact low-income people of color more negatively than it will any other population in California, and that is deeply problematic.

JC: How do you see the success or failure of community organizing efforts around Cap and Trade in California?

AdlC: Community organizing around this issue is really difficult. We’ve seen how amazing it has been for communities to stand up and protest what’s happening at Wall Street. And with the markets impacting real people, with the 99% of Americans continuing to suffer while the 1% makes all the money, what’s happening with the Cap and Trade program and how it’s going to impact poor people and people of color, is very similar, yet there hasn’t been that same kind of groundswell of opposition; it remains a highly technical conversation, it remains something that feels out of peoples’ control. And, CARB has made it that way.

Time and again when we’ve gone to give testimony, we’ve collected data from every jurisdiction where Cap and Trade has been implemented – we’re talking about lawyers and scientists who are highly skilled in this regard, with the best, most cutting edge, most current information – and we’ve gone up there and given testimony about the evidence we’ve provided, and CARB has told us we don’t get it.

To be insulted in that way, and for CARB to really not get it themselves, shows to what extent they are willing to dismiss community concerns, as well as the representatives of those communities’ concerns.

It remains difficult to organize, but not impossible. There’s a lot of money and a lot of power lined up against us; the power of that money and the power of that power has been clear, because CARB has done exactly what those interests have wanted.

There is still some possibility that the Governor of California, Jerry Brown, will see the writing on the wall, and will see how this program is going to not only not benefit California’s economy, but also deeply impact the most vulnerable Californians. He’s an environmentalist and a visionary, and we hope that at some point he’ll see that this is just an opportunity to create another Wall Street on the backs of the poorest Californians, that it’s just a way of trading and making profits on their health, and that that’s unacceptable.

JC: What comes next?

AdlC: I think this next year that CARB has given itself to fine-tune Cap and Trade is going to make it even worse than it was already. It’s deeply problematic and it will not work. It’s not going to reduce green house gas emissions, and it is going to deeply impact poor people who can least afford it. We are going to be deeply engaged in ensuring that California at least takes the right steps in other regards, so that when it fails, hopefully, there will be some things going forward that will still allow California to take a different direction. We still have hope that there are ways to impact California’s policy decisions and protect our communities, because Cap and Trade will fail.

JC: As an advocate for environmental justice, where do you find hope in all this?

AdlC: I think one of the things that has continued to sustain me personally in this battle is the ways in which we’ve been able to see the global implications of this play out, and to know that there are communities in Mexico and in Brazil that are engaged in the struggle with us, as difficult as making those connections is. And as tough as it is for our communities to engage, I think there’s real solidarity and understanding that’s being created through this experience of trying to understand how this program is going to hurt us. And I think there’s some real beauty and power in that. And to the extent that we can keep hanging on to each other, and making those connections stronger, and louder, and more powerful, we’re going to continue to make those interests hear us.


This is What a Popular Uprising Looks Like, America. Get used to it.

5 11 2011

Some Thoughts on the Oakland streets, the Day After November 2, 2011

– Jeff Conant

After the day of mass action in Oakland on Wednesday, when anywhere between 10,000 and 50,000 people hit the streets to demand economic justice by shuttering the big banks and blockading the nation’s fifth largest port, the media, not surprisingly, is focusing on the so-called ‘violence’ that broke out late that night and into the wee hours. Today’s Oakland Tribune carries the headline “Violence, Vandals Divide a Movement. Day after: City Wakes to ‘disaster’ after peaceful, historic march. Occupy infighting: Protester says fringe groups hijacked message.”

As an Oakland resident and a participant in the day’s events, I’d like to contribute a bit of effort toward reading through the media fog.

Most importantly, I believe, this is not a DIVIDED movement, but a DIVERSE movement – one with many perspectives, tactics, and ways of promoting social change; until the media steps in to amplify the wrong narrative, it is not a question of a ‘hijacked message’, but of a lively, heated, and ongoing discussion and debate. Further, a few instances of property damage hardly qualify as ‘disaster.’ We have seen disasters, and we will see more, and, no, Virginia, a handful of dumpsters on fire in the street do not a disaster make. They may turn people off, they may diminish popular support and lead to severe finger-wagging – it may even be a bad tactic – but to label such incident a ‘disaster’ is to seriously misinterpret the scale of the larger crisis we are confronting.

As for the substance of the day’s events: This was the first General Strike in Oakland since 1946, and by all accounts, a tremendous success. November 2, 2011 will go down in history as one of the largest mobilizations ever in the SF Bay Area, and the largest protest since the Vietnam War. Some 50,000 people participated in the mobilizations throughout the day and night, shutting down every corporate bank in downtown Oakland and the Port. Marchers stayed strongly and clearly on message, calling for regulation, taxation and accountability from big banks, and demanding investment in schools, services, and housing.

There was massive participation from teachers, public service workers, youth, and community organizations. There were two children’s marches, and activities at Occupy Oakland’s kids tent all day, with signs and themes like “Don’t you dare steal my future!” and “Occupy our Future.” I was there with my three-year old daughter, and many of her friends; a lot of sidewalk chalk was expended, a lot of parental advice was passed around – how do you talk to your five-year old about police in riot gear? – and a great time was had by all.

At least three corporate banks were subject to “foreclosure” inspired and led by black and Latino families fighting to save their homes. In response to a previous community march, Chase Bank postponed the sale of the home of one Oakland homeowner who gave her name as Brenda. Others in the crowd announced that they had re-occupied their homes in response to the wave of growing support for community justice. We expect home takeovers to continue all over the Bay Area as the movement continues to grow. It has been pointed out that this is the logical next step of the occupy movement – not to simply occupy public spaces, but to reclaim the properties that have been taken by the banks, most of which remain vacant while their former owners and tenants are in the street.

It is appropriate that Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area are now the epicenter of resistance to the 1%. It is appropriate not only because of the long history of radical movements here, but because California is home to more billionaires per capita than any other state, and half of them live in the Bay Area. Many people here are painfully aware that the problem is not a lack of wealth, but the distribution of wealth. No one can testify better to this than the homeless families living at Oscar Grant plaza.

As far as charges of violence and divisive tactics go, let it be said that, for those of us who have observed social movement history in the U.S., it would come as a great surprise if the vandalism and destruction that occurred in the early hours of Thursday morning were not led by police provocateurs. There is a long and ignoble history of police masquerading as balaclava-clad ‘anarchists’ – and even taking leadership within movement spaces – in order to discredit and divide. There is no reason to believe that this is not the case here.

Yet, even if it is the case, hundreds of people came to downtown Oakland the day after with trash bags, brooms, and dustpans, to clean and care for Occupy Oakland and the streets around. Hundreds more attended a City Council meeting to push a resolution in support of Occupy. This is what we call “civic engagement;” thanks to the radical tactics of some, such civic engagement has reached an all-time high.

For those who insist on talking about windows that were broken by angry protesters, let’s not forget that there are too many neighborhoods in Oakland with broken windows due to neglect, foreclosure, and systemic violence. If we are going to wring our hands over property destruction and broken windows, lets at least be honest, and consider all the windows that have been broken by the banks since the beginning of the foreclosure crisis – and, indeed, all the families that have been destroyed by the economic crisis, and the ongoing crisis of capital concentration.

A young woman expressing a popular sentiment on the Oakland streets

Let’s recall, too, that the Oakland Police Department continues to use tear gas on non-violent protesters, even as Scott Olsen remains in the hospital, unable to speak because of brain damage caused by an OPD tear gas canister. The OPD claimed that they used teargas in ‘self-defense’; tear-gas is not self-defense, it is crowd-control.

That Police continue to use tear gas canisters after causing a life threatening injury with one is an outrage. Yet, in the wake of the Oscar Grant killing two years ago and endless accounts of police corruption and abuse, it as an outrage to which Oaklanders are all-too accustomed.

The simple fact is, this is a social movement made up of a vast majority of the population who are righteously and reasonably angry, and it’s bound to get messy. One could easily parrot the words of Donald Rumsfeld and James Wolfensohn and other mass murderers, and say “In order to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.” But, that’s a stupid metaphor, because it avoids taking on the real violence caused by war and economic injustice. The point, though, is that the Occupy movement cannot be expected to be neat, orderly, and pretty, because real social change is never near, orderly, and pretty. Tragic as it is, the crisis we have been saddled with isn’t pretty, and the way out – any way out – won’t be pretty either.

The fact is, America, this is what a popular uprising looks like. Get used to it.

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.”

Turning the Lacandon Jungle Over to the Carbon Market

21 07 2011
By Jeff Conant
Published in Z Magazine

In A Land to Plant Dreams, historian Yan de Vos describes the history of the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas as a series of dreams that have obsessed and overtaken those who come upon this remote mountain rainforest in the southeastern corner of Mexico. A jungle so dense and mysterious only a century ago that it was named “the Desert of Solitude,” de Vos declares that “the Lacandon is not a single reality, but a mosaic of multiple Lacandonas conceived and made concrete by many and varied interests.” 

The Lacandon’s dreamers include the commercial interests that, for centuries, have extracted mahogany, rubber, minerals, petroleum, and genetic material, leaving about 30 percent of the original forest, of which only 12 percent is said to retain its ecological integrity. Then there are the diverse communities who live there—Mestizo settlers along with Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolabal, Ch’ol, and Mam indigenous farmers, some who originated there and many others who arrived over the course of centuries, escaping forced labor on the fincas or war in neighboring Guatemala, seeking a plot of land to cultivate.


Then there is the group that has been given title to the largest swath of jungle—a small tribe called the Caribes whose ancestors migrated from nearby Campeche two centuries ago and who, through a complex history involving European anthropologists, American missionaries, and Mexican government officials, became known as the Lacandones. In direct conflict with the Lacandones, and with transnational capital, are the jungle’s best-known dreamers, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, who, beginning in the 1990s, occupied vast portions of the jungle and declared it autonomous territory.


Now, after centuries defined by its potential for producing goods, the Lacandon has entered the 21st century where it is being dreamed anew as “the lungs of the earth.” This jungle’s new dreamers include the state of California, market-oriented “environmental” groups like Conservation International, and the United Nations. Their dream is to harness the power of the burgeoning carbon market to preserve the Lacandon—the container for one-fifth of the biodiversity of all of Mexico—by turning it into a virtual carbon sink.


Enter the Governor of California


In 2006, the state of California passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32), which mandates that the state reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. The law was hailed as landmark environmental legislation for its aggressive action to reduce global warming emissions while “generating jobs, and promoting a growing, clean-energy economy and a healthy environment for California at the same time.”


Under the implementation plan for AB32, which was approved by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in December 2010, but held up in court three months later, up to 20 percent of the state’s total mandated emissions reductions would be achieved through carbon trading, rather than through actual cuts in industrial pollution at the source. This means that industries would be permitted to delay efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions—along with the associated toxic co-pollutants—by purchasing carbon allowances from outside California. As one of his last acts in office, just a week before the UN Framework Convention on Climate in Cancún, Mexico last November, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a carbon-trading agreement with the state of Chiapas as part of AB32. The agreement is predicated on an emerging global policy mechanism known as “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” or REDD.


Mary Nichols, the chairperson of CARB, announced California’s initiative at a high-level event in Cancún where pilot REDD projects were hailed by a gamut of global figures, including primatologist Jane Goodall, World Bank President Robert Zoellick, and Sam Walton, the CEO of Walmart. Nichols 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.” But many in Chiapas disagree. Gustavo Castro, Coordinator of Otros Mundos, a small NGO based in Chiapas, sees this as the leading edge of a new onslaught of forest carbon offsets and part of a broader trend of privatization of territories and natural resources. “Enter the governor of California, saying, ‘We’re going to approve a law in which California, the fifth largest economy in the world, is obliged to reduce its CO2, so we need to buy the fresh air from the forests of the South.’ 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 law has also stirred up controversy in California where environmental justice advocates charge that such carbon trading schemes—reducing emissions on paper only—leaves lower-income communities of color to continue bearing the brunt of industrial pollution. Alegria de la Cruz, one of the lead attorneys for San Francisco’s Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE), whose lawsuit has successfully challenged the cap and trade component of the bill, says that, “The overarching goal of a pollution trading system has serious implications for fence-line communities.” Her co-counsel, Brent Newell, is more explicit: “Poor people are getting screwed on both sides of the transaction,” he said. “Only the polluters are benefiting.”


In late May, a ruling by the San Francisco superior court forced the California Air Resources Board to bring its cap and trade plan back to the drawing board in order to review alternatives. But as the spearhead of efforts to forge a pathway for carbon markets, the dream of converting the Lacandon into international carbon currency will not be disrupted so easily. “Our goal,” says Chiapas Governor Juan Sabines “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.”


Selling the Forest for the Trees


REDD projects are being piloted in many countries under the auspices of the United Nations REDD Program, the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other global bodies. The California project is one of a small handful of REDD agreements between sub-national entities. The armature of REDD is still very much in development, but in broad strokes it works like this: because trees capture and store CO2, maintaining intact forests is essential to mitigating the impacts of climate change. Under REDD, those who protect forests can earn carbon credits—financial rewards based on an assessment of the amount of CO2 a forest can store and a market-derived price per ton of carbon. They can then trade these credits to industrial polluters in order to generate revenue that, in theory, gives developing world countries and the forest-dwelling communities in those countries an incentive not to cut down trees.


Policymakers at the global level see REDD as offering a viable chance—“perhaps the last chance,” says World Bank President Robert Zoellick—to save the world’s forests, while simultaneously addressing the climate crisis, without jeopardizing economic growth. The major multilateral institutions support REDD and its growing list of spin-offs with dizzying acronyms, such as REDD+ and REDD++, which allow the policy to include aspects such as reforestation with exotic species, and offset credits for biodiversity. But many forest-dependent communities, environmental justice advocates, indigenous peoples’ organizations, and global South social movements oppose it. “It comes to seem very amiable for the governments and corporations of the North to say, ‘We’re going to pay you not to deforest,’ Gustavo Castro argues. “But in reality they’re saying. ‘We’re going to pay you so we can continue polluting’.” Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network has called REDD “a violation of the sacred, and potentially the biggest landgrab of all time.”


Among the conservation organizations that promote it, concerns about REDD tend to focus on whether the economic incentives it promises can be achieved without violating the international legal obligations that protect indigenous peoples and human rights more broadly. Indeed, one of the major concerns about REDD is that, because it offers financial incentives for leaving forested lands essentially untouched, it will take root precisely in areas where forest use—and ownership of forested lands—is in conflict, thus furthering divisions between communities and leading to local flare-ups. This is certainly the case in Chiapas where REDD is fast becoming a prime example of what can happen when you take a global initiative—the dream of distant policy-makers—and apply it by force to local realities.


Land Dispute in Chiapas


In 1971, the Mexican government gave the lion’s share of the Lacandon jungle—some 600,000 hectares of it—to the 66 families of the Lacandon (née-Caribe) tribe. A second decree in 1976 made the greater part of the rainforest into a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. As tenants and guardians of this vast territory, the Mexican government appointed the Lacandon tribe, along with a few settlements from the Tzeltal and Ch’ol ethnic groups. This group was designated “the Lacandon Community.”


The Lacandon tribe would appear to have walked away from the deal as clear winners. Miguel Angel Garcia, a scholar and environmental rights advocate who coordinates a small NGO called Maderas del Pueblo, calls them “the tribe that won the lottery without buying a ticket.” But, Garcia argues, the benefits they’ve gained come at a terrible cost. “The Lacandones, once treated as the ‘authentic’ indigenous people of the Lacandon, are now totally immersed in the market economy,” says Garcia. “The group in Chiapas whose rights have been most abused are the Lacandones. They’ve had their identity stolen, they’ve had their dignity stolen, and they’ve been transformed into walking folklore. There’s nothing worse.”


Cultural concerns aside, in order to give a million-and-a-half acres of forest to the Lacandon Community, 26 villages of Tzeltal and Ch’ol people—over 2,000 families—had to be moved. The tension and conflict that resulted made it impossible, for decades, for the Mexican government to successfully delimit the land in question. “The government was never able to mark the brecha Lacandona [the local term for the territorial demarcation],” says Garcia. “When they sent topographers to the zone, everyone united to throw them in jail. Up to now, the only thing they’ve been able to do is measure the brecha by satellite.”


The arbitrary land grab led several peasant farmer organizations to demand redress. Some of these groups later coalesced to form the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the indigenous rebel group that brought Chiapas to the world’s attention with their 1994 uprising. Among the proto-Zapatistas and the other peasant farmer groups in the region in the 1970s, one of the primary political slogans was “No to the brecha Lacandona.”


But now, with the promise of financing under REDD+, work is underway again to delimit the land and in February of this year, Governor Sabines began distributing payments of 2,000 pesos a month to members of the Lacandon Community as part of the state’s Climate Change Action Program. The payments, Governor Sabines said, are “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.”


In order to repurpose the jungle to generate carbon credits, the government must not only delimit its boundaries, it must evict illegal settlers. “The jungle can’t wait,” Governor Sabines recently told the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. “Of 179 ‘irregular’ settlements within the jungle’s protected area, most have been removed and only eleven remain,” the governor said. “Of these, some are Zapatistas. We hope they leave voluntarily, but if they want to stay, they stay.”


Given the pressures on forest-dwelling campesinos in a rural economy starved by NAFTA, the question of what is “voluntary” is not as cut-and-dried as the governor would like it to appear. Under international law, indigenous peoples can only be displaced from their homes under conditions of Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Because such consent is almost never granted, governments tend to find creative ways around it. Says Gustavo Castro, “There’s a lot of talk in the government’s documents, in the REDD scheme, of the need for consultation. But it hasn’t generated any consultation, and I doubt that it will. What they say to the communities is, ‘If you protect your forests you are being ecological, and you can have development, and we’ll pay you. 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.’”


But even this level of consultation appears to be absent. Past attempts to demarcate the disputed land have involved military efforts to remove settlers, and specifically Zapatista-aligned communities. In 2000, then-President Zedillo expropriated 3.5 hectares from the village of Amador Hernández to build military installations. In 2005, 160 Tzeltal families were displaced from Montes Azules to the pre-planned community of Nuevo Montes Azules, near the lowland city of Palenque. In late 2006, hundreds of armed residents of the Lacandon Community reportedly attacked the village of Viejo Velasco Suárez, leaving four people dead and four disappeared. In 2007, a joint police and military operation evicted 39 families from the communities of Buen Samaritano and San Manuel, also in the Montes Azules Reserve. Some of the displaced communities were removed by force, while others signed agreements to go willingly, on condition of receiving new land.


The Zapatista-allied village of Amador Hernandez, within the Montes Azules Reserve, is one such irregular settlement under threat of removal. In March 2011, the community composed a letter to the press, in which they wrote: “This past month, the governor of Chiapas traveled to the neighboring Lacandóna Community to make the first payments of the state-run REDD program; as he doled out the money, he told the beneficiaries that it should not be considered as a gift, but as a payment to guard the border against their neighbors, that is, us.”


Into the Jungle


In late March, photographer Orin Langelle and I left San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the colonial capital of Chiapas, and traveled 10 hours by truck and 15 kilometers on foot and horseback through the jungle, to meet some of the illegal forest-dwellers. Amador Hernandez is home to about 1,500 indigenous Tzeltal Mayans whose parents and grandparents had fled forced labor on the nearby haciendas and timber-camps and settled on what, to their misfortune, would later become the edge of the Lacandon Community, and be placed, on the map, in the very heart of the Montes Azules Reserve.


As we trekked through the mud toward the remote settlement, our guide, a young health worker who asked to remain anonymous, described the villagers of Amador Hernandez as essentially descendents of escaped plantation slaves. “For many people,” she said, “the Lacandon Jungle represents the possibility of liberation, a better future, the possibility of living a life in dignity. The jungle represents the road upon which people seek their liberation. The same jungle that has dignified the path of the campesinos has given them health, vines and herbs and medicinal plants. No one wants to die a slave anymore; no one wants to die of forced labor like they did for centuries before.”


On our arrival at the large clearing on a high hill that is the center of Amador Hernandez, the villagers, who hadn’t received international visitors for several years due to their remote location and their embattled situation, welcomed us cautiously. At a community assembly that night, Santiago Martinez, a young health promoter, read out a document in which the government threatened to send a team “within four days” to measure the brecha. The message had arrived a week before. He then gave a political analysis of the problem: “They think because they’re rich and they have a lot of resources, they can do whatever they feel like. They are promoting the idea of giving carbon credits to these industries so they can continue contaminating.”


From the angry voices that night we learned that, a year before our visit, all medical services, including vaccinations, had been cut off to the community. Several elderly people and children had died due to lack of medical attention. Implicitly or explicitly, they believed, this willful neglect on the part of the government was an attempt to force them to move or negotiate. “The fact that they did this after we refused to enter into any of their plans makes us believe that it has to do with our lands,” said Martinez. “They’re attacking our health as a way of getting access to our land.”


One by one, villagers stood up to denounce the government’s actions, and the logic behind them. “This whole plan of reforesting with trees that aren’t from here, and to register our land so we can sell it…it doesn’t work for us,” said a young man named Abelardo. “They treat us as if we’re not human beings.”


What Governor Sabines had described to the press as voluntary resettlement came suddenly into focus: when the government failed to achieve its ends through negotiation, it had turned to the tactic of starving the community of medical services. The following day, the villagers organized a medicinal plant workshop. They collected a dozen types of plants, showed us how they process them into tinctures, and spoke at length about the importance of biodiversity to their way of life. As the village clinic had emptied of pharmaceuticals, they’d taken it upon themselves to restock, with botanical medicines.


“This REDD project is their business, but it has nothing to do with us,” a man named Francisco Alfonso said as he led me on a walk to collect herbs. “The earth is our mother and it shouldn’t be sold. What’s more,” he said, “the government calls us destroyers, but it’s not true; we have several jungle reserves where nobody is allowed to enter. On the contrary, we take care of the jungle because it’s our medicine.”


That night our talks with the villagers became more casual. Several of the men insisted on sharing a phrase with me in Tzeltal. Santiago Martinez wrote it in my notebook: “Tenix ya yil sbaj te me yax chamotik ta lucha.” When I asked what it meant, he said, “No matter what happens, we’re going to die in the struggle.”


REDD: Ready or Not?


Much of the policy discussion around REDD is currently focused on “REDD-readiness,” a process that, in the jargon of the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, includes “local stakeholder consultations; institutional, technical, human capacity building; designing Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) systems; transparent, equitable and accountable benefit sharing mechanisms; developing safeguards and grievance mechanisms to protect the interests of forest communities and the poor; and clarifying national land, forest and carbon tenure rights.”


Yet a brief visit to Amador Hernandez revealed that, even before official plans for REDD were unveiled in Chiapas—indeed, at a moment when the promise of money from California was deeply in doubt due to the lawsuit that had stalled AB32—a process was underway that appears to patently violate international law, and to confirm the worst fears of REDD’s critics. If Amador Hernandez is to stand as an example, creating favorable conditions for forest-carbon projects in conflicted indigenous territories may invariably result in the kind of insidious and deadly approaches at work in Chiapas.


In the words of Miguel Angel Garcia, “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.”


As the ballooning carbon market struggles to transform the world’s forests from living habitat and cultural patrimony into mere carbon sinks, the case of Amador Hernandez serves as a cautionary tale. For these villagers, whose dream of a home in the rainforest is built on centuries of dispossession, can this tiny piece of jungle in the heart of Mesoamerica continue to provide them with a home, even as it becomes, for the investors, polluters, and industrialists of the North, the bought-and-paid-for lungs of the earth?


Outsourcing Global Warming Solutions

15 06 2011

By Jeff Conant, cross-posted from Race, Poverty and the Environment

When the implementation of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, AB32, came to a grinding halt due to San Francisco Superior Court’s March 17, 2011 ruling that it violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), it came as a shock to industry and environmentalists alike. It would not be surprising if leading-edge environmental legislation like AB32 were to draw fire from climate-change deniers and oil interests. Indeed, the most recent attempt to derail the law, last year’s Proposition 23, was pushed by two out-of-state oil companies. Voters, mobilized in large part by grassroots climate justice groups, roundly defeated that attempt.

But the lawsuit against California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) regulatory framework for AB32 was undertaken by the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE) and Communities for a Better Environment (CBE)—two groups that advocate on behalf of “frontline and fence-line environmental justice communities.” They represent low-income people and people of color who live, work and play in the shadow of refineries in Wilmington and Richmond, in the agribusiness fields of the Central Valley, near the waste dumps of Kettleman City, and in other California communities plagued by industrial pollution.

More surprising still, CARB’s regulations are raising hackles among another unlikely constituency: indigenous peasant farmers in the remote jungle of southeastern Mexico.

Why should a law intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions come under attack from precisely those groups most impacted by toxic pollution? And why is it of concern to subsistence farmers in remote Mexico? The answer is complicated, but it hinges on the fact that, from the perspective of those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and to the fossil fuel industry, cap-and-trade programs move the decision-making authority on environmental health beyond community control and into the so-called market.

Behind the Lawsuit
Rafael Aguilera is an environmental justice advocate, principal of his own consulting firm, the Verde Group, and a strong critic of AB32’s implementation plan. Aguilera was not always so critical, however. Before AB32 was passed by the legislature and signed into law in 2006, he worked with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund to help shape the bill. But sharp concerns about the recently approved cap-and-trade regulations approved by the CARB led him to jump back into the AB32 fray, this time to halt its implementation. In a recent talk at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School for Public Policy, Aguilera and Alegria De La Cruz, legal director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, made it clear that while they support aggressive action on climate change, their concerns about AB32 are focused largely on who benefits from the law and who does not.

Aguilera began by showing a graph of the rising numbers of heat-related deaths among California’s farm workers.  “Current predictions for the Central Valley are three-month long heat waves—temperatures above 105 degrees in the summer months,” he said. Then he put up a slide of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a pregnant 17-year-old farm worker who died of heat stroke near Stockton in the summer of 2008.
“Look at this face,” he told the audience. “Maria Isabel is the face of climate change.”

“Clean Air Act laws are supposed to protect public health,” Aguilera said. “In the context of new carbon regulations, such as the cap-and-trade provisions proposed in AB32, many of us assume those laws are being implemented. But they’re not.”

Impact of CARB’s Regulations
De La Cruz, one of two lead attorneys on the case, then told the story of how communities from across California had traveled to Sacramento to testify before the CARB, only to leave without having had the opportunity to speak. One of their chief concerns was that the cap-and-trade provision in AB32 would do nothing to reduce pollution in the most impacted communities.
“The impacts of these policies are happening to very specific populations because of their race and because of their class,” De La Cruz said. “For our communities, a pollution trading system violates not only the intent of AB32, because cap-and-trade has   such serious implications for fence-line communities, it also violates the letter of AB32.”

A young but seasoned advocate, De La Cruz is a Yale Graduate and a child of California farm workers. Under the implementation plan for AB32, which was approved by the CARB in December 2010 but held up in court three months later, up to 20 percent of the state’s total mandated emissions reductions would be achieved through carbon trading, rather than through actual cuts in industrial pollution at the source. This means that industries would be allowed to delay efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions—along with the associated toxic co-pollutants—by purchasing carbon permits.

Environmental justice advocates charge that such carbon trading schemes leave lower-income communities of color to continue bearing the brunt of industrial pollution. “The harm that our communities will suffer from a poorly made plan will be greater than the harm of not reducing emissions in a way that’s responsible, that’s legal, and that really reflects the intent and the spirit of AB32 in the first place,” De La Cruz said.
According to a March 2009 UC Berkeley study by David Roland Host, based on the draft regulations proposed by CARB, using out-of-state offsets would actually increase California’s air pollution in five out of six pollution categories.

California forest defenders also charge that the plan gives too good a deal to the state’s timber industry by giving carbon credits to wood products and condoning clear-cutting. (See story on page 83.) The San Francisco Superior Court’s March ruling against AB32 requires that, to comply with CEQA, the Air Resources Board must consider alternatives to cap-and-trade.

“AB32 requires that the plan include maximum feasible and cost-effective measures,” De La Cruz said. “The scoping plan didn’t show the range of possibilities of what makes the most economic sense for California. When they chose to include pollution trading as a huge portion of the plan, CARB clearly failed to show that cap-and-trade met those standards.”

Response from CARB
Two weeks after Aguilera and De La Cruz spoke about the lawsuit at UC Berkeley, Virgil Welch, special assistant to the Chairperson of CARB, gave a talk at the same venue, defending cap-and-trade.

“You have to understand what we’re doing here in California, in the national context,” Welch said. “It’s really not just about emissions reductions. What we’re talking about is a permanent shift toward a less carbon-intensive economy, and more sustainable transportation and land-use policies. What we’re talking about is a long-term transition, and not just the immediate emissions reduction goals.”

“This is really one of those policies that provides a price signal that will help us move to the next level of investment in energy efficiency. It’s no mistake that states like Massachusetts and California that have very strong environmental policies also have the vast majority of investment flowing into them from the clean tech sector. While there’s an environmental imperative, there’s also an economic imperative,” Welch explained.
The question, from the perspective of the low-income communities who live with the greatest impacts of environmental contamination is, an economic imperative for whom? Indeed, while AB32 attempts to reduce emissions without restricting the state’s economic interests, what does it do to meet the environmental imperatives of those for whom clean air is a matter of life or death?

Outsourcing Global Warming Solutions
While the pollution-trading piece of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act has roused the ire of environmental justice advocates in the state, the question of carbon offsets has also raised concerns south of the border, where another set of “low-income communities” are already being impacted by the legislation.

One of former Governor Schwarzenegger’s last acts in office, just a week before the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Cancún, Mexico, was to sign agreements with the states of Chiapas, Mexico and Acre, Brazil for a state-to-state cap-and-trade agreement to be part of AB32.

As Welch explained, “Offsets are a mechanism used in a cap-and-trade program to try to achieve reductions in the sectors outside of the capped entities—that is, outside the polluting industries. CARB has adopted several offset protocols, one being forestry. From our perspective, it’s a protocol that incentivizes practices that will increase the capacity of forests to store carbon.”

The agreements with the two foreign states, as set out in Memoranda of Understanding signed in Davis on November 16, 2010, are based on a policy mechanism known as “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation,” or REDD. In theory, it works like this: Because trees capture and store CO2, when they are burned or felled, the CO2 they contain is released, and their potential for capturing CO2 from industrial emissions is lost. Thus, maintaining intact forests is essential to mitigating the impacts of the climate change.

But until now, there has been little economic incentive for protecting forests. With the creation of a vast market for trading pollution permits, such an incentive now exists. Those who protect forests can earn carbon credits—financial rewards based on an assessment of the amount of CO2 a forest can store and a market-derived price per ton of carbon. They can then trade these credits to industrial polluters for cash, thus generating revenue that, in theory, gives governments and forest-dwelling communities around the world an incentive not to cut down trees.

Policy-makers at the global level see REDD as an exciting new strategy to address the climate crisis without jeopardizing economic growth. Efforts to develop implementation protocols for REDD have been central to U.N. climate negotiations since it was first announced in Bali, Indonesia in 2007. It enjoys broad support from the World Bank and large environmental organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund and Conservation International. But, since it was first unleashed, the policy has met with protest from indigenous groups whose lands are being targeted by the scheme, but who have had no part in designing it.

By forging an agreement to implement the “trade” part of AB32’s “cap-and-trade” protocol through REDD, former Governor Schwarzenegger set in motion a process that climate justice advocates charge will not only fail to reduce industrial contamination in California, but could lead to land grabs and forced displacement of poor communities in Chiapas and Acre.

In Chiapas: Payment for Environmental Services
Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala, is Mexico’s poorest and most indigenous state, with a long history of conflicts over land. In the Lacandon jungle, an area of the state where indigenous peoples have for centuries faced forced removal from their territories, REDD is already touching on old conflicts.

The Lacandon is best known around the world as home to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), the rebel group that emerged in Chiapas in the 1990s in response to NAFTA. Less well known is that one of the factors that led to the emergence of the EZLN was a historic land grab that came under the pretext of forest protection. In the 1970s, a series of presidential decrees gave vast portions of the Lacandon jungle to the 66 families of the Lacandon tribe, as well as an arbitrary grouping of members of the Tzeltal and Ch’ol ethnic groups. The bureaucratic entity that was given ownership of much of the jungle became known as the Lacandon Community.

Now, as REDD program implementation begins, the government of Chiapas is paying landholders in the Lacandon Community 2000 pesos (around USD 200) a month to protect the forest. These payments are part of a renewed government effort to delimit “natural protected areas” in order to generate carbon credits.

On March 20, 2011, the Mexican newspaper La Jornada reported that “The State government authorized a monthly payment; however, this is merely 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… with species, such as oil palm and rubber.”

What this means in practice is a mandate for those receiving the money to cease planting their traditional crops (which are seen as harmful to the jungle), and to increase patrolling of their territory against outsiders, designated as “invaders.” Those invaders, generally speaking, are indigenous communities who have never had formal title to the land, but who have been settled in the region for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
The village of Amador Hernández lies precisely on the border of the Lacandon Community. In a note that the villagers composed on March 25, 2011 they wrote, “This past month, the governor of Chiapas traveled to the neighboring Lacandóna Community to make the first payments of the state-run REDD program. As he doled out the money, he told the beneficiaries that it should not be considered as a gift, but as a payment to guard the border against their neighbors—that is, us.”

Villagers from Amador Hernández charge that the state government has withdrawn all medical services to the village (leading to several deaths) as a way to force them to negotiate or move.

Santiago Martinez, a health worker in Amador Hernández, voiced a popular sentiment among his community: “They’ve always tried to find ways to prove that we, as indigenous peoples, are the cause of the problem. But global warming is the fault of the factories, of cars, of industrial production. We get around by walking, we move our products on horseback, on mules, and we produce what we need to eat ourselves. In contrast, they use gasoline, their industries burn petroleum everyday. This is the main source of pollution and of climate change.”

Martinez’s complaint echoes that of communities in California. CARB’s decision to outsource global warming “solutions” is forcing his community, one of the poorest and most marginalized in the entire hemisphere, to bear the burden for problems they had no part in causing.

Communities Demand Real Solutions
Signs of conflict in Chiapas may dim the prospects of success for the California-Chiapas REDD program. But, with California’s regulators set on outsourcing pollution rather than attacking emissions at the source, it appears that those promoting cap-and-trade will try to override the protests of frontline communities like Amador Hernández, or for that matter, Richmond, California.

“They think because they’re rich and they have a lot of resources, they can do whatever they feel like,” said Santiago Martinez. “They are promoting the idea of giving carbon credits to these industries, so they can continue contaminating.”

Bill Gallegos, executive director of CBE, had a similar message in a statement he released when filing the latest round of papers before the court: “We want to strengthen AB32 and ensure that it is effective; a hard and honest look at cap-and-trade is critical to getting there. Our communities demand real solutions for reducing pollution emissions, not another scheme that makes market traders rich at the expense of our health.” Not surprisingly, this sentiment seems to ring true for impacted communities on both sides of the border.