Brazilian Tribe Solidifies Claim on Carbon

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10 December 2009 | When Chief Almir Narayamoga Suruí first contacted Beto Borges in 2007, he was looking to fund a tree-planting project as part of a sustainable development plan he'd hatched a few years earlier.  What he got is a relationship that may help him and the Suruí tribe he leads earn carbon credits by acting as guardians of the rainforest under schemes that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD).

On Thursday, that partnership yielded a landmark opinion from Baker & McKenzie, an international law firm enlisted by Borges, who directs the Communities and Markets Program of environmental non-profit Forest Trends (publisher of Ecosystem Marketplace).  After researching the country's laws and court decisions, the firm concluded that current Brazilian law gives the Suruí and other indigenous people who save and manage existing rainforests the rights to carbon credits generated under future global warming deals.

“This really is a landmark opinion,” says Michael Jenkins, President and CEO of Forest Trends. “What we have been able to demonstrate here is that there will be opportunity and a path forward for indigenous groups to participate in emerging markets from a global warming deal. In fact, the indigenous groups would now be part of the solution.”

Although not yet tested in court, the opinion has global repercussions and enjoys the tacit approval of influential Brazilian policymakers and officials.

Last year, for example, Forest Trends requested a similar study from Baker & McKenzie to determine who owns the rights to carbon credits from the same reforestation project that brought Almir and Borges together (as opposed to the study released Thursday, which examines credits from existing trees that the Suruí guard and maintain under a REDD program).  That earlier study reached a similar conclusion, and FUNAI (Fundacao Nacional do Indio, the federal agency in charge of indigenous issues across Brazil) then asked Forest Trends to convene a meeting in February of this year Brasilia to review the implications of that finding.

The meeting helped shape evolving FUNAI policy on REDD, which has so far given indigenous peoples a green light to explore carbon trading.

Under the REDD scheme currently being hammered out, the Suruí will work together with the government to police their forest, measure and monitor carbon stocks, and prevent illegal logging.

Long-Term Implications

If the new finding leads to a bona fide legal opinion in a court of law, it could have significant implications in broader climate-change talks because many REDD opponents fear such schemes could promote a land-grab that decimates tribes like the Suruí and others.

The finding said the conclusion was based on the Brazilian Constitution and legislation, which “provides for a unique proprietary regime over the Brazilian Indians land...which reserves to the Brazilian Indians…the exclusive use and sustainable administration of the demarcated lands as well as…the economic benefits that this sustainable use can generate.”

Another important element raised by the opinion is the need for the Suruí to secure financial returns that are compatible with the environmental services provided by managing the vast forest on Suruí land, and to provide transparent and price competitive proceedings for the commercialization of the credits, which will be in alignment with Brazil’s overall national sovereign interest.

“This study confirms that we have the right to carbon, and is also an important political and legal instrument to recognize the rights of indigenous people for the carbon in their standing forests,’’ said Chief Almir. “It helps in our dialog with the government, businesses, and other sectors, strengthening the autonomy of indigenous peoples to manage our territories.”

The market for REDD offsets from Brazil received a boost after governors from Amazonian states and leading stakeholders endorsed the Cuiaba Declaration following last year’s Katoomba Meeting in Cuiaba, the capital of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso.

That declaration called on the federal government to embrace direct payments from emitters in the developed world to REDD projects in Brazil.  The finance ministry has since embraced a hybrid approach to administering REDD payments that combines the fund approach with direct payments for ecosystem services.

Indeed, the Suruí have asked the Brazilian Biodiversity Fund (FUNBIO) to present a 50-year plan for managing payments for REDD and other ecosystem services.  FUNBIO already oversees the administration of a massive environmental fund in the state of Rio de Janeiro as well as other projects across Brazil.

A Brief History of the Suruí People

No one’s really sure how long the Suruí people have occupied their patch of the Amazon Rainforest, but everyone agrees on what happened after the outside world made contact with them in 1969.

First, disease wiped out most of the people.  Then, land speculators took most of the territory.  Later, after the Brazilian federal government and the state of Rondônia enacted laws to protect the remaining territory, the Suruí themselves began striking deals with illegal loggers and selling the wood for a pittance – largely because, in economic terms, the forest was worth more dead than alive.

That began to change with the ascent of Chief Almir, who has shifted the focus to long-term sustainability, winning major support from the Brazilian national government, conservation organizations such as Forest Trends, and through a major mapping project with the Amazon Conservation Team and Google Maps that, in rich detail, documented the natural and human history of the land over the years.

Chief Almir, who has received several assassination threats in the past and for a time fled to the United States for his safety, has been one of several Suruí leaders trying to win national and international support on environmental issues.

Today, the Suruí own 248,000 hectares of nearly intact rainforest – which, seen from above, stand out like a shock of cool, green moss on dusty stone against the ranchlands that have replaced surrounding forests over the past half-century.

The young chief’s action plan aims to keep that shock from shrinking, and to ensure that it pays for itself over the long haul.  That’s what led him to contact Borges in 2007 – and led Borges to bring in another Forest Trends project, the Katoomba Ecosystem Services Incubator.

The Katoomba Incubator

Like the Communities and Markets Program, the Incubator helps local providers of payments for ecosystem services get up to speed and earn what’s coming to them.

Headed by Jacob Olander, the Incubator complements Borges’s program by placing more attention on finding and fostering the general in the specific – usually with the goal of identifying solutions that can be replicated elsewhere.

“Our basic approach is to ask if we can harness this abstract global carbon market to finance conservation and in a way that creates a roadmap and a plan for others to follow,” says Olander.  “We don’t take control of a project, but instead try and create the tools that decision-makers need to succeed or fail on their own merits – such as finding out who has the rights to payments for ecosystem services and how you can get information about these new and completely untested markets into the hands of communities so they can understand what they’re committing to and weigh that against what they can receive.”

The Incubator began working with the Suruí in 2008 and is helping to structure the REDD deal.

“We're offering our expertise, but we're also learning a lot, ” says Olander. “The lessons we learn here will help us to help others down the road. ”

The incubator recently began operating in Western Africa, and is now working with ten indigenous groups around the world.


Steve Zwick is Managing Editor of Ecosystem Marketplace.  He can be reached at

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