Colombia’s Tolo River People collectively own 32,000 acres of rainforest, and that forest feeds the river on which they depend. But ownership means nothing if you can’t protect it. Four years ago, they decided to start harnessing carbon finance to save the forest and preserve their way of life. This is their story.
This article originally appeared on Ecosystem Marketplace.
29 July 2014 | Five young men are cutting their way through dense rainforest vegetation in the northernmost part of Colombia – forest that was already old-growth when the conquistadors first set foot on the continent five centuries ago. The silence is interrupted only by the sound of running water from the many streams dissecting the hilly terrain. It is midday, and the heat is intolerable even for the mosquitoes. Frazier Guisao, an ex-logger, heads the single-file line, slicing through the thick undergrowth with a machete to carve out a narrow tunnel. The crew is patrolling the forest to protect it from illicit clearing.
Old trees in this pristine forest reach as high as 10-story buildings, emerging well above the thick canopy, and the men sit for a rest at the buttress roots of a giant centennial almendro tree. Guisao examines the trunk and makes a quick calculation in his head.
“This wood is worth around three million pesos,” he says. That’s about $1,500 USD. As a former commercial logger, he knows it would have taken him about two hours to fell it with the chainsaw. The work they're doing now isn't nearly as lucrative in the short-term, but it's much more rewarding.
Guisao and his team are wearing T-shirts with the bright colorful letters ‘COCOMASUR’, which, in Spanish, stands for Black Communities of the Tolo River and South Coast – the name of their small Afro-Colombian community organization. The national constitution grants land titles to traditional forest peoples, and the Tolo River inhabitants now collectively own 32,000 acres of rainforest in Chocó region, near Colombia’s border with Panama. The patrol leader says it takes him four days to walk the entire perimeter.
They need the patrols because they need the forest, which feeds and nurtures the Tolo River, which in turn provides the community with both its name and its drinking water. The forest also protects animals and plants for future generations.
Guisao began his transition from being a logger who harvested the forest to being a ranger who protects it after a community assembly four years ago, when the 1500 members of the Tolo River organization jointly decided to affirm their land rights and protect the forest. That transition, however, didn’t come easy because there were two major threats to the trees. One was external: wealthy businessmen in a nearby town were expanding their cattle ranches. The other was internal: community members like Guisao who logged the forest commercially and depended on the practice to feed their families.
To save the forest, the Tolo River people needed to wean themselves off the logging that paid their bills and find a way to pay for patrols that would keep outsiders from chopping down their trees.
It’s a challenge faced by forest people around the world, and one that impacts all of us. Indeed, the loss of pristine forest in the tropics and its blow to biodiversity and ecosystem services are massive and irreversible. To make matters even worse, carbon emissions from deforestation compound the problem of climate change – every year as much as one fifth of the global carbon emissions may come from cut down trees, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Traditionally, there has been little funding for conservation, but this may be changing, and the Tolo River people are at the forefront of that change.
An additional benefit for both the community and the rest of the world is that the trees and the soil in their forest contain large quantities of carbon, which bonds with oxygen to form the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when released into the atmosphere.
Fortunately for the community, many companies and governments around the world volunteer to fund forest conservation projects as an attempt to offset part of their own carbon emissions. This international initiative is named Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). The principle is simple: a company striving to be ‘carbon neutral’ would first try to reduce its own carbon emissions as much as possible through more energy-efficient equipment and strict monitoring of its supply chain. Whatever emissions it could not reduce, it would ‘offset’ by paying a forest community to protect the trees from clearing.
To best estimate the amount of carbon the Tolo River community could prevent from being emitted, COCOMASUR teamed up with Anthrotect, a U.S.-based organization that “works with community landholders to implement payment for ecosystem services projects that connect communities with emerging markets for carbon and biodiversity,” according to documents filed with the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), which is the certification program under which they chose to become certified. The organizations then contracted forestry experts from Bogota, Medellin, and the US state of California who compared the forest with other unguarded forested areas nearby and concluded that roughly 13,000 hectares would be lost to cattle ranching, agriculture, and selective logging if defensive actions weren’t taken immediately. Based on the blend of trees in the forest and their average height and width, they pegged the total greenhouse gas emissions from that destruction at 2,800,000 tons of carbon dioxide over the next 30 years.
COCOMASUR and its partners then began the arduous process of protecting the forest by raising awareness of collective identity and rights, demarcating territorial boundaries, establishing regular community patrols and developing sustainable agricultural and silvopastoral practices.
In 2012, VCS-certified auditors visited the site and concluded that these actions had saved 170,000 trees containing about 28,000 tons of carbon. That carbon would have converted to over 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide if released into the atmosphere, or the equivalent of 20,000 cars being taken off the road for a year.
While the first tranche went largely to cover the cost of launching the project, future sales will be used to pay the forest patrol salaries, improve the community health care services, send young people to universities, and strengthen the community organization. The community uses this revenue to pay the forest patrol salaries, improve the community health care services, send young people to universities, and strengthen the community organization.
That year, half a billion dollars’ worth of carbon credit transactions took place in the voluntary carbon market, according to Ecosystem Marketplace’s 2013 State of Voluntary Carbon Markets Report. In addition, the United Nations is leading an initiative to streamline REDD projects around the world in anticipation that mandatory carbon offsetting might eventually become part of a new global climate treaty. During the latest Climate Conference in Warsaw in December 2013, all countries agreed on a forest conservation mechanism to be implemented in the years to come – a large step forward for conservation projects around the world.
But when the Tolo River people began their project, REDD was still a poorly-understood mechanism, and the VCS was untested. Critics weren’t convinced the standard could both deliver the environmental rigor it promised and keep out “carbon cowboys” who they feared would run roughshod over the very indigenous people REDD was designed to protect.
Still, the Tolo River people were determined to succeed and remain so to this day: “Our community will always continue trying to protect our forest with or without the project. But having the project gives us the resources to do that,” says community leader Aureliano Córdoba.
It is crucially important to learn from mistakes and look for successful models – for the sake of the forest, the people who live in it and the global climate.
This is the story of one community that found a way to do this right.
Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest could significantly reduce rain and snowfall in the western United States, resulting in water and food shortages and a greater risk of forest fires, according to an eye-opening study published in the Journal of Climate last year. The potential connection has caught the attention of California regulators overseeing the state’s cap-and-trade program, providing perhaps another reason to allow international REDD offsets into the program.
28 July 2014 – Severe drought conditions in the US state of California have led state officials to impose criminal penalties for water wasters. The drought could also help make the case that California should allow projects aimed at curbing tropical deforestation into the state’s carbon trading system.
California’s State Water Resources Control Board approved an emergency regulation to force water agencies, their customers and state residents to increase water conservation in urban settings – by reducing outdoor water uses such as washing down driveways and watering landscapes – or face possible fines of up to $500 a day. What brought on this surge in water regulation? The fact that California residents are using more water than last year – with urban water use in May up 1% over the monthly average for the previous three years – despite two drought emergency declarations by Governor Jerry Brown and his January plea for residents to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20%.
What may seem like a local problem could have its roots in the tropical deforestation that has occurred in Brazil and other countries. Researchers found that total deforestation of the Amazon rainforest could reduce rainfall in the Pacific Northwest by 20% and cause a 50% reduction in the Sierra Nevada snowpack, a crucial source of water for California, according to a major scientific study published in the Journal of Climate last year.
Although it is difficult to quantify whether specific weather patterns such as the current drought are directly tied to deforestation, data trends indicate that deforestation has a direct impact on rainfall in California, according to Rajinder Sahota, Chief of the Climate Change Program Evaluation Branch of the California Air Resources Board (ARB), who spoke at an ARB board hearing on Thursday. But it remains difficult to convince residents of any possible connection, especially when they dealt with mudslides and floods in the state last year, she said.
“People tend to latch on to the most recent events as an indication of what’s going on,” Sahota said.
The role of tropical deforestation and the possible connection to California’s drought arose in the context of an update that ARB staff was providing regarding its planned consideration of sector-based offsets, specifically from projects that reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). ARB’s legal counsel Jason Gray discussed the multiple co-benefits of REDD projects, including protection against decreased precipitation from forest loss, which could be of interest given the current drought situation.
The sectoral approach
The regulations governing California’s carbon trading program allow for sector-based crediting mechanisms under which emissions reductions are measured across an entire sector in a jurisdiction rather than on a project-by-project basis if they meet rigorous criteria established by the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, Gray noted. There are currently no approved sector-based offset programs, but he outlined many potential benefits, including providing another source of offsets to keep down the compliance costs of California’s program, and to ensure that California’s rules are enforceable in international jurisdictions participating in the program.
The regulations identify REDD programs as the first sector for consideration, a recognition of the fact that deforestation and degradation of tropical forests accounts for 11-14% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Gray said. If the goal is to control GHG emissions caused by tropical deforestation, that cannot be achieved without REDD offsets, said Frank Harris, Environmental Economics Manager of Southern California Edison.
Even when pressed by ARB board members, however, Gray was reluctant to outline a timeline for the consideration of sector-based offsets, although he did suggest that it would happen well before the scheduled end of the cap-and-trade program in 2020. “I think it’s much sooner than that,” he said.
But in anticipation of a slow rulemaking process for REDD offsets, particularly given the controversy associated with these projects, market participants are urging the ARB to consider revamping the cap-and-trade regulations to allow regulated entities to roll over the limit on sector-based offset usage. As of now, sector-based offsets can only be used to fulfill 2% of the total obligation in the first (2013-2014) and second (2015-2017) compliance periods and 4% in the third period (2018-2020). Since regulated entities cannot use the eligible 2% in the first period because sector-based offsets are not yet allowed into the program, they should be allowed to do so in subsequent periods, some market participants argue.
“I would encourage consideration of that,” said Timothy Tutt, Program Manager, State Regulatory Affairs for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, a buyer of carbon offsets and partner in the development of a voluntary methodology to quantify offsets generated from wetlands restoration projects in California.
“Stagnant” market for California offsets
Pressure to allow international REDD offsets into the program is building in large part due to the concerns of market participants that the five offset protocols currently eligible in California’s program and the relatively slow project development under these existing protocols will lead to a supply shortage starting next year when transportation fuels come under regulation.
“Unfortunately, the current offset market is really stagnant,” Harris said, urging the ARB to pursue additional protocols such as rice cultivation – expected to be put forth for board consideration later this year – as well as REDD offsets.
Carbon offsets can be used to meet up to 8% of each covered entity's compliance obligation under the California program. As of now, the ARB only allows domestic projects generated under forestry, urban forestry, livestock, ozone-depleting substances and coal mine methane protocols to supply offsets to the cap-and-trade program.
The ARB has issued offsets to 59 projects for a total of more than 11 million compliance offsets to date. The maximum demand for offsets during the first compliance period would be roughly 26 million tonnes if all entities use the full 8% of offsets allowed – a proposition many market experts say is unlikely. However, the ARB staff believes there will be sufficient supply to meet the demand even if every entity exhausts the full 8% cap, factoring in the number of additional offset projects listed with the ARB that have yet to be issued offsets, as well as the expected introduction of projects under the recently-approved coal mine methane protocol, Sahota said.
Demand for offsets could rise to as much as 92 million tonnes in the second compliance period and 83 million tonnes in the third period based on the 8% usage limit, meaning a major supply shortage could be on the horizon. The ARB needs to keep looking in earnest for new protocols, Sahota said.
Could the drought provide more motivation to include REDD offsets in the California program? ARB Chair Mary Nichols acknowledged the challenges of adopting new protocols given that the offsets program is “one of the more controversial parts of the cap-and-trade program.” But she also called sector-based crediting “the next real horizon” for the offset program.
“The good news is we don’t have very many offsets,” she said. “The bad news is we don’t have very many offsets.”
July 24, 2014 – Forestry projects located in Alaska – “the Land of the Midnight Sun” – could soon be allowed to provide carbon offsets to California’s cap-and-trade program.
Right now, forestry projects providing offsets to California’s program must be based in the lower 48 US states, but the staff of the California Air Resources Board (ARB) will propose allowing Alaska-based forestry projects into its carbon trading program. The aim is to have an update to the ARB’s forestry protocol ready for ARB board consideration in late 2014.
Both the American Carbon Registry’s (ACR) and the Climate Action Reserve’s (CAR) voluntary forest offset protocols allow for the inclusion of offset projects located in Alaska. But the ARB did not allow Alaska-based projects when considering early action methodologies and programs back in 2011 because of the absence of data from the Forest Inventory and Analysis Program of the U.S. Forest Service. The ARB staff is now working to review and finalize the data needed to include Alaska-based projects in the program, said Brieanne Aguila, Manager of the ARB’s Climate Change Program Data Section. The ARB board would have to remove the exclusion of Alaska in its forestry protocol before projects based in the state could enter the program either through the compliance or early action pathways.
To date, no Alaska-based forestry projects have been registered on ACR or CAR, although several project developers have expressed interest in potentially developing forestry projects for the California program. ACR and CAR are designated as Offset Project Registries, which help the ARB in facilitating the listing, reporting and verification of compliance offset projects and they both also issue registry offsets, but these offsets must be converted to ARB offsets to be eligible for the cap-and-trade program.
The Verified Carbon Standard has registered and issued offsets to the Afognak Forest Carbon Project, an improved forest management project that covers more than 3,300 hectares located on the North coast of Afognak Island, Alaska. The project has a lifetime of 30 years and is expected to sequester 1.56 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over the course of the project from 2006-2036, according to the verification assessment completed by the Rainforest Alliance. Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and American Land Conservancy developed the project and designated Camco International Group as the project proponent representative.
Photo: Sea lions off the coast of Afgonak Island, Alaska. Via Wikipedia.org