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Indigenous peoples in Colombia play crucial role in the fight against climate change

From the series "The Blood Forest" by photographer Philippe Echaroux.

From the series "The Blood Forest" by photographer Philippe Echaroux.

  • Research shows that the rights of the numerous indigenous groups in the Amazon are crucial to help curb global warming.
  • Trading in CO2 emissions prevented by protecting forests instead of cutting them down has been possible since 2008 under a UN mechanism called REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries), but there are complications.
  • Marked by lackluster regulation for years, since the CO2 market under REDD+ (or its predecessor REDD) was introduced, “carbon cowboys” have popped up in the remotest corners of the tropics, trying to profit from the growing trade in CO2 emissions.

Elizabeth Apolinar enjoys her job as a lawyer in the bustling center of Bogotá these days. But now and then she misses the traditional life she used to lead deep in the heart of the Colombian jungle.

Apolinar is originally from a community called the Sikuani. The Sikuani people are a pueblo indigena, an indigenous people, one of about 100 indigenous ethnic groups in Colombia. These groups are represented by Apolinar’s employer: La Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia (ONIC), or the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia.

Most Sikuani — numbering about 20,000 according to Colombia’s Ministry of Culture — lead an impoverished and isolated existence in the middle of the vast Amazon rainforest. The trees provide timber for building houses and firewood for cooking. The fruits of the forest are gathered and animals hunted. The community also grows a little cassava on small plots of land.

The Sikuani rarely come into contact with the rest of Colombian society. To visit her family, Apolinar has to fly over the impenetrable jungle in a small plane. “Many people in my village don’t even speak Spanish,” she says.

Yet in the fall of 2013, the indigenous community received a visit from representatives of the Colombian company Mediamos, who offered them a contract to manage the carbon stored in the Sikuani’s rainforest for thirty years. If the Sikuani were to protect the forest, the contract stated, then Mediamos could sell the resulting reduction in carbon dioxide (C02) emissions on the international market. There was a lot of money to be made in this business, the company said, and the Sikuani would share the profits.

But does carbon trading really work that way?

The function of the mechanism

Trading in CO2 emissions prevented by protecting forests instead of cutting them down has been possible since 2008 under a UN mechanism called REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries). The idea behind REDD+ is simple. A community in a developing country with abundant forests on its land enters into an agreement with a non-governmental organization or property developer. Together they draw up a plan for protecting the rainforest from illegal logging, for example by hiring forest rangers, or finding alternative sources of income for the community.

Since tropical forests store huge amounts of carbon, any reduction in deforestation will have a corresponding reduction in CO2 emissions.  

Rainforest of Isla Gorgona, Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Rainforest of Isla Gorgona, Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Worldwide, deforestation is responsible for about 12 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014 report, not including agriculture.

Apolinar’s community lives in a forest covering about 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) that is a storehouse for nearly two billion tons of CO2. The area is home to 12,000 people, spread out over 149 different communities. Besides the Sikuani, indigenous groups include the Puinave, Piapoco, Piaroas, Curripaco and Cubeo. They jointly manage the area.

Preventing this CO2 from escaping into the atmosphere is worth a great deal of money. For this, an independent third-party will first determine the emissions reduction. The reduction in CO2 emissions is calculated against a business-as-usual scenario with no protective measures, using 25- or 30-year projections. These tradable CO2 credits can then be sold to airlines, energy companies, or other businesses wanting to reduce their ecological footprint. The profits can then flow back to the project and into the local community.

Complications and challenges

Sitting between piles of paper in ONIC’s office, Apolinar describes how the contract with Mediamos sowed deep discord in her own community.

“A few of the elders signed the contract,” she said, despite the fact that the community voted against it in a referendum. She and others have suspicions over the actions of those leaders. “The families who got money are now fighting with the other families, who got nothing but are now bound by the contract.”

In an appeal to the Colombian Supreme Court on behalf of the indigenous community in 2015, Pedro Eliceo Roa Gaitán of the Piapoco group stated that the referendum to approve the REDD+ project was unanimously rejected. According to him, an extra page stating that the community ultimately had approved the project was added illegally to the minutes of the meeting.

Over a month later, a new council of elders approved the project on the basis of this extra page. Mediamos stated that the company had nothing to do with this issue, and that the decision to participate in the project was an internal decision by the community itself. The legal proceedings are still ongoing in Colombia.

The result of the agreement: no one may cut down a tree now, not even for a new house or for fuel for cooking: the forest has to remain undisturbed for thirty years.

Internal divisions continue to polarize the community, which was never the intention behind REDD+.

Can REDD+ still save the climate?

The story of the Sikuani is not unique. The CO2 market has been marked by bad (or lackluster) regulation for years. Since REDD+ (or its predecessor REDD) was introduced, “carbon cowboys” have popped up in the remotest corners of the tropics, trying to profit from the growing trade in CO2 emissions.

One of the first REDD+ projects was set up to protect forests in eastern Bolivia from illegal logging. The Noel Kempff Climate Action Plan was a plan to protect the forests around the Noel Kempff Mercado national park, one of the places with the highest biodiversity on the planet. The region was charted in 1910 by the British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett, whose descriptions of the forests and waterfalls in the park are said to have been the inspiration for the paradise in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous novel The Lost World.

Initiated by the US environmental group The Nature Conservancy, the project was funded in part by oil and energy companies BP, American Electric Power and PacifiCorp.

But according to several critics, the plan would achieve no CO2 reduction, and would drive the local population from their land. Greenpeace went on the offense, calling the project a “carbon scam.” The major problem, according to the environmental group, was the “leakage” of illegal logging activity to other areas not covered by the project.

Natalia Calderon, director of FAN Bolivia, the local NGO that implemented the project at the turn of the 21st century, is still astonished by the controversy that arose at the time.

“We were the first to try anything like this. It was a trial project,” Calderon said proudly in her office in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz. According to her, the trial was a success.

However, the project neither sold any CO2 credits nor achieved the status of an official REDD+ project. This was partly because it was only intended as a trial project, and the Bolivian government under left-wing president Evo Morales had turned against REDD on principle after 2008.

“We verified that there was a real reduction in CO2 emissions,” Calderon said. Although she acknowledges that some illegal logging activity shifted to other forests outside the project area, she explains that this effect was not strong enough to negate the total benefit of the project. “It was primarily a good trial of the setup of REDD+.”

The biggest lesson learned was the importance of collaboration with the community.

“Today we would give an even larger role to the local communities,” Calderon said. “We have to involve them more and give them more economic opportunities.”

This is the paradox that makes protecting the forest difficult: to prevent illegal logging from shifting to other areas, the scope of the approach needs to be expanded. At the same time, there must be greater focus on the position of local communities.

In 2009, REDD+ was sharply criticized for its lack of effectiveness, according to a report in The Guardian. ONIC spoke out in 2012 against any additional implementation of the REDD+ program in Colombia.

Hope for REDD+

The criticism of REDD+’s dubious benefits for the climate has never entirely subsided.

“With these kinds of projects, the ecological and moral values are always less important than the money that can be earned from them,” said Diego Alejandro Cardona, an activist with the Colombian environmental organization CENSAT Agua Viva, the Colombian branch of Friends of the Earth International.

He said he feels that REDD+ represents a form of land-grabbing by multinational corporations in disguise.

Regions of the Colombian Amazon. Map by Peter Fitzgerald, OpenStreetMap
Regions of the Colombian Amazon. Map by Peter Fitzgerald, OpenStreetMap

Furthermore, according to Cardona, the way the program is used is hypocritical: large energy and other corporations invest a great deal of money in these kinds of projects in order to reduce their own carbon footprints. On the other hand, these same companies continue to seek out and use fossil fuels — sometimes even deep in the rainforest.

“This kind of behavior just isn’t right,” Cardona said. He also has concerns about the relationship between people and nature. “By putting the protection of the forest into a contract, the indigenous community is losing its traditional connection with the land and the forest.”

To warn local communities about this, Cardona’s organization now shares information, including a brochure that explains how to recognize a carbon cowboy, and what should and should not be in a valid contract.

Still the most efficient way to reduce CO2 emissions

Despite all the criticism, paying for forest protection isn’t such a crazy idea. Since such large quantities of carbon are stored in forests, the cost per ton of CO2 is relatively low. For example, capturing and storing CO2 in empty gas fields, often seen as a necessity if we are to stay under the agreed-upon limit to global warming of 2 degrees Celsius, is estimated to cost about $58 per ton of CO2 or even $85 dollars for gas-fired plants, according to the World Resources Institute. By contrast, the average price of REDD+ certificates last year was only $3.40 per ton, according to a report from the nonprofit Forest Trends.

This makes protecting the forests by far the most efficient and cheapest way to reduce worldwide CO2 emissions, as the UN emphasized at the November 2016 climate summit in Marrakesh.

Since 2012, REDD+ has also been the most widely used form of forest management for compensating CO2 worldwide, even more popular than planting new trees. Last year it was good for 11.4 million tons of CO2, worth $37.5 million, according to Ecosystem Marketplace (part of the environmental group Forest Trends) in its report “State of Forest Carbon Finance 2016.” This figure is only for voluntary carbon trading, or what is known as voluntary offsets.

This amount is expected to grow considerably in coming years when projects already well underway put their CO2 credits on the market. Demand will also grow sharply once industries that are required to compensate part of their emissions, such as airlines, become eligible to use REDD+. The UN air travel International Civil Aviation Organization has agreed that all additional growth in CO2 emissions from the air-travel sector worldwide from 2020 will be compensated by trading carbon credits. It is possible that credits from REDD+ projects can be used, although no agreements have been made yet.

To meet the growing demand for REDD+ credits, more than $2.76 billion has already been invested since 2009 in international aid to help developing countries implement REDD+ projects. This figure includes both bilateral support and support from within the UN’s REDD+ program. For five years, Colombia will receive $100 million from Norway, Germany, and the UK to work out a national REDD+ strategy.

Work with local communities

Despite these millions of dollars, the major lesson from Calderon in Bolivia stands: local communities must have more of a say. There is also a growing body of scientific evidence to support this. In 2016 the WRI published a report which concluded that protecting the land rights of indigenous populations directly results in a reduction of CO2 emissions.

The report found that if indigenous peoples have clear legal ownership of a forest area, there is two to three times less deforestation than when this is not the case. Throughout Latin America, these areas are connected to 40 million people who inhabit, and should control, 23 percent of all the land area, according to WRI.

However, territorial claims are often disregarded or violated. Worldwide, only 10 percent of all indigenous land rights have been enshrined in legislation. Without a community having clear legal rights to its land, there is the danger that its forests can be chopped down for timber, or to make room for palm oil plantations.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur for the rights of indigenous peoples, says that establishing clear land rights for indigenous groups guarantees that these forests continue to exist. Indigenous groups are also experts on the landscape in which they live.

“Studies show that where indigenous people are responsible for the forests, the protection is much more effective,” Tauli-Corpuz said.

Questions over involvement

Questions linger over how to get local communities involved in international CO2 emissions trading projects and ensure that REDD+’s success, even with the Sikuani, according to Carlos Rodriguez. Rodriguez, a professor with over thirty years’ experience with the peoples of the Amazon, works out of the Bogotá office of the Netherlands-based tropical forest conservation NGO Tropenbos International.

From the series The Blood Forest by photographer Philippe Echaroux
From the series “The Blood Forest” by photographer Philippe Echaroux

Rodriguez says that answering the questions starts with how you explain REDD+. Local communities often have a completely different understanding of climate change and contracts than outsiders.

“They often don’t understand that you want to pay money for wood, because the forest has a spiritual value, not a financial one,” Rodriguez said. “The trees are a gift from nature.”

Money can also carry seeds of discord, as Apolinar observed with the Sikuani. According to Rodriguez, the first question to ask is: how can these groups collectively earn an income?

“Their economy is the food they grow,” he said. “When money suddenly enters the system from outside, it means a drastic change in the community structure.”

In his research, Rodriguez concluded that REDD+ can only work if a collective, indigenous organization has control over the project and its revenue stream. They should determine what part of the forest gets protected and what part can still be used for local needs such as timber and fuel, according to a study published by Tropenbos International.

From the jungle to the negotiating table

Besides isolated companies selling CO2 credits from REDD+ projects on a voluntary trading market, since 2008 there has also been an international REDD+ program set up by the UN. This program aims to make it a nationwide strategy for combating deforestation in various developing countries. Running it on the national level should prevent leakage and guarantee indigenous land rights.

Mario Gonzalez, with the UN’s local REDD+ program in Colombia, emphasizes that it’s also important to find economic alternatives for the communities whose land is covered by the project. “That means also investing in public services in very remote areas,” he explains. “Because people will cut down the forest themselves if there’s no other means of subsistence.”

Gonzalez realizes that REDD+ has acquired a bad reputation with many, largely because of the carbon cowboys’ antics in the last ten years. “We have to try to turn this perception around, especially for the Amazon peoples themselves,” he said.

Back in the Colombian jungle, the Sikuani are still embroiled in the legal battle to get the contract they signed with Mediamos declared invalid. The community ultimately took the matter to the Colombian Supreme Court with the argument that the referendum was not conducted according to the rules.

“In 2013 we only had a negative experience with one company,” Apolinar, the jurist from the jungle, recollects. Now that the Colombian government is trying to set up REDD+ under the aegis of the UN, Apolinar wants to give the program another chance. In 2015 the ONIC signed a covenant agreeing to cooperate in implementing REDD+.

The ONIC is now taking the lead to keep millions of tons of carbon in the country’s own forests. The members even traveled from the Amazon rain forest to the recent UN climate summit in Marrakesh to declare proudly to the world that “The governments that have brought on the worldwide climate disaster can continue to count on us to defend the planet.”

On the condition that indigenous land rights are reinforced. For the Sikuani, there’s no life without land.

Banner image: From the series “The Blood Forest” by photographer Philippe Echaroux.

This article was produced in collaboration with Martin Perez and Mauricio Zubieta as part of a series on CO2 compensation, made possible in part by support from the Netherlands’ Postcode Loterij Fonds from Free Press Unlimited. Read more (in Dutch) about the Postcode Lottery’s journalism fund. It was translated from the original in Dutch by Anne Hodgkinson.

Bart Crezee is a contributing correspondent on carbon offsets for De Correspondent. This article originally appeared in Dutch on You can find him on Twitter at @bartcrezee.


“Climate Benefits, Tenure Costs: The Economic Case For Securing Indigenous Land Rights in the Amazon.” Read more about this report here.

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