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‘That’s a scam’: Indian firm’s REDD+ carbon deal in the DRC raises concern

A woman collects wood from the forest. Communities have access to forest resources under the CFCL. Image by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • Environmental and human rights advocacy organizations say an Indian company has misled communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, convincing them to sign away the rights to sell carbon credits from the restoration, reforestation or avoided deforestation of locally managed forests.
  • These forests, managed under a structure known by the French acronym CFCL, provide communities with control over how land is managed while giving them access to the resources the forests provide, proponents of the initiative say.
  • But the contracts, the implications of which were not fairly or adequately explained to community members, may restrict their access to the forests for generations to come, the advocacy groups say.
  • These organizations and the communities are now calling on the Congolese government to cancel the contracts.

Iluka Alain was a bit surprised when the two men turned up on a motorcycle in December 2021 in Bofekalasumba, the village where he’s chief in the northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo. The men spoke in Lingala, a widely spoken language in the DRC, and said they were from a company called KMS. They seemed in an awful rush, pressing him on whether Bofekalasumba had a management committee for its local community forest concession, known by the French acronym CFCL in the DRC.

Iluka said the village hadn’t formed one yet. Right away, the men told him to form a provisional committee of seven people. Not one to deny the request of his guests, Iluka did so. In short order, the ad hoc committee listened to the men’s hurried explanation of how their forests could provide the community with cash from the sale of carbon credits on the world market. The men said the committee members should sign the 19-page contract they had with them to take advantage of the opportunity.

Presented with this information, the committee members added details about the size of the CFCL to the agreement, and they signed the bottom of the document. It was only then that the men turned over the document, along with 5,000 Congolese francs (about $2.50) each to Iluka and the other members of the hastily formed committee. Then, they hopped back on their motorcycle and left the village. The whole interaction had taken perhaps 35 minutes.

Iluka and the others began poring over the text, which had been written in English and French, but not Lingala or any other national language. Still, Iluka and the others managed to work their way through the agreement and found they had just signed away the rights to the carbon and potentially other services from their forests for the next 100 years. The whole interaction left them wondering if they had just lost access to the fields, gardens and hunting grounds in their community-managed forest and questioning whether they would ever see much in the way of monetary or other benefits.

Villagers on the Congo River in DRC. Image by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

“KMS came to us like a thief,” Iluka said in a video testimony recorded by Congolese human rights and environmental NGO GASHE. “We can no longer manage our forest with complete sovereignty.”

A sample contract obtained by Mongabay calls for “the free prior informed full approval of all the community members the Chief of Sector / Chiefdom” for a REDD+ project. REDD+ stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. The goal of projects that fall under the umbrella of this U.N.-backed initiative is to provide for the economic development of communities in tandem with forest conservation.

The village of Bofekalasumba, it turns out, wasn’t alone. In December, representatives of Kanaka Management Services (KMS), a consultancy from India that, according to its website, specializes in greenhouse gas management projects, managed to secure the rights to 25 CFCLs in the DRC’s Équateur province in what communities say was the same harried and confusing fashion. KMS is also reportedly operating in at least five other provinces.

KMS’s pitch typically included the promise of money for the communities involved and, in some cases, even for bank accounts to be opened in their names, according to the people who were present when the company’s representatives made their rounds in Équateur in December 2021. But everywhere they went, the men spent little time on the details, community members say, and gave them a chance to read the document only once pen had been put to paper. The 25 communities are calling for canceling the contracts, arguing that KMS did not adequately explain what they were signing away even though KMS was required to do so by the DRC Constitution.

Community members say KMS used “trickery,” leveraging the fact that many people in Équateur aren’t literate and speak neither French nor English.

They also say the representatives rushed through an approval process that represented neither the entire community nor the full suite of its interests. Indeed, local leaders and advocates note that the communities depend on what the forest provides for them.

Forest elephants in the DRC. Image by USAID in Africa via Flickr.

A climate for carbon credits

Tropical forests are increasingly seen as an essential tool in the fight against climate change because they pull carbon from the atmosphere. At the same time, an ever-growing compendium of research shows that engaging with and investing in Indigenous and local communities who live in or around these forests is usually the best strategy to encourage sustainable management, often outstripping traditional, fenced-off protected areas.

Governments and corporations renewed pledges to achieve net-zero emissions at the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, last November, touching off a global frenzy to secure land — often for centuries at a time. The idea is that restoration, reforestation or avoided deforestation will lead to the uptake of additional carbon from the atmosphere. Those carbon credits could then be sold to companies and countries to compensate for their continuing carbon emissions. In an ideal scenario, some of the proceeds would find their way back to the communities like Bofekalasumba to be invested in employment, education and health care.

But human rights advocates have raised the concern that these schemes could cause communities to lose control over their forests — again, that have often been managed well. They could also lose the access to the resources they get from them, with little understanding of the rights they’re giving up or how they might benefit from these deals.

Baudouin Weye Wa Losese, customary chief of the Ekele village. Image courtesy of Rainforest Foundation UK.

What’s a fair share for communities?

Kanaka Management Services’ contracts with communities in the DRC say half the proceeds of carbon credit sales over the 100-year term would go to the DRC government, 40% to KMS, and 10% to CFCLs.

“The brazen attempts of KMS to con local communities must be dealt with immediately by the authorities,” Joe Eisen, executive director of the NGO Rainforest Foundation UK, told Mongabay in an email. “But this is just one example of an alarming and yet entirely predictable trend of opportunistic companies and corrupt officials looking to make a fast buck off the backs of local communities that have lived in and protected these forests for centuries.”

A 100-year-long REDD+ agreement signed by officials in Malaysian Borneo with a Singaporean company on Oct. 28, 2021, allocated 70% of the revenues from the sale of credits for carbon and other “natural capital” to the government of the state of Sabah. Similar to the KMS contracts, the text of that Sabah contract contains few details about how these payments will occur.

Observers have slammed the project in Borneo for its lack of adherence to the internationally accepted principles of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) required in dealings with local and Indigenous communities. In that case, it appears that no meetings took place with Indigenous and other communities about how the terms might affect their access to the forests on which many of them depend.

Climate change activists have also criticized the carbon offset model because it effectively allows companies and countries to continue business-as-usual emissions on the path toward net-zero global emissions by 2050, as outlined in Glasgow. Meanwhile, communities in less-industrialized countries will be left to shoulder the burden of turning the tide of global climate change.

Other observers question whether largely unregulated carbon markets will actually result in the restoration of forests and other landscapes or translate into the sequestration of significant additional amounts of climate-warming carbon from the atmosphere.

Community forest concessions

In the DRC, these global forces have collided with a new structure that advocates say aims to increase community autonomy in the management of forests. In 2014, a presidential decree allowed communities to apply for forest concessions — CFCLs — of up to 50,000 hectares (around 123,500 acres) that they would manage according to their needs. A ministerial order further codified this process into law.

Eight years on, though, the DRC’s CFCLs, are, in many ways, still in their infancy. Some CFCLs, like the one that Bofekalasumba is part of, haven’t yet put the management committees in place. Elsewhere, others haven’t created “simple management plans.” DRC law requires both structures, and they are seen as critical to ensuring CFCLs provide equitable benefits to community members.

A guiding principle of the community-led management at the heart of CFCLs is that it allows the land — in this case, the forest — to provide for immediate needs while ensuring that it can continue to provide resources in the future. That means the community must be able to continue to access those resources, which is one reason the 100-year term in the KMS contract struck some as a “trap.”

“Once this contract is recorded, there is a risk that the community will be deprived of the use of its forest and therefore of the resources, because it will be subject to a ban on non-use of the forests,” said Etienne Kasereka, programs director with GASHE. “KMS gives itself a monopoly on community forests by prohibiting communities from working with other structures.”

Proponents of the CFCL approach say it gives local communities a more significant say in how these lands are managed and how resources are shared. They also express optimism that formalizing the rights to these forest lands helps foster a sense of ownership and local stewardship of the forest, ensuring its resources are available for generations to come.

But the KMS contracts ostensibly place forest resources under a figurative lock and key for the next 100 years. The restrictions on access to the forests could diminish the CFCL’s responsiveness to community needs, especially in places where families must ensure they have enough resources to see them through the coming years.

“[I]t is beyond the understanding of the communities and it is too much,” Kasereka said in an email to Mongabay.

A man prepares a pitfall trap in the forest. Communities have access to forest resources under the CFCL. Image by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

A question of understanding

But the long-term nature of the contracts to which the communities say they unwittingly agreed is just one of the issues that they and advocates from GASHE and other advocacy groups have raised about the deal with KMS. The communities and their advocates say that the terms overwhelmingly favor the company at the expense of the communities involved, beginning with the meager 10% share of any profits.

“To me, that’s a scam,” Julien Mathe, a GASHE coordinator, told Mongabay in an email.

Opponents of the deal also note that KMS would be able to sanction the communities for failure to patrol the forests, or for what the company deems to be deforestation or forest degradation. Such breaches could allow the company to reduce the communities’ share of the revenues.

The contract also provides little information on how and when KMS is to make payments to the communities, GASHE says.

For its part, KMS reserves the right to transfer the agreement “to any party,” raising questions about the company’s long-term commitment to the project.

“In short, the agreement is not balanced,” said Blaise Mudodosi, an attorney and coordinator of the Kinshasa-based advocacy group APEM. It “places more obligations on the communities than KMS,” he added.

Putting the contracts in French and English is a sign that KMS either had little idea of the context in Équateur, or it never intended for people in the communities it targeted to truly understand the terms before they signed, GASHE’s Kasereka said. Most people Mongabay spoke with strongly believe it was the latter.

Julien Mathe, a GASHE coordinator. Image courtesy of Rainforest Foundation UK.

Congolese law relating to free, prior and informed consent requires the translation of texts into one of the DRC’s four national languages, such as Lingala, which is spoken throughout Équateur. (French is the country’s official language used by the government in proceedings and documents.) Communities would have better comprehended the agreement’s terms if it had been written in Lingala or a local dialect, Mudodosi said.

Then there is the limited time that KMS representatives spent with the communities, along with the layout of the contracts themselves. According to witnesses, this ranged from 15 to 45 minutes. The contract obtained by Mongabay is almost entirely prescriptive, with little to no room for the negotiations that are supposed to be a part of the principle of FPIC codified in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The agreement’s wording makes it sound like the split of profits was agreed upon after negotiation and “due deliberations” between each community and KMS. In reality, however, KMS representatives arrived with the document already complete, except for spaces to add in handwritten specifics for each CFCL, such as the area of the forest and the termination date of the agreement.

To draw official attention to KMS’s activities, GASHE, APEM, RFUK, and several other organizations wrote a letter detailing their concerns to DRC Environment Minister Ève Bazaiba Masudi, who is also the deputy prime minister. They also published the letter on the watchdog website REDD-Monitor. Bazaiba did not respond to a request for comment on the contracts.

Mongabay also contacted KMS to request clarifications of and comment on the contract and the allegations raised by the organizations that wrote the letter on behalf of the communities. KMS directed Mongabay to a lengthy response the company sent to REDD-Monitor in early May. KMS did not respond to multiple subsequent attempts from Mongabay for clarification on several other points.

An aerial view of village in Lac Paku in the peatland forest near Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Image © Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace.

In the REDD-Monitor post, KMS accused the organizations standing in the way of the REDD+ project of attempting to thwart the progress of people from DRC in need of economic development.

“This project co-benefits can certainly help local communities to improve their livelihoods and strengthen their resolve to reach higher in the overall living standards,” the company wrote. “Trying to hurt and damage the livelihoods and potential improvements with respect to the local communities is nothing short of a crime against humanity.”

The company also said the claim that KMS would receive a 40% share wasn’t accurate. “KMS[’s] share is much lower,” the company wrote, adding that “amounts due to the public treasury, forest concession fees, tax payable” would decrease that figure.

KMS also defended the process by which it obtained the signatures.

“We had adequate community meetings in project areas,” the company wrote. “Community had the full opportunity to participate in the decision making process and thereby make the stake holder consultation process more effective which clearly shows that not only mere consultation but the free, prior and informed consent was obtained.”

The contracts also imply that the company had contacted the communities and obtained their consent for the project before the representatives’ visits in late 2021. How the representatives obtained that consent, however, isn’t clear. All of the communities in Équateur told GASHE they first learned of KMS’s activities in December 2021. And despite several mentions of FPIC throughout the contracts, they contain no details about the time spent obtaining that consent, who was involved, or the form in which consent was given.

KMS told REDD-Monitor that it had proof of the fair process it used to obtain consent in the form of “adequate pictures and evidences of such meetings” on the project website. The site does contain photos and videos; however, KMS did not respond to Mongabay’s request to clarify how these media constitute proof of the consultative process.

Bikolo Florentine said the representatives were only in Irebu, her village, for 30 minutes, around the same time they spent in Bofekalasumba. And they said they would leave the contract with them only after it had been signed. After they left, Bikolo and the other community members present found the contract was “a big lie to which we did not agree.”

“Knowing the reality on the ground, we really doubt the consent presented in such a short time working with the communities concerned,” Mudodosi said.

Advocacy groups say the company’s contracts, the implications of which were not fairly or adequately explained to community members, may restrict their access to the forests for generations to come. Image by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

It also seems the men tasked with securing the communities’ permission may not have known enough to explain the full suite of benefits the communities could expect and the responsibilities they would be held to.

“These were people who were recruited for a short period as consultants who had only one mission,” to obtain signatures from communities with CFCLs, Kasereka said.

In their letter to the ministry, the NGOs say KMS has leveraged its purported certification from a company called Verra. Verra is a company that validates projects based on their adherence to what’s known as the voluntary verified carbon standard (VCS). (Mongabay could not independently verify whether KMS told people in the DRC that it had received certification for this project.)

In project documents requesting validation and verification by Verra, KMS touted the carbon savings of its work, stating that the projects would “prevent the emission” of the equivalent of more than 155 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide over the project’s life span, primarily due to reduced deforestation.

Verra “confirmed that it had ‘rejected’ the KMS REDD+ project in the DRC in September 2021, at the request of the Congolese administration, which considers that KMS did not meet the necessary conditions of the current state of the project,” the organizations wrote. Mongabay’s communications with Verra corroborated the organizations’ findings.

In its response to REDD-Monitor, KMS repeatedly refers to the DRC REDD+ project as the “Verra VCS 2320 project” and wrote that the audit of the project had been “temporarily stopped by Honorable Ministry for completing some harmonization elements.”

Verra spokesperson Steve Zwick told Mongabay that KMS should be using neither Verra’s name nor VCS.

In a May 6 interview posted at REDD-Monitor, Zwick said Verra had asked KMS to stop making such references. He also confirmed the KMS project in DRC had been rejected “at the earliest possible stage … because it did not conform to our program requirements.”

The peatlands in DRC are a rich repository of carbon. Image © Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace.

Finding a way forward

The problem in the DRC now centers around whether the contracts will be allowed to stand by the authorities, despite the issues raised with consent, the terms, and their legality. The concern is that the contracts could be enforced because the government apparently approved at least part of the company’s plan.

KMS claims to have begun negotiations with the DRC’s interior ministry as early as 2018 and subsequently received approval to work in the country. However, neither KMS nor representatives of the national government replied to repeated requests to clarify what activities this approval allowed.

Now, the communities and the organizations are asking for the suspension of all KMS’s activities in Équateur. They want the contracts canceled, along with approvals issued by the government.

The organizations behind the letter to Bazaiba want the DRC’s leaders to engage with the issue, to increase transparency around how they’ve been involved to this point, and ultimately to finalize the rules around REDD+ projects in the country. They also caution that the company appears to be securing permissions for similar REDD+ projects in five other provinces: Tshopo, Maniema, Sankuru, Bas-Uélé and Tshuapa.

If all of these projects are allowed by authorities to proceed, “This would be a large-scale scam,” they write.

In the end, the communities in Équateur say they don’t believe they will ever see benefits from KMS’s REDD+ project.

“The DRC government and its international partners must now get a grip and stop this fire sale of Congolese forests and patrimony,” RFUK’s Eisen said.

Banner image: A woman collects wood from the forest. Communities have access to forest resources under the CFCL. Image by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion with two guests of big stories from Southeast Asia that highlight the importance of land rights and also Free, Prior, and Informed Consent for Indigenous and local communities, listen here:

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