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Control of Africa’s forests must not be sold to carbon offset companies (commentary)

  • A forest carbon deal between Blue Carbon and the nation of Liberia would give the company exclusive rights to control 10% of the nation’s land mass for 30 years.
  • Blue Carbon has also signed MOUs for similar deals with Tanzania and Zambia (and others) and combined with the Liberia deal, the land controlled by the company in these three African nations represents an area the size of the whole of the United Kingdom.
  • “Carbon colonialism is a false solution to the climate crisis,” a new op-ed states. “The only real answer is to end our fossil fuel addiction by dramatically reducing our emissions, while financially supporting countries and local communities to protect their forests, rather than wrest control of them.”
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

It’s been called a “new scramble for Africa”: a modern incarnation of European powers’ 19th century imperial seizure of vast swathes of Africa.

Under the guise of fighting the climate emergency, a private Emirati company is set to take control of huge tracts of sub-Saharan Africa, enabling it to sell carbon credits to major polluters in exchange for managing forests on that land.

In July, a contract was leaked detailing an agreement between the Liberian government and Blue Carbon LLC, a United Arab Emirates-based (UAE) company chaired by Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum, a member of Dubai’s ruling family. The UAE is a fossil fuel state, and plans to vastly expand its oil and gas production.

George Weah, President of Liberia, with Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum
George Weah, President of Liberia, with Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum, in the UAE where the Liberian government and Blue Carbon “signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the development of carbon offset projects in the forest sector.” Image from Blue Carbon’s Instagram page.

The deal, which is yet to be signed, gives Blue Carbon exclusive rights to control a staggering one-tenth of Liberia’s land mass for 30 years. In return, the UAE and other governments will be able to offset their carbon emissions by buying credits linked to the carbon supposedly locked into the one million hectares of Liberian rainforest, which Blue Carbon is committed to preserve.

Criticism from both inside and outside Liberia swiftly followed. But since then, the enormous scale of Blue Carbon’s ambitions has become even clearer as news emerged that the Liberia agreement was just one of many the company has been pursuing.

Blue Carbon has also signed memorandums of understanding (MOUs) for similar deals with the governments of Angola, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The details remain opaque.

What we do know is alarming. In Zimbabwe, for instance, a fifth of the country’s landmass – or 7.5 million hectares – would be given over for producing carbon credits; while in both Tanzania and Zambia, Blue Carbon will assume control of eight million hectares of land. Combined with the Liberia deal, the land controlled by Blue Carbon in these three African nations represents an area the size of the whole of the United Kingdom.

What’s more, Blue Carbon’s plans extend beyond Africa: it has also agreed MOUs with Pakistan and Papua New Guinea.

A tree kangaroo.
Papua New Guinea’s forests are home to species like tree kangaroos, birds-of-paradise, and a whole series of endemic creatures. Image by Valerie Hukalo via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Mired in scandal

Later this month, the UAE will host the 28th United Nations climate summit (COP28).

The Blue Carbon deals will apparently be showcased there, and the carbon credits these deals might generate are intended to be used by the UAE (and possibly other governments) to offset their emissions and help them meet their pledges under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. These plans are likely to meet resistance since they are marred by problems both general to offsets and specific to Blue Carbon.

In general terms, carbon offset schemes are a huge diversion from the urgent task of decarbonizing our societies. One scheme after another has been submerged by scandal, and evidence has accumulated showing that they fail to deliver the climate advances they promise.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that 90% of the rainforest offset credits approved by Verra, the world’s largest carbon offsets standards agency, were likely be “phantom credits” – meaning they don’t represent genuine carbon reductions. With such controversy swirling around land-based offset schemes, it’s no surprise that the price for the carbon credits they generate has fallen tenfold since the beginning of 2022.

The very premise of land-based offsetting schemes is flawed: the idea that polluters can claim their fossil fuel emissions have been nullified because they’ve paid for trees to be planted or locked carbon into the land by other means, is built on the promise of drawing carbon out of the atmosphere in a future marked with uncertainty. Meanwhile, burning fossil fuels now is certain to contribute to the climate crisis unfolding across the planet.

Specific criticisms have also been leveled at the Blue Carbon deals.

Liberian Goldman Prize winner Silas Siakor is among the critics of the Blue Carbon deal. Image of the activist photographing logged trees. Image courtesy of Silas Siakor.
Liberian winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, Silas Siakor, is among the critics of the Blue Carbon deal. Image of the activist photographing logged trees courtesy of Silas Siakor.

Among the Liberians speaking out is Goldman Prize winner Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor. While he stresses that money is desperately needed to support local communities protecting their forests, he also sees the deal as a threat to rural Liberians hard-won land rights.

More than 1.6 billion people around the world depend on forests and their resources, according to the United Nations. This is especially true in Liberia, which contains almost half of the remaining Upper Guinea Forest, and where half the population lives within 2.5 kilometers of a forest. The majority of people there depend on forest land.

“Around 70% of land in Liberia is owned by communities,” Siakor wrote recently. “Roughly one third of our people live in forested areas, and the local people who live on the land targeted under the deal will only be consulted about [the deal] after it has been signed – that is, if they are consulted at all.”

Siakor also argues that the deal’s legality is dubious, as it appears to violate Liberia’s constitution and a number of other local laws.

Meanwhile, the details of the other countries’ deals remain shrouded in secrecy.

“We don’t really know the figures. We can’t even tell if the [value] of the land is accurately measured or if it tallies with the amount being offered by the buyer,” said Tracy Mutowekuziva, a lawyer for the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, regarding her country’s MOU with Blue Carbon.

Climate targets

All of this raises an urgent question: why should countries be allowed to use Blue Carbon’s forest offset schemes – and others like it – to meet their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), that is, the cuts to their greenhouse gas emissions they must make to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals?

Opinion among Paris Agreement signatories is divided on the matter. As such, the rules on what carbon credits are acceptable for meeting climate targets will be a topic of intense debate at COP28.

See related: Massive carbon offset deal with Dubai-based firm draws fire in Liberia

People walking through a forest.
According to a leaked draft of the contract, the Blue Carbon deal could override the customary land rights of communities living in vast swaths of Liberia’s forests. Image by Terry Sunderland/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Most parties – including the European Union (EU) – want to exclude the trade in so-called ‘avoided emissions’ credits (that is, credits derived from preserving forests) from the carbon offset market.

Allied with the sharp decline in forest carbon credits’ price, this opposition increases the uncertainty surrounding the future of land-based offsets in general, and puts Blue Carbon’s plans on even shakier ground.

Those who oppose letting forest carbon credits contribute to other countries’ national climate targets must stand firm. The EU and others must not give a green light to fossil fuel states’ – and other rich countries’ – exploitation of often impoverished countries who have forests which need protecting.

Carbon colonialism is a false solution to the climate crisis. The only real answer is to end our fossil fuel addiction by dramatically reducing our emissions, while financially supporting countries and local communities to protect their forests, rather than wrest control of them.

Alexandra Benjamin is FERN’s forest governance campaigner focusing on Liberia and Ghana.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Mongabay reporter Gerry Flynn and Indigenous activist Cynthia Ong about two giant forest carbon deals proposed in Southeast Asia, listen here: 

See related coverage:

Can carbon markets solve Africa’s climate finance woes?

Critical questions remain as carbon credit deal in Sabah presses forward

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