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Indigenous-led coalition calls for moratorium on terrestrial carbon trade

Indigenous women of Guatemala’s Polochic Valley

Indigenous women of Guatemala’s Polochic Valley are growing their businesses and saving money with the help of a program that’s empowering rural women. Image by UN Women/Ryan Brown via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • The Pathways Alliance for Change and Transformation (PACT), a coalition of Indigenous, community and nonprofit organizations, published a paper in September 2023 calling for a moratorium on the forest carbon trade out of concern for the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities.
  • PACT says a pause in selling carbon credits is needed until protections for the land rights of these communities are laid out “explicitly, proactively, and comprehensively.”
  • In December at the U.N. climate conference in Dubai, carbon markets experienced a setback after negotiators failed to agree on texts to articles in the 2015 Paris climate agreement meant to guide the carbon trade.

Mina Setra remembers a time before oil palm plantations changed the landscape of her childhood home. Setra, an Indigenous Dayak Pompakng, grew up when forests surrounded her village in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. Setra and her brother would spend their days canoeing on a nearby river, she says.

“But now, it’s all gone. Dried out,” Setra says. Witnessing the changes over the course of her lifetime has guided her work as an activist and with AMAN, Indonesia’s biggest Indigenous alliance, where she now serves as deputy to the secretary-general on culture.

While palm oil production remains a linchpin of Indonesia’s economy, outsiders and the Indonesian government have increasingly focused on another commodity: carbon — particularly the carbon in communities that have managed to hold on to their forests for generations. That’s concerning because, as Setra sees it, the trade of carbon credits, typically used by companies and individuals to offset their emissions, often fails to consider the connection that Indigenous peoples have to their forests.

“Indigenous spirituality has not really been taken into account in the discussions on carbon markets. Not at all. Zero,” Setra tells Mongabay.

In September, Setra and several colleagues from a group of Indigenous, community and nonprofit organizations that comprise the Pathways Alliance for Change and Transformation (PACT) published a paper calling for a moratorium on the forest carbon trade. The group wants to pause both voluntary and government-required compliance carbon markets until protections for the land rights of Indigenous peoples, as well as local communities that often face similar challenges, are laid out “explicitly, proactively, and comprehensively.”

Deforestation in West Kalimantan.
Deforestation in West Kalimantan. The forests surrounding the village where Setra, an Indigenous Dayak Pompakng, grew up, is “all gone. Dried out.” Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

A call for a pause

Mechanisms laid out in the 2015 Paris climate agreement allow for the exchange of carbon credits between countries in the push toward net-zero emissions. For example, a wealthy country might finance a forest conservation project aimed at reducing emissions from deforestation in a less-industrialized nation. This arrangement allows the rich country to count those emissions savings toward its own climate targets.

Voluntary carbon markets currently allow private companies and individuals to buy credits that offset their emissions. But these exchanges are often criticized because they allow wealthy companies and countries to continue emitting. And critics of the voluntary market say it lacks the necessary oversight to ensure exchanges represent meaningful climate action and include safeguards for communities. PACT, meanwhile, argues that if land rights are not secure, these structures risk doing harm to forest-dependent communities.

Even Indigenous and community leaders who favor participating in the carbon trade point out similar flaws. They echo the need for adequate rights recognition, respect for cultures, and representation in the decision-making process.

Without properly codified protections for rights to the land and the carbon it contains, as well as their ways of life, the carbon trade risks not only violating human rights but threatening the very ecosystems it aims to protect, says Andy White, a professor of practice at the University of Michigan in the U.S. and a co-author of the PACT paper.

A recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that supporting community management of tropical forests may be a more effective restoration strategy than the more traditional approach of planting trees. In the Amazon Rainforest, research has shown that securing Indigenous land rights led to reduced emissions from the loss and degradation of forests. As a result, communities are seen as critical to the success of forest conservation strategies such as REDD+.

Açaí harvested sustainably from the Amazon Rainforest, Brazil. A recent study found that supporting community management of tropical forests may be a more effective restoration strategy than the more traditional approach of planting trees. Image © Diego Baravelli/Greenpeace.

To Samuel Nguiffo, founder and director of the Cameroon-based Centre for Environment and Development and a co-author of the PACT paper, the carbon trade mirrors the pursuit of profit from commodities such as timber and oil.

“We have to look at nature as what it is, something important and not another commodity through which we can get money because we sell carbon,” he tells Mongabay. “The message is that you cannot resolve a problem with the same mindset that created it.”

“By monetizing Indigenous territories [and] our forests, it can change the value of how the community sees their territories,” Setra says. “This is dangerous in the long run.”

White says the intention of this paper is to lay out PACT’s vision for “a different future.” The team plans to research related issues and gather evidence over the next two years with the goal of having proposals it can submit for consideration at COP30, the 2025 U.N. climate conference to be held in Brazil.

Rosario Carmona, an anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bonn in Germany, who was not involved in writing the paper, says she agrees “completely” with PACT’s focus on securing land rights before the carbon trade moves forward. She says Indigenous communities should be involved in discussions about how their ecosystems are protected from the beginning and given the right to choose whether and how they will participate.

Setra says this must start with the principle of free, prior and informed consent.

“‘Informed’ means you tell them, whether it’s benefits or also the potential damage,” she says.

Communities should find out from buyers the level of their commitment to addressing climate change beyond offsetting their emissions with the carbon credits they purchase from the communities’ forests, Setra adds.

“[The] first thing they should show the community is their own carbon emission reduction plan,” she says, adding it’s important that carbon credit buyers demonstrate their willingness to address climate change. “We want to see your own effort.”

Hendrikus Frangky Woro from the Papuan Indigenous People of the Awyu Tribe testifies at the hearing on a case of revocation of forest area permits in Jakarta, Indonesia. Anthropologist Rosario Carmona says Indigenous communities should be involved in discussions about how their ecosystems are protected from the beginning and given the right to choose whether and how they will participate. Image courtesy of © Muhammad Adimaja/Greenpeace.

Carmona says she’s noticed that discussions around the carbon trade have begun to include more Indigenous voices. For instance, the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market (ICVCM), a governance body focused on improving the quality of voluntary credits, created the IPs and LCs VCM Engagement Forum to boost the contribution of Indigenous peoples and local communities to a “high-integrity voluntary carbon market.”

But whether such moves will translate into better-protected land rights and substantive involvement in decision-making remains to be seen, she says.

PACT also calls for bolstering the ability of communities in a way that puts them on equal footing with the groups looking to involve their forests in the carbon trade.

“We should spend some time building their capacities,” Nguiffo says, “and we should agree that, in a learning process, they can receive money and make mistakes.”

As a matter of practicality, Carmona says, Indigenous-led approaches to conservation have the potential to upend the mindsets that have driven the destruction of ecosystems and released vast quantities of climate-warming gases into the atmosphere.

“We have a lot to learn from many Indigenous peoples and communities that have different relationships with nature,” she adds.

Setra likens the protection of ecosystems to a “fortress.”

“The fortress is the genuine love of the communities to their forests,” she says. “But if the values change, maybe in the future, they will be the ones selling their forests.”

Drawa village, Fiji’s first verified forest carbon credit project based in the Drawa rainforest, has been earning income for its Indigenous landowners for five years now, in exchange for keeping their forests standing amid pressure from logging companies. Image by Rob Rickman.

Moving toward jurisdictional control

White says recent interconnected trends relating to the carbon trade have been especially concerning.

The voluntary carbon market has been moving toward “jurisdictional crediting” for REDD+, which is short for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation” and supplies the voluntary market with credits stemming from those reduced emissions. The jurisdictional approach seeks to account for the displacement of deforestation or degradation that might happen as a result of a project’s activities. Scientists refer to this as “leakage” by accounting for emissions across an entire state, province or country, instead of just at the project level.

While some observers are optimistic that communities could benefit from the jurisdictional approach, White says he’s worried that jurisdictional credits may “incentivize governments to assert ownership over the carbon, carbon rights and the trade” and “undermine” community land rights.

Already, a number of countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Mozambique, have sought to take legal control of the carbon within their borders in recent years, raising concerns among Indigenous groups. In Indonesia, AMAN sued the government over a claim in a 2021 presidential decree that assumed state ownership of the country’s carbon. The Kenyan government, meanwhile, has been trying to amend its 2016 climate change law to establish ownership over the country’s carbon, leading human rights advocates to cry foul over the eviction of members of the Indigenous Ogiek community from the Mau Forest in an apparent carbon-driven land grab.

Greenpeace and the Climate Land Ambition & Rights Alliance (CLARA), a global coalition, published a report on Dec. 6 that calls for pursuing Article 6.8 of the Paris Agreement, which covers nonmarket approaches for climate mitigation. These strategies could include canceling debts, restoring ecosystems and ensuring deforestation-free supply chains, CLARA said, but also activities that enhance local land tenure rights and direct financing to these communities — in short, activities that aim to support communities to allow them to better protect forests and other biomes, supporters say.

This year’s COP28 climate summit ended without agreement on new versions of Articles 6.2 and 6.4 of the Paris Agreement, which pertain to market-based approaches to climate change mitigation and carbon markets specifically. That outcome led to some disappointment on the part of proponents of carbon trading, including supporters of the voluntary carbon market.

Negotiators did, however, adopt text for Article 6.8. Backers of these nonmarket mechanisms say they encourage a cooperative approach to addressing climate change. And such a move away from market-based conservation is part of that “different future” envisioned by the PACT team.

“That’s where we would hope these alternatives eventually land,” White says.

Banner image: Indigenous women of Guatemala’s Polochic Valley are growing their businesses and saving money with the help of a program that’s empowering rural women. Image by UN Women/Ryan Brown via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Bluesky.

Indigenous groups voice support for REDD+, despite flaws


Blackman, A., & Veit, P. (2018). Titled Amazon Indigenous communities cut forest carbon emissions. Ecological Economics, 153, 56-7. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2018.06.016

Fischer, H. W., Chhatre, A., Duddu, A., Pradhan, N., & Agrawal, A. (2023). Community forest governance and synergies among carbon, biodiversity and livelihoods. Nature Climate Change, 1-8. doi:10.1038/s41558-023-01863-6

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