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Op-ed: For all people: Why voluntary carbon markets must work for everyone

For all people: Why voluntary carbon markets must work for everyone

By: Tariye Gbdegesin, VCMI Co-Chair

Exploitation of local communities and Indigenous Peoples in the hunt for – and even protection of – natural resources has a long, dark, and unresolved history.  In Kenya’s Mount Elgon forest in 2010, the indigenous Ogiek were evicted from their homes and ordered to relocate in the name of forest conservation and reforestation.[1]

With climate change mitigation requiring the immediate conservation and restoration of tropical forests, much of which is concentrated in the lands of Indigenous Peoples, we need to ask ourselves how we can act now to avoid climate catastrophe without trampling on the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Fortunately, history shows that protection of natural environments is much more – and perhaps, only – effective when local rightsholders take centre stage.

The historical narrative around conservation and restoration – crudely expressed as “parks without people” – has given carbon markets a bad reputation, both with Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and with companies looking to engage with this now burgeoning market.

While not innately problematic, leveraging our natural ecosystems risks a creeping exclusion of traditional rights, particularly for equatorial countries where these projects take place – creating the risk of exploitation by those that can leverage the imbalance in economic and political power. The result: lack of engagement with host communities and Indigenous Peoples, failure to create the space for them to lead or co-create market-driven approaches to climate change and ultimately, failure of conservation efforts themselves.

At COP26, Indigenous Peoples rightly brought this issue to the fore, highlighting cases of conservation and reforestation in the name of carbon credits that have ridden roughshod over local rights and even led to lost livelihoods and resettlement. As we put an ever greater value on our natural ecosystem’s ability to capture and sequester greenhouse gas emissions, failure to engage with local people does not just represent a reputational risk for business – it also often hinders delivery and longevity of land restoration.

But, when done right, collaborative approaches can work incredibly well for all parties. For example, by paying Indigenous Peoples for environmental services, countries across Latin America have succeeded in reducing deforestation. According to a 2021 UN FAO report on forest governance by Indigenous Peoples, between 2006 and 2016 the indigenous territories in the Peruvian Amazon reduced deforestation twice as much as protected areas with similar ecological conditions and accessibility.

As such, it’s impossible to think about reversing the deforestation of our natural habitats without actively engaging local groups, and supporting the forest stewardship of Indigenous Peoples through clear safeguards, measures, and tools that allow these communities to become part of, and benefit from, the conversation.

We know Indigenous Peoples and local communities are often the best at protecting natural ecosystems and restoring degraded land. And we all agree that halting and beginning to reverse the deforestation of our rainforests this decade will be essential to slowing global warming. What is missing is the much needed funds to achieve this.

The purchase of carbon credits via voluntary carbon markets, done right, can bridge the gap, ending the historically limited funding available for nature protection and enabling businesses to channel much needed capital into the protection and restoration of rainforests.

I have spent over 20 years leading infrastructure projects in Africa and have seen first-hand the value of working closely with local communities for sustainable infrastructure development and market creation, and for them to serve as true partners from inception to project delivery. As Co-Chair of the Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative (VCMI), I hope to bring this approach to voluntary carbon markets, ensuring they work for all.

Core to this work is guaranteeing that the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities are protected. In particular, we will look at how the protection of rightsholders can be built into private sector climate action claims, meaning that if carbon credits are used as part of a business advertising “net zero” or “carbon neutral” a direct line can be drawn to protection of rightsholders.

We cannot just rely on local rules – it must be core to the standards investors require. As carbon markets continue to develop, we have a unique opportunity to draw a line in the sand – guarding against the continued exploitation of lower income countries and their people for natural resources.

Now is the moment to ensure that rainforest countries and Indigenous Peoples’ rights and voices are at the heart of voluntary carbon markets. It will take ongoing dialogue and collaboration amongst those on all sides to make this a reality – and VCMI will be there every step of the way.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/jul/03/world-bank-un-redd-genocide-land-carbon-grab-sengwer-kenya

VCMI, which launched last year, brings together governments, businesses, NGOs, civil society, Indigenous Peoples, and technical experts with the sole aim of building a foundation of trust for the voluntary carbon markets through guardrails that provide integrity, assurance, and transparency.

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