The problem with carbon credits: evidence from sub-Saharan Africa

by Beatrice Ouma, Communications and Networking Co-ordinator, Future Agricultures Consortium

When carbon credit projects were introduced in sub-Saharan Africa, many in the global South received them with a lot of enthusiasm and expectations. Their potential to provide income to small African farmers while contributing to the objectives of mitigating climate change was seen as a win-win scenario. These projects seek to engage small farmers by providing financial incentives to those who participate in conservation that contributes to reducing emissions and combating deforestation.

However, in reality, the benefits of carbon credits remain elusive to smallholder farmers for a number of reasons explored in the second plenary, Carbon and Livelihoods.

While weighing in on the tensions created by carbon credit projects – in particular REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) projects – Albert Arhin (University of Cambridge) said that climate change, social and economic benefits can clash with cases of displacement, the loss of livelihoods and jobs, land grabs, and the loss of biodiversity. It is therefore important to pay as much attention to the negative consequences of REDD+ as the positives. Trade-offs must be honestly acknowledged.

From feasts to fights

An interesting case study from Tanzania by Baruani Mshale (University of Michigan & Center for International Forestry Research) highlighted instances of resistance from some small-scale farmers in carbon credit projects such as REDD+. The resistance arises from competing values, memories of historical exclusionary conservation approaches, and the use of democratic spaces perceived as alien or unwelcoming.

In the first instance, carbon payments remain significantly lower than revenues from traditional land uses, which makes it difficult for small farmers mostly worried about where their next meal will come from to participate. In the second case, historical exclusions have made most farmers suspicious that carbon credit projects are just another way of using local people in achieving forest conservation goals by the state. The third stumbling block includes inadequate information, different power relations and the lack of recognition of pre-existing systems during deliberations.

Mshale’s study recommends that local people’s varieties of resistances should be interpreted as alternative mechanisms for claims making; REDD+ should be re-oriented to safeguard local people’s interests.

Six ways smallholders don’t benefit from carbon credits

Rebecca Joy Howard (University of Leeds) identified six hurdles in the pursuit of access and benefits for smallholdersfrom carbon credits.

The first is the practice of grouping farmers into one project, which makes it a costly and complex affair.Project certification is only financially viable when a large number of credits can be generated, but it is much easier to generate them from large landowners or companies who lease large tracts of land, compared to projects with thousands of small farmers each with a hectare of land or less.

Secondly, carbon accounting is costly and complex which relies on external ‘expertise’ and absorbs project budget. Thirdly, aggregation of farmers involves taking into consideration the multiple and overlapping local, cultural and national institutions related to the project area. For example, national institutions such as forest policies define a project’s legal framework, and affect whether or not it is eligible to generate carbon credits.

A fourth hurdle is that carbon rights, intended to ensure sustainability of the carbon stock, can alienate potential participants: there is often little understanding by the party who is agreeing to hand over the carbon rights. Fifth, the benefits to farmers are often marginal with more focus on financial benefits. Lastly, power relations often mean that farmers have a weak position in project design and implementation. The study cautions against exclusion of the very people these projects are intended to include.

Combating elite capture

The final case study by Thabit Jacob (University of Dodoma) looked at lessons that can be learned from community-based forest management projects. Jacob found that no organised system existed for sharing forests benefits.

His study recommends that transparency and accountability among actors must be strengthened at the lower levels, to minimise elite capture of the benefits of conservation projects.


One Comment

Have really enjoyed following updates from the ‘Green Economy in the South’ conference. Wish I could be there! Many of the above described challenges re: REDD+ in Africa resonate with experiences in Southeast Asia. In the case of a palm oil – a lucrative crop offering considerable economic opportunities for small holder growers – carbon credits and/or sustainability practices & reporting via internationally recognised standards (i.e. Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil) are beyond the reach for most holders. Economic returns are higher sticking with the business as usual approach. Finding ways to bring this important stakeholder (representing c.20-30% of palm oil production in Malaysia and Indonesia) into the sustainability picture is needed. Be great to explore the overlaps and differences between Africa and Asia (and other regions, Latin America?) on this topic. Enjoy the rest of the conference!

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