A Paradox from Hell: The Waiãpí and Carbon Markets


The photo above shows the extraordinary way one can often trace the outline of indigenous reserves in the Amazon on satellite images: Total destruction outside reserve boundaries gives way to standing forest on the dividing line between indigenous and non-indigenous land.

The image comes from the Waiãpí reserve in the Brazilian state of Amapá, in the northern Amazon. Lurching towards it along a small road, one sees a line of unbroken forest where the reserve begins from miles away, for the simple reason that all the forest beyond the reserve in this direction has gone.

The story of the Waiãpí is not untypical of how indigenous peoples have fared in the Brazilian Amazon. Around 700 Waiãpí live in a number of small villages in a reserve covering 1.5 million acres of what is conventionally described as pristine rainforest but is actually nothing of the kind — it is intensively used by the Waiãpí, but in ways that have low impacts.

The Waiãpí are doing well — their population is growing, their reserve boundaries are protected, they get some help from the Brazilian government and non-governmental organizations run by anthropologists who speak their language.

They are certainly doing much better than they were a generation ago, when waves of settlers and a series of invasions threatened to wipe them out. But they live at the center of a paradox. Despite their modest needs and demands, funding to satisfy these needs and demands is a perennial problem. Meanwhile, new markets being created to stimulate conservation look as if they will channel resources not to them, but to their non-indigenous, deforesting neighbours.

Further south, in Mato Grosso state, where there are far larger indigenous reserves, a distinguished group of politicians, foundation staffers, conservationists and others will meet in early April to explore how to move forward with avoided deforestation projects — a potentially transformative idea that, simply put, rewards deforesters for foregoing deforestation.

It is one of the more exciting developments in conservation thinking in recent years — a way to confer value on standing forest and create an incentive to conserve rather than destroy.

But there’s a hitch. What if you never destroyed the forest, but conserved it instead, like the Waiãpí? To avoid deforestation, you have to be deforesting in the first place.

To even identify the unfairness and lobby for something to be done about it, you have to master the esoteric details of how carbon impacts climate change, where funding for avoided deforestation projects comes from, how it’s applied, what a viable alternative might be and who to talk to change things.

Difficult enough for specialists — and a tall order for the Waiãpí, even with outside help. Not the least of the paradox of the Waiãpí is that, in conservation terms, they are both cutting edge and a long, long way from that edge.

A lot of smart people have seen this paradox and are trying to work something out. But no convincing solution to the Waiãpí paradox has yet been found. Some indigenous leaders in the Amazon, and their organizations, have also spotted it. Once the implications are fully realized, and trickle through the indigenous movement in the Amazon, there will be hell to pay, rather than carbon credits to sell.

We need to be smarter, and move faster. The Waiãpí, after all, did the right thing.

(Image: Waiãpí reserve in the Brazilian state of Amapá, in the northern Amazon. Credit: Márcio Sztutman/TNC.)

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  1. The Rights and Resources Initiative, a global coalition of organizations engaged in pro-poor tenure, policy and market reforms, has developed a framework for addressing rights and equity for indigenous and local community under a REDD mechanism. The framework is based on four foundations:
    1) Strengthen rights and governance – establish an equitable legal and regulatory framework for land and resources;
    2) Prioritize incentives for communities — establish accountable funding mechanisms to ensure that incentives go to the right people (e.g., including stewards of forests such as the Waiapi);
    3.) Monitor more than carbon — establish monitoring systems that monitor more than carbon and which are transparent and easily accessible to the public; and
    4.) Establish national and international mechanisms to ensure independent advice and auditing.

    For more, download the paper: http://www.rightsandclimate.org

  2. I am rather new to these issues, so forgive me if my question appears naive, but why is avoiding deforestation only possible if you were deforesting in the first place? Isn’t every acre of forest that exists or is being replenished avoided deforestation? While it is true that the Waiapi clearly have sufficient incentive to maintain the forest, why can’t some sort of savings trust be set up, a monetary reflection of the services being foregone in order to provide wealth later? Isn’t this what REDD is supposed to do? Why does it only apply to deforesters?

  3. Following up on Rosalie’s comment – In the carbon offset markets, one can only get credit for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions that would have happened anyway. Credits can only be earned by changing a “base case” that includes emissions. So, if no one was going to burn the forest, then you cannot get offset credits for refraining from burning.

    Likewise, an industry cannot get carbon offset credits for long-practiced energy conservation measures and a landfill at which landfill gas is recovered under normal conditions cannot get carbon credits for doing so. To get credit for avoiding emissions, you have to have some emissions to clean up. It is called “the polluter profits principle.”

    The rationale for this system is that those who are required to limit their emissions to a certain level should only be allowed to use offsets to meet the emission reduction requirement if the offsets come from emission reductions that are above and beyond what would happen in normal circumstances (i.e., the business as usual scenario).

    A coal-fired power plant facing emission reduction requirements should not be able to offset that requirement by paying someone who is already energy efficient to be energy efficient. Neither should it be able to go on emitting as before by paying people to not destroy the forest in which they live, pick nuts, and harvest rubber.

    Rosalie is correct that some sort of payment to those who responsibly manage forests may be desirable; especially when we all benefit by keeping the forest intact. But trying to make marketable carbon offset credits out of the deal leads very quickly to intractable problems and undesirable consequences.

    To get a sense of these problems and consequences, try reading the several dozen pages of the domestic forestry offset section of the Lieberman-Warner climate bill. Try imagining the bureaucracy needed to implement the requirements. Then try to figure out how any small or medium-sized forest owner in the U.S. could benefit from the system. The only winners will be brokers, attorneys, accountants, and other paper-pushers.

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