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Climate Justice Now!
| CARBON PROJECT Q & A: GUATEMALA (first in a series) |


(first in a series of drafts prepared for a forthcoming issue of Development
Dialogue magazine)

from research by Hannah Wittman

THE BEGINNINGS of the “carbon offset” idea can be traced back at least as far as 1977, when the physicist Freeman Dyson speculated that large-scale planting of trees or swamp plants could be a cheap means of soaking up excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That, Dyson figured, would buy time during whichways of phasing out hydrocarbon use could be found.

But it wasn’t until 1989 that the first forestry project funded explicitly to offset greenhouse gas emissions was set up.

Applied Energy Service, Inc. (AES), a United States-based independent power producer, had been looking for a cost-effective technique for reducing carbon dioxide emissions at a new 183-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Connecticutin order to make the plant more acceptable to state regulators.

On the recommendation of the Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI), AES decided to try to “mitigate” the plant’s carbon emissions by offering US$2 million to finance ten years’ worth of “land-use activities and multiple-useforestry projects” in Guatemala.

The activities would be undertaken by the organization CARE with the help of USAID and the Guatemalan Directorate General of Forests. CARE had been working in agroforestry since 1974 in the Western Highlands -- one of the country’s few remaining highland areas with existing forest and the potential to offset significant quantities of carbon – and it was hoped that the AES money could leverage additional funds from other sources (debt-for-nature swaps) as well asvolunteer services from groups such as the US Peace Corps.

Some 40,000 smallholder farmers would plant 50 million pine and eucalyptus trees in the course of establishing 12,000 ha of community woodlots, 60,000 ha of agroforestry and 2,880 km of live fences. Some 2,000 ha of vulnerable slopes in local watersheds would be protected and training provided for for forest fire brigades to reduce the threat of fire and potential CO2 release. All these activities would either increase sequestration potential or decrease carbon
emissions in the project area. During its first ten years, the project would also train local communities so that its activities would become self-sustaining. In all, AES finance would make possible the sequestration of 15.5 to 16.3 million tonnes of carbon in Guatemala – more than enough to cover the 14.1 million tonnes the Connecticut plant would emit over its 40-year

Q. Did it work?

No. In 1999, an external evaluation of the AES-CARE project showed that, even by its own carbon-accounting standards, it was falling far short of the one milliontonnes of carbon it was supposed to have “offset” to date.

Q. What happened?

The project was built around the assumption that using the area for carbon production would be compatible with improving local quality of life through increasing agricultural productivity, watershed protection, and improved fuelwood access. But the designers didn’t sufficiently grasp what the projectwould mean for farmers given their local political context.

First, many of the mainly indigenous subsistence farmers in the project area in the Western Highlands had been pushed by extreme land concentration by the agri-business sector in the fertile lowlands to the edge of the agricultural frontier. The Western Highlands encompass the country’s poorest communities and most environmentally degraded areas. More than 90 per cent of rural households live in absolute poverty, and with population densities exceeding 100
people/km2 and a deforestation rate of 90,000 hectares/year, erosion and land degradation have led to an intensification of rural land use even as poverty rates increase. The average family in the Western Highlands has farming access to less than one hectare of land.

Yet the same time, land with official forest status was often declared off-limits to continued agricultural use under Guatemala’s 1996 forest law. The government was trying to re-locate control over communal forests into the hands of municipal authorities, and the law criminalized subsistence activities suchas fuelwood gathering.

Q. Well, wasn’t that a good thing? It helped protect the carbon stored in the

What it did first and foremost was to take access to the trees out of the hands of ordinary people. One result was that conflict grew between municipal and village authorities and individual landowners. Another was that reforestation looked less attractive. Who wants to plant trees if by doing so you deprive yourself of daily necessities? A third result was increasing distrust of government forest offices, some of which were partly funded by the CARE/AES Agroforestry Project. Not a good outcome, whether your objective was people’swelfare or long-term carbon savings.

Then, too, in the early years of the project, the tree species promoted were often inappropriate for the climate and for degraded land areas. Damage by animals and sabotage of replanted areas also limited the expansion ofreforested areas.

Q. But what about agroforestry systems, which allow farmers to make use of
the carbon-sequestering areas?

Agroforestry systems are indeed more attractive to local farmers, as they serve multiple purposes (grazing, fodder and fuelwood provision, and subsistence or cash-crop components). But they typically take three to five years to become productive. That also makes them a difficult option for families with limitedland.

Q. So it was hard to reconcile local people’s needs with the goal of carbon production.

Yes-- and in more ways than one. Another problem was CARE’s need to channel more and more of its limited personnel and finance toward monitoring and measuring carbon instead of trying to improve people’s lives.

In the past, CARE had had a respectable record of promoting sustainable agriculture and agroforestry, and even some success in protecting water sources through reforestation, although less so in the Western Highlands. The organization had a great deal of experience in training local community extension agents, providing seeds and tree nursery supplies, and training local people in soil conservation, fodder production, and watershed management. That was the sort of thing it did. CARE extension agents also provided advice and materials for improving grazing areas and soil recuperation, services thatlocal project participants continue to evaluate positively.

The new carbon focus for its work, however, meant that finance and staff time began gravitating away from agroforestry toward reforestation, and away from farm extension work toward unfamiliar work in modeling and monitoring carbonemissions benefits.

Q. Couldn’t the staff do both things at once?

It’s not so easy. Carbon accounting is specialized, complicated work. The market needs hard carbon numbers. You can’t just look at a couple of trees and say that they will have soaked up the carbon equivalent of one 1000-km airline flight by 2020. You have to look at growth rates, soil changes, interactions with local communities, counterfactual scenarios. In fact, if you look carefully enough, you find you can’t do the calculations at all. (See http://www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/pdf/document/carbdump.pdf and http://www.thecornerhlouse.org.uk/pdf/briefing/24carboc.pdf.)

The complexity (or impossibility) of this new job played real havoc with CARE’s original mission. CARE was used to training and agricultural extension, not carbon monitoring. In 1999, the organization still didn’t have a methodology inplace for measuring and monitoring carbon in agroforestry plots and forests.

An external evaluation conducted in 1999 by Winrock International laid down the law: the project’s certified carbon production had to be improved to make it “more acceptable as a CDM-type of project”. A land-use mapping system using a Geographic Information System had to be developed together with remote sensing technologies that could track project changes. “Proxy areas” had to be identified to serve as a “without-project” baseline, and a carbon monitoring program for all project activities for which carbon credits would be claimedhad to be set up.

In short, the Winrock evaluators, the needs of the carbon market in the front of their minds, reversed CARE’s own emphasis on livelihood over carbon sequestration. By 2000, CARE officials were openly discussing the possible need to redirect resources formerly channeled to extension activities to pay outside consultants to develop carbon accounting methodologies. From being a
development organization focusing on extension, livelihood provisioning and poverty alleviation, CARE was increasingly being pushed into the role of carbon technician.

And given the infinite complexity of the task of getting the right carbon numbers, there was no end in sight to the potential questions. For example, was the burning of fuelwood from agroforestry systems or reforestation projectsproperly accounted for in the project’s carbon budget?

Q. But surely most of CARE’s agricultural extension work went on as before?

There were changes there as well. Another side effect of the new carbon money, and CARE’s need to show good carbon numbers, was that CARE’s work began to be more directed toward larger farmers than in the past. It was large farmers who were friendlier to reforestation and who were more likely to approach CARE extension workers for help with their own reforestation efforts, becoming an essential partner in helping CARE to achieve and to comply with its commitmentto sequester carbon.

The new carbon focus of CARE’s work also made its objectives and premises harder to share with farmers. Farmers were, even as of 2000-01, not being told what the project was about, nor how their reforestation and fire brigade efforts contributed to carbon mitigation, nor what the impacts on them of a changing climate might be. Nor were they even directly paid for their reforestation activities. That, of course, made it impossible to discuss with them their responsibility or role in, or rewards for, offsetting Northern carbon emissions, or to ask them how their own knowledge might improve carbon sequestration design or dissemination. “Participatory” carbon sequestration itwasn’t.


*The research on Guatemala on which this section draws was carried out by Dr. Hannah K. Wittman of Simon Fraser University. It was conducted in the context of a participatory evaluation (that included community mapping and a household-level questionnaire) of CARE’s agroforestry extension program operating in two villages in the municipalities of San José Ojetenam and Ixchiguán in the state of San Marcos in the Guatemalan Highlands. Extracting
and editing by Larry Lohmann. For more information contact larrylohmann@gn.apc.org

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