Climate Justice Now!| CARBON PROJECT Q & A: A CASE FROM ECUADOR (second in a series) | Wednesday, November 23, 2005 |
by Patricia Granda
Since 2000, the FACE Foundation has been producing and selling carbon credits from tree plantations independently, without Sep funding. It trades the credits through two Dutch companies: Business for Climate (set up by FACE in 2002 jointly with Triodos Bank and Kegado BV) and Triodos ClimateClearing House.
The FACE Foundation has five projects worldwide: in Malaysia, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Ecuador and Uganda. The FACE Programme for Forestation in Ecuador S.A., or PROFAFOR, currently the largest, is a company incorporated in Ecuador in 1993, with FACE finance, to establish tree plantations to fix CO2 from the atmosphere. PROFAFOR has not been
PROFAFOR originally thought to plant 75,000 ha of trees, but later revised this goal downward to 25,000 ha. So far contracts have been signed for the plantation of 24,000 ha, and 22,000 ha have actually been planted. Initially, PROFAFOR activities were focused on the Andean region, or Sierra, and 8,000 hectares have been planted under contract with 39 indigenous mountain communities. However, since 2000, contracts have alsobeen signed in Ecuadors coastal region.
Q. Well, planting trees is bound to be a good thing for everybody involved, isnt it?
Its not so simple. The Sierra sites used by PROFAFOR are located in a biome known by the colonial Spanish term paramo which denotes high altitude plains or barren plateaus without woodlands. This zone was never forested and supports few trees. The dominant vegetation is Andean grassesfrom the genuses Festuca, Stipa, Calamagrostis and Deyeuxia.
The dark, volcanic paramo soils have a complex particulate structure that, in the cold, moist climate of the Sierra, enables them to retain a great deal of water and organic matter. The soils have a far greater capacity to hold water than the vegetation covering them, although a layer of plants is important to keep moisture in the soils during dry seasons. In the humid but not high-rainfall Sierra environment, paramo soils are believed to bethe main water reservoirs for the local inhabitants.
Although indigenous agriculture has been practiced for hundreds of years up to 3,500 metres (the Sacred Valley of Cuzco, a shrine of indigenous agriculture, lies at around 3,000 metres), the ecological balance of the paramo above 3,200 metres is very fragile. If the plant cover is removed even temporarily, evaporation from the surface increases and organic matter in the soil begins to decompose, resulting in reduced capacity to hold water. Once dry, the soils cannot recover their original structure andorganic content, even when they get wet again.
The monoculture tree plantations PROFAFOR sets up to fix carbon are a bizarre and damaging innovation in this environment. The species used are exotics used in industrial plantation exotics. Some 90 per cent are pine, either Pinus radiata (particularly in the provinces of Carchi and Chimborazo) or, to a lesser extent, Pinus patula (mainly planted in Cañar and Loja). Eucalyptus and cypress species make up another four per cent.
Q. But whats wrong with pine trees? PROFAFOR says that experiments with
PROFAFORs non-indigenous pines dry out and crack the soils, not only because they disturb the existing vegetative cover, but also because their nature is to use a great deal of water. Organic matter and biological activity decline, uncompensated for by the fall of pine needles. Soils tend to be transformed from water retainers to water repellents, and surrounding flora and fauna are deprived of food habitat.
The threat is not only to local hydrology, but also, ironically, to local carbon storage capacity. Subject to less extreme variations in temperature and humidity than the drier Southern Andean zone known by the indigenous term puna, the paramo stores in its thick layers of soil vast amounts of carbon perhaps 1,700 tonnes per hectare in the case of Carchi province,
In addition, the carbon in the trees is at risk from fire. In the community of SigSig in Azuay province, fires have already killed or stunted the growth of many pines. And fires are likely to recur continuously, given a fire-prone natural flora, traditional burning practices used to encourage fodder regrowth, strong winds, firebreaks that are too few and too narrow, and the lack of permanent wardens or fire-fighting equipment. The yellowish needles appearing on numerous local stands of Pinus patula signal the species poor adaptation to the Andean environment, possibly indicating lack of a crucial micronutrient or of the mycorrhizal fungi that facilitate the trees nutrient absorption in its native environment. Animals have meanwhile broken off many terminal shoots, giving rise to a bushy growth which may prevent the trees from developing trunks suitable for thesawmill. Growth is also noticeably slow.
Q. Wait a minute! Are you telling me that a project which was designed
That was exactly the conclusion reached by scholar Veronica Vidal in a recent doctoral dissertation on environmental management at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Vidal found not only that the soils under PROFAFOR plantations are releasing more carbon than the firm takes account of, but also that the pine plantations are capable of absorbing less carbon than it claims. She concluded that the net carbon balance in PROFAFOR plantations may well be negative: We are facing a lose-lose situation, in which those who most lose are the future generations that will have to face the problems of climate change.
Q. But I've heard that according to PROFAFOR, local soils have been degraded by
Although some of the sites used by PROFAFOR, situated between roughly 3,200 and 4,800 metres, have been used for grazing, they have not usually been cultivated, due to their remoteness and harsh climate. The idea that the soils on these sites, which still fulfil their original functions, are being degraded in any way that pine plantations could remedy is simply
Q. Wait, Im getting confused here. PROFAFOR says in its promotional material that this environment is in bad shape. And, after all, doesnt their claim stand to reason, with
Well, confusion is only to be expected in a situation like this, in which PROFAFOR is saying one thing (largely to an international audience) andlocal people are saying another thing (largely to themselves).
But its useful to remember that theres a long global history to the kind of claim that PROFAFOR is making, that a certain set of common lands are waste, degraded or unused, and are idly waiting to be brought intothe commodity market before they can become productive.
Its a claim that was used in the Americas during the colonial era to seize indigenous peoples cropland and hunting and gathering grounds and transform them into the private property of Europeans. It was used again in India, with more mixed success, during the colonial era there, and in Africa as well. And it was used in Europe during the great eras of enclosure 200 and more years ago. In each of these cases the claim concealed and justified takeovers of land that was not only usable and ecologically rich, but used for all sorts of livelihood purposes. And the same is true of the paramo.
Well, now that you mention it, although the paramo is a zone that has never been forested, people there in fact retain a remarkable knowledge of native trees. In one PROFAFOR area, San Sebastián de SigSig in Azuay province, villagers are easily able to name and describe uses for a dozen native species. Yet the only Andean tree species used by the PROFAFOR project,
Q. Well, thats interesting, but so what? The English-language PROFAFOR brochure says that local people have a say in species selection and they prefer planting non-indigenous pine and eucalyptus species. And I also notice that when it arrived, PROFAFOR gained the immediate support of what is now the Ministry of the Environment, too. The Ecuadorean government saw PROFAFOR as contributing to its own plans for afforesting or reforesting250,000 hectares in the Andean zone over 15 years.
Well, I dont want to try to explain the governments position, but to see what local people think of the pine plantations now, we need to look at thestory of how the project was introduced and what happened next.
Thats certainly the way the plantations were presented. PROFAFOR said the communities would get both income and employment from the project. In addition to payments per planted hectare, they would get seedlings, technical assistance and training. They would have work for many years. They would have access to the plantations to collect mushrooms, resins,
Q. I have a feeling youre going to tell me that things didnt turn out as promised.
Thats an understatement. Lets start by looking at what happened in three communities that that signed contracts with the company between 1997 and 2000. Communities were offered payments of between US$165 and $189 per hectare planted. But the cost of plants and technical assistance during the first three first years of plantation was then deducted, leaving the
When SigSig community asked how much technicians were being paid for this technical assistance, they were told that PROFAFOR did not have the capacity to ask for these reports, and that it was an administrative matter. Meanwhile, the price of the planting stock doubled or tripled. And in the end it was the commune, and not PROFAFOR, as specified in the contract, that had to transport the stock from the nursery.
A lot, actually, particularly if this pattern is characteristic of carbon projects. Nor does the story end there. After having deducted the cost of the seedlings and technical assistance, PROFAFOR was obligated to pay 80 per cent of the remainder in three instalments during the first year after the contract was signed as long as it wasnt necessary to replant more than 25 per cent of
There were several problems here that villagers werent ready for. First, when trees die because they do not adapt, the community has to take on the cost of new seedlings for re-plantation. This happens quite frequently, because of the quality of the plants, the cold and windy conditions of the high-altitude plantation areas, or for other reasons. According to Mary Milne of the Centre for International Forestry Research, the re-plantation rate for PROFAFOR is between 15 and 30 per cent and costs range betweenUS$865 and $5820, which have to be absorbed by the communities.
A bigger problem is that because of the necessity of guaranteeing a long lifetime for the carbon sequestered in PROFAFORs trees, each community has to maintain the trees itself for 20-30 years before being allowed to harvest them and sell the timber. (More recent PROFAFOR contracts demand even longer terms, of up to 99 years.) But the money runs out long before
"AT AN ASSEMBLY, this engineer came, he told us that thousands of dollars
--SigSig community member
But its not only a money matter. Essentially what the PROFAFOR contract
Q. How does that work?
Well, take land first. Under the contract, PROFAFOR gets rent-free large tracts of community land which then cannot be turned to any other purpose than the production of carbon credits for the international marketfor 20 or 30 years.
This is not farmland. Cultivation goes on in other zones of communal property where the land has already been divided up among families. But PROFAFORs claim that the land is degraded, not being used or is not suitable for subsistence activities, and that it is idly waiting to be transformed into an asset by being incorporated into the nationaleconomy, is simply false.
In addition to having important hydrological functions, much of the land is
Small wonder that local people feel that they have essentially transferred the land and its potential to generate savings for exclusive PROFAFOR use. As one said, "We cannot touch or do anything on the area signed over."
Q. OK, but you also said PROFAFOR also appropriates communities labour for free. How does that happen? PROFAFOR says that the locals get goodwages for the work they do on its plantations.
PROFAFOR maintains that it provides thousands of jobs to indigenous communities in Ecuador. But a lot of these jobs are extremely onerous and unremunerated tasks that the communities find themselves unwillingly takingon because of debt.
In fact, PROFAFOR has not only failed to provide the jobs it has offered, but has also forced communities to hire people from outside to carry out PROFAFOR work. Local people, it turns out, often do not possess the necessary technical skills PROFAFOR management plans require.8 PROFAFORs trainings workshops for two leaders from each community, held in hotels
Where tasks remain incomplete, the community has to fall back on its own unpaid labour pool -- a system called minga [see box below] -- to fulfil its contractual obligations. Essentially, villagers are forced to exploit their own systemof free communal labour in order to escape debt.
Minga: Organizing Labour without a Market
Minga is a communal pool of nonmarketed labour typical of the indigenous
As one villager from Chuchuqui said:
"they paid for dibbling for pine only -- not for eucalyptus. And they did not pay me, I worked under minga . . . Where we could not work, they hired people from Quito and Chimborazo and the community paid the workers.
Well, its instructive to try to do the math. Look at what happened to SigSig. The community was to receive about US$75,000 for 400 hectares of Pinus patula plantation to be sited on land a three- to four-hour walk from the settlements centre, at approximately 3,700 m. Plotting, dibbling, planting and construction of the fire-break was carried out between June
Then, in 2000 and again in 2004, fires swept through large parts of the plantation. The community had to take on most of the costs of replanting including labour, transportation and food with PROFAFOR picking up only the costs of seedlings. The community has also had to take responsibility for replantings due to maladapted trees dying. Yet the 20 per cent of the
"WE MADE AN ASSESSMENT, and . . . it was like a bucket of cold water. On
--SigSig community member
In a workshop conducted with SigSig residents, an attempt was made to draw
The community concluded that, even without taking account of the value of
Q. Isnt there anything the community can do to save the situation?
PROFAFOR has a lot of power in this context. Once a contract is signed, there isnt much communities can do to modify it, even when, as in SigSig, the agreement with the company was signed by only fifty community memberswhen there were over two hundred registered.
PROFAFOR can even claim payment of compensation if its staff decide that a community has not fulfilled its obligations. This compensation can amount to up to TRIPLE the original payments to the communities, or many tens ofthousands of dollars.
One villager reported:
"When I told the engineer Franco Condoy that we wanted to undo this agreement, he told us: You cannot rid yourselves of the agreement, thecommune is mortgaged."
According to Ecuadorian law, Condoy is wrong. Communal property of indigenous communities is not subject to mortgages or land tax. Mortgages can only be contracted with private estate and land holders, individuals or corporate bodies.
In practice, however, Condoy is right, since even contracts involving common property are subject to penalty clauses and fines in the event of a breach, and PROFAFOR is well able to enforce mortgage-like arrangements by taking advantage of the inter-ethnic power relations which are a legacy of the colonial era in the region.
In one community, Caguanapamba, where the leaders who had signed the contract mismanaged the PROFAFOR funds they were entrusted with, community members did not get paid for the first planting operation and many seedlings were lost. The leader who succeeded them will now have to use the last instalment of funding in order to pay off the people who did theoriginal planting. To complete the firebreak, he has had to rent a machine with community funds and rely on labour from minga.
In Ecuador, as elsewhere in the South, carbon-saving projects funded by industrialized countries, with their promises of income and development,have attracted a lot of official attention.
The theory is that Southern countries have a hitherto unrecognised and unpriced resource in the form of spare or unused carbon-absorbing potential. By bringing this dormant, unexploited resource into something called the market, the theory goes, the South will be able to transform
Over hundreds of square kilometres of the Ecuadorian Andes, new transactions involving carbon are indeed being made. But for the most part, they are not textbook market transactions, nor do they address climate change, nor have they resulted in communities realizing new value out offormerly unused assets.
What has happened instead is that common land, community labour and much of the paltry but crucial savings of peasant communities have been transferred to a private firm for production of a new commodity which, although largely notional, has the material effect of shoring up an anachronistic pattern of fossil fuel use in The Netherlands. While claiming to absorb carbon,
The mechanisms that have done the real work in making this transfer possible are not the abstract, benign wealth-creating trade mechanisms of economics texts or manuals on markets in environmental services. On the contrary, they are mechanisms that compel, discriminate, narrow choices, increase dependence, reduce transparency, and centralize power and knowledge in bureaucracies and expert institutions -- just the sort of thing that this ghostly entity called the market is always advertised as freeing usfrom. These mechanisms include:
One last technocratic mechanism that makes PROFAFORs manufacture of carbon credits possible is forest certification, a seal of environmental and social approval that was granted to 20,000 ha of PROFAFORs plantations in 1999 by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC is an independent international body with membership from both industry and NGOs, but the actual job of deciding whether a plantation meets FSC standards falls to private firms hired by the plantation company. In PROFAFORs case, this was the Societe Generale de Surveillance (SGS), which has also certifiedPROFAFORs carbon sequestration.
These certifications are important for PROFAFORs international transactions, since they reassure buyers who will never visit the Andes that PROFAFORs product is a valid, environmentally- friendly commodity. Buyers of FSC-certified products generally assume that they come from plantations that strive to strengthen and diversify the local economy and
The SGS certifiers boosted PROFAFORs credibility on all these points, noting as one of PROFAFORs strong points the participation of local communities in decision-making. While recognizing that pine and eucalyptus can contribute to the degradation of soils rather than to their protection,they also praised PROFAFORs continued commitment to use native species.
Local communities lack of power to intervene in the certification process helps lubricate PROFAFORS international trade in carbon credits. No community member interviewed in 2004 even knew of the existence of the FSC, nor of its Principles and Criteria, nor how they might be enforced. The public summaries of the visits by SGS are available on the internet only up to the visit of the year 2000, and only in English. Asked for information at its office, PROFAFOR demands that a signed memorandum be submittedbeforehand, and even then fails to provide the information requested.
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