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Kelpie Wilson: Takes a Village to Cool the Planet

It Takes a Village to Cool the Planet

By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Environmental Editor

Friday 15 December 2006

Last week's New Scientist magazine carried an article with this disturbing headline: "Africa Barred From Carbon Trading." Advocates for African farmers were claiming that European Union policies on carbon credits amounted to a carbon trade embargo on Africa.

Louis Verchon of the World Agroforestry Centre said that if the EU would implement a new scheme to credit farmers who capture carbon on their land, "millions of dollars in carbon credits could begin flowing to the world's rural poor."

The World Agroforestry Centre, in conjunction with researchers from Michigan State University, has developed a method using satellite imagery and infrared sensing that measures carbon storage in African farmland. The Centre has completed a pilot program in western Kenya and is ready to encourage poor farmers to plant trees as soon as it can qualify for carbon credits under the Kyoto protocol.

But Europe's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is not willing to recognize the new method of verifying carbon storage in farmland, questioning whether the program will result in additional carbon storage and whether the storage will be permanent. The ETS is the largest multi-country, multi-sector greenhouse gas emission trading scheme in the world.

The issue of carbon storage, or carbon "sinks" as they are known, is very controversial in the world of Kyoto agreement implementation. Non-governmental organizations that advocate for forests and indigenous people have worked hard to exclude the use of forestry credits to offset fossil fuel burning, and with good reason.

To date, most forestry offsets have been for big monoculture plantations of fast-growing eucalyptus or pine trees, some of them genetically modified. Though timber companies and professional foresters say otherwise, such plantations are likely to act as net carbon emitters over their lifetimes and also cause additional environmental and social problems.

Monoculture tree plantations are often established on land recently cleared of primary forest. Larry Lohman of the World Rainforest Movement reports that in the 1980s, 75 percent of new tree plantations in the tropics were planted in places that ten years earlier had been natural forests. A plantation will never be able to store as much carbon as the original biologically diverse forest.

Monoculture tree plantations are ecologically unstable. Plantations are more vulnerable to disease and wildfire, which can release carbon instantly back into the atmosphere. When they are harvested, the wood may go into long-lasting wood products, or it may be chipped and pulped into shorter-lived products like paper. Or it may go into a landfill and be released as a devastating methane burp decades later. Disturbing the soil for planting and harvesting reduces its capacity to store carbon, and tree plantations are thirsty, drinking up scarce water resources.

When tree plantations are established on land that indigenous people have rights to, the damage is compounded. Larry Lohman writes: "Like the enclosure movement of early modern Europe, through which common lands were taken away from the rural poor and broken up, privatized and traded into the hands of the better-off, the movement for carbon 'offset' plantations is in essence a movement to extend and normalize inequality."

The rural poor pay twice, once by suffering the effects of climate change caused by affluent countries, and again by having their land taken to offset the guilt of affluent people.

The World Agroforestry Centre program is very different from a monoculture plantation. It is about helping rural Africans to integrate more trees into their agricultural production systems, with many benefits besides storing carbon. The right kinds of trees can increase the productivity and resilience of the land. Trees provide food, fuel, fertilizer, and medicine. Medicinal trees are the main source of medication for 80 percent of Africa's population.

These small African farmers are motivated to maintain the sustainable productivity (and carbon storage) of their land in a way that a multinational timber company can never be. Climate security is better entrusted to the hands of African villagers and people like Wangari Mathaai, founder of Kenya's Greenbelt Movement.

Fortunately, there is an increasing recognition of the need to preserve indigenous cultures and forests as the key to sustainable development.

On the island of Borneo, in Southeast Asia, the indigenous Penan tribe continues to blockade logging roads into a critically important rainforest, their ancestral forest. The EU has provided a grant to support better forest management, but more is needed. The EU's envoy to Malaysia was set to give a speech in Sarawak on Friday calling for increased emphasis on preserving rainforests and the rights of forest people, and less emphasis on logging.

The Penan are the guardians of a huge reserve of carbon. Every year, 13 million hectares of rainforests are cut down, an area the size of Greece. Deforestation is responsible for 20 percent of global carbon emissions, equivalent to that of the transportation sector. Why not give the Penan and people like them credit for keeping so much carbon out of our common atmosphere?

At climate meetings last year, a group of tropical countries proposed that carbon credits be allowed for "avoided deforestation," i.e., leaving the forests alone. Some progress on this idea was made at the recent Kyoto implementation talks in Nairobi, Kenya. More countries endorsed the idea, and mechanisms were discussed that could lead to a new protocol for the next round of climate accords in 2012. The Stern economic report on climate change confirms that paying tropical countries to keep their forests intact is a financially sound strategy.

Preserving rainforests is such a good idea that it's hard to see why the world needs to wait until 2012 to do it. As individuals, we don't need to wait. We can avoid buying items made from tropical hardwoods. We can also support forest protection groups. There are many excellent groups working to save rainforests, but one that stands out for its effective campaigns is the Rainforest Action Network.

Join a forest protection group and join the global village united to cool the planet! This holiday season, you might consider buying a membership in a forest protection group for a loved one.

But remember, buying something is not enough. Americans emit a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, and we need to drastically cut our use of fossil fuels. The best, most permanent and secure way to store carbon is to keep coal, oil and gas in the ground.

World Agroforestry Center -
World Rainforest Movement -
Wangari Matthaai and the Greenbelt Movement -
Borneo Project (support for the Penan people) -
Rainforest Action Network -


Kelpie Wilson is the Truthout environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller novel published by North Atlantic Books.

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