Carbon Credits and the Rural Poor

Carbon credits could save the Sheka Forest and enhance the livelihoods of those actually ensuring the forests’ protection. From the forest floor, however, carbon credit financing appears to be more of an abstract ideal, than a reality.

‘We hear about carbon credits on TV and in the press, but we don’t see them,’ remarked Wetatu Bahiru Wolde Giorgis, a local clan leader and prosecutor. His office was simple, with no electricity (for the moment), seemingly on the edge of the wilderness.

Welcome to Masha town in the middle of the Sheka Forest, a tropical rainforest in southwest Ethiopia. From Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, it’s a treacherous two-day ride, on the public bus, to Masha. The roads are muddy, rough, and hilly the second half of the journey. The bus is hot, crowded, loud, stiff and altogether claustrophobic. My brother, Casey, and I were more than excited upon arrival. It was pitch dark and pouring. The runoff carved enormous, fast flowing gullies down the main, mud-washed street. Masha can ill-afford sufficient infrastructure to handle storm drainage and sewage.

Masha could not be further from the pristine streets of Copenhagen – where world leaders will meet in December to discuss the post-Kyoto (the international agreement on abating climate change) climate change agreement. The agreement will go into effect in 2013. Washington, DC – where the Waxman-Markey US climate change bill is under review in the Senate – is even further. Decisions made in both of these cities in the coming six months will, however, deeply impact the way of life of people in the Sheka Forest.

The people of the Sheka Forest are in desperate need of an increased standard of living. The developed world is just as desperate, so they say, for them to gain a higher standard of living. The developed world does not, necessarily, have any particular compassion for the people of Masha. Government cap-and-trade policies on greenhouse gas emissions will (and, in places, currently do), however, require corporations to offset their emissions. Some corporations and individuals are already taking pre-emptive actions to offset their emissions for corporate social responsibility reasons and/ or the fear that greenhouse gas emissions may reach life-threatening levels. The motive (legal, moral or other) for offsetting greenhouse gas emissions does not so much matter.

Rather, what matters, is that greenhouse gas emissions are offset quickly. An adequate portion of the revenue generated by selling these credits must reach the people on the ground. Otherwise, people living in the forests and along the streams will do what they must – clear-cut timber for income and agriculture, or allow investors to do so – to survive.

MELCA Mahiber, an Ethiopian NGO (non-governmental organization) focused on environmental and cultural conservation, undertook a conservation project encompassing three woreda’s (comparable to counties in the US) – Yeki, Anderacha and Masha – of the Sheka forest in 2007. The project entailed raising awareness, mapping, and alternate livelihood training. Officially, the objective was stated as such,

The overall objective of the project is empowering the Sheka community to actively participate in the decision making that affects their way of life, sustainable livelihood options and environment; and at enhancing awareness and facilitating advocacy at a national level through strengthened networking and community participatory strategies.

Initially, MELCA’s intent was to focus solely on advocacy work. They soon realized this was only part of the solution. Not only did local people need to be aware of their constitutional rights to the land, they needed alternative income options to slash and burn agriculture and clear-cut timber harvesting. As Befekadu Refera, program coordinator for MELCA, put it, ‘[Our activities] became wide and deep.’

One of the first steps was to provide alternate livelihood trainings. A few of the examples I visited included bee keeping and home gardening.

Ato Shariffo Abetto and his wife, Worashe Gamoo, have three lovely children that range in age from approximately 12 to 18. I enjoyed dinner with the family in their traditional style hut. The hut was well-furnished and their compound spacious. Though poor by any standard of measure, they were certainly not among the poorest in Masha.

Worashe received bee keeping training from MELCA. She now builds her own environmentally friendly bee hives which she uses to harvest and sell honey. Traditionally, bee hives were made of logs and hung high in the trees. Women did not have the strength to climb high enough to harvest the honey. Moreover, the log construction of the hives contributed to deforestation.

The bee-hive model introduced by MELCA can be constructed of fast growing, locally sourced bamboo. It is designed to be placed on a fence post – making it possible for women to harvest and manage the hives themselves. Worashe currently has nine hives that are producing honey. She earns over 4,000 ETB/ year (12 ETB = 1 USD) from the sell of this honey. She hopes to soon have as many as twenty bee hives. Not a bad start for an entrepreneur in an area as rural as Masha.

Another family I visited, of the Menja clan, sold vegetables grown in their home garden. Traditionally, the Menja people were shunned because they contributed to deforestation by harvesting and selling timber from the Sheka Forest and also ate wild animals that had fallen dead. After training from MELCA, they realized how important it was to preserve, for future generations, the natural resources provided by the forest. They also saw they could earn a living cultivating vegetables. The Menja clan is now known throughout Masha for selling top quality produce.

The forest, however, gains a new foe as soon as the last one recedes. Out of desperation, and lack of thoroughly thinking through alternatives, the government allocated 2,250 hectares of the Sheka Forest to East African Tea Plantation. After MELCA’s awareness raising campaign, East African Tea Plantation agreed to stop expansion clearing at 900 hectares. Now, the company believes they can expand by providing seedlings to local farmers with home gardens. Rather than clearing more land, East African Tea Plantation will purchase tea grown by the farmers in their home gardens.

There are more than a few problems with this plan. The first being, should the farmers receive a fair price for the tea they harvest, there is once again a strong incentive to clear cut the forest for cultivation purposes. East African Tea Plantation is simply shifting the burden and incentive to degrade scarce natural resources to the local people.

Alternatively, East African Tea Plantation controls the market. If the farmers choose to grow tea, they have but one buyer – East African Tea Plantation. If they are not offered a fair price, prospects of increasing their standard of living are dismal. Once again, there will still be an incentive to clear-cut the forest because a little income is better than no income, even at less than fair prices.

Outside investment is much needed in Ethiopia, but it should never come at the expense of a tropical rainforest. Without doubt, there is other, less biologically diverse land in Ethiopia suitable for tea plantation farming.

Investors should, nevertheless, always be required to adhere to strict environmental regulations. Opting for short-term economic gain at the cost of the soil, trees and streams of a landscape will only exacerbate both economic and environmental degradation.

One local administrator told Befekadu, ‘My grandma and family live in the forest in [a] dark area. We have no roads, schools, [nothing]. You people from Addis have children in good schools and you have power and live in a good area. You want this forest to be kept, but what do you pay for it?’

The administrator has a point; those who protect these resources must be compensated. Alternate livelihood trainings, based on sustainable and environmentally friendly methods, are part of the solution. But, investors will continue to encroach on the area. In exchange for a few roads, health clinics and schools the local people may sell one of the most intact and ecologically bio-diverse forests in the Horn of Africa. That is selling out far too cheap, especially when there is supposedly billions of dollars to be generated in the coming decades to conserve and protect natural resources that store carbon. In 2008, the value of all transactions on the global carbon markets was estimated at $120.19 Billion USD.[i]

MELCA is fighting the good fight, but more ammunition is needed. This ammunition will come from developed countries’ cap-and-trade agreements on greenhouse gas emissions. REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) projects, such as the Sheka Forest project conducted by MELCA, are expected to be considered eligible for compliance in both the post-Kyoto international climate change agreement and the US climate change law. This may provide further opportunities for people in least developed countries, such as Ethiopia, to generate income. Revenue generated from the sell of carbon credits should be allocated to improving rural infrastructure, and portions of it should go directly to the local people.

Organizations, such as MELCA, can continue to empower local administrators and clan leaders, lobby for stricter environmental impact assessments, provide alternate livelihood trainings, and map ecological areas. But, without revenue from carbon offset credits, it may not be enough to stem the tide of investors hungry for the virgin forest land and timber. Forests, if preserved and restored, have the potential to sequester a significant amount of carbon dioxide, and thus prevent the world from reaching unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

The developed world must not waste any more time debating. Action is needed. REDD deals should be approved, incorporated into cap-and-trade laws, and then sourced. Least developed nations should receive priority for carbon offset credit purchases, specifically REDD credits. As illustrated, least developed nations are the ones most inclined to degrade forests for short-term economic gain. Finally, the payments must reach the people on the ground, the rural poor.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Pictures from the Sheka Forest can be found on the link at the right, ‘Lamp Post Photos’.

[i] ‘Fortifying the Foundation: State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2009, by Ecosystem Marketplace and New Carbon Finance, pg. 34.

One thought on “Carbon Credits and the Rural Poor

  1. first oa all i would like to appreciate the efforts you made for the preservation and conservation of the forest of Sheka. I am the resident of Masha, who lived there for more than 15yrs. I am enrolled now to university for doing my MA.

    I read the report and glad to say that well done. But the things i have in my mind is that most of the figures in your reports are exagerated. i am afraid to say,some times u report things more beutifully than ur actions. THe best example I have for this is that,for example, the tea planttation in the locality is still causing problems to the local residents than the benefits they are driving from is,I believe. But your report focused on the efforts made by MELCA mahiber to enforce the tea plantation project to participate the local farmers in the planting the tea in their farm land and to sell it back to the tea plantation .
    My fear in this idea is that, the local farmers dependency on planting tea plant by itself forces them(farmers) to be dependent on the forst there. Because as the production of tea rises, there is a need for more logs of timber for the factory. What I really agreeon is that the local people should benefit from the production which is going on the expense of environment, and the expanstion of the tea plantation should forced not to expand to the forest further…..

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