Carbon Colonialism and REDD: Reflections on Resistance

Amador Hernandez Ten Years Later

Ten years after a trip by a documentary team assembled by Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP) to the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas, Mexico, GJEP is highlighting the resulting film and releasing a new interview with one of the photojournalists that travelled to the region to document the threatened relocation of the Indigenous people of Amador Hernandez. That trip created much of the content for A Darker Shade of Green – REDD Alert and the Future of Forests. The ground-breaking video explores global indigenous resistance to a program promoted by the United Nations and the World Bank to use carbon offsets to allow corporations to continue to pollute while transferring the burden to Indigenous people and rural communities.

This comes at a time when green capitalism and techno-fixes loom large on the horizon heading into the upcoming UN Climate Conference in Glasgow this October. The story of Amador Hernandez that was featured in A Darker Shade of Green serves as an example of how the commodification of life and the placing of a price on ecosystems fails to address the root causes of the current climate crisis, and further threatens Indigenous peoples who are already often suffering most from climate change.

At the UN Climate Conference in Cancun, Mexico in 2010, a scheme to enable polluting industries in California to buy the right to continue polluting through the purchase of carbon stored in forests in Latin America was announced by the Governors of California, Chiapas Mexico and Acre, Brazil. This led to a near collision of Indigenous Peoples in Chiapas and the Mexican military. At the heart of the plan was an attempt to move the Indigenous peoples of Amador Hernandez, a community deep in the Lacandon Jungle in the Southeast Mexican state of Chiapas, into a dusty and treeless prefabricated shanty town. The plan, presented as an attempt to preserve forests in the Lacandon Jungle was, at its heart, a scheme to enable corporate polluters in California to continue business as usual.

In March 2011, a documentary team was organized by GJEP to investigate this forest carbon offset scheme and the Indigenous resistance to it.  After three days of travel by bus, pickup truck bed and a muddy 15k slog by foot and on horseback, the team arrived in Amador Hernandez where they interviewed and documented the community through photography and writing. When the community heard that the Mexican military was about to invade, the team was asked to stay and document that as well. They agreed.  The Mexican military never came most likely due to the promise of resistance by the people of Amador and the presence of international witnesses.

Since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol climate treaty cemented carbon markets as a climate mitigation strategy, carbon trading has been denounced as a false solution to climate change. Seen as Carbon Colonialism by many Indigenous groups, forest carbon offsets, part of the carbon trading scheme, seek to allow industries in “developed nations” in the Global North to continue unabated their use of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases by buying the carbon stored by forests in the Global South to “offset” that pollution.

This type of market-based response to greenhouse gas emissions does not address the fundamental causes of climate change, but seeks to protect industrial profits and shifts cultural and economic burdens to those least responsible for climate change.  More recent incarnations of such market-based responses to the global climate catastrophe have taken on the moniker of REDD, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

Estebancio Castro, a Kuna from Panama succinctly expressed this sentiment when he stated in “A Darker Shade of Green”, that “my people cannot be a part of REDD because they don’t degredate or deforestate [sic] their native habitat. But what happens, you are creating perverse incentives when you are saying you are going to pay the people who deforestate or degredate,” explained Castro about plans to pay people to cease degrading forests. “Then my people may say, ‘oh I want some cash here, I am going to deforestate my land.’”

“We cannot play with the rights of indigenous peoples like this,” Castro Emphasized.

That same year, Yvette Aguilar, a Salvadoran expert on climate change told Latinamerican Press, “instead of implementing policies that lead to a reduction in emissions, industrialized countries want to continue with their same consumption patterns … And it is better to pay poor countries to do it for them.”

Beyond the Carbon Colonialism of shifting the burden of carbon emissions to those cultures so polluters may continue to profit from pollution, the notion of continuing to pump carbon from the burning of fossil fuels by using forests to offset them through capture is dubious. Biogenic carbon, which is what is contained in modern living forests and ecosystems cannot compensate for the release of carbon stored in fossil fuels which represents millions of years of accumulated carbon.

Fitting hand in glove with carbon offsets is the lack of a proper definition of what a forest actually is. The tendency of UNFCCC, the World Bank and other such interests to treat monoculture tree plantations as the same as real biodiverse forests further disrupts local cultures. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines a forest as an area of land with a small percentage of “tree cover,” regardless of whether it comprises native trees or is truly biodiverse. These so-called “forests” can even include industrial tree plantations of non-native trees.

As noted by the World Rainforest Movement, “Monoculture plantations, which are often established in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘development’, have been shown to cause many negative social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts.”

Under REDD there is a real danger that biodiversity will be sacrificed, and local Indigenous cultures displaced, while monoculture plantations are expanded in a misguided attempt to reduce carbon emissions. In response to the suggestion that burning trees for electricity could reduce carbon emissions, the Partnership for Policy Integrity noted in its report Carbon emissions from burning biomass for energy, that “biomass burning power plants emit 150% the CO2 of coal, and 300-400% the CO2 of natural gas, per unit energy produced.”

As industrialized nations struggle to confront the imminent threat of global climate change without sacrificing their unsustainable consumption patterns, REDD and other false market-based solutions will undoubtedly have pride of place in the upcoming UNFCCC talks in Glasgow Scotland this year.

As we prepare for the upcoming talks in Glasgow, we would do well to remember the 2010 agreement between then Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chiapas, Mexico’s Governor Juan Sabines that sought to forcibly remove the Indigenous peoples of Amador Hernandez and elsewhere from their homelands in order to pay for the ecological transgressions of polluters in California by burdening the Indigenous and rural people of the Global South, who have the least to do with global warming in the first place.

To hear an interview with Photojournalist Orin Langelle who was part of the documentary team that travelled to Amador Hernandez visit: Interview.

Steve Taylor is the press secretary for Global Justice Ecology Project and the host of the podcast Breaking Green. Beginning his environmental work in the 1990s opposing clearcutting in Shawnee National Forest, Taylor was awarded the Leo and Kay Drey Award for Leadership from the Missouri Coalition for the Environment for his work as co-founder of the Times Beach Action Group.