Brazilian Tribe Solidifies Claim on Carbon

Steve Zwick

Indigenous people around the world hope to earn carbon credits by preserving rainforests and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD).  For that to happen, however, they have to prove they own the rights to carbon credits from trees they save and manage.  Brazil’s Suruí tribe appears to have just done that, making it easier for other tribes to do the same.

Learn More at COP 15

Forest Trends is hosting a side event at COP 15 in Copenhagen this Saturday, December 12.   Tentatively scheduled for 6:15pm in the Bella Center’s Halfdan Rassmussen Room, the event will run until 7:30pm and focus on issues highlighted in this article.

Panelists include Almir Suruí­, Chief of the Suruí­ people, Rebecca Moore of Google, Tony Brunello, Deputy Secretary for Climate Change and the Environment for the State of California, representatives from Fundacií³n Amigos de la Naturaleza Bolivia, La Confederacií³n Nacional de Pueblos Indí­genas de Bolivia (CIDOB), and Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) as well as Jane Goodall of the Jane Goodall Institute (TBC).

Panelists will share experiences from projects underway in Brazil, Bolivia, and the United States. Discussions will focus on the role that indigenous peoples and local communities can play in developing projects and policy, the contribution of indigenous peoples to emissions reductions in the Amazon, and the discussions taking place between the State of California and various other states throughout the world.

If you have any questions, please contact Rebecca Vonada at [email protected].

10 December 2009 | When Chief Almir Narayamoga Suruí­ needed money to plant trees on his tribal lands in 2007, he called Beto Borges.

The two had met in the early 1990s, when Almir was a student at a Brazilian university for indigenous people, and Borges was director of the Amazon program for the Rainforest Action Network.   By 2007, Borges had become director of the Communities and Markets Program of environmental non-profit organization Forest Trends (publisher of Ecosystem Marketplace), and Almir was chief of the Suruí­ people.

“Almir had come up with this 50-year development plan for his tribe,” says Borges.   “He thought Forest Trends was a giant foundation with lots of money for that sort of thing.”

After setting him right, Borges explained that the Suruí­ and other indigenous people could, in theory, earn carbon credits by acting as guardians of the rainforest under schemes that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). Almir decided that REDD fit in perfectly with his 50-year plan, and the two embarked on a partnership that has been testing the limits of environmental finance ever since.

On Thursday, that partnership yielded a landmark legal opinion from international law firm Baker & McKenzie, who Borges enlisted to carry out a detailed analysis of Brazilian laws and legal decisions to determine who owns the rights to carbon credits from trees that are either planted or preserved under various scenarios.

The firm concluded that current Brazilian law gives the Suruí­ and other indigenous people who save and manage existing rainforests the rights to carbon credits generated under future global warming deals.

“This really is a landmark opinion,” says Michael Jenkins, President and CEO of Forest Trends. “What we have been able to demonstrate here is that there will be opportunity and a path forward for indigenous groups to participate in emerging markets from a global warming deal. In fact, the indigenous groups would now be part of the solution.”

Although not yet tested in court, the opinion has global repercussions and enjoys the tacit approval of influential Brazilian policymakers and officials.

Last year, for example, Forest Trends requested a similar study from Baker & McKenzie to determine who owns the rights to carbon credits from the same reforestation project that brought Almir and Borges together (as opposed to the study released Thursday, which examines credits from existing trees that the Suruí­ guard and maintain under a REDD program).   That earlier study reached a similar conclusion, and FUNAI (Fundacao Nacional do Indio, the federal agency in charge of indigenous issues across Brazil) then asked Forest Trends to convene a meeting in February of this year Brasilia to review the implications of that finding.

The meeting helped shape evolving FUNAI policy on REDD, which has so far given indigenous peoples a green light to explore carbon trading.

Under the REDD scheme currently being hammered out, the Suruí­ will work together with the government to police their forest, measure and monitor carbon stocks, and prevent illegal logging.


Long-Term Implications

If the new finding leads to a bona fide legal opinion in a court of law, it could have significant implications in broader climate-change talks because many REDD opponents fear such schemes could promote a land-grab that decimates tribes like the Suruí­ and others.

The finding said the conclusion was based on the Brazilian Constitution and legislation, which “provides for a unique proprietary regime over the Brazilian Indians land…which reserves to the Brazilian Indians…the exclusive use and sustainable administration of the demarcated lands as well as…the economic benefits that this sustainable use can generate.”

Another important element raised by the opinion is the need for the Suruí­ to secure financial returns that are compatible with the environmental services provided by managing the vast forest on Suruí­ land, and to provide transparent and price competitive proceedings for the commercialization of the credits, which will be in alignment with Brazil’s overall national sovereign interest.

“This study confirms that we have the right to carbon, and is also an important political and legal instrument to recognize the rights of indigenous people for the carbon in their standing forests,’’ said Chief Almir. “It helps in our dialog with the government, businesses, and other sectors, strengthening the autonomy of indigenous peoples to manage our territories.”

The market for REDD offsets from Brazil received a boost after governors from Amazonian states and leading stakeholders endorsed the Cuiaba Declaration following last year’s Katoomba Meeting in Cuiaba, the capital of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso.

That declaration called on the federal government to embrace direct payments from emitters in the developed world to REDD projects in Brazil.   The finance ministry has since embraced a hybrid approach to administering REDD payments that combines the fund approach with direct payments for ecosystem services.

Indeed, the Suruí­ have asked the Brazilian Biodiversity Fund (FUNBIO) to present a 50-year plan for managing payments for REDD and other ecosystem services.   FUNBIO already oversees the administration of a massive environmental fund in the state of Rio de Janeiro as well as other projects across Brazil.


A Brief History of the Suruí­ People

No one’s really sure how long the Suruí­ people have occupied their patch of the Amazon Rainforest, but everyone agrees on what happened after the outside world made contact with them in 1969.

First, disease wiped out most of the people.   Then, land speculators took most of the territory.   Later, after the Brazilian federal government and the state of Rondí´nia enacted laws to protect the remaining territory, the Suruí­ themselves began striking deals with illegal loggers and selling the wood for a pittance – largely because, in economic terms, the forest was worth more dead than alive.

That began to change with the ascent of Chief Almir, who has shifted the focus to long-term sustainability, winning major support from the Brazilian national government, conservation organizations such as Forest Trends, and through a major mapping project with the Amazon Conservation Team and Google Maps that, in rich detail, documented the natural and human history of the land over the years.

Chief Almir, who has received several assassination threats in the past and for a time fled to the United States for his safety, has been one of several Suruí­ leaders trying to win national and international support on environmental issues.

Today, the Suruí­ own 248,000 hectares of nearly intact rainforest – which, seen from above, stand out like a shock of cool, green moss on dusty stone against the ranchlands that have replaced surrounding forests over the past half-century.

The young chief’s action plan aims to keep that shock from shrinking, and to ensure that it pays for itself over the long haul.   That’s what led him to contact Borges in 2007 – and led Borges to bring in another Forest Trends project, the Katoomba Ecosystem Services Incubator.


The Katoomba Incubator

Like the Communities and Markets Program, the Incubator helps local providers of payments for ecosystem services get up to speed and earn what’s coming to them.

Headed by Jacob Olander, the Incubator complements Borges’s program by placing more attention on finding and fostering the general in the specific – usually with the goal of identifying solutions that can be replicated elsewhere.

“Our basic approach is to ask if we can harness this abstract global carbon market to finance conservation and in a way that creates a roadmap and a plan for others to follow,” says Olander.   “We don’t take control of a project, but instead try and create the tools that decision-makers need to succeed or fail on their own merits – such as finding out who has the rights to payments for ecosystem services and how you can get information about these new and completely untested markets into the hands of communities so they can understand what they’re committing to and weigh that against what they can receive.”

The Incubator began working with the Suruí­ in 2008 and is helping to structure the REDD deal.

“We’re offering our expertise, but we’re also learning a lot, ” says Olander. “The lessons we learn here will help us to help others down the road. ”

The incubator recently began operating in Western Africa, and is now working with ten indigenous groups around the world.

Steve Zwick is Managing Editor of Ecosystem Marketplace.   He can be reached at [email protected].

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