“Carbon cowboy” pieces get clicks, but at the risk of ignoring what indigenous communities are actually saying

Beto Borges

The climate finance space is at risk. Confronted with an onslaught of agenda-driven media coverage aiming to discredit one of the largest sources of funding available for forest protection, mechanisms like REDD+ and voluntary carbon markets could be unfairly discredited to the point of losing momentum and support at a critical time for climate action. REDD+ credits, specifically projects financed through the Voluntary Carbon Market (VCM), have faced increasing criticism in the media over the past year. What these over-generalized pieces often gloss over, however, are the experiences and perspectives of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs). These communities are the ones on the ground, actively managing the land. They witness and experience the positive effects of REDD+ and other carbon credits done well, and many are voicing their support loud and clear. We should be listening more to the people experiencing REDD+ projects than we do outside critics from the Global North.

Deforestation and forest degradation are widespread, accounting for 11 percent of carbon emissions worldwide per year.[1] However, through avoided deforestation, about a year’s worth of global fossil fuel emissions are currently stored on protected lands,[2] particularly protected lands overlapping with indigenous lands,[3] with the Brazilian Amazon accounting for 36 percent of this carbon. This is a great incentive to ramp up safeguards for the Amazon Forest, increase direct climate funding for the indigenous stewards protecting it, and bolster more widespread support for this funding.

IPLCs are central to protecting the Amazon. They defend their forests from land grabbing, illegal activities and exploitation, and land conflicts, yet by some estimates, receive less than 1 percent of climate mitigation finance.[4] REDD+ credits, both through jurisdictional programs and the VCM, are one of the best available tools for driving direct finance to support the rights and livelihoods of IPLCs. Doing so allows them to continue protecting their territories, including the biodiversity and carbon stores in their borders.

Earlier this year, a group of indigenous-led and Global South-based organizations working in over 40 countries released an open letter in support of REDD+. They emphasized that REDD+ is currently one of the only ways for them to directly access climate finance. REDD+ enables them to keep protecting and monitoring their territories using traditional methods; to pursue sustainable, nature-based economies in alignment with their cultural values; and to secure legal rights to their lands. When media choose to focus on the negative aspects of REDD+ for the sake of proving a point, it directly harms communities and perpetuates their exclusion from conversations and decisions they have a right to participate in. IPLCs are on the frontlines of forest defense, and it is critical that we listen to their needs and support their calls to action.

This is not to say that REDD+ is without any flaws. For REDD+ credits to be effective, they must be of the highest integrity. That means projects and jurisdictional programs must deliver on both carbon sequestration and direct community benefits. This is done by engaging IPLCs as equitable partners from day one to ensure their rights and interests are respected. High-integrity carbon projects follow Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) guidelines, enable direct access to carbon markets for IPLCs, and acknowledge their rights to any carbon credits developed on their land. Projects and jurisdictional programs must also ensure equitable and transparent benefit-sharing in consultation with communities. While it is important for media to promote high-integrity REDD+ and hold market actors accountable, the stories told must also be balanced. Discredit the bad credits, yes, but then take that moment as an opportunity to highlight REDD+ done well. Publicly praising them is a powerful means of supporting high-integrity projects and jurisdictional programs that the world needs to achieve climate action at the scale necessary to meet global climate goals.

Many of these components for integrity stem from precedents set by the Suruí Forest Carbon Project, the first indigenous-led REDD+ project, launched in 2009 by Forest Trends with the Suruí people and other local partners, including the Institute of Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Amazon (IDESAM), Equipe de Conservação da Amazônia (ECAM), Brazilian Biodiversity Fund (FUMBIO), and Kanindé. At that time, avoided deforestation was not an officially recognized term, meaning many of the methodologies in this project were created and tested for the first time. Despite several challenges and its ultimate discontinuation in 2018, the project dramatically reduced deforestation in its first five years and set some important precedents for projects of its kind going forward.

Stories that discuss this project often ignore the important milestones it achieved. Most importantly, it recognized all indigenous peoples in Brazil as owners of any carbon credits resulting from projects developed on their lands. It also funded six self-sufficient economic initiatives, such as Brazil nut and handicraft production, which continue to provide income for those communities today. The Suruí Forest Carbon Project was also one of the first fully documented uses of the FPIC process.

To continue these efforts, Forest Trends’ Communities and Territorial Governance Initiative is working with IPLC partner organizations, donors, companies, and other institutions to monitor and promote high-integrity carbon projects and jurisdictional-level funding that provides direct environmental and socioeconomic benefits for IPLCs. We believe it is important to promote best practices and safeguards, all while putting IPLC leadership and knowledge center stage in the climate and conservation finance space.

Toward this end, we also co-founded the Peoples Forests Partnership, launched at COP26 in Glasgow to promote best practices for high-integrity projects in the Voluntary Carbon Market between IPLCs and carbon developers. In 2022, we also launched the Territorial Governance Facility with three important regional indigenous and local community organizations in Amazonia and Mesoamerica (AMPB, CONFENIAE, and AIDESEP) to assist communities in building the capacity they need to protect their territories and advocate for themselves in rapidly changing markets and political contexts. When they have direct support for governance of their communities, they can more effectively protect their territories, ways of life, and the biodiversity and carbon stores on their land – all things that lead to high integrity carbon credits and successful projects.

Just last month, we led a training course with the Brazilian Ministry of Indigenous Peoples on the challenges and opportunities indigenous peoples in Brazil face with climate finance mechanisms, such as carbon markets and jurisdictional REDD+ programs. This collaboration comes at a critical moment for the Brazilian Government; they are preparing a new bill that will determine the structure of the Brazilian carbon market, and it is essential that indigenous perspectives are a part of this discussion and that their rights are protected in national policy.

As we work to meet global climate goals, market instruments will play an important role in getting climate finance to communities on the ground. Public and philanthropic funding is not enough on its own to shift the paradigm of historical exploitation and deforestation in indigenous territories. When done right, offsets can be a great solution as we shift towards a nature-based bioeconomy in the long term.

When “carbon cowboy” and carbon market hit pieces overgeneralize climate finance mechanisms like REDD+, deciding that all projects must be ill-intentioned, this has the potential to stop funding all together. Perhaps this is the intention. Companies are already signaling hesitancy to continue their carbon funding after a period of rough media coverage of those who have. Climate finance is already an incredibly complex and technical space, and adding more uncertainty is a disservice to IPLCs who need this funding now to secure their rights and keep their forests standing.

I hope that going forward, high-integrity REDD+ will continue in full force, and that projects and jurisdictional programs will step up to meet the needs of indigenous forest stewards. Finance driven by respect for indigenous rights, knowledge, and livelihoods is critical to address climate change, conserve forests, and support communities.


About the author: Beto Borges is Director of Forest Trends’ Communities and Territorial Governance Initiative


[1] Dunne, Daisy. “Deforestation Has Driven up Hottest Day Temperatures, Study Says.” Carbon Brief, April 23, 2018. https://www.carbonbrief.org/deforestation-has-driven-up-hottest-day-temperatures/.

[2] Duncanson, L., et al. “The Effectiveness of Global Protected Areas for Climate Change Mitigation.” Nature News, June 1, 2023. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-023-38073-9.

[3] Sze, Jocelyne S., et al. “Indigenous Lands in Protected Areas Have High Forest Integrity across the Tropic.” Current Biology, October 26, 2022. https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(22)01540-8.

[4] Osorio, Karen. “A Renewed Focus on Direct Financing at International Climate Summits.” Rainforest Foundation US, November 22, 2022. https://rainforestfoundation.org/a-renewed-focus-on-direct-financing-at-international-climate-summits/#:~:text=According%20to%20a%202021%20RFN,the%20IPLC%20organizations%20and%20communities.

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