The Tolo River Community Project: The Importance Of Inclusion

Tanya Dimitrova

Four years ago, the Tolo River People of Colombia voted to use carbon finance to save their forest. That decision, however, came after three years of debate, and it presaged an even longer process of development and implementation. Here’s how the Tolo River people built their REDD project and prepared to sell offsets.

30 March 2015 | For Everildys Cí³rdoba, it was one of the biggest days in her life.

Her uncle, Aureliano Cí³rdoba, had championed the Tolo River community’s foray into carbon finance, and she’d spent three years working to educate her people on its complexities. She’d answered questions about protecting the trees and selling the offsets; she’d explained that nobody would lose access to the wood for building their homes; and on this notable Sunday, she and 100 other community representatives from surrounding villages gathered at the central square in Peí±aloza, the largest of the community’s nine villages in Chocí³ Province, Colombia.

The date was October, 9, 2010, and they were meeting for a General Assembly of their small Afro-Colombian community organization, COCOMASUR (Black Communities of the Tolo River and South Coast). If they voted for the project, she believed, they would save their forest. If they voted against it, the forest would be gone.

Free, Prior, and Informed Consent

The plan was to save their forest and earn offsets for the carbon captured in trees under a financing mechanism know as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), but REDD project standards require a “Free Prior and Informed Consent” (FPIC, pronounced “F-pic”) by the local people, a measure that requires disclosure, discussion and agreement – a process involving far more than just a few meetings between community leaders and a project developer.

FPIC means that project developers must offer information to the community, ensure they understand it through a feedback loop, allow them time for private discussions, hold meetings to answer questions, and organize focus groups to gather women’s or youth’s perspectives. It is an expensive process, involving sociologists or anthropologists, and it can take years.

From the beginning, Aureliano aimed to exceed even the stringent requirements of FPIC and to involve the whole community in the design of the project — an approach that he believed would ultimately strengthen the project by making it more attuned to the needs and desires of his people, and therefore more likely to succeed. In that spirit, he put Everildys in charge of explaining the process to the community.

“I had to take a complex subject and try to make it simple,” she says.

A Child of the Forest; a Woman of the World

Everildys’s entire life is closely related to this community. She was born and grew up in Peí±aloza, but in 1995 paramilitaries forced her to flee to the South. She was only 26, with two young daughters, and she spent the next 15 years in exile raising them on her own. When the violence subsided, she moved back to Chocí³ to help her community recover.

“When you have a difficulty in life, you have two choices,” she says. “Sit down and cry that things are bad or get busy fixing them. I am of the second type of person.”

Long before that Sunday meeting, Everildys’ determination and positive attitude had gone far in achieving the kind of community involvement and consensus necessary on a REDD project like the one Aureliano envisioned.

Sunday’s vote was a long time coming: In the case of the Tolo River community, FPIC took three years.

A Cause for Celebration – For Some

After lengthy deliberations that day, the General Assembly voted to approve a forest conservation project that would ban commercial logging and the clearing of forest for cattle pasture. The day ended with food, music, and dancing.

But not everyone was celebrating. Not long before, just a mile down the dirt road from Peí±aloza, another young woman, Johanna, was sitting in the shade of a beautiful white mansion. The house overlooks hundreds of cows grazing on the surrounding 10,000-acre cattle farm, one of the largest ranches bordering the Tolo River community forest. It belongs to Amado Willes, a wealthy businessman who lives in the capital for most of the year. In his absence Johanna’s husband manages the business.

Johanna explained that in the past couple of years, the ranch has not been able to clear more forest for pasture and expand. “All of this land is now a reserve,” she said, waving her hand toward the forested hills in the distance—Tolo River community land.

Johanna’s not alone in thinking that land is better used for raising cattle than letting it stay forested. Global demand for commodities like palm oil, soybeans, and cattle is driving deforestation all around the world—and nearly half of it illegal, according to research by Forest Trends.

In Chocí³, deforestation rates are higher than they’ve ever been — which spurred Aureliano and others to turn to the prospect of developing their own conservation project — and to consider a finance mechanism like REDD as their structure.

The Eyes of the Forest

After the General Assembly’s decision, Everildys and the rest of the Tolo River community members got busy. On October 18, a few days after the meeting in Peí±aloza, the forest patrol started its work, an ongoing part of the project. Frazier Guisao, an ex-logger, was one of the first men hired full-time by the community organization to perform daily perimeter checks in the forest and ensure no clearing for pasture or commercial logging took place. Community members are still allowed to harvest timber for building their houses but not for selling it.

Nine other men work with Guisao, patrolling the forest always in teams of at least four. They are not armed. The only evidence or announcement of their authority is the colorful printing of “COCOMASUR” on their T-shirts. Their only tools of the trade, handheld GPS devices and small digital cameras.

“The forest patrol is the eyes of COCOMASUR,” says Guisao. “When we encounter somebody doing something they should not be, we simply ask them who gave them authorization to be there. We inform them that this is our territory.”

They look for cut-off trees or newly cleared areas, take photos, record the coordinates, and then report them back to the community office for investigation. Ferney Caicedo, a slender 21-year-old, works with Guisao on the forest patrol. Caicedo, born and raised in Peí±aloza, has completed a professional forestry technician course and is an expert in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). After every forest patrol, he uploads the GPS coordinates of the patrol route and logs any incident from that day on the office computer.

Tackling VCS: Establishing Carbon Credits

In addition to the forest patrol, the REDD project required the community to begin the lengthy and complicated process of earning certification and validation from the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), the leading carbon standard on the voluntary carbon market. The team followed a protocol based on the carbon calculation methodology established by the VCS.

First, the team had to ascertain how much carbon would be released if they continued business as usual. Specifically, they looked at historical rates of deforestation to see how much of their forest would likely be chopped down for pasture, and then they started measuring the amount of carbon in their forest and in pasture land – using methods that had, ironically, been developed and perfected by timber merchants.

Measuring the Carbon in the Forest

With help from a conservation biologist from the region’s capital, the team began by randomly selecting 10 forest plots of 1,000 square feet each, and counting all the trees within them. Then the team identified the tree species, measured their circumference and used allometric equations to calculate how much carbon was contained in each plot. The team also took soil samples and analyzed their carbon content in the ecology lab. The team did the same for cattle pastures, which is what the forest would have become without the patrol

Caicedo and the forest patrol, along with a conservation biology team from the Medellin Botanical Garden and anthropologist Brodie Ferguson, spent months in the forest.

The data collection and the analysis took the better part of 2011. The results yielded a certain number of carbon offset credits, to be submitted for approval and certification.

Finally in July 2012, Pablo Reed, an independent third-party auditor, came to the Tolo River community forest to verify the carbon offset credits. Reed works for the multinational consultancy company DNV, specializing in certifying emissions reduction projects such as REDD.

Verification and Validation

Reed recalls that just getting to the GPS-marked forest plots in the Tolo River community was an adventure, involving a charter flight, a boat ride, a motorcycle, a horseback ride—then finally a trek on foot into the forest following the patrol. Reed observed Caicedo and other trained community members perform the tree measurements and then compared the numbers to what they had measured in the initial inventory.

As a result of Reed’s report, Verified Carbon Standard issued 100,000 carbon offset certificates and listed them in a public registry.

Next Steps: The Sale

Armed with the offset certificates, the community now just needed to find someone to purchase them. They found a buyer in a family-owned company that chose to go carbon-neutral: a Colombian oil services firm called Independence. Its business is drilling and managing oil wells as a sub-contractor for fossil fuel corporations such as BP, Occidental, and Petrogas. It is in charge of 30 percent of the oil production in Colombia, which recently reached 1 million barrels of oil per day.

“Of course it’s a contradiction,” says Gaelle Espinosa, the company’s environmental coordinator, from the 19th floor of her modern office in downtown Bogotí¡, referring to the company’s core business and its interest in being carbon-neutral. “But we as a single company cannot be responsible for everything in the industry or in the world. So I think we move with the market.” Espinosa used to work at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Colombia and considers herself an environmentalist.

As part of the company’s sustainability strategy, Independence first measured its own carbon footprint — 90 percent of the emissions came from burning diesel to operate the machinery on the rigs. The second step was to reduce these emissions as much as possible, and the company renovated the drill engines with more fuel efficient ones.

The third step was to offset whatever emissions they could not reduce, which amounted to 10,000 tons of carbon for 2012. So “move with the market” they did, purchasing the Tolo River community’s credits.

The years of hard work of achieving FPIC and VCS validation were paying off, it appeared. The Tolo River community’s REDD project was viable. But more work lay ahead, as credits were sold and the community began to make tough decisions about where their new revenue would go.

This piece was editied by Forest Trends writer Ann Espuelas. Tanya Dimitrova just graduated from University of California, Berkeley, with a masters degree in energy and resources. She lives in Texas and works as a freelance science and environmental journalist.

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About This Series

Colombia’s Tolo River People collectively own 32,000 acres of rainforest, and that forest feeds the river on which they depend. But ownership means nothing if you can’t protect it. Four years ago, they began harnessing carbon finance to save the forest and preserve their way of life. This series takes us into their thinking and their strategy. It has been adapted from “Modern day forest conservation: A Colombian community protecting its rainforest one carbon credit at a time,” by Tanya Dimitrova.

An excerpt also appeared in Grist, as In the Colombian rainforest, an experiment in community-driven climate protection.

Part One: How The Tolo River People Of Colombia Harnessed Carbon Finance To Save Their Rainforest provides an overview of the project.

Part Two: The Forest, The Farms, And The Finance: Why The Tolo River People Turned To Carbon Finance examines the drivers of deforestation in and around the Tolo River Community.

Part Three: The Tolo River Community Project: The Importance of Inclusion follows the development of the project itself – its conception, its implementation, and its challenges.

Part Four: Getting Down To Business: The Tolo River People Shift From Building Their Carbon Project To Selling The Offsets tells the surprisingly challenging story of finding and cultivating offset buyers.

You can also find the REDD Desk Project summary of this project here.