in Guatemala

How a forestry offset project in Guatemala allowed emissions in the USA to increase

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In 1988, Applied Energy Services (AES) was constructing a 183 MW coal-fired power plant in Connecticut. AES hired World Resources Institute to find a forestry project to “offset” the 14.1 million tons of carbon that would be emitted over the power plant’s 40 year life. The following year, AES signed an agreement with the NGO CARE to fund an ongoing agroforestry project in Guatemala.

It was the world’s first forestry project funded explicitly to offset greenhouse gas emissions. CARE describes the project as a “success”, generating “a wealth of direct and indirect benefits for the people of Western Guatemala”.

A recent paper “Carbon Offsets and Inequality: Social Costs and Co-Benefits in Guatemala and Sri Lanka”, by Hannah K. Wittman and Cynthia Caron, published in Society and Natural Resources looks at this project. The authors report that in the first decade, the project failed to offset the emissions from the AES coal-fired power plant. In addition, making the project into a “carbon project” has diverted project resources from poverty alleviation to carbon measuring.

AES, CARE and WRI anticipated that the forestry project would sequester between 15.5 and 16.3 million tons of carbon over 40 years. But an external evaluation carried out by Winrock International in 1999 found that only 270,000 tons of carbon had been offset by the project over the previous ten years.

The reasons for this failure include “land use conflicts, struggles for control over scarce forest, and legal changes that criminalized subsistence activities such as fuel wood gathering [which] undermined local farmer participation”. Guatemala’s 1996 forest law declared forest land off-limits to farmers. The law effectively took access to forests away from local people.

The 2006 book, “Carbon Trading: A Critical Conversation on Climate Change, Privatisation and Power,” edited by Larry Lohmann and published by the Dag Hammerskjöld Foundation and The Cornerhouse outlines the problems:

One result was that conflict grew between municipal and village authorities and individual landowners. Another was that reforestation looked less attractive. Who wants to plant trees if by doing so you deprive yourself of daily necessities? A third result was increasing distrust of government forest offices, some of which were partly funded by the CARE/AES Agroforestry Project. Not a good outcome, whether your objective was people’s welfare or long-term carbon savings.
Then, too, in the early years of the project, the tree species promoted were often inappropriate for the climate and for degraded land areas. Damage by animals and sabotage of replanted areas also limited the expansion of reforested areas.

Winrock International’s consultants made a series of recommendations to make the AES-CARE project “more acceptable as a CDM-type project”. The recommendations included developing a land-use mapping system using geographical information systems (GIS), and remote sensing technologies. They suggested that the project should find areas to act as a “without project” baseline. And they called for the design and implementation of a carbon monitoring programme in order to establish exactly how many carbon credits the project generates. Wittman and Caron note that “These recommendations compound the problem of requiring carbon sequestration in exchange for supporting ongoing poverty alleviation efforts.”

The project provides a fascinating example of what can happen when the purpose of a forestry project becomes carbon sequestration. The project started in 1974. Wittman and Caron point out that once AES got involved in 1989, the project’s emphasis on carbon sequestration meant that “scarce resources and personnel were redirected for carbon offset accounting”. In addition, CARE’s farming extension work “was broadened from focusing exclusively on small and generally poorer farmers to include better off and larger farmers.”

Wittman and Caron are not generally critical of CARE’s work in the Western Highlands. “CARE has achieved notable success in promoting the adoption of sustainable agriculture and agroforestry projects as a result of its extension programs in the project area, although reforestation programs in the Western Highlands have been less successful.” They also acknowledge that “The carbon-offset project provided important financial resources to the agroforestry project for extension and outreach activities that have shown a positive effect on local livelihoods.”

But for the second phase of the project, from 1999-2009, CARE officials told the researchers that they needed to redirect resources from farming extension to pay external consultants to develop a methodology to measure and monitor carbon in agroforestry plots and plantations established under the project.

The authors summarise the problem:

CARE, as a development organization, has prioritized rural farmers’ needs for poverty alleviation before carbon mitigation. To maintain project funding, however, it must also achieve mandated targets in establishing carbon sinks. The tension the CARE staff felt in regard to the need to attend to both carbon sequestration and poverty alleviation is manifest in the difficulties that extension agents face in reaching their targeted population – when the objective of rural poverty reduction does not overlap with that of increasing the size of carbon sinks, where do they direct their scarce resources?

After AES started to fund the project, there was no discussion about whether farmers participating in the project should receive payments from AES for the carbon offsets that they were providing. Only recently have project staff begun to discuss climate change with local people involved in the project. The AES-CARE project included 12,000 hectares of eucalyptus and pine plantations for poles and lumber. The focus of the project shifted from agroforestry to carbon offset plantations.

“Rather than reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions at the source,” Wittman and Caron write, “the advancement of forestry projects in Guatamala . . . enable[s] power producers in the United States to externalize at least part of their costs of production.” In a 2000 article, World Rainforest Movement quotes WRI’s website: “alternatives in the United States to avoid the release of carbon dioxide or sequester it at the source appeared to be considerably more expensive.”

For at least the first ten years of the AES-CARE project, emissions from the power plant vastly exceeded the carbon sequestered in the AES-CARE project. At the same time, CARE diverted resources from poverty alleviation to carbon monitoring. Given that the project had been running since the 1970s it’s is difficult to see how the project could possibily be considered to be additional. In effect AES wrote a cheque which allowed emissions to continue.

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  1. California just approved climate change forestry protocols that include “even-aged management” which is basically “clearcutting” and conversion of native forests into tree plantations (always using tons of herbicides like atrazine (banned in Europe). A California forest company owned by one of the world’s richest billionaires immediately announced its huge carbon project which would protect 60,000 acres including “giant sequoias.” Even the Governor of California got sucked into praising this project. Turns out the only “giant sequoias in this project were recently planted seedlings and rumors are that much of the land was already clearcut or had burned and tree plantations had already been planted. A local newspaper (The Union Democrat) in the County where the 20,000 acres of the “giant sequoias” were supposed be forced the company spokesman to admit some of the real facts about this project (there are only young sequoias. Meanwhile this same company continues to clearcut massive amounts of Sierra Nevada forest and is still applying for CA state ok to clearcut more. Forestry business as usual – laughing all the way to the carbon bank. How can we expect to stop widespread clearcutting in the rainforest when we can’t even stop it in the US?

  2. Great story. I knew about Mount Elgon in Uganda, which I thought was the first offset project but only recently have I heard about this. Of course, the same problems can be found in nowadays offset projects.

  3. A colleague recently sent the following information in response to this post:

    “AES is also one of the funders of a CDM Project at validation (and it may be to offset the same Connecticut coal-burning power plant), the Chanquinola Hydroelectric Dam Project (Chan 75) which is under construction in the territory of the Ngöbe Bugle People in Panama and endangers an UNESCO World Heritage Site. This CDM project is tainted by armed repression, forced relocation, arbitrary detention, no Free Prior Informed Consent, destruction of homes and crops, fraud in the CDM documents and has been denounced by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya. Furthermore, it worth noting that large dams in tropical countries are actually sources of emissions since CO2 and methane are released when organic material in the reservoirs rots and when water goes through turbines and travels downstream.
    For more information see Indigenous Peoples’ Guide – False Solutions to Climate Change – section on Snapshots of Carbon Colonialism.”

  4. I was one of the people at WRI who evaluated and recommended the CARE/Guatemala project to AES. There are a number of errors in the above article. First, the reason this particular project was chosen was because it had the dual benefit of helping poor farmers and sequestering carbon. The project was not, and was never intended to be, a straight tree planting project for offsets, but one that supported increased farm productivity through the use of agroforestry methods. We believed that by helping the local farmers and their families, the project would be more likely to be sustainable and therefore to offset carbon emissions. We intentionally recommended, and AES chose, an agricultural development effort, not a forest plantation effort, for this reason.
    Second, CARE staff tested a number of different tree species for their acceptance by farmers. Twenty-four species for a variety of purposes were made available such as fruit trees, nitrogen-fixing trees and those for timber and fencing. The trees were made available for farmers to select — no one was forced to plant something they didn’t want. Farmers expressed a demand for lumber and timber, so those species were made available. Some farmers began nurseries to sell trees to other farmers because the demand was so high.
    Third, no resources were diverted which would have otherwise been available for poverty alleviation. CARE told us at the time that this project was due to close because of the lack of funding. Significant resources to continue the project were made available only because of the grant that AES made. Many poor people in Guatemala benefitted from CARE’s on-going work only because the project had the ability to offset carbon, bringing to bear an entirely new source of funding for poverty alleviation.
    Finally, the authors fail to point out the reasons for the differences in the offset estimates, which were due to the methodologies used. Our own estimates that were used for project approval were much lower than the later paper and only accounted for the growth of the trees that came from the nurseries. Winrock used a similar approach. At the time the grant was made, no one expected the entire power plant’s emissions to be offset. Several years after the project was approved by AES, we went back and developed a very simple land use model to account for unsustainable forestry practices which the agroforestry methods were intended to replace. We also took a longer-term point of view to account for the maturation of the trees over the life of the power plant, not just the first 10-years. This research was done to help understand what might be going on is a project like this, not to provide a definitive offset estimate.

  5. Sabiamos de este proyecto desde 1988 (aún antes ya existia), mas no se “vendia” como un proyecto de fijación de carbono, era el Proyecto Agroforestal ejecutado por Care y que tenía arreglos institucionales con los servicios forestales de la época (ex-Inafor y ex-Digebos). Por lo menos conozco un documento aproximadamente 1994-96 que lo cita como el primer proyecto de fijación de carbono en Centro América, sin que se reconociera como tal, y fue producto de una negociación, no de donacion. Es bueno revisar sus resultados para fines de diseño de nuevos proyectos, especialmente para zonas de bosques comunitarios y municipales y de reducidas extensiones.