New Frontline video: “The Carbon Hunters”

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New Frontline video: The Carbon Hunters

In November 2009, investigative journalist Mark Schapiro reported from Brazil’s Atlantic Coast about a project set up by the Nature Conservancy in a region called Guaraqueçaba. For his new film, “The Carbon Hunters”, Schapiro also visited another REDD-type conservation project in Brazil, the Juma Reserve project, set up with US$2 million by the Marriott hotel chain.

In Guaraqueçaba, Schapiro reported on the injustice created by TNC’s carbon project and how local communities had lost their livelihoods as a result of the project. TNC is unapologetic. “The carbon idea is not really tangible to people in the community,” Miguel Calmon, the Nature Conservancy’s director of forests and climate in Latin America told Schapiro. “You can’t go into these private reserves. That land is not their land anyway. If you used to go [into the forest] from your house across the road, now you can’t. That land is already owned.”

In the Juma Reserve, the model is slightly different. People living in the forest area are paid not to cut down the trees. Through a programme called Bolsa Florestal, they receive US$25 each month. Schapiro interviewed Dalvina Almeida and her husband and perhaps not surprisingly they considered this to be too little:

But for residents like Dalvina Almeida, it takes a two-day roundtrip journey by boat just to receive their stipend.

“We used to plant a lot,” Dalvina’s husband says. “When this became a reserve they told us that we could no longer plant in the forest. Everyone signed up for Bolsa Floresta. But Bolsa Floresta can’t sustain my family.”

Schapiro also interviewed Marina Silva, a Brazilian environmentalist and politician (who recently announced that she would be running for president as a candidate for the Green Party).

[Silva] says that America needs to reduce its own emissions first, before Brazilian forests are put on the table.

“Otherwise, we are going to transfer the problem one more time to the developing countries,” she says. “And the developed countries are going to continue their same practices. The problem is not going to stop.
[...]
“We can’t treat this problem like it is a business, a commercial relationship between countries,” says Silva. “To talk about dealing with this issue just from the perspective of carbon credits is to skirt the responsibility we have to deal with the dangers our planet is facing.”

Click on the image below to watch the 20 minute-long video:

The Carbon Hunters

Perhaps as interesting as the Frontline video is the response by Steve Schwartzman of Environmental Defense Fund. In a slightly frantic email to colleagues, Schwartzman writes,

Frontline broadcasts, like this one, are seen by an audience of 1 million people. Then they are posted to websites around the world and streamed for free. Schools all over the world use Frontline as a resource. Frontline is the video-journalism investigative reporting program of record. It has a well-deserved reputation for providing well-researched, hard-hitting investigative reports on controversial issues, which The Carbon Hunters totally betrays, and which no one will know if we do not inform them. This could do serious damage to the prospects for REDD at an extremely delicate moment.

On his blog on EDF’s website, Schwartzman argues that the video is wrong on six counts. But only one of his arguments stands up and even that is pretty shaky. Schwartzman’s response amounts a series of straw men put forward in a weak attempt to discredit Schapiro’s reporting.

StrawmanHere then are Strawman’s – sorry, Schwartzman’s – six arguments:

1. Carbon market for forest carbon credits doesn’t actually exist

Schwartzman refers only to the Guaraqueçaba project in this response. He also only refers to the compliance market for carbon credits and pretends that the voluntary market does not exist. As Schwartzman is fully aware, the project was specifically set up to create carbon credits. It may be true that no carbon has yet been traded from the project, but it is simply a lie to write, as Schwartzman does, that “No carbon market currently exists in which ‘carbon credits’ from this project can be traded, and there is no indication in existing or proposed climate polices that they ever could be.” Schwartzman should perhaps read the Ecosystem Marketplace’s “State of the Forest Carbon Markets 2009“. As Ecosystem Marketplace points out: “Markets for forest carbon credits, include the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS), Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), and Voluntary ‘over the counter’ market.” (Putting aside for a moment that Ecosystem Marketplace is confusing plantations with forests.)

Schwartzman could also take a look at “The forest carbon offsetting report 2010“, written by EcoSecurities, Conservation International, Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance, ClimateBiz and the Norton Rose Group.

2. “People versus parks” conflict not new

True. But the creation of a market in forest carbon credits could create the demand for a massive increase in the number of “REDD-labelled Protected Areas” as David Gaveau of Stanford University describes them. This could easily lead to a corresponding increase in the number of “people versus parks” conflicts.

Mount Elgon in Uganda is another example of how a “people versus parks” conflict was made worse by a carbon project – in this case a tree planting project.

3. Reporting often one-sided and inaccurate

Schwartzman accuses Frontline of having a “thinly-veiled ideological agenda” which

“is exacerbated by the fact that the director does not identify the Landless Movement (MST) activist who guides him in the Guaraqueçaba reserve, although MST’s explicitly anti-capitalist agenda clearly is relevant to a story about corporate financing for conservation.”

Schwartzman’s argument amounts to little more than saying someone in the film has an anti-capitalist agenda and therefore the entire film should be dismissed. That would be like saying that Schwartzman has a thinly-veiled ideological capitalist agenda (which would be true) and therefore his entire argument should be dismissed.

4. Stipend program intentionally misrepresented

The film points out that villagers under the Juma project receive US$25 a month. Whether or not they sometimes travel to town for other reasons, the reality is that they have to take a two-day round trip to town to pick up their money. Schwartzman accuses Frontline of mistranslating Dalvina Almeida, as saying “It’s not enough” instead of “It’s too little”. Clearly if the money is too little, then it’s not enough. She also says “We don’t have enough income to live,” which is pretty unambiguous.

Schwartzman writes that “Various other independent reports document that many reserve residents are vocal supporters of the program – but these voices are not included in Schapiro’s account.” In fact, Schapiro spends 1 minute 24 seconds describing the benefits of the Juma project, including descriptions of the non-timber forest products that villagers harvest and a school funded through the project. The interview with the Almeida family lasts 57 seconds. Schapiro presents both sides of the picture. Schwartzman simply does not want to hear what villagers have to say.

5. Carbon credits not an easy way out for U.S. companies

“The clear message of this program,” Schwartzman writes, “is that carbon credit for reducing deforestation means that U.S. corporations would simply purchase credits and continue to pollute.” Then, Schwartzman completely loses the plot. “If the actual policy proposals on the table bore any resemblance to this fairytale, passing climate change legislation in the U.S. would be far simpler than it in fact is.” This is turning reality on its head. Carbon trading is included in proposed US climate legislation to appease US corporations. The reality is that the US government is so tightly in the grip of big oil and big coal that it risks being strangled.

Schwartzman claims that “the bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and the American Power Act introduced in the U.S. Senate would commit the U.S. to very substantial reductions in our own domestic emissions from fossil fuels”. As Schwartzman no doubt knows, analysis by International Rivers and Rainforest Action Network reveals that offsets would mean no domestic reductions before 2026 under the bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Why Schwartzman is even attempting to defend the American Power Act, that would “promote offshore oil, coal, nukes and offsets” as Daphne Wysham notes, and which shifts the baseline year from 1990 to 2005 is beyond me. It can perhaps only be explained by the fact that Schwartzman works for EDF.

6. Inaccuracy used for shock value

Schwartzman’s final point includes a grain of truth. He points out that comparing the value of the carbon stored in a tree in Guaraqueçaba with the timber value of a rare and valuable hardwood species in the Amazon doesn’t make sense.

But the comparison is valid to some extent. The timber was logged illegally. The illegal loggers may not be the ones that benefit from carbon credits created by not cutting the trees down. Putting a price on the carbon stored in valuable timber species is not going to reduce the demand for valuable hardwood. If anything, reducing deforestation could actually increase the price of timber unless the issue of over-consumption of timber is addressed (which REDD does not attempt to do).

Research published earlier this year in Environmental Science and Technology argues that a price on carbon will not be enough to stop deforestation – using the example of palm oil for biofuel. The authors, Martin Persson and Christian Azar at the Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden write that:

“We estimate that deforesting for palm oil bioenergy production is likely to remain highly profitable, even in the fact of a price on the carbon emissions from forest clearing.”

The same is likely to be true for timber – unless the issue of over-consumption is addressed.

Schwartzman’s arguments indicate that he is simply not willing to face up to the many problems that trading forest carbon is already creating, let alone the problems that would be created if an international REDD agreement is produced aimed at creating a market for forest carbon.

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2 Comments

  1. REDD_monitor is the laziest REDD tabloid, ops, blog, ever written.
    Seems that there is nothing more relevant than the characters’ life in the REDD ‘business’. Why not check the REDD reality instead?

  2. @Carol – Thanks for this, but I’m afraid I can’t fully understand your point. What would you suggest is the REDD reality?

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