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Guest Post: Between Suruí and “Acapú”: REDD and scientists’ ethical dilemmas

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Almir Surui GoogleMichael Schmidlehner is a researcher, NGO founder and climate justice activist in Rio Branco, capital of the Brazilian state of Acre. He submitted this Guest Post about an academic paper looking at a REDD project established on the land of the “Acapú” indigenous people in Brazil.

Between Suruí and “Acapú”: REDD and scientists’ ethical dilemmas

By Michael F. Schmidlehner, July 2016

A recent study carried out by researchers of the University of Minas Gerais (Brazil) examines the effects of a REDD project on the self representation of an indigenous community in the Brazilian Amazon. The researchers, Raoni Rajão and Camilla Marcolino, sum up the study’s outcome in an article entitled “Between Indians and ‘cowboys’ – the role of ICT In the management of contradictory self-images and the production of carbon credits in the Brazilian Amazon”.

The article presents the case of an indigenous group by the name “Acapú” and its chief “Cairú”. On the third page of the article though, the authors reveal that the data of the research were anonymized and the true names of the indigenous people and their leader concealed. But for a reader who is more or less knowledgeable about the advance of REDD projects in Brazil, it quickly becomes clear that the research is most likely about the Suruí Forest Carbon Project (SFCP) and chief Almir Surui.

Impression management

The study’s methodological approach is based on the theory of impression management, as developed by Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman in the 1950s. According to this theory, social actors adopt specific strategies in order to control other people´s perception. Through highlighting or hiding different features – using “front stages” and “back stages” for their social performances – they seek to convey certain images of themselves to certain audiences.

The authors are interested in how the “Acapú” community develops its strategies through the use of modern information and communication technology (ICT). On the front stage – the official website, YouTube channel, articles and interviews with the leader “Cairú” – the community produces the image of the “authentic Indian” and of the “forest guardian” that aims at harmony with nature and is committed with preservation.

Almir Surui, Apple Mac

In diametrical opposition to this romanticized image stands the “Acapú’s” representation in the technical descriptions of the project. In these descriptions, computer models are used to attest the project’s “additionality”. This means that the project scenario is compared – in terms of emissions from deforestation – with a hypothetical negative scenario (called baseline scenario), that presumably would have taken place without the project. The logic is: The worse the negative scenario – and consequently, the greater the difference between the two scenarios – the more “avoided emissions” can be sold. Bound to this rationale, REDD project proponents are generally led to depict dwellers in project areas as notorious forest-destroyers. So on this back stage, the “Acapú” are performing as rational cattle rangers, as forest-destroying “cowboys”.

The researchers point out that the “Acapú” understood this logic very well and, when the baseline scenario was established by the project developers, tended to greatly overestimate the amount of forest they were already clearing. The chief “Cairú” is even cited as having disliked a certain baseline calculation model, because “it shows too little deforestation in our indigenous reserve”.

The authors show that actually both of the contradicting self-images are necessary in order to successfully sell carbon credits from the project. While the forest-destroyer-narrative is required for the “technical proof” of additionality, the forest-guardian-narrative is necessary for the marketing of the carbon credits.

Contradicting representations of the “Acapú”

The authors put forward the question: How can these contradicting representations be maintained simultaneously and conveyed to separate groups? How can the back stage be so effectively hidden, although the technical description is available in the Internet?

The answer is simple: While the community’s website, the videos and news articles can be found quickly on the web and understood easily by the general public, the technical descriptions are hidden in a technological “black box”. Difficult to find on the web, these texts are written in a scientific jargon, which requires special knowledge from the reader. One of the authors had to take a semester-long course with the creator of the computer simulation tool used for the project, in order to understand the technical details.

Ultimately, the study confirms what REDD-opposing activists and NGOs (such as the Indigenous Missionary Council CIMI, World Rainforest Movement and Friends of the Earth, amongst others) have been saying for several years: that REDD undermines indigenous communities’ identities. The imposed split personality – the “Acapú” being forced to perform both as good Indians and bad cowboys – is part of the violence that is increasingly exerted on indigenous peoples in the Amazon. While on one hand big landowners and multinationals seek to overthrow territorial rights of indigenous people, REDD disempowers them and threatens their identities within their territories.

“Acapú” and Suruí

Some of the indications that the research is actually about the Surui Forest Carbon Project:

  • The description of the “Acapú´s” strong web presence matches the Suruí’s web presence. (For instance, the article mentions a YouTube channel called “Acapú Tribe”. The Suruí’s channel is called Suruí Tribe…)
  • The article states that chief “Cairu” was placed on a list of the 100 most successful entrepreneurs by an influential international magazine. Chief Almir Surui was placed as number 53 among the 100 most creative people in business 2011 by
  • The article states that the first 125.000 tons of carbon generated by the REDD project Acapú were sold to a large Brazilian cosmetics company. Brazil’s cosmetics-giant Natura bought 120.000 tons of carbon in September 2011, as can be read on the Suruí’s website.
  • The article mentions different baseline scenarios based on the periods 2001 to 2004 and 2004 to 2009 being elaborated in the 120 page Project Design Document of the “Acapú” project. The Project Design Document of the Suruí project comprises 123 pages and refers to very similar scenarios in the same periods of time.

An ethical dilemma

Reading the article, one cannot avoid the impression of a certain indecision or even ethical dilemma that the authors seemingly faced in the course of their study. On one hand they felt it necessary to reveal the stark inconsistencies and irregularities they discovered in the project. Direct access to the “Acapú” community was apparently denied to the researchers by chief “Cairú”.

One of the project developers approached the researchers in concern about “negative consequences for the reputation of the project” as a consequence of the research and seemed “very defensive” during the conversation. Such attempts to impede the investigation may have even increased the researcher’s motivation to, as they put it “open the black box” of the project and expose its contradictions.

On the other hand they chose to not reveal the true identity of the project. Why? Of course it would have been incorrect to expose the people who trusted them with interviews, but wouldn’t it have been enough to conceal the names of these persons? Why was the anonymization of the project data deemed necessary? Why uphold the reputation of a highly problematic project that is misleadingly represented as an example to be followed?

Transparency and rigorous scientific analyses of REDD are urgently needed

REDD projects are being imposed in Amazonian communities at an accelerated pace and mostly on the grounds of flimsy pseudo-scientific justifications. Transparency and independent rigorous scientific analyses of existing REDD experiences like the Suruí Carbon project are urgently needed in order to support the decision making process of those communities. The study described in this article should not stay hidden in the black box of academia. It should be made available to a broader public, also in Portuguese.

The paradigm of the financialization of nature through REDD or payments for “environmental services” remains largely unquestioned in the academic world. In an earlier publication one of the article’s authors endorsed REDD as an essential “economic incentive to conserve forests”.

In their current “Acapú” article the authors assume a more critical standpoint and come to the conclusion that “those [ITC] technologies are being mobilized to conceal some of the paradoxes of neoliberal environmental management practices”. But they argue that “the credibility of other important initiatives aimed at the reducing of emissions from deforestation” might be undermined by the questionable use of this technology.

The authors seem to hold on to the belief that the misuse of information and communication technology is an isolated problem that could be possibly fixed through additional safeguards. There is much to suggest though that the innumerous recurring problems in REDD projects such as deceitful use of ICT, biased baselines, double accounting of carbon credits, division and criminalization of forest dependent communities etc. are rooted in the inherently paradoxical makeup of this kind of profit driven environmental project.

It is to be hoped that more independent researchers from various academic fields will investigate REDD projects, holding up the values of scientific freedom and social responsibility, so that communities can advance in this urgent discussion.

PHOTO Credit: Screenshot from Almir Surui speaking at Google Earth Outreach launch, 2008. Screenshot from Fast Company’s video, “How chief Almir and the Surui tribe protect their ancient rain forests”, 2011. Photos added by REDD-Monitor.

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  1. As REDD+ is supposed to pay for relative results (actual stock – hypothetical stock produced by the unabated threat) instead that simply related to the absolute result (actual stock) it obviously invites the beneficiaries to present the hypothetical scenario as catastrophic as possible. I owned a forest I would threat to clear it (even if not profitable) in order to get as much REDD+ money as possible. It is like to make public that a specific ransom would be paid to terrorists for every hostage not killed. Lot of “terrorists” would come out, likely kill a couple of them to show that their intentions are serious, and be rewarded as good guys who saved the remaining hostages.
    If a virtuous (poor) country like Bhutan preserves most of its territory from deforestation (= no threat) won’t get any money, while Indonesia (= its corrupt bureacracy), the champion of deforestation gets REDD+ money while its forests continue to be cleared.

  2. The director of forestry from Sabah, Malaysia Datuk San Mannan once put it like this:
    “However, much as I acknowledge the sincerity of REDD, I abhor the principle by which it appears to thrive on : i.e. the concept of fear, the concept of intimidation, the notion of threats in order for a real estate of rainforest to have value and of rewarding blackmail. Perhaps, I do not know enough. However, if one’s “ business as usual ” is good governance of rainforests, if it is a certified forest and well managed and a conservation area of world standing and so forth, REDD+ cannot apply. It has been explained to me that, there is no additionality – i.e. the additionality of fear !!. Since there is no additionality, the carbon there upon, is of no value – it will not sell. Nobody wants it. Zelch !!. On the contrary, if you destroy and then stop halfway, threaten to do more harm, there is additionality and the retained carbon therefore sells. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is madness and a system that rewards Rogues¸ rewards Blackmailers and rewards people who intimidate. Al Capone must now be smiling in his grave saying,” Compadre, My Culture is Aliveeee, Si, Si, !!”
    He said this at a WWF side event during Rio+20 entitled: “Green economy in action – Acre and Sabah show Rio+20 how it’s done”. The event had bben awaited with high expectations, since it was part of an exchange program between Acre and Sabah, which had originally been proposed by Prince Charles. Mannan’s speech was pretty much of a surprise for the organizers.
    The full speech can be read here: