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Should Mexican Farmers Suffer for California’s Carbon? Community Fears Land Grab Under Guise of Stopping Climate Change

A California proposal would offset the state’s climate-altering emissions by paying for forest conservation in Chiapas. Could there be unintended consequences in a region with a history of human rights abuse and land grabs?
 
 
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A protest against dumping in local rivers that stopped traffic on the highway to Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico.
Photo Credit: Alejandro Linares Garcia/Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

“We are not responsible for climate change—it’s the big industries that are,” said Abelardo, a young man from the Tseltal Mayan village of Amador Hernández in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas. “So why should we be held responsible, and even punished for it?”

Abelardo was one of dozens of villagers who had traveled to the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas to protest an international policy meeting on climate change and forest conservation. At a high-end conference center, representatives from the state of California and from states and provinces around the world were working out mechanisms intended to mitigate climate change by protecting tropical forests. The group was called the Governor’s Climate and Forests Task Force (GCF), and California’s interest was in using forest preservation in Chiapas as a carbon offset—a means for meeting climate change goals under the state’s 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act.

Such an agreement among subnational governments is unprecedented, and California officials view it as an important way for the world’s eighth largest economy to help the developing world. But judging from the reaction on the streets of San Cristóbal, Mexican peasants see it differently. The lush, mountainous state of Chiapas has a long history of human rights abuses, and the Mexican government has forcibly evicted indigenous families from their lands in the name of environmental protection. To indigenous peasants in the Lacandon jungle, the pending agreement has all the hallmarks of a land grab.

 

And such culture clashes over land and forests may become more common: As scientists, economists, and governments worldwide struggle to find solutions to runaway climate change, they are investing in one-size-fits-all financial strategies for emissions reductions in developing countries. These policies tend to ignore local needs, land tenure issues, small-scale economies, cultural practices, and histories. Communities in developing countries are raising concerns that, in some instances, these alleged cures may be worse than the disease.

The GCF was founded in 2009 when 16 states and provinces, from California to Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, and from Cross-River State, Nigeria, to Acre, Brazil, decided to explore ways to implement a program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD). REDD is a program intended to fight climate change by stopping deforestation. Under REDD, the industrialized North hopes to offset carbon emissions by paying the global South to preserve forests (which store carbon). Since its acceptance into U.N. climate negotiations in 2005, the program has grown popular among international agencies and governments interested in funding rural development—and has generated fierce resistance among sectors of the rural poor and indigenous peoples.

When indigenous peasant farmers in Chiapas hear that they’ll be paid to stop growing traditional crops and reforest with African palm trees, they see signs of a familiar pattern. And when they’re told that they may have to leave their jungle villages to allow the forest to recover, they’re acutely aware of the ongoing theft of their lands. In Chiapas, both projects—the planting of biofuel crops and the forced resettlement of forest communities—are linked to the local implementation of REDD.

 

Agencies and policy leaders acknowledge the tension, but are sometimes dismissive of the depth of the problem. William Boyd, senior advisor to the GCF and a professor of law at the University of Colorado, said, “Any broad public policy is going to generate opposition. We understand that, and we see the need to do a better job at communicating our objectives.” 

But the problem is not merely communication. It is an issue of fundamentally different ways of viewing the world. León Enrique Ávila, an agronomist and professor of sustainable development at the Intercultural University of Chiapas, sees REDD as “a continuation of the colonial project to do away with the indigenous worldview.”

 
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