Will Programs to Off-Set Carbon Emissions Fuel Further Conflict in Bolivia's Forests?

Six years ago Bolivia caught the world's attention as, for the first time, it elected an indigenous president -- Evo Morales, the head of the country's Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party. In the last week of September this year, the country was in international headlines again, as the same government's police force violently intervened in an indigenous march, tear-gassing and dispersing protesters. The protesters marched for over sixty days against a highway, to be financed largely by the Brazilian government and built by a Brazilian company. The proposed route was to run through the middle of a forest that is both indigenous territory and national park. When the march finally arrived in the capital, president Morales was forced to back down, signing a law stating that the road would not be built through the reserve.

The struggle over the highway represents a dilemma faced all across the global South: should governments shield forests and the people who live there? Or should they allow roads to be built, oil to be drilled, timber to be sold and land turned over to agriculture, in the hope that these activities will raise living standards among long-deprived populations? The country's social movements fall on both sides of this struggle in Bolivia -- as the protesters marched towards La Paz, they were confronted by blockades of small-scale migrant farmers and other groups who support the highway project. In the period after agreement was reached and most of the marchers returned to their communities, coca growers' unions, another organization representing indigenous groups in the reserve, and members of the governing MAS party continued to voice support for the highway, indicating that the conflict is not in fact over. Both sides have been talking about more mobilizations.

Over the past few years, a proposal claiming to solve the 'forest vs. economic development' dilemma has gained ground in the climate debate: REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. Advocates of this proposal argue that forests are destroyed because the 'service' they provide to the world by storing carbon is not compensated. They say that the only way to stop forest destruction is by providing economic incentives, so that forests are 'worth more alive than dead' to those who receive the incentives (these could include governments, indigenous groups, logging companies and farmers, to name a few possibilities.)

But there's a catch -- where will the money to fund these incentives come from? Powerful forces in climate politics want it to come from trading carbon credits, or 'offsets.' This would mean that polluters could count a swathe of protected forest as an 'emissions reduction' -- that is, as though they had reduced the pollution coming out of their smokestacks. The decision linking forest conservation to carbon markets may well be finalized at the UN climate negotiations in Durban at the beginning of December, unless it is blocked by dissident countries.

The Bolivian government, mirroring the position of climate justice groups across the world, has been a prominent voice rejecting carbon markets. Though it has argued for countries in the South to be compensated for the carbon stored in their forests, it has argued against Northern polluters being able to be able to use Southern trees as offsets, thereby allowing continued pollution from factories or power plants. Bolivian government representatives have also objected to a market-based system on the grounds that it represents a dangerous 'commoditization of nature.' This position -- radical, by the standards of the UN climate debate -- has made the Bolivian government a high profile player in climate politics, and a thorn in the side of those attempting to build a new market in forest carbon.

Inside Bolivia itself, the situation is more complex. The country is home to two forest carbon 'pilot projects.' The first is a controversial partnership set up by three big polluters (including everyone's favourite oil company, BP), Bolivian and US NGOs and a former Bolivian government. The Noel Kempff Mercado Climate Action Project was for many years a poster child for funding forest protection through the sale of carbon credits, until a Greenpeace report questioned its social and environmental impact. The second project is a partnership between the same Bolivian NGO that manages the Noel Kempff project (FAN), and CIDOB, the lowland indigenous federation that led the violently repressed march against the highway -- not currently linked to carbon market funding, but designed in such a way that it could be in the future. Finally, the Bolivian government has accepted money from UN-REDD -- the UN program that prepares countries for a future global REDD system, which many expect will eventually be funded by carbon markets.

The fate of many different groups in Bolivia is bound up with that of the forest. While indigenous communities, NGOs and the national government are among them, the roll call also includes migrant farmers (in some cases coca growers) from the highlands, and loggers. In the southeastern lowlands of the country, where most of Bolivia's forest is found, the regional governments and the powerful landowners who back them have formed the nucleus of right wing opposition to the national MAS government. Relations between these various actors are sometimes conflictual, and who has rights to land, and the resources on that land, is far from universally agreed.

What these disagreements could mean for forest carbon payments in Bolivia burst into public view with CIDOB's march over the highway. In the marchers' list of demands they insisted "that the government recognize our right to receive directly remuneration (payment) in compensation for the mitigation of greenhouse gases (environmental services) that our territories perform." This demand is related to a broader agenda of 'autonomy' from the central government -- including the right to make decisions about and benefit from resource use on indigenous lands -- and is made in the context of a long history of Bolivian resources being sold to the highest bidder with little benefit to local communities. This history runs from the iconic mountain Cerro Rico -- which was stripped of the silver that went on to bankroll the Spanish Empire -- to rubber plantations, timber businesses and tin mines whose profits never reached the majority of the Bolivian people. Over the last decade Bolivians have fiercely defied this history, with massive movements against foreign and corporate control of water and petroleum.

Interestingly, the UN-REDD program document references the latter struggle, saying "The issue of resource distribution was a central topic during the discussions on autonomy and the management of gas resources in Bolivia. Therefore, there is broad experience in terms of consultation -- in addition to the new Constitution which specifies the authority and responsibility of the central and decentralized governments." What the document does not mention is that "experience" with the "issue of resource distribution" cost the country 67 lives in what is known as the 'Gas War', a bloody uprising that saw massive repression and the downfall of a president. The gas war demonstrated many things, not least of which is Bolivian unwillingness to see Bolivian natural resources privatized and sold without sufficient benefits going to some of the most marginalized people in Latin America.

By comparison with gas revenues, the current flow of money for forest carbon conservation is relatively small: 'start-up' money from the UN and Germany, and independent projects managed with NGOs. But if today's Bolivian government or a future one drops its opposition to carbon markets, and an international agreement is reached on trading in forest carbon, revenue streams could become much larger. And it is not easy to foresee these funds reaching those actors with a stake in Bolivia's forests without a struggle. There is a widespread (if not quite universal) suspicion of marketization of natural resources in Bolivia, particularly since the 'water wars' of 2000 to fight off water privatization and the skyrocketing tariffs it brought with it. But beyond this, it's possible that a new influx of money could exacerbate existing tensions over autonomy and control of land. If the struggle over the highway has taught us anything, it is that who has the right to make decisions about Bolivian forests is fiercely contested.

Morales' government was elected on the promise that it would rewrite Bolivia's long history of exploitation -- and that the natural resources of the country would at last be used for the benefit of the Bolivian people. This, for MAS and its supporters, involves an ambitious program of industrialisation: including gas extraction, dams and a network of roads. But the government has also championed the rights of indigenous people and the 'rights of mother earth' in national and international fora. It is the clash between these two visions, along with a large injection of Brazilian money and a particularly heavy-handed approach by the government's police force, that sparked the ugly scenes on the 25th of September.

Conflict is not the only story to be told about Bolivia -- lowland indigenous groups and migrant farmers from the highlands have worked together for many years, despite diverging interests in the forest.

Along with other key social movements, they formed a powerful coalition called the "Pact of Unity," which has been an important player in Bolivian politics. In one instance from the recent conflict, the lowland marchers were welcomed with applause in a town where confrontations were feared. But whether a cooperative framework can hold up in a context of conflicting claims to large amounts of international carbon market money, and a fierce struggle over which vision of 'development' the country should pursue, remains to be seen. The public agreement between the government and CIDOB on forest carbon payments contains little more detail than promises to develop plans and share documents.

The fates of many ordinary people in Bolivia -- and of similar communities across the globe -- will be in play as technocrats discuss plans for forest carbon trading at the upcoming UN climate negotiations in Durban. As Marcos Nordgren Ballivián, climate change analyst with Bolivian organization CIPCA told us last year: "tensions already exist, and with a new source of profits such as REDD could prove to be, it might cause problems...But we'll have to see how REDD is organized, because that will define, of course, if these conflicts are worsened."  

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