In my community in southern Costa Rica, the Ceiba tree is sacred. It towers over all other trees in our forests, with a canopy of up to 230 feet.
My people, the Bribri, have always looked upon our Ceibas with admiration and respect. Rich nations are looking at them now and seeing them as an opportunity to atone for their climate sins. After decades and decades of using fossil fuels, they can now buy carbon credits from the markets, paying communities like mine to keep rainforests safe. We use the money to, for example, hire rangers who can patrol along our land and guard against illegal logging, mining and agricultural operations, preventing deforestation which is a major source of emissions. contributing to global warming.
Companies that have their own commitments to reduce their emissions can also participate in these markets. They funnel large sums of money through brokerage firms that often use the role of Aboriginal people as a selling point.
At the UN climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, last month, one of the most contentious debates was over fair rules for the new carbon trading system due to start in 2024. under the Paris climate agreement.
But the negotiations failed to create new rules and safeguards, leaving in place a system in which indigenous communities can easily be – and already are – exploited. A provision that allows countries to keep information about carbon credit projects confidential is of particular concern. This is why in the future, the United Nations body that will oversee the carbon markets must demand that any proposal for partnership with indigenous peoples begins with the recognition of our land rights, transparency on the details of the project and a consultation process with communities – the only guarantee that our forests will stand .
The current lack of regulation and clear rules has given rise to carbon cowboys – brokers who descended on indigenous communities in Honduras, Brazil and Colombia and convinced them to give up their carbon rights. in their forests, and in turn the payments that may come with them.
At worst, carbon cowboys are companies and individuals making their own rules, making deals with indigenous peoples that undermine land rights and deprive communities of the right to give (or withhold) consent to participate. in the carbon credit market.
The international community has called for “highly honest” carbon markets that both reduce emissions and protect against exploitation. But this is only possible when people who have deep spiritual and cultural ties to the forest are directly involved.
Even brokers who proclaim their high ethical standards often lack real protections. LEAF Coalition is a public-private initiative that has received over $1.5 billion from companies like H&M, Volkswagen, Amazon, Unilever and BlackRock. The LEAF claims that it ensures “the highest levels of environmental integrity and social safeguards, particularly for indigenous peoples and local communities”. But in practice, it offers no discernible guarantees for indigenous rights to the land.
Environmental integrity is rooted in Indigenous languages and passed down from generation to generation. It is rooted in our sense of place through culture, custom and spirituality. It is fundamental to our identity. We are the eyes and ears on the ground and we know if the forest is threatened. We are the key to ensuring that the carbon stays here in the forest.
Carbon credit brokers have said that the speed of climate change does not allow us to participate in the consultation process. But we cannot be mere observers and commentators if it has something to do with our forest. We need a place at the table.
Our elders, women and youth want to understand what is on offer. This may not happen as quickly as these brokers would like. But these new relationships between the world’s wealthiest corporations and poor communities like mine must also be about participation, rights and cultural knowledge. The common goal should not be to cover up environmental sins, but rather to find solutions to the climate problem we face together.
Levi Sucre Romero is a member of the Bribri indigenous peoples of Costa Rica and coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests.
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