Colonialism and the Green Economy: Villagers Defy Pressure to Forfeit Farms for Carbon-Offset
All names are fictitious as sources requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. Anonymity and people’s requests that no pictures be taken were prerequisites for attaining interviews. No one wanted to go on record in connection to a new, politically charged, government program.
Consuela’s identity, like most indigenous farmers of the Americas, is strongly connected to the heirloom maize seeds her family plants on their milpas every year. She is from one of the most isolated parts of Mexico, called Marques de Comillas, within the state of Chiapas. It is bordered to the northwest by the Montes Azules, or Blue Mountains, and by the Guatemalan border on the other three sides. It is a low-lying area dominated by wetlands, tropical forests and mosquitoes and gives way to the Peten rainforest as it sprawls out across Guatemala and northward into the Yucatan Peninsula. Truthout interviewed Consuela as part of an investigation into the growing biofuel industry, and she talked with dignity and defiance about the reasons why she and her village refuse to plant African Palms for biofuels on their land.
Biofuels are fuels derived from plants, with African Palm and Jatropha the two main biofuel crops in Chiapas. African Palm is a plant used widely as a foodstuff, especially in the developing world, while Jatropha is not. While the use of food crops for biofuels has been connected to increases in food prices and shortages, non-foodstuff biofuels should be implicated, too. Productive agricultural land is a scarce resource, and the more humanity relegates to biofuels, the less goes to the cultivation of food.
Biofuel plantations could double the monetary benefit for Mexico. The refined fuel can be exported, and the growing trees themselves may generate carbon credits. Through biosequestration, these African Palms take in carbon, which Mexico can then sell on the various carbon markets. (Photo: Jennifer Coute-Marotta)Biofuel plantations could double the monetary benefit for Mexico. The refined fuel can be exported, and the growing trees themselves may generate carbon credits. Through biosequestration, these African Palms take in carbon, which Mexico can then sell on the various carbon markets. (Photo: Jennifer Coute-Marotta)Biofuels are increasingly being viewed as a “green” source of energy as depleting oil and gas reserves are becoming harder to find and extract. Mexico plans to have 15 percent of its national demand for aviation fuels sourced from biofuels. Additionally, the country is laying the groundwork for a biofuel exporting industry. In Tapachula, an exporting city on the coast, a new industrial zone was created in which a biofuel refinery was recently built. It is sandwiched between a coffee packing plant and an oil refinery.
Mexico sees itself as a future leader in the fledgling “green” economy, and biofuel plantations could double the monetary benefit. Not only can the fuels be used and exported, the plantations themselves may be able to generate carbon credits. One ton of carbon “sequestered” in the palm trees as they grow would be equal to one carbon credit. The Mexican government could then sell those credits on the market to private entities interested in offsetting their carbon footprint. In an effort to spur this new economic frontier, Chiapas has been subsidizing farmers and landholders to plant African Palm or Jatropha plantations.
Accordingly, the villages surrounding Consuela’s are said to be contributing to climate change mitigation by converting their agricultural plots and forest tracts to biofuel plantations. California, which has an agreement with Chiapas to monitor its carbon credit-generating activities, is deciding on whether to accept them as legitimate offset credits in its cap-and-trade scheme.
REDD protocol neither permits or denies monoculture plantations as acceptable projects for carbon credit generation. Yet, it most likely will. How is it that plantations of palm trees for oil production can be accepted under a mechanism designed to conserve forests of the Global South? (Photo: Jennifer Coute-Marotta)REDD protocol neither permits or denies monoculture plantations as acceptable projects for carbon credit generation. Yet, it most likely will. How is it that plantations of palm trees for oil production can be accepted under a mechanism designed to conserve forests of the Global South? (Photo: Jennifer Coute-Marotta)Truthout interviewed Anne Petermann, the executive director of Global Justice Ecology Project. GJEP is an organization researching the impacts of biofuels on indigenous populations in Chiapas. “The use of palm oil plantations as carbon offsets,” she said, “will allow the world’s biggest polluters to continue emitting greenhouse gases while pretending to mitigate them through offsetting. At the same time, communities that have traditionally cared for the land are being faced with forced evictions or economic pressure to convert their lands to biofuel plantations. Chiapas is yet another example of the dangers of putting too much emphasis on forest carbon offsets and biofuels as a means to mitigate climate change.”
Such carbon credit-generating projects may soon find a home in an international climate change mechanism known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). REDD creates a financial incentive to conserve forests through the marketization of trees’ natural ability to store carbon as biomass. Originally taking the form of individual carbon offset projects, REDD is morphing into national government programs in the Global South as the World Bank, other multinational institutions and the United Nations funnel money toward their creation.
Currently, REDD protocol neither permits nor denies biofuel plantations as an acceptable option for carbon credit generation. It likely will, however, considering that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change includes plantations under its definition of a forest and views them as legitimate offset projects for countries signed onto the Kyoto Protocol (the United States is not a signatory). But how can a monoculture plantation of African Palm be accepted under a practice, the mission of which is to conserve forests? Until the problems surrounding the definition of a forest are resolved and unequivocally deny monoculture plantations as fitting that definition, attempts to save the world’s forests will be subject to the interests of industry.
It is important to note that the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme does not permit such offsets because “[these] projects cannot deliver permanent emissions reductions.” Trees simply do not live forever.