As African countries line up to cash in on the global carbon offset market, concern is growing that the multimillion-dollar deals to keep their forests intact could threaten the land rights and way of life of people who live there.

At COP28 in Dubai, more deals were announced as part of the Africa Carbon Markets Initiative (ACMI), which aims to raise $6 billion by 2030 by selling offsets to companies striving to shrink their carbon footprint by funding pollution-reducing projects like forest or savannah preservation.

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But the voluntary carbon offset market is facing mounting scrutiny, with some critics calling it a form of greenwashing, and saying a smarter way to pay for nature protection would be to hold those causing the damage to it accountable.

In Africa – the continent that bears the least responsibility for climate change and stores vast quantities of carbon in natural ecosystems – concern is growing about whether local communities are being consulted, and if they will benefit.

“There are no details regarding even what methodologies would be used, what safeguards would be in place, how consultations have taken place,” said Jonathan Crook, policy analyst at Carbon Market Watch, a non-profit.

Since the initiative was unveiled at the last COP, in Egypt, he said, new offsetting deals had been reached with Liberia, Zimbabwe and in Kenya, where such projects have already faced criticism.

A report this year by the Survival International rights non-profit into the Northern Kenya Rangelands Carbon Project found that it was altering indigenous livestock grazing practices and endangering people’s food security.

The project did not receive the “free, prior and informed consent” of affected communities such as the Samburu, Rendile and Borana tribes who depend on the land to graze their livestock, the report said.

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It also found the scheme, anticipated to remove 50 million tons of CO2 over 30 years and generate hundreds of millions of dollars for local communities, could not accurately count its carbon savings.

As a result, the project – whose customers include Netflix and Facebook owner Meta – was put under review until October when the project was cleared by Verra, the world’s top certifier.

“Verra concluded its quality control review … and found no nonconformities,” said a statement from Northern Rangelands Trust, which runs the project.

Development financing

Highlighting the potential of offsetting projects to raise money for development and nature protection, the ACMI said in Dubai that it was expanding new carbon market trading in Nigeria, Rwanda, Ghana, Malawi and Mozambique.

It called “for action for more Global South countries to adopt enabling environments to unlock much-needed climate and development financing”.

One of the companies that has announced deals under the ACMI is Blue Carbon – a start-up headquartered in Dubai and chaired by a royal family member in COP28 host and president, the United Arab Emirates.

In October, Blue Carbon said it had struck a deal for offsetting projects covering millions of hectares of land in Kenya.

Kenyan President William Ruto has described carbon credits as the country’s “next significant export”.

The Kenya agreement followed a $1.5-billion financing deal with Zimbabwe where Blue Carbon said it plans to support projects fighting deforestation and forest degradation that cover 7.5 million hectares (18.5 million acres), or about a fifth of the country’s land.

Read: World’s biggest climate fund seeks to restore Rwanda’s forests

But campaigners say tying up such large tracts of land could have huge implications for people who live there, potentially jeopardising their right to use the land for activities such as agriculture or sustainable forestry.

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“It will mean probably that they cannot do what they do now on that land,” said Saskia Ozinga, co-founder of Fern, an environmental justice campaign group.

She said a proposed deal between Liberia and Blue Carbon that aims to lock one million hectares (2.47 million acres) of land in carbon sequestration projects over 30 years would violate land rights laws in the West African country.

Blue Carbon said in a statement that its “engagement in such projects is rooted in responsible and collaborative efforts”.

It did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether the deal would restrict permitted activities on the land by the roughly one million people who live there.

Transparency

In Kenya, communities have sometimes paid “a heavy price tag” for offsetting projects, said Mary Kambo, programme manager for economic and social justice at the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), a non-governmental organisation.

In November, KHRC found that US firm Wildlife Works – which runs a much-celebrated carbon offset project in Kenya – had unearthed years of sexual harassment of female workers, leading to the sacking of two senior male employees.

“We are committed to learning from this experience to ensure such behaviours never occur again in any of our projects around the world,” the company said in a 20 November 2023 statement.

In other projects, Kambo said there have been reports of forced evictions, when communities have been displaced to make space for carbon offsetting projects, such as reforestation initiatives on their lands.

“As Kenya signs new agreements such as the one with Blue Carbon, there has to be more public participation, more transparency and more accountability,” she said.

Acknowledging such controversy about carbon markets, the UN development agency (UNDP) launched a plan at COP28 to push for tighter regulations in the sector to ensure offset projects benefit host countries.

“If carbon markets are to work properly, they can not only be something that helps those who are trying to offset their carbon emissions – it must be … a genuine development finance asset, for developing countries,” said UNDP administrator Achim Steiner, adding that local communities must be involved.

Protecting land rights, especially those of indigenous people, is one of the best ways to preserve forests and other carbon-storing biomes, said Ozinga.

“That really needs to be a priority,” she said.

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