Deforestation is one of the most pressing human-caused ecological challenges facing our planet today, with catastrophic impacts for climate, biodiversity, weather systems, soil fertility, and livelihoods. While preventing forest degradation, and reducing carbon emissions is undoubtedly crucial, not all forestry initiatives are equally benevolent. While reforestation sounds benign on the surface, in practice, the process presents some challenges and impacts that can be antithetical to the achievement of climate justice, human rights, and ecological preservation.
Reforestation (the process of replanting an area with trees) and afforestation (the process of creating a forest on land not previously forested) for the purposes of offsetting carbon emissions are notorious for displacing communities, aggravating land conflicts, disrupting food systems, and diminishing biodiversity. Furthermore, carbon offsetting initiatives and the associated land grabbing are typically carried out by countries of the Global North in countries of the South, which in turn have contributed the least to the climate crisis.
Over 124 countries and 417 companies have committed, in some capacity, to ‘net-zero emissions’: this doesn’t mean they plan to stop emitting, but that they will offset their emissions elsewhere. Companies can also buy and trade ‘carbon credits’ (units of carbon that have been offset by another entity or program). The top buyers of carbon credits are the United States, France, the UK, Germany, and Switzerland; and some of the major offset-supplying countries include Brazil, Peru, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Bolivia, Indonesia and Cambodia.
Reforestation and afforestation requires the land belonging to communities in these countries to be appropriated, privatized, and organized by companies in the Global North. It is for these reasons that carbon offsetting and trading schemes have been labeled by social and climate justice groups, and indigenous movements as a form of carbon colonialism or ‘green grabbing’.
In many cases, these initiatives can create and add further fuel to existing land conflicts. Groups and communities might be required to delineate lines of land ownership in previously customary ownership arrangements. In Asia, where many offsetting schemes are located, land use is already a point of contention and source for widespread conflict and competition both within communities and between communities and government initiatives.
Economic and food systems are disrupted by offsetting schemes when the way in which people have historically interacted with, subsisted off, and maintained their livelihoods is disrupted through the imposition of new land use initiatives from the top-down that result in less space for housing, agricultural production, and cultural practices.
The all-too-common denial of land, economic, and original rights to Indigenous and other traditional communities in these circumstances is often underpinned by the denial of procedural rights like the right to information, participation, self determination, and free, prior and informed consent – guaranteed to them by international laws and jurisdiction – when it comes to large-scale forestry projects.
Reforestation presents detrimental ecological effects, as it often involves the planting of vast numbers of monoculture crops in the place of naturally occuring, biodiverse forests. A report published in Nature magazine in 2019 found that 45% of forestation declarations would be monoculture plantations, typically of acacia or eucalyptus. These non-native trees impact the entire ecosystem and have flow-on negative effects for food and water systems, soil quality, and forest-dependent species.
The IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land released in 2018 emphasized that Indigenous and customary land governance systems are crucial for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Where Indigenous rights are strong, forest degradation and carbon emissions are lower, and carbon storage is improved. 36% of the world’s intact, natural forests are located within Indigenous lands, and they play a vital role in supporting biodiversity, water supplies, general community wellbeing, and are incomparably effective sinks for carbon sequestration.
From a climate justice, human rights, and ecological perspective, carbon offset and trading schemes too often perpetuate and further deepen injustices and inequalities at the core of the climate crisis. They function as stand-ins for Global North governments and corporations, who instead of taking accountability for overconsumption and overproduction, place the burden of offsetting these emissions back onto those least responsible for climate change.
In contrast, in addition to keeping fossil fuels in the ground in the forest place – protecting the lands and upholding the rights of Indigenous peoples is not only a more just solution, but a more effective one. By supporting communities on the front lines to protect forests, livelihoods, and biodiversity, a significant impact can be made to the carbon challenge without the problematic effects of imposing top-down strategies which allow emitters to continue business as usual.
REDD-Monitor is a watchdog organization that monitors and analyzes the activities and impacts of carbon offsetting and carbon trading through forests in the Global South. Resources and more information on the harmful impacts of carbon offsetting and trading can be found at their website.