In a world where carbon credit markets are profiting from Indigenous people and their forests, the United Nation is losing its leadership on combating climate change, says Indigenous leader Levi Sucre Romero.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Romero, who’s from Costa Rica and is coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests, calls out the “carbon cowboys” — the brokers who he says are wrecking efforts to permit Indigenous communities to have ownership of the carbon credits generated on their land, and who, by acting unscrupulously and secretively, are undermining global hopes of using nature to mitigate climate change.
Back in Costa Rica after attending this month’s UN negotiations on biodiversity in Montreal, he also warns that the goal under discussion in Montreal of protecting 30 percent of the Earth’s land and oceans may very well be wrecked by other deals that may bring recent funding to conservation — but on the expense of the people whose lands are to be conserved.
Despite such warnings, Romero stays an optimist. Like many Indigenous leaders, he combines anger with pragmatism, historical insights with political savvy, and cultural awareness with hard negotiating skills. He sees the importance of mixing Indigenous knowledge with modern expertise to fight the dual perils of climate change and ecological meltdown.
After a history of grabbing land from Indigenous communities, he believes his home nation of Costa Rica can offer a model for the way Indigenous rights and ecological restoration can go hand in hand. And he believes there are enough people of goodwill to start the brand new conversations that might make it occur.
Yale Environment 360: You began as a farmer, and now you’re a pacesetter and activist. Tell us your story.
Levi Sucre Romero: I’m still a farmer. I’m from the Indigenous Bribri people of southeastern Costa Rica. My parents told me after I was young how we lost our lands greater than 100 years ago when the federal government gave them to an enormous international businessman [American entrepreneur Minor C. Keith] to grow bananas. I spotted from a young age that our rights had been violated for the economic interests of others. And listening to those stories motivated me towards activism, to defending and restoring the rights of my community, then more widely of other Indigenous people in my country and in Mesoamerica and the world. I’m convinced about what I’m doing and that we could be successful.
e360: You might be just back home from the COP15 conference on biodiversity in Montreal. Some individuals are apprehensive that the large proposal there to guard 30 percent of the planet for nature will end in land being taken from Indigenous peoples. Do you fear that too? Or can the plan help Indigenous peoples to guard their very own land higher?
Romero: It may very well be an actual advance if it is finished right. But what concerns us is how the brand new protected areas are going to be established. In our view, the principles being developed don’t yet sufficiently require consulting with us or fully ensure our free, prior, and informed consent. That is absolutely worrying for Indigenous peoples especially, because most of us do not need legal title to our territories.
We’re working with the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, a global grouping of Indigenous and community organizations, on five issues: land titling; ensuring no criminalization of our leaders; consultation with free, prior, and informed consent; direct funding for Indigenous conservation; and acknowledgement of the importance of traditional Indigenous knowledge in combatting climate change. We discover that the poor situation on these issues is similar the world over. The pressure on our lands, our resources, and our rights is similar all over the place.
“The principles being developed to control the market in carbon credits don’t include strong participation of Indigenous peoples.”
Without these safeguards, the 30-percent goal could displace Indigenous peoples, take our land, and destroy our knowledge about tips on how to use that land sustainably. That will be bad for us and bad for biodiversity too.
e360: Can rules be written to stop this green land-grabbing?
Romero: Yes, in fact. But now we have seen within the climate negotiations already what can go incorrect. The principles being developed to control the market in carbon credits don’t include strong participation of Indigenous peoples or protection of their rights. The recent talks at COP27 [the UN climate conference] in Egypt just said that national laws needs to be respected, but we all know that national regulations are easily violated by governments and as a result of corruption. Now we see the identical thing happening with the biodiversity talks in Montreal.
So yes, we are able to write rules. But there is no such thing as a real push in these international agreements to create strong international regulations that protect Indigenous peoples and their rights.
e360: The European Union just announced trade rules aimed toward banning imports of commodity products that cause deforestation. Do you think that that may work and can profit Indigenous communities defending their lands against agribusiness?
Romero: We’re fearful, because once more the principles are putting us within the hands of the identical national governments which might be already violating our rights. They needs to be targeting the individuals who fund all these destructive activities, the international banks and so forth. The danger for us lies in investment decisions being made against the interests of people that do not need the economic resources to defend themselves.
e360: But some governments are higher than others. Your country, Costa Rica, is known for having restored forests lately by making payments to landowners for environment services. Did Indigenous communities profit?
Romero: Yes. The payments for environment services give direct funding to Indigenous communities. From 1997, the federal government has had a dialogue with us on environmental issues, and now we have an collected experience from this that I feel could be an excellent example for other countries.
But there continues to be a debt that Costa Rica owes to its Indigenous peoples. Our land was taken from us and in places continues to be being taken. Even when the law recognizes lands as Indigenous, the federal government hasn’t given full title. The country still owes Indigenous peoples more recognition and protection of our lands. We still don’t have justice, and violence against us keeps increasing.
e360: Where does the violence come from?
Romero: There are continuing disputes over land. We have now conflicts with each small producers and large firms which might be attempting to expand their monocultures. Then there are the narco-traffickers. They fight to take our land to grow their crops and for airstrips. That’s an enormous problem across Latin America.
e360: You were on the climate COP27 in Egypt. How do you think that it went?
Romero: There was no advance. We’re stuck where we were at COP26 in Glasgow [in 2021], demanding rights to our land, to participation, consent, consultation, and respect for our traditional knowledge.
“There may be less and fewer discussion on tips on how to strengthen the safeguards that Indigenous communities need.”
e360: What about funding? In Glasgow, $1.7 billion was promised to fund Indigenous communities to pursue their land rights as a part of protecting the carbon of their forests. Are you seeing any of that cash?
Romero: Only 19 percent of the cash promised has been disbursed to date, and of that only 7 percent has gone on to Indigenous peoples and native communities. Plenty of intermediaries, like financiers and large NGOs, are taking the remainder.
Most governments don’t have the tools or structures to make funding on to us. Before the following COP we wish to search out ways to resolve this problem, though I believe it might take five years to finally achieve this. It’s going to require loads of will from policymakers to create recent ways of working with Indigenous peoples. That’s going to be an enormous challenge.
e360: Many individuals see the sale of carbon credits as an enormous opportunity for Indigenous peoples to profit from the carbon of their forests. Yet you say that the negotiations in Egypt did not set safeguards for Indigenous communities within the operation of the marketplace for carbon credits. What has gone incorrect?
Romero: The carbon market has modified rather a lot. Ten years ago polluting firms wanted to speculate directly in forests to compensate for his or her emissions through carbon sequestration. They went on to forested countries to search for carbon credits. Some genuinely desired to respect the rights of Indigenous communities.
But now there may be one other group of actors who don’t care about that. They simply need to trade in carbon credits. It’s a marketplace for them — very capitalistic. They don’t care concerning the climate or forests or people. There may be little control over what they do right away. The United Nation is losing its leadership on combating climate change, and there may be less and fewer discussion on tips on how to strengthen the safeguards that Indigenous communities need. We’re very concerned that that is going backwards.
e360: You might have said that secrecy is a vital problem in carbon trading. Why?
Romero: On this recent market, carbon credit traders say they’ve a industrial relationship with governments that needs to be confidential. To keep up that confidentiality, now we have no right to know who’s buying these carbon credits or what they’re planning on doing with our forests. For instance, the Honduran government has began declaring sovereign carbon credits on the market that exclude us from the method. They’re undermining rights that now we have been attempting to defend in the previous few years.
Some “carbon cowboys” do go to our communities, but they only turn up and say, “Sign here.” They make loads of false guarantees to the communities, who sign away then their rights to the carbon of their forests. There aren’t any rules. We used to listen to about blood diamonds; that is blood carbon. Carbon credits have develop into a financial market as an alternative of an answer to climate change.
That is becoming a difficulty with biodiversity too. There may be a trend in Mesoamerica for governments to declare protected areas after which make deals for conservation with big NGOs that dispossess Indigenous peoples. It’s big business, and that’s worrying us.
e360: Some people have recognized this problem and need to do things higher. The LEAF Coalition, which has received loads of money from big corporations like Amazon and BlackRock to purchase carbon credits, makes big guarantees for delivering higher environmental integrity and higher social safeguards, particularly for Indigenous communities. What do you think that?
Romero: Indigenous peoples will need to have a seat on the table, so we will see. But I even have faith. We have now agreements with the LEAF Coalition for generating high-integrity carbon credits by including the rights of Indigenous peoples in agreements. Sometimes there are still problems. For instance, in Guyana, they certified carbon credits without going through the procedures we had been discussing
“A growing amount of science shows Indigenous knowledge is vital for biodiversity and for tackling climate change.”
But we understand we’re in a dialogue. If firms, governments, and Indigenous peoples can take heed to one another, this example can improve. We keep making progress, little by little. And at the top of the day, climate change shouldn’t be an issue just for Indigenous peoples, it’s an issue for the entire of humanity. We have now to search for a solution together.
e360: Back home from the negotiations, do you see the effect of climate change in your farm?
Romero: Yes, the consequences are very visible. We produce every form of food: beans, corn, rice, yucca, plums, and all form of fruits, in addition to cacao and bananas. Plenty of our traditional knowledge about tips on how to grow these crops relies on our knowledge of weather patterns. However the weather is changing rather a lot. The species that we eat need some stability in the case of weather. Without that, there is no such thing as a production.
We’re seeing big floods that take away our homes and fields and damage roads. Sometimes the droughts go on for thus long that we cannot grow crops due to lack of water. In some places we’d like 5 or 6 times as much land to grow corn as we used to.
To supply food in these recent circumstances, now we have to harmonize our traditional knowledge with outside technical and scientific knowledge. So my message to the world is that we Indigenous peoples are here and able to share our knowledge and our ways of living. A growing amount of science shows that Indigenous knowledge is vital for biodiversity and for tackling climate change. I don’t consider that now we have all of the answers, but I do consider the answer lies in pooling our strengths and coming together.