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Africa: Selling Carbon Credits From Africa - Is it Indigenous People vs Carbon Offset Schemes?

June 14, 2023

By Sethi Ncube

An international non-governmental organisation which campaigns for the rights of indigenous peoples who use traditional methods of making their living is challenging the way in which a project designed to combat climate change is being implemented across vast tracts of northern Kenya.

The challenge by the London-based campaign group, Survival International, is just the latest development in renewed focus by rights groups on the way in which the rights of indigenous peoples in Africa are impacted by schemes to combat the rising global temperatures which are fuelling destructive climate crisis.

The Kenyan project, launched a decade ago by an NGO known as the Northern Rangelands Trust, seeks to change the grazing methods used by pastoralists in order to reduce carbon emissions. The resulting "saving" of carbon is then sold by the trust as "carbon credits" in a "carbon offset" scheme.

Carbon dioxide is the most important of the greenhouse gases which prevent heat from the earth from rising into space, instead causing temperatures to increase and generating global warming. Carbon offset schemes are designed to enable the producers of carbon dioxide, typically in industrialised countries, to compensate for their excess emissions by "buying" credits from those who reduce their emissions.

The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) describes its carbon project as "the world's largest soil carbon removal project", which aims to remove 50 million tons of carbon dioxide over a 30-year period - the equivalent of the annual emissions from more than 10 million cars. This will, the trust says, "generate hundreds of millions of dollars for local communities." The American technology company Meta (formerly Facebook) and the film streaming service Netflix are reported to be among purchasers of credits from its project. *

The NRT said it is owned and led by 43 community conservancies run by indigenous people in Kenya and Uganda. But the trust is under fire from the London-based campaign group, Survival International, which recently released a strongly critical report entitled Blood Carbon: how a carbon offset scheme makes millions from Indigenous land in Northern Kenya.

Dispute over grazing methods

Survival said it analysed the impact of the carbon project on land inhabited by more than 100,000 indigenous Samburu, Borana and Rendille people. In its 74-page report, the author, Simon Counsell, said the project "fails to comply with some of the basic requirements for carbon offsetting projects."

Among Counsell's criticisms was that the NRT was assuming that traditional grazing methods degraded the soil. "But," he wrote, "the case that the area was being degraded through 'unplanned grazing' is not supported with any empirical evidence, and indeed the project ignores that the 'unplanned grazing' is in fact subject to traditional forms of governance which have sustained pastoralism within broadly sustainable limits for many centuries.[…]

Controversy over previous allegations of rights abuses

Also in contention in the exchanges between Survival International and the Northern Rangelands Trust is another, earlier report reflecting disputes between groups defending indigenous peoples and those promoting what they say are development projects.

In 2021 the NRT was strongly criticised by the California-based Oakland Institute, which describes itself as a supporter of those who defend their lands and livelhoods against "powerful actors - governments, 'development' institutions, private equity funds and corporations" - to hold them accountable for land theft and human rights abuses."

In a report which Oakland said revealed "the devastating impact of privatised and neo-colonial wildlife conservation and safari tourism on indigenous pastoralist communities", it raised concerns about issues in Isiolo, Samburu, Marsabit and Laikipia counties in northern Kenya such as community participation in community-based wildlife conservancies, livestock grazing rights, land tenure arrangements and security risks.

The NRT has since accused the Oakland report of "knowingly repeat[ing] long-discredited claims of land grabbing and human rights abuses..." Oakland's claims, the NRT said, have been "investigated and disproved" by the Kenyan national government, county governments and a report drawn up by a Kenyan legal academic, Dr. Kanyinke Sena, who formerly chaired the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

(Both Survival International and the Oakland Institute have in turn rejected the NRT's criticisms of their reports. Survival said earlier this year that there are "key omissions... lies and misrepresentations" in the trust's statement , which it said had failed to address most of their key concerns. In 2022 the Oakland Institute described Dr Sena's report as reflecting a "sham investigation" and "a shameful attempt to cover up the accusations of land grabbing and human rights abuses in the name of conservation...")