Six thoughts on ‘the carbon fix’

The following paragraphs present my reflections after reading four chapters of the book ‘The Carbon Fix’ (2016), edited by Stephanie Paladino and Shirley Fiske, and which I had the honor to preface. I acted as a discussant of these contributions in the recently held Annual Meeting of the American Association of Anthropologists, Minneapolis, 19th November 2016.

I would like to start thanking the Panel conveners and Book Editors, Shirley and Fiske, for inviting me to be here and to write the book’s Foreword. I’m not going to read the argument put together in the Foreword, which revolved around the importance of thinking about ‘The Carbon Fix’ through the lens of justice, but to sketch instead six thoughts I had when reading four of the articles led by James, Michael, Laura and Pam, who are here today.

First thought: Critique versus accommodation

The four papers reflect all together the tension between the rejection of ‘the carbon economy’ grounded on critical enquiry –regardless of the critique’s angle: anthropology, geography, political economy or ecological economics- and the acceptance of such economy, which comes with suggestions for improvement, such as making carbon projects or REDD+ activities more sensitive and attune with social-ecological contexts, as well as more sensitive to participation and distribution, at least at the national and local scales.

This tension is of course not new and it’s a recurrent one in debates about environmental offsetting, since its emergence in the 1970s in the United States, or in debates for other social policy domains, such as conditional cash transfers. Walden Bello, for example, has argued that conditional cash transfers are ‘about poverty containment rather than poverty reduction’, and that they are promoted by institutions that support forms of macro-economic growth that engender the conditions of poverty that such cash transfers are supposed to alleviate. Does it ring a bell?

Second thought: Long life to critique!

The second thought I had when reading the four articles is that critical scholars should be proud of themselves: I think we have contributed a lot to deflate the balloon of this new carbon economy or, while writing, we have made it look bigger than it has ever actually been. For example, offset markets are relatively small or they are working very poorly when compared to other commodity markets. Many airlines stopped offering offsets in 2011 onwards because nobody would pay for them. Three of the four articles show quite neatly that REDD+ has become more an aid-based mechanism, than it has been a market-based one with strong conditionalities attached. It has been more ‘aid/donor as usual’ by governments, NGOs and consultants, than a revolutionary mechanism leading to dispossessing farmers from forests –with unquestionable exceptions, of course. Many communities involved in REDD+ pilots worldwide are waiting for payments to materialize after participating in policy and project-based design processes.

I’m not suggesting that there are no markets at all, and that we have invented the balloon all together. But I’m suggesting that our critique might have been more effective than we could have imagined, resulting in less appetite for these new sort of ‘invisible’ nature commodities than we originally envisaged when we saw the balloon inflating. In Mexico, except for a few organisations now pushing for emission reduction initiatives under World Bank support, nobody associates REDD+ with carbon trading. NGOs want to think, rightly or wrongly –and we can discuss this later-, that REDD+ will mostly be about receiving money from the international community to develop sustainable rural development plans. Should this be seen as a conquest from the critics and from those who resist ‘the carbon fix’?

Third thought: Cashing in

Yes, we have probably contributed to deflate or explode the balloon altogether. However, while we were busy deconstructing nature and burying rather than sequestering carbon, a few cashed in and no tangible or relevant benefits reached forest communities. Three of the four papers argue that most of the money invested in preparing carbon forestry markets or REDD+ governance has gone to state governments, consultants, NGOs, and the like. Efforts to clarify tenure relations, particularly in favor of forest communities, have been weak. Activities geared at sustainable and profitable timber extraction that can uplift livelihoods have been limited to a few projects and have been insufficiently sustained over time. Time and money invested in social processes, such as participation and consent, or at building the social contract Michael advocates for, have been scarce.

Fourth thought: the never-ending story

This last point takes me to my fourth thought, which goes one step further: when is there ‘enough participation’ in ‘the carbon fix’? And what kind of participation should be pursued? Insights from the three empirical articles suggest that farmers, forest dwellers, and communities in general are poorly informed and misunderstand what’s behind a carbon or REDD+ project, i.e. the ultimate purpose, trading carbon, their additional objectives, supporting livelihoods, and how these should be achieved in practice. As a result, there are calls for more and better participation. But how? And funded by whom?

I just arrived from Mexico, where the government finalised a public consultation of the REDD+ strategy targeting thousands of villages throughout the country and developing dozens of focus group discussions in capitals and other towns of REDD+ priority regions. The process was apparently rushed, and somewhat flawed, but despite this tremendous effort, critiques from civil society organisations abound, on the grounds that more efforts are needed to reach everybody who might be potentially affected by future land management activities under REDD+. I could not agree more, but who would fund such continuous effort? When should we call participatory processes to a close? Which lending agencies and private donors are willing to support bottom-up participatory processes forever?

Another difficulty is to identify who should participate in these participatory processes and to develop those in a way that are both inclusive and respectful . Understanding tenure dynamics, understood as the set of social relations and property rights that glue the socio-ecological fabric that forests represent, is always a good starting point to deal with the whom and the how. As the Vietnam and Brazil papers implicitly suggest, this is by no means a straightforward task because legality and legitimacy in land tenure mean different things to different people. If we were to extend the participatory processes in the Brazilian carbon projects, why should not we also involve the migrants who threaten indigenous peoples’ territories? Which advantages or disadvantages would that have? And in Vietnam, should projects targeting state-owned forests involve the inhabiting but untitled communities? And those projects targeting land titled to ethnic groups… should they involve in participatory processes the government which feels entitled to carbon ownership and carbon rights?

Fifth thought: More ‘superfluous’ research

We, the academics in the room, have also benefited from the new carbon economy through the pursuit of research grants. Therefore, outlining a few areas of additional enquiry might sound superfluous, even hypocritical. Our panelists have shown that, in each project, or in the REDD+ preparedness phase, there is an important number of intermediaries about which we know little about: it is known who they are, but why they operate the way they do, in which countries, under which operational assumptions, and if they got involved in the carbon economy as a mode of institutional reproduction or as a life source has not been well researched and systematised.

The scholarship of the ‘new carbon economy’ has probably not been sufficiently in contact with anthropologists like those present in this conference and in this Panel. Articles about carbon projects and REDD+ have not sufficiently problematized very contested social entities like ‘the community’, or ‘the indigenous’. We have been more interested on unearthing the challenges of realising justice at the intersection of project proponents and communities, and of communities and the global community (including donors, prospective carbon buyers and citizens), or at the level of international negotiations, than we have been on explaining how carbon projects and offsets create new elites at local level, and how they might be helping some to gain power against others. We have also not paid sufficient attention to how these projects and REDD+ preparedness might have politically favored some social identities over others, and why.

Another under explored question relates to the existence of contradictory policy incentives that will compromise any promised emission reductions and the lack of interest in REDD+ activities by agribusiness, mining and timber companies.  In this regard, and during my stay in Mexico last week, an officer of the national forestry commission complained about how little interest the agricultural ministry had so far had in the REDD+ readiness phase and how difficult it had been for the forestry commission to receive attention from agribusinesses and timber management organisations. This is again a commonly found weakness of REDD+ preparedness throughout the world, which in turn suggest that those who aim to ‘trade nature to save it’ or ‘to destroy nature all together’ are, albeit some exceptions, two separate social networks. I think that we wrongly believe they go together because a few NGOs from the former group get funding from a few large multinationals from the latter.

Six thought: ‘Doing good, feeling bad’

Finally, I would not like to conclude without a final reflection that came to mind after reading Jim’s article. In my view, the mere existence of the conservationist movement, and the more recent ‘selling nature to trade it’ one, seems to connect with some kind of logic of ‘doing good’, rooted in a sense of guilt that we want to confront. This sense of guilt is related to our consumerist behavior, which has inextricable and complex links to a series of environmental impacts across the world. Knowing this springs in us a desire to find ways of alleviating these impacts and ease our consciousness. But the sense of guilt is also related to the fact that we have increasingly become urban beings, detached from everyday natural resource management, and who feel the need to support those who still live somewhat like our ancestors. So, the question becomes then, how can we approach or relate to nature under such individual and collective conditions of doing good, feeling bad and urban living? Should we simply discard whatever mode of environmental conservation action, dismantle related NGOs and focus our efforts on developing a non-capitalist and less urban global society? And, if so, where do we start?

Our life as Rarámuri’s in the forests

The photo voice exhibition “Our life as Rarámuri’s in the forests”, i.e. Nuestra Vida Rarámuri en el Bosque (in Spanish), has now been opened to the general public at the National Museum of Cultures, in central Mexico City. The exhibition is an effort led by members of the Rarámuri community of Kwechi, located in the Western Sierra Madre, in the state of Chihuahua, who took pictures and wrote up their stories during a one-year period. The community was supported by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the United Kingdom, in the context of an international research project focused on understanding conflict and cooperation in the development of REDD+ policies in Mexico, Nepal and Vietnam (which I have the honour to coordinate).

The opening counted with the participation of some of the Rarámuri involved in the development of the photo voice exhibition project, who travelled for two days to attend the event, as well as of Dr. Horacio Almanza from INAH who had trained the community in picture-taking. The pictures and the associated text illustrate the community’s livelihood activities and the role that forests play in their lives.

The exhibition will remain in the Museum until the end of January 2017 and it will then move to another location in Chihuahua, and to the school of Kwechi. Subsequently, there are plans to take it (alongside the other photo voice projects conducted in Nepal and Vietnam) to one or more international policy events related to biodiversity conservation and climate change policy.

We will soon be able to post and share an electronic file containing the dozens of pictures that make up the photo voice project but, meanwhile, I just leave a few examples below (open them in a new tab to enlarge them).

Photo Voice exhibition flyer

Photo Exhibit 1

Photo Exhibit 2

Photo Exhibit 3

Photo Exhibit 3

Photo Exhibit 4

Photo Exhibit 5

Photo Exhibit 6

Photo Exhibit 7

Photo Exhibit 8


Evidence on the Effectiveness of Tropical Forest Conservation

The PLOS ONE Collection “Measuring forest conservation effectiveness” brings together a series of studies that evaluate the effectiveness of tropical forest conservation policies and programs with the goal of measuring conservation success and associated co-benefits.

In the overview piece, we describes the geographic and methodological scope of the studies, as well as the policy instruments covered in the Collection as of June 2016. Focusing on forest cover change, we systematically compare the conservation effects estimated by the studies and discuss them in the light of previous findings in the literature. Nine studies estimated that annual conservation impacts on forest cover were below one percent, with two exceptions in Mexico and Indonesia. Differences in effect sizes are not only driven by the choice of conservation measures.

One key lesson from the studies is the need to move beyond the current scientific focus of estimating average effects of undifferentiated conservation programs. The specific elements of the program design and the implementation context are equally important factors for understanding the effectiveness of conservation programs. Particularly critical will be a better understanding of the causal mechanisms through which conservation programs have impacts. To achieve this understanding we need advances in both theory and methods.

Cash only? Preferences for a PES contract in Chiapas, Mexico

Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) have been promoted worldwide as a means to incentivise biodiversity, forest conservation and sustainable forest management. Mexico has been at the forefront of PES implementation since 2003, and the country has now more than 2.6 million hectares under a variety of PES contracts.

In a new article, led by Sébastien Costedoat and published this month in Land Use Policy, we perform a choice experiment with a group of 82 community forest owners who are receiving a payment for providing biodiversity-related ecosystem services in the state of Chiapas. Considering possible future evolutions in contract design, we explore individuals preferences over contract characteristics including who is involved in deciding the parcels to be included in the contract, the type of technical intermediary, the level of payment and the type of incentive (either in individual cash payments or in collective investments).

Our results show a reluctance to decide collectively on issues related to forest conservation, as well as on dedicating a share of payments to collective projects. We find strong individual preferences for payments in cash, even when the amount of monetary compensation is lower than in the existing PES contract, and we show that most participants value positively the help received by external service providers in PES implementation. An analysis of preference heterogeneity suggests that community leaders play a key role in moderating individual preferences and enhancing participation structured around working groups.

We argue that the willingness to accept a PES program is greatly dependent on local governance factors. As such, exploring ways for PES contractual options to match the diversity of local conditions and individual preferences – allowing a modular allocation of PES into cash or investment on an individual or collective basis- could further stimulate participation in Mexico’s PES programme.


Lessons for Research Policy and Practice: The Case of Co-enquiry Research with Rural Communities

Have you ever worked in multi-partner projects aimed at working for rather than with communities? Have you experienced the challenges of doing so? How have you overcome such challenges and transform them into opportunities?

In this article, we explore the relationship between institutional funding for research and community-based or co-enquiry research practice. We describe the implementation of co-enquiry research in the COMBIOSERVE project, which was funded by the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme for research and innovation, between the years 2012 and 2015. Research partnerships between Latin American and European civil society organisations, research institutions, and Latin American rural communities are analysed. Challenges for effective collaboration in co-enquiry and lessons learned for research policy and practice are outlined.

Based on our case study we suggest that: (1) the established values and practices of academia seem largely unfavourable towards alternative forms of research, such as co-enquiry; (2) the policies and administrative practices of this European Commission funding are unsuitable for adopting participatory forms of enquiry; and (3) the approach to research funding supports short engagements with communities whereas long-term collaborations are more desirable. Based on our case study, we propose more flexible funding models that support face-to-face meetings between researchers and communities from the time of proposal drafting, adaptation of research processes to local dynamics, adaptation of administrative processes to the capacities of all participants, and potential for long-term collaborations. Large-scale funding bodies such as European Commission research programmes are leaders in the evolution of research policy and practice. They have the power and the opportunity to publicly acknowledge the value of partnerships with civil society organisations and communities, actively support co-enquiry, and foment interest in innovative forms of research.