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Commodification of carbon provides fertile ground for agrarian injustice, conference is told

Commodification of carbon provides fertile ground for agrarian injustice, conference is told
Timber is stacked in piles at a sawmill in Anapu, Brazil. Kirtana Chandrasekaran of Friends of the Earth International has said that the rapid escalation of “green capitalism” is an area of great concern for agrarian movements.(Photo: Dado Galdieri / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Carbon offsetting schemes allow polluting companies to buy carbon credits to compensate for the greenhouse gases they emit. But the growing need for carbon offsetting areas fuels land grabs and the expropriation of emission rights.

The response to the climate crisis is being captured by corporate interests and elites seeking to peddle “false solutions” that often worsen agrarian injustices through the displacement of people and the dispossession of land. 

This is rooted in the fact that many of these supposed solutions — such as carbon offsetting schemes — centre around new forms of control over land, according to Diana Aguiar of the Universidade Federal da Bahia, Brazil.

“There is a stark divide between agrarian and environmental agendas,” she said, before referencing a quote by the Brazilian environmentalist Chico Mendes: “Environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening.”

Aguiar was participating in an online discussion, Agrarian Struggles and Resistance”, which formed part of the Conference on Climate Change and Agrarian Justice hosted by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas), the Journal of Peasant Studies, the Transnational Institute and the Collective of Agrarian Scholar-Activists from the Global South.

Her fellow speakers were Kirtana Chandrasekaran of Friends of the Earth International; Boaventura Monjane of Plaas; and Beyza Üstün of the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) Ecology Commission in Turkey.

Crisis of carbon commodification

Agrarian injustices and the climate crisis have many of the same root causes, said Chandrasekaran. These include capitalist accumulation and neocolonialism.

She identified the rapid escalation of “green capitalism” as an area of great concern for agrarian movements. 

“No matter what our movements are doing, it is very clear that for the corporate sector, agribusinesses, fossil fuel giants … they are planning for more fossil fuel emission-intensive growth for decades to come,” she said.

“[This is] increasingly being hidden behind the so-called net-zero emissions smokescreen, which means essentially … that you can continue [using] fossil fuels, with the idea that you can then balance it out by somehow removing carbon from the atmosphere or through carbon offsets.”

Chandrasekaran said that the corporate sector had “breathed life” into carbon financing — a funding tool that places a financial value on carbon emissions — and the carbon offset market, while creating a massive new financial asset class from nature.

Carbon offsets involve a polluting company buying carbon credits to compensate for the greenhouse gases it has emitted, according to the World Economic Forum. The money used on the carbon credits should fund action somewhere in the world that either removes an equivalent amount of carbon from the air or prevents carbon emissions.

The removal of carbon from the air often involves tree-planting and soil-based carbon capture, said Chandrasekaran.

“There are thousands of these net-zero targets that have been adopted by countries and corporations,” she said. “There is already a huge increase in demand for carbon offset credits. To fuel these markets … they need to find a way to balance out their emissions by buying offset credits.”

However, the number of voluntary carbon offset credits that exist remains a fraction of those needed to facilitate the net-zero targets of thousands of entities.

Chandrasekaran said the company Shell would need a carbon-removal area the size of Brazil to offset its planned expansion, while the agribusiness Nestlé would need an area the size of Switzerland, every year.

“The race is on now to commodify every last atom of carbon in trees, in soils, in grasslands, in mangroves, in every other ecosystem that’s available, to offer for sale,” she warned.

The drive for “nature-based solutions” to the climate problem will be a “major arena for struggle for agrarian justice movements” as the demand for carbon removals leads to new enclosures of land and more land grabbing, said Chandrasekaran.

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Battles in Brazil

The instruments and markets being created to address the climate crisis have common trends globally, but are often tailored to fit the different agrarian contexts and histories, said Aguiar. In Brazil, climate change politics has historically been centred around promises to curb deforestation and avoid resultant emissions.

“Indigenous peoples and peasants in these regions have historically faced major violent land grabs, and very often live enclosed by surrounding monoculture plantations in what we could call ‘sacrifice zones’,” explained Aguiar.

“On top of all that, they are now seeing the remaining portions of native vegetation — which are exactly in the areas still under their control — being [the] subject of a new wave of land grabs by large-scale farmers wanting to claim those areas as proof that they comply with legal requirements to preserve parts of their claimed properties.

“Communities and movements have been denouncing these ‘green grabs’, often resisting the entry of invaders with their own bodies, and defending the right to land and the need for public policies to support peasant farming and agroecology.”

The political and legal imposition of conservation agendas often erases indigenous and peasant “forest people” from the picture, said Aguiar. While many groups have achieved legal recognition of their territories, new mechanisms to address climate change pose a threat to this.

“[Forest peasantry], together with indigenous peoples that have their territory … recognised, are now being harassed to sign contracts for carbon credits in processes that promote community division over decision-making,” she said.

“The recognition of territorial rights in their cases hasn’t necessarily protected them from the attempted use of the forest under their protection as a basis for climate change schemes.”

Mozambique community carbon projects

Climate justice does not exist in isolation but is intertwined with agrarian struggles such as the need for food sovereignty and security.

Monjane spoke of visiting a “community carbon project”, aimed at carbon sequestration, in N’hambita, Mozambique, 10 years ago. The project had been introduced by a UK-based company.

“The company had signed contracts with a significant number of local farmers in the community,” he said.

“Some [contracts] were to patrol and protect the local forest from logging and use of other forest resources by … N’hambita residents, while others were to plant trees on their own farmland and residential plots to maximise the carbon sequestration capacity of the project in N’hambita.”

The sequestered carbon was sold to the company’s clients — polluting companies and individuals in Europe and the US — through the carbon market mechanism.

“I wrote a report then, concluding that the project threatened food security and sovereignty in the region because farmers involved in that project … grew less and less food crops in order to prioritise the planting of trees,” said Monjane.

“They received an annual payment based on the amount of trees they could plant and maintain. The more trees planted and the more land used, the higher the annual payment … thus, not only were their livelihoods and social reproduction strategies disrupted, and access to land restricted, but their emission rights were expropriated.”

Monjane referred to the situation as a case of “soft land grabbing”.

A fall in the global price of carbon led the company to stop operations and exit the region in 2018, leaving “unfulfilled contractual obligations, including monetary debt, to contract farmers”.

New alliances

“Carbon removal programmes are dangerous for agrarian movements, even if they are not a carbon offset, because they have a huge risk of creating dispossession,” said Chandrasekaran. “It’s very important for these moments to be present in these discussions at all scales.”

She claimed that many mainstream climate movements do not acknowledge the history of agrarian struggles, including their key role in opposing colonialism and extractive projects.

“We do have to really keep thinking of new alliances,” she said. “I think it’s an … important moment to bring together … radical climate justice movements, agrarian justice movements.” DM/MC

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