Money from trees: What of Guyana's Indigenous people and their rights — and do they benefit from the carbon trade?

Feature image via Canva Pro.

By Neil Marks

This story was originally published by NewsRoom and recently won the award for Best Climate Justice Story in Climate Tracker's inaugural Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Awards. A version of the story is published below with permission.

After years of campaigning by Guyana and other forest-rich nations, there is finally a mechanism to value the carbon dioxide stored in trees and to pay countries which have kept their forests standing. Guyana is the first country to benefit and is set to receive hundreds of millions of United States dollars.

But some representatives of Indigenous groups in Guyana say the land rights of Indigenous peoples, who have lived in and protected the forests for generations, haven’t been respected in the way the government hammered out the deal. They claim their right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent was violated — that they didn’t have the chance to either accept or reject it.

“Guyana’s government has said many times in global climate talks that Guyana has high forest coverage and low deforestation. What they haven’t told the world is why. These forests exist because of the Indigenous peoples that live there and protect them,” Laura George of the Amerindian Peoples Association (APA) told a forum at New York University.

She says Indigenous people want to have a greater say in what happens to the forest and how decisions are made — but Derrick John, the chief of chiefs of Guyana’s Amerindian communities, says Indigenous peoples have had their say. He accuses the APA of pushing a false narrative and says there are just a few dissenting voices.

Guyana’s forests

Guyana’s total land area is 21 million hectares (about 51,892,130 acres), with 85 percent of it — roughly 18 million hectares (44,478,969 acres) — covered by trees of various kinds. Those trees store 19.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide, a gas which traps heat. The carbon dioxide and other harmful gases are causing the earth’s temperature to rise, leading to climate change and extreme weather events such as floods, wildfires and more frequent and intense hurricanes.

Guyana has avoided cutting down trees to clear land for big agriculture and mining projects like other countries have done to earn money for national development projects. In return, the country has argued there must be value — which it must earn — in keeping the forest standing.

Over recent decades, there have been global efforts to protect the rainforest and to provide money to countries that have been doing so to incentivize them to continue with sustainable forestry practices. This has resulted in a programme called ART TREES.

How does it work?

The campaign to pay countries that avoid deforestation has been mainly waged through the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), via a mechanism called REDD+, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

In other words, save the trees and avoid letting all that carbon into the atmosphere, which is exactly what would happen if the trees were cut down. The “+” refers to all other activities that help protect the climate, such as management plans that ensure the forests are used in a sustainable way — which brings us to ART TREES.

ART means the Architecture for REDD+ Transactions. It’s an independent programme guided by all the efforts over the years, including those at the UNFCCC, to compensate countries that have avoided deforestation. ART measures, monitors, and verifies Guyana’s carbon stock through TREES, which stands for The REDD+ Environmental Excellence Standard — the measuring tool used to decide on the integrity and quality of Guyana’s carbon.

Once ART TREES verifies how many trees a country has and how much carbon they store, it certifies it, and a country is issued carbon “credits.” One credit is equal to one ton of carbon dioxide.

“The concept was to find a way to value something that wasn’t valued before — that is, the storage function of trees storing carbon dioxide,” says Pradeepa Bholanath, a climate economist. “To establish that fact required a system of certification, and for an international standard to say, ‘Yes, you have this amount of carbon dioxide; yes, your trees [have] shown potential to store carbon,’ contributes to the global solution for climate action.”

In late 2022, after years of monitoring and evaluation, Guyana became the first country to be issued carbon credits by ART TREES. The amount? USD 33.4 million for the period 2016 to 2020.

Those credits are then placed on ART TREES’ electronic register so companies can see what is available. Guyana [issued] a public Call for Proposals inviting companies to buy those credits. HESS, the American oil company, decided to put in a proposal and purchased one-third of the credits issued to Guyana. The value of a credit is thrashed out between the buyer and the seller.

Even though credits have not yet been issued beyond 2020, the system of verification and validation is ongoing, and it is likely Guyana will be issued credits for the years after. At any rate, HESS decided to buy in all the way up to 2030 and, after negotiations with the government, is paying USD 750 million for the privilege.

Why is HESS paying Guyana to preserve trees?

The issue goes back to global efforts to fight climate change, starting with a pledge made by world leaders in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. Guided by those who study the climate and its changes, world leaders agreed that there should be a limit to carbon dioxide emissions and slow down the rate of global warming.

That led to the development of markets to buy and sell carbon, a way for big polluters to offset their carbon emissions and countries to earn money by keeping their trees intact.

Countries within the European Union are part of what is called the “compliance” market, a system whereby countries tell their companies how much carbon they are allowed to emit in their operations. If they go over the limit, then they must buy carbon credits, which act like a permit to allow them to emit more than they should. It is meant to pressure companies to find better ways of carrying out their operations, so they either stay within the limit or pay big if they go over.

Then there is the “voluntary” market. In this system, companies aren’t mandated to buy credits; they do it because they want to — perhaps to look good in the eyes of the public, or because it is part of their Corporate Social Responsibility, showing that they are conscious of the impact their operations are having on the environment.

Hess voluntarily decided to pay Guyana for preserving its trees.

What is Guyana doing with the money it has earned?

The funds go towards national development projects that fall within the government’s Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS), the blueprint by which the country intends to drive national development while maintaining its reputation of having a very low deforestation rate.

It was determined that 15 percent of the carbon payments would go to Indigenous communities. Guyana has nine Indigenous nations, making up about 10 percent of the country’s population.

Some Indigenous groups like the APA do not approve of the carbon market trade because they claim the communities they work with were not properly made aware of it. According to George, “[T]his is Indigenous peoples’ lands,” and consent wasn’t given to saying, “We are interested in the carbon trade, and we agree to 15 percent.”

Immaculata Casimero, a native of the Wapichan people, added that her people are “afraid of being restricted” in the use of their lands because of the carbon trading deal. “We depend on the land for livelihoods,” she explained. “When we do not have money in our pockets, we go there to fish, we go there to hunt, we go there to gather [and] we fear that they might have restrictions; [that] rules and guidelines will be made to say how we use our forests.”

Village chiefs disagree

The National Toshaos Council, comprising all of the country's village chiefs, meet for a national conference every year. It has expressed support for the carbon trade and sees no harm to Indigenous peoples or territories. Their support for the LCDS and the carbon trade is detailed in a resolution they adopted in July 2022.

Derrick John, who chairs the Council, says it is guided by what most of the people in the villages want. He dismisses concerns that the work done in communities did not meet the benchmarks for consultation and Free, Prior and Informed Consent by Indigenous communities, insisting there was “a lot of brainstorming” and “general meetings,” out of which villagers selected a steering committee to put ideas together and present them to the government to be funded.

The projects are diverse, but most deal with sustainable forestry operations, food security and income-generating activities such as eco-tourism.

“One of the concepts of the LCDS and the carbon credits is about preserving our forests,” John says. “[I]t will support our way of life and the role that we have been playing in our forests.” As of September, 2.9 billion Guyanese dollars (about USD 13,894,600) in payments have gone to 225 Indigenous communities; 17 communities are left to receive payments.

Casimero lives in Aishalton, an Amerindian village located in the Rupununi savannah of southern Guyana. The villagers have made several decisions to support their community's growth and development. These include providing support to farmers, constructing a village kitchen, assisting women in broiler production, purchasing a tractor-trailer, and renovating and extending the primary school kitchen in the area.

John says Casimero and the APA do not speak for the 242 villages that have backed the carbon trade. No community has rejected the deal. “While I disagree with their efforts and their goals, I support their right to put forward their position wherever and whenever they want. However, I do not support their attempts to claim that they speak for Indigenous peoples – and it is important that their attempts to do so are rejected,” John said in a letter to NYU.

“Guyana’s 242 villages [produced] village plans and chose to participate in the carbon credits programme (in all instances, the proposal got well over two-thirds support from those present). They are investing this money in the priorities chosen by communities themselves.” John added.

There is no stipulation that a village be titled in order to receive payments, and regard was paid to customary lands. There was also no distinction made between whether communities from a particular region should or should not get funding, so whether people live in and around forests, wetlands, or savannahs does not matter in the benefit-sharing agreement.

The scheme does not involve changes to how Indigenous peoples use the land or propose any restrictions.

The way Derrick John sees it, money earned from the carbon sale is being put towards providing resources for Indigenous communities: “It gives us that additional support, where we can continue to do the work our ancestors did in years gone by.”

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