Carbon credit dollars stir up communities in Kenya

Can you really put a price on nature? Anthony Lang’at reports on a controversial scheme seen as innovative and beneficial by some and carbon colonialism by others.

Abdullahi Gonjobe
Credit: Anthony Langat

With majestic Mount Kenya to its south and overlooking rolling hills to its west is Burat ward – an area of 748 square kilometres and home to over 18,000 people. Acacia trees reign in the plains and the picturesque landscape is roamed by elephants, lions, topis, antelopes and other wildlife.

The Indigenous Borana, Somali, Turkana and Samburu people live and herd their livestock in the area. As pastoralists, camels, cattle, sheep and goats are their main source of livelihood.

Thirteen years ago, residents of Burat heard that their neighbours in Samburu District were turning their land into conservancies – a type of protected area managed by landowners, organizations, corporates or communities. It sounded like a win-win: the people of Samburu were conserving their land, while also earning tourism revenue.

So, a group of people from Burat decided to pay Samburu District a visit. ‘We saw that communities have benefited. We decided to come together as the four communities and form a conservancy,’ said Sadia Mohamed, the current chair of Nasuulu Community Conservancy which was formed in 2010.

Community conservation?

They turned to Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), an organization formed in 2004 by Ian Craig whose family owned the 62,000 hectares Lewa ranch in Meru county. Burat residents saw that the NRT was helping communities with the process of setting up a conservancy with a vision of forming a membership organization.

In December 2012 NRT had launched the Northen Kenya Rangelands Carbon Project, which it claimed was the first of its kind – the first project generating carbon credits reliant on modified livestock grazing practices and the largest soil-based carbon-removal operation. The idea is to replace traditional ‘unplanned’ grazing with ‘planned rotational grazing’ to enable more vegetation to grow in the area and store more carbon in the soil.

‘Carbon credits’ can be sold to fund conservation projects that either claim to remove carbon from the atmosphere, or prevent future emissions. These credits can be bought by companies that want to ‘offset’ their emissions. The global voluntary carbon-offset market is worth around $2 billion.

The Nasuulu conservancy saw NRT’s plans as an opportunity and opted in, along with 13 other conservancies in nearby Samburu, Marsabit and Isiolo. In its first crediting period (2013-16), the project reportedly generated 3.2 million carbon credits which were all sold by January 2022, mostly in large blocks, including 180,000 to Netflix and 90,000 to Meta, according to Survival International.

Mohamed Shibia, a director at NRT, says that only 3.3 per cent of the revenue was retained by them to cover operational costs of the project. The remaining amount was shared among the 13 conservancies, with each of them earning $260,303.

Millions more credits have reportedly been sold since.

‘Blood carbon’

People in Nasuulu say that have received two payouts from carbon credit sales with which they built a tourist camp, due to open in July. Community members say they have also been able to pay school fees for hundreds of children for two terms. But not everyone is happy.

Survival International, a London-based charity that campaigns for the rights of Indigenous people, released a report called ‘Blood Carbon’ in March of this year which raised several concerns about the credibility of NRT’s claims, as well as the impact on the community.

‘We believe that the project’s claim to be permanently storing quantifiable amounts of additional carbon in the soils of northern Kenya is highly implausible, has no solid basis of additionality, lacks a credible baseline, and suffers from unquantifiable leakage,’ the report stated.

Survival International argue that the NRT project risks breaking down long-standing traditional grazing systems which could endanger livelihoods and food security and that there is little evidence that traditional ‘unplanned grazing’ was degrading the soil, or that the methods promoted by the scheme are any better.

‘The basic premise of the project, that it can enforce “planned rotational grazing” within specified geographical areas runs fundamentally against the traditional Indigenous pastoralism of the area...,’ says the report. ‘It is based on a long colonial prejudice that sees pastoralists as incapable of managing their own environment and constantly destroying it by overgrazing.’

Abdullahi Gonjobe, the chair of the Borana Council of Elders speaks highly of Dedha, the Borana traditional system for managing grazing areas. ‘We have many Dedhas and they are quite beneficial to us,’ he says.

During the wet seasons, herders on both sides of the Ewaso Ng’iro river move further away from the water to graze in the plains where they will have access to surface water and boreholes. In drier times, they move closer to the river to finally set camp by the river in times of drought.

Survival International also criticizes NRT for not properly informing communities about the project and ensuring ‘free prior and informed consent’. The report argues that the provision of information was mostly limited to a small group of people associated with conservancy bodies, and not published in local languages.

Community members at Shambani village in Burat Isiolo.
Credit: Anthony Langat

‘Invasion’ of land

Verra, the organization which certified the NRT carbon project has opened a quality control review and suspended its issue of credits. According to documents in Verra’s registry, the quality control review was opened in March 2023 and the project is now on hold.

Shibia acknowledges that the issue of credits for the 2017-20 period was affected and that a review is ongoing. ‘It will affect the issuance of the carbon credits but it doesn’t affect the project. Verra hasn’t discredited us and the review is ongoing,’ he says.

Native, the carbon developer for the project, has also disputed Survival International’s claims. In a written response that NRT has shared with New Internationalist, Native says that the project works with communities to present the benefits of coordinated, rotational grazing as a way to improve pasture and describes the process of earning carbon revenue from improved grassland management.

NRT has described Survival’s report as ‘inaccurate’ and has stated that it does not take a profit from the project. It has also said that a ‘detailed and extensive’ process to ensure free prior and informed consent, conducted in local languages did take place and that the project has ‘massive and widespread community support’.

But Gonjobe, from the Borana Council of Elders, agrees with Survival International’s findings that the community was not adequately consulted.

He explains that prior to this year, NRT had never sought a meeting with the council, as community leaders. ‘In 2018, we requested a meeting with them to know more about the formation of conservancies and ask them to come to us with a proper proposal,’ he says. According to Gonjobe, NRT promised to organize something, but nothing happened.

What did happen was the formation of more conservancies in Kinna, Garbatula, and Sericho. ‘Wherever they go, they divide the community,’ Gonjobe alleges.

Abdirahman Osman, a human rights defender and chair of Waso Paralegal Network, an Indigenous community rights organization based in Isiolo, claimed that in the east of Isiolo county NRT handpicked members of the community and had them register community-based organizations which then became conservancy leadership. ‘A few months ago is when we started hearing the term carbon credits. There were whispers of carbon credit pay-outs but we didn’t know the details,’ he says.

Waso Paralegal Network has now taken legal action against the establishment of conservancies by NRT. ‘As far as NRT invasion of our land is concerned, we have undertaken peaceful demonstrations and a case is currently ongoing in court,’ he says.

The basis of the claim was that the community wasn’t involved through seeking free, fair and informed consent as per the law in Kenya. The case is ongoing and a hearing is due on 25 September.

High expectations

However, when I was in the area it seemed that these developments hadn’t dimmed expectations among villagers in Burat and that the NRT project does have some supporters among the community.

Regina Ayanae lives in Alamash, a Turkana village. When I meet her, she is armed with a machete and has been taking care of her seven goats, bringing them for water at the solar-powered borehole is not far from her house. She lost a number of cattle and goats in the last drought and hopes that with this season’s rains, they will have enough to eat and the herd will grow.

Ayanae usually sells her goats to pay for her grandchildren’s school fees. This term however, the conservancy paid for them.

In return Ayanae has to adhere to the conservancy’s guidelines on rotational grazing. On mention of NRT, her face lights up. ‘NRT has made us so happy. They have taken us out of poverty because no one has ever paid school fees for our children,’ she says.

‘As a community conservancy, we have benefitted,’ said Mohamed. ‘This year we received 36.7 million Kenya shillings [$261,862] and we divided this amount three ways – 20 per cent goes to rangeland management to help with grazing, 20 per cent goes to administration costs, and the remaining 20.7 million shillings goes to the community.’

Following the release of Survival’s report, Gonjobe says that NRT sought to speak with the council of elders and make amends and they have now made some progress. The elders had given their go-ahead for NRT to work with the communities in Isiolo’s east to set up conservancies in Garbatula and Sericho. In return, the community has asked NRT to help with the registration of their land.

A price on nature?

One of the most significant criticisms of carbon offsetting more generally is that it is a form of greenwash that commodifies nature in order to improve the image of big polluters.

Verifying the effectiveness of carbon credit schemes is difficult and many have been linked to ‘fortress conservation’, land grabs, evictions, human rights abuses, and the destruction of wild habitats. The whole process has been dubbed ‘carbon colonialism’, as land is claimed in the Global South ‘to meet the needs of the Global North in the name of carbon dioxide reduction’.

‘These projects put a price on nature, treating Indigenous and local communities’ lands as a carbon stock to be exchanged in the market so polluters can keep polluting, the conservation industry can get its hands on billions of dollars, and speculators can profit,’ says Survival International.

Studies show that such absence of regulation leads to lack of oversight and fragmentation of the carbon projects, raising questions about the integrity of carbon credits.

One report found that more than 90 per cent of rainforest offsets by the biggest carbon credit certifier are worthless. ‘This also creates risks for countries hosting these projects,’ says Nicolas Lockhart, a lawyer at multinational legal firm Sidley.

Simon Counsel, the author of the Survival International report highlights the current absence of regulation of carbon credits in Kenya: ‘There isn’t a legal framework for the ownership of or the trading of carbon credits or what happens with the proceeds from the sale of carbon credits,’ he says.

Kenya is now developing a legal framework for carbon credit trading. On 24 May it opened a public-participation process to collect views that the government says will be included in a draft legislation for parliament to consider. Under the proposals, communities would get 25 per cent of the profit from the carbon credit programmes.

In May this year another African country, Zimbabwe, announced closer regulation of voluntary carbon-offset trading to try and ensure benefits for local communities. The government will take 50 per cent of all revenue, with foreign investors limited to 30 per cent, and 20 per cent going to local communities. Malawi is also reviewing carbon credit programmes.

While governments seek to reap more of the proceeds of carbon-credit schemes utilizing their states’ lands, and devastating climate change continues, are carbon credits really what we should be pinning our hopes on?

This project was funded by the European Journalism Centre through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.