Carbon credits are dispossessing African communities

With another round of the UN climate talks due to start in Dubai on 30 November, the actions of those benefiting most from fossil fuels must stay under scrutiny.

Climate negotiations remain a space where established power is replicated. The commitments made by rich and power-hoarding nations so far have not been nearly deep enough to make the radical shift needed to slow the warming of the globe. The long-term needs of marginalized populations in the Majority World are too often subject to intense debate and little outcome.

Wildfires have raged across Southern Europe, North Africa and North America during a year that saw the hottest ever three weeks on record. Floods in Asia and long droughts in the Horn of Africa left millions food insecure and caused the deaths of thousands of people.

Despite these catastrophic events, instead of reducing their impact on the climate, big polluters are busy using the ecology of developing nations as sites of commerce.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which will host the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) climate summit, is still expanding fossil fuel production. But beyond this, UAE companies have also had their sights on Africa’s dwindling areas of great biodiversity, taking control of land for large-scale agriculture, tourism and carbon credit schemes.

In recent years, the Tanzanian government has forcefully evicted Masai communities in the north of the country from their ancestral land to make way for conservation and tourism. Around 70,000 people are thought to have been affected. The government plans to lease the UAE-based safari company Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC) land to create a wildlife corridor for trophy hunting and elite tourism.

Meanwhile, in Liberia, exclusive rights to over 1 million hectares of forest – about 10 per cent of the country’s total land area – could be conceded to a private Emirati company, Blue Carbon, as part of a draft deal. The scheme would see protected forests created in order to generate carbon credits to be sold on voluntary markets or traded between Liberia and other governments, allowing polluting countries or businesses to ‘offset’ their emissions. Blue Carbon has similar deals in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Aissatou Keita, a member of the National Platform of Actors for Climate Justice in Senegal, has described these projects as generating ‘rights to pollute’ for industry. ‘It is clear that carbon projects are put in place by polluters to continue their devastating activities and to restore their image,’ she writes.

The UAE is, of course, not alone in seeking to cash in on carbon credits. A similar alarm has been sounded on a mangrove reforestation and carbon credit project funded by the oil giant Shell in the Saloum Delta, Senegal.

Aby Sene-Harper, an assistant professor in the Parks and Conservation Area Management department at Clemson University in the US, warns against ‘the speed at which carbon and biodiversity offsets projects are proliferating in Africa’, referring to them as ‘outrageous death-making capitalist schemes to further consolidate wealth and control over resources in the hands of the elite’.

She argues that this is just the legitimization of plunder by extractive industries – aiding land dispossession and curtailing access to livelihood resources – as they seek to ‘monetize what’s remaining of biodiversity to be traded in global markets while most people in the communities receive little to no economic benefits’.

‘Carbon markets are a false solution as they place the burden of mitigating climate change away from the biggest polluters,’ says Anne Songole, an ecofeminist and climate justice advocate. ‘Carbon credits are never commensurate with the effects arising from the trade-off, and ensure the continued use of fossil fuels by the wealthy.’

At COP28, where carbon credit schemes are likely to be on the agenda, climate justice campaigners and affected communities face an uphill task to get their messages heard. The scramble to wrest ecological resources from the rightful Indigenous occupants of the land must be fought as those most affected push for greater commitments and actions towards a just energy transition.