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FEATURE: Indigenous ‘Life Plans’ and carbon finance: two sides of the same coin?

In the early 1990s, environmentalists started experimenting with carbon finance to support conservation just as indigenous people of the Amazon began developing “Life Plans” to revive and support their traditions. A quarter century on, these two parallel initiatives have evolved in ways that are surprisingly complementary – so much so they’re starting to converge, and in surprising ways. Christopher Pollon, Ann Espuelas and Steve Zwick report. This article first appeared on

It was a hot day in the Amazon, and 80 or so members of the Gavião indigenous people had gathered under the thatched-roof structure that serves as their town square, clad in blue jeans, feathered headdresses, and ceremonial beads. On one side of the open-air structure, they’d hung a shroud to block out sunlight – because sunlight interferes with PowerPoint presentations. The Gavião first made contact with the djala – the non-indigenous outsiders – in the 1940s, and they’d seen their forest shrink from a massive, unending world to a small patch surrounded by farms and fields. They and their neighbors, the Arara, have spent a quarter-century fighting efforts to build a hydro-electric dam that threatens to submerge large swathes of their territory. As Catarino Gavião listened patiently as speaker after speaker talk of the benefits of REDD – of how it would help them defend the forest and build a future – he couldn’t help but feel he’d heard it all before. Finally, he rose to speak. “We knew well before First Contact that the djala would come to destroy the forest,” he said. “How do we know this isn’t more of the same?” The answer lay in the day’s agenda, which included the territory’s Ethno-Environmental Management Plan (Plano de Gestão Etnoambiental), which is a shared vision for the future of Igarapé Lourdes, the indigenous territory that the Gavião and Arara share. Such plans – often called “Life Plans” (Planos de Vida) – have been proliferating across the Amazon for more than 20 years, beginning in Colombia in 1992. Their objectives often seem nebulous to outsiders: they typically identify and map important hunting and harvesting areas, as well as sacred historical and ceremonial sites, and of course forested areas – categorised by quality of cover and species. But they also aim to create good internal governance and an outward-facing political organization, which is especially important for the Gavião and Arara, according to the most recent draft of their Plano de Gestão Etnoambiental.

The interplay between culture and commerce

Life Plans are as diverse and varied as the people of the Amazon themselves, but they almost all focus on ways of reviving dead and dying traditions – many of which are related to agricultural practices that evolved over thousands of years and have proven to be more resilient (but less efficient) than the modern agriculture that was injected into the Amazon in the last century.

Western farmers, for example, have cleared the forest to grow soybeans and graze cattle. These activities offer efficient production, but they lay bare a clay-like soil that quickly degenerates in the glare of the sun – the exact opposite of a resilient, sustainable farming system. Indigenous people, on the other hand, have tended to prune their forests more than clear them – preserving fruit-bearing trees and clearing small patches for corn or manioc, but abandoning these clearings (except those quite near their villages) after a couple of years so the forest will have time to heal. These strategies aren’t as lucrative in the short term as soybean farming or logging, but they’re practices that people can use to both feed themselves and nurture the forest for centuries. Up to 10 percent of the Amazon soil is a blend of charcoal and pottery called terra preta (dark earth) – a product of even earlier cultures that appear to have added soil to ground rather than depleted it.

Variations of these and other practices are at the centre of Life Plans, many of which aim to cultivate indigenous economies built on the harvesting of non-timber forest products such as Brazil nuts and acai, or the sale of handicrafts and the development of ecotourism strategies. While these activities might make money in the long term, the early phases of any Life Plan require training people in everything from marketing and management to horticulture and silviculture, and they often call for building up infrastructure. “You need money to implement the actions and programs that are defined in the Plan,” says Delson Gavião, Director General of the Padereéhj Organization, an indigenous association to which both the Gavião and Arara belong. “If you don’t have finance, you can’t start anything.” Most indigenous people don’t have that finance, and his own people certainly don’t. They launched their Plano de Gestão Etnoambiental in 2004, but they’ve only been able to implement 12 percent of it to-date – largely because they don’t have the financial wherewithal to get through the early phases. Contrast this situation with the neighboring Paiter-Surui community, whose efforts to implement a Life Plan languished as well – until last year. Today, they’re building or expanding more than a dozen of their plan’s components – from fish ponds to vocational training to forest monitoring – and they have a budget to carry them through into 2016. They did all of this in part by leveraging the forest conservation aspect of their Life Plan to earn carbon offsets using REDD, which pays them to save and manage endangered rainforest. But launching what came to be known as the Surui Forest Carbon Project wasn’t easy. The Surui – like the Tolo River People – first had to work with consultants to measure the carbon captured in trees, identify the threats to the forest, convert the threats and acreage to carbon emissions, and then calculate emission reductions that would be generated by saving the endangered portion of the forest – all in accordance with complex technical requirements of international carbon accounting standards.

Jurisdictional REDD vs Project-Based REDD

The Gavião and Arara are exploring the possibility of harnessing climate finance as well, and that’s what this meeting last October was about. But they’re not proposing a stand-alone carbon project (“project-based REDD”) – at least not before trying to secure other forms of climate finance. One option is to earn REDD income from the Brazilian state of Rondônia under an emerging “jurisdictional” approach like the one the state of Acre has implemented (“jurisdictional REDD”) last year. In Acre, the state handles the tedious job of carbon accounting, and the state also earns carbon payments for reducing its emissions statewide, but it then distributes the income internally based on its own criteria. Some of that money is starting to flow to indigenous people, whose activities might not deliver the kind of immediately measurable forest protection that a carbon project would require, but the state believes they’re contributing to the overall health of forests – and will thus help reduce deforestation over the long term.

REDD = Life Plans?

The death of a revered leader prevented the Arara from participating in the October meeting, but Catarino and many other Gavião arrived with a long list of familiar questions: if they embraced REDD finance, they asked, would they be selling their forest? Would they be prevented from entering their traditional hunting grounds? The answer came from Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui, who spearheaded the Surui Forest Carbon Project and had come at Delson’s invitation. “We didn’t sell our land or our trees, and we didn’t sacrifice any of our rights,” Almir said. “We just told the world that we wanted to save our forest, and the world agreed they should help us do so.” He explained that his people carry out traditional and cultural activities on their lands today as they always have, and the only restriction is a moratorium on clearing forest earmarked for conservation – a moratorium endorsed in their own Life Plan and backed by the Paiter-Surui Parliament, but financed by the REDD project. “The buyer [of carbon offsets] does not own the land, the trees, anything,” Almir added. “They just pay for the service [of forest protection and carbon sequestration].”

Also in attendance at the meeting was Phil Covell, Associate Director of Project Management and Finance at Forest Trends (publisher of Ecosystem Marketplace). He spent five years advising the Paiter-Surui on their project, and as he flipped through the Igarapé Lourdes Plano de Gestão Etnoambiental, he experienced an epiphany. “If you guys are able to implement your management plan, that is the essence of REDD,” he said. “You plan to maintain your forests in spite of the deforestation pressures all around you, and you point out that alternative income sources are needed, among other elements of your plan, to achieve that goal. That is basically what REDD is about.”

What’s in a Plan?

At first glance, the management plan that Covell had in his hand didn’t look like REDD at all, at least not to a casual observer. Although it described an economy built around low-impact agriculture, fishing, and the sale of native crafts and non-timber forest products like nuts and copaiba oil (an essential oil renowned for its many health benefits), it didn’t mention carbon stocks, reference levels, or any of the other technical features associated with REDD. About the closest it came was a strategy for preventing unwanted incursions by loggers, hunters, and farmers – a strategy that involved the building of strategically-located monitoring stations, the strengthening of cooperation with police and government agencies, and training for indigenous people to function as the eyes and ears of the forest. Two months later, at year-end climate talks in Lima, Fermín Chimantani echoed Covell’s assessment. As co-president of Peru’s Amaracaeri Reserve, he presented his people’s Life Plan and made an even stronger link between Life Plans and REDD.

Indigenous REDD

Chimantani is one of a growing number of indigenous leaders to embrace REDD+ Indigena Amazonico (RIA), the “Indigenous REDD,” effort being spearheaded by COICA. In Lima, he said that Life Plans deliver everything a forest community needs to serve its people and save its forest, and he argued that carbon finance should flow to his people based on these activities, rather than on standards imposed from outside.

“We’ve been working on our Life Plan since the 1990s,” he said. “We’ve created governance structures; we’ve valued our ecosystem services – such as water filtration, biodiversity conservation, and evapotranspiration – and we’ve shown that we can use our indigenous vision to save and manage our forest.” Point-by-point, he argued that by following their Life Plan, his people were already achieving what top-tier REDD projects aspire to: they had empowered women, they had restored degraded habitat for endangered species, and they had created livelihoods built on sustainable agriculture – all activities that led to a healthier forest community, and therefore a healthier forest. “We’re implementing a new model in Peru,” he said, adding that his people’s Life Plan also put them at the negotiating table with local politicians. “Indigenous people are now participating in important issues such as management, preservation activities, and communication with the state and local authorities.” But, like the Igarapé Lourdes plan, his people’s effort had also stalled for lack of funds, and he makes the case that their success to-date should qualify them for REDD finance so they can expand their plan to the territory’s remaining 23 villages. “RIA uses indigenous vision to contribute to the climate-change mitigation effort,” he concluded. “REDD should adapt to the RIA proposal once it´s implemented, and not the other way around.” Delson Gavião agrees, and says that Life Plans and RIA are two sides of the same coin, if they’re done right. “Life Plans and REDD+ Indigena Amazonico share the same objectives, provided RIA respects the principles of social, cultural, and environmental organization of indigenous people,” he says. “Our Plano de Gestão Etnoambiental can serve as a tool to find and articulate financing alternatives that can be implemented through REDD+ Indigena Amazonico.”

The state of Acre is already funding Life Plans under a jurisdictional approach to REDD, and if the state of Rondônia – or even the municipality of Ji-Paraná, where Igarapé Lourdes is located – gets its carbon-accounting system in order, then maybe the Gavião and Arara can benefit, too. But what if the state doesn’t move quickly enough? Or what about other indigenous people whose forests are under immediate threat now? In such cases, can Life Plans really attract carbon finance from the carbon market? If so, how hard would it be? The answer, surprisingly, appears to be yes.

Climate, Community, and Biodiversity: The Life Plan Standard?

The Paiter-Surui, like the Tolo River People, earned their offsets by following a carbon-accounting blueprint created by the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), which is recognized by offset buyers around the world. But VCS wasn’t the only standard they employed. They also earned certification under the Climate, Community, and Biodiversity (CCB) Standards, and this is where the overlap between Life Plans and REDD becomes apparent. While VCS and most other standards emphasise the tedious process of keeping the carbon component honest, CCB Standards emphasize the way a project impacts the people and animals living in an area. These impacts are often called “co-benefits” because they’re not the currency in which the project’s success is measured to access carbon finance. In practice, however, successful co-benefits make successful projects, because they generate community buy-in and support. In fact, so intertwined are co-benefits and project success that the CCB Standards merged into VCS last year (although the CCB Alliance remains a separate, independent entity). But can this process adapt to Life Plans, as Chimantani argues it should?

The chicken or the egg?

Joanna Durbin, Director of the CCB Alliance, which developed the CCB Standards, says that’s exactly what the CCB Standards aim to do. “We built these standards because there was interest and need from climate-motivated funders to be sure that they knew what they were investing in,” she says. “I think it’s highly likely that indigenous people have done everything they need to do to meet our standards, and I suspect they’ve gone way beyond that, but funders need to be sure. Our job is to capture and communicate that, but the question is: How?”

Tracy Johns, Director of Jurisdictional Programs at the REDD project developer Wildlife Works, says the actual carbon accounting can easily be built around an existing Life Plan. After all, scores of methodologies now exist for measuring the carbon content of trees, identifying the immediate threats to the forest, and quantifying the degree to which a project removes that threat. The hard part is reaching out to the communities and formulating a business plan – but those with Life Plans have already done the heavy lifting on that part themselves. “Basically, if an indigenous community has one of these plans, and if there’s community support for it, but they’re having trouble implementing it, then they can bring in a project developer or program designer who can apply all the technical methodologies – look at the roads around them, the logging roads, the farms, etc. – and see what’s happening without the plan being implemented,” she says. “That’s what the Paiter-Surui did. They had this plan already, and they brought in all these technical people who figured what the impact would be on the forest, and they built the project on top of the plan.” Durbin says that it would then be up to buyers if they want to invest. “What we’d do is ask them to write them down – to put them into a project design document (PDD),” she says. “Then we put the PDD up for 30 days of public comments, so that everyone – from locals who are there on the ground to experts who are looking at the more technical aspects – can comment.”

But projects are, by nature, limited to situations where the threats are so immediate that urgent action is needed. Juan-Carlos Jintiach, the former head of COICA, now acts as a consultant to the organization. He says most indigenous people will end up bypassing markets and going the jurisdictional route. Another alternative that may hold more short-term promise for Igarapé Lourdes and other indigenous territories is to direct funds from various international agreements. NGOs like ICCO (Interkerkelijke Coördinatie Commissie Ontwikkelingssamenwerking), the development organization funded by churches in the Netherlands, have already begun supporting mitigation efforts in the territory. Other funds, such as the Amazon Fund, established as part of an agreement between the governments of Norway and Brazil, may be extremely difficult to access, but do offer some hope. “There is a lot of flexibility in how the funds can be distributed,” says Jintiach. “And I think there is a growing awareness on the part of funders that all indigenous territories are in danger, even if they don’t have historically high rates of deforestation.”

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