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The Politics of Agricultural Carbon Finance: The Case of the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project

STEPS Centre Working Paper 49
by Joanes Atela

In the context of major scientific and policy concern with the causes and implications of climate change, various actors are now keen to demonstrate how agricultural carbon finance can help achieve multiple benefits or ‘triple wins’ for sub-Saharan African agriculture.

The target areas for these demonstrations have complex sociopolitical histories including prior donor interventions seeking to address related problems of poverty and the environment. Agricultural carbon finance, with associated globally framed narratives and interests, arrives on the back of these interventions and intersects with existing socio-cultural contexts and local and national policy processes to reshuffle livelihoods and ecologies.

This paper explores this interplay empirically, drawing on evidence from the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project (KACP). KACP is the first World Bank supported project on agricultural carbon finance in Africa and has worked with groups of smallholders in western Kenya since 2008. Fieldwork, interviews and document analysis show how a powerful donor-science network has established a dominant narrative around ‘triple wins’ which does not resonate well with local circumstances.

Farmers, concerned with food security through maize farming, focus on only one ‘win’- increases in maize production – with little awareness of or attention to climate resilience or carbon income. The Kenyan government, on the other hand, faces an implicit dilemma as to whether to mechanize agriculture as a quick fix for looming hunger or to embrace conservation agriculture for carbon finance.

As more powerful, resource and scientifically endowed global and project development institutions intersect rather messier, informal and complex local institutions, there is not a neat unfolding of a planned ‘agricultural carbon project’ – but a more complex situation from which various actors are nevertheless able to draw benefit, but from which certain farmers lose.

This paper therefore justifies the need to go beyond top-down donor and science-driven projectization of agricultural carbon finance. Approaches and associated capacity-building need to inform farmers more fully of links between sustainable farming practices and carbon; clarify their carbon rights, and attend to wider development issues such as water access and secure land tenure which bear heavily on carbon projects. This is vital if smallholder farmers are to become more empowered to expand their opportunities and wellbeing in the context of climate change and the uncertain promise of carbon money.

This paper was produced jointly by Future Agricultures and the ESRC STEPS Centre