Rukinga is on the frontline of global deforestation: every month, dozens of large gangs of commercial charcoal-makers are caught cutting down trees and building crude fire pits to make cooking fuel for the port city of Mombasa 100 miles away. No one knows exactly how many thousands of tonnes of trees are lost a year, but at estimated present rates the reserve could be like much of the land between it and the coast – semi-desert, treeless and barren of animals – within 20 years.
This could change this week if countries agree to back a revolutionary UN plan to preserve the world’s forests by allowing owners to trade the carbon stored in endangered forests on condition the trees are not felled. The plan aims to slash the 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions that come from deforestation and is one of the few aspects of a global deal to fight climate change that looks on track to be settled, with key talks taking place this week in Bangkok.
If the ranch’s owners can show that Rukinga’s trees and shrubs are under threat, and independent scientists can calculate the amount of carbon in its forest, the ranch could qualify as an international Redd (Reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries) project, attracting millions of dollars of carbon credits.
The carbon saved would be traded on the growing voluntary carbon market and after 2012 when the next round of the Kyoto treaty becomes affective, Rukinga could qualify as an official Kenyan government Redd scheme, attracting public money from Britain and other rich countries seeking to offset emissions they have legally committed to cut.
British conservationist Rob Dodwell and California-based dotcom millionaire Mike Korchinsky, the ranch’s two main shareholders, say they have spent $400,000 (£251,000) over six months measuring Rukinga’s trees and getting their Redd application validated. Despite the deep concerns of many observers about how open to fraud Redd projects are, the pair are determined to show it can be done properly.
The carbon stored has been provisionally estimated at around 160 tonnes an acre, which at the present world price of carbon could earn Rukinga nearly $2m a year — a big return for land bought only 10 years ago for around $10 an acre. Dodwell and the 50 local community shareholders of Rukinga will continue to earn money from eco-tourism and cattle, but hope to earn a lot more from farming carbon.
“We calculate that one third of the money [earned] from carbon will go to protect the forest. One third will be cash, like dividends for shareholders, and one sixth will go to the carbon broker. The rest is profit. About $600,000 would go back into the environment every year to protect the trees. It would secure the jobs of the 150 people who already work on Rukinga and it could lead to 100 more jobs. We would need to employ tree patrols, administrators and others. The local shareholders who own 10% of the ranch would earn a lot of money. The wildlife would benefit from the habitat protection and it would cut climate change emissions,” says Dodwell.
The local communities were at first bemused, but are now delighted: “When the idea was proposed, we thought ‘how can you earn money from air?’. We asked how you could harvest carbon? We wondered if you needed containers,” says Alphonse Mwaidoma, chair of nearby Kasigau ranch. “Now, everyone realises it will change everything. Since 1971 we have never had any benefits from the ranch. We get very small dividends, enough to buy just a few bags of sugar or paraffin. Some of the [new] money would go as dividends; some we would put to long term development of the community and scholarships.”
Dodwell and Korchinsky, who are also planning to get a 1.8m acre tract of virgin Cameroonian forest classified as a Redd project, potentially earning themselves and 10,000 forest pygmies who live there nearly $10m a year, say they want local people and wildlife to benefit. But they accept that the Redd system is wide open to be abused by organised crime and corrupt governments and businesses.
“There’s a great worldwide scramble going on to find land that would qualify for Redd schemes. But there are no guidelines on how to find out how many tonnes of carbon there are,” says Dodwell.
“Redd has the potential to be fantastic for commuities but also to go horribly wrong. Logging companies may turn into carbon companies. In most countries in Africa you can do what you like, log out the trees, put in roads, do anything. There is little or no monitoring. The rewards could be 99% for me and 0.5% for the communities,” he said.
There are signs that many nascent Redd projects are already leading to social conflict, possible fraud and worsening land disputes. In July, the director of climate change in Papua New Guinea was suspended following allegations that unofficial carbon credits worth $100m had been issued from 39 potential Redd projects by an Australian-based carbon company. Landowners claimed they had been forced to sign over the rights to their forests by “carbon cowboys”. The scandal is embarrassing because Papua New Guinea, which has a history of rampant, illegal logging, is leading world efforts to have Redd schemes backed at the UN climate change talks which culminate in Copenhagen in December.
Elsewhere, Redd projects are widely expected to reward political and commercial elites with billions of dollars of public money, with little or nothing reaching the communities who will be expected to protect the forests. In Indonesia, where 40 million people depend on forests, potential Redd projects are in limbo because much of Indonesia’s forests have never been surveyed, and land ownership is fiercely disputed.
Local communities are supposed to earn a share of Redd credit sales to pay for better health, education and alternative livelihoods but out of 144 Redd projects analysed by the International Institute for Environment and Development, only one included a proposal to make community-managed forests or indigenous peoples’ rights a binding part of Redd.
“The momentum is to get carbon reductions guaranteed above all else. But the overturning of power needed to make Redd work in some countries is almost inconceivable,” said James Mayer, head of the natural resources group at IIED.
The Redd rush has been fuelled by conservation groups eager to save emissions but often naive about human rights and development work. US Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, WWF US, Environmental Defense Fund, Woods Hole Research Center, CIFOR, as well as US energy companies, hotel groups, hedge funds, banks and many private buinesses have signed deals with forest owners and are setting up their own Redd schemes.
Hans Brattskar, director of Norway’s Forest and Climate Programme whose country is funding the UN-Redd programme, said he envisaged some difficulties could be overcome by sophisticated hi-tech surveillance mixed with on-the-spot monitoring by indigenous peoples. “We know that Redd will needs new laws, land reform and new institutions. But if countries do not perform they will not be paid. This is payment for services. The consequences if we fail are enormous.”