‘Blood Carbon’: How a Kenyan Carbon Offset Project Harms Indigenous Pastoralists and Does Nothing About Climate Change
For generations, the Indigenous Samburu, Maasai, Borana and Rendille people of northern Kenya have been grazing cattle and other animals, following the rhythm of the rains and rules passed down from community elders.
But in 2013, a conservation organization run by a white, formerly colonial family thought it could do better. It set up a project to sell carbon offsets based on the idea that replacing the “unplanned” grazing methods of Kenya’s Indigenous communities with a more centralized approach closer to commercial ranching would actually store more carbon in the soil and help offset the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation responsible for the climate crisis. Now, a new report from Survival International backed by Indigenous Kenyans argues that the project is putting pastoralist culture and food security at risk, and likely isn’t offsetting emissions either.
“We have blown a whistle so the world can hear what they are doing,” Abdullahi Hajj Gonjobe of Kenya’s Borana people said in a video shared by Survival International. “The [international] funds they are sending to this place are destroying us, they are not helping us.”
Way Off Base
The report, “Blood Carbon: How a Carbon Offset Scheme Makes Millions From Indigenous Land in Northern Kenya,” focuses on a carbon offset project called the Northern Kenya Grassland Carbon Project. The project, which covers two million hectares of land home to more than 100,000 people, was started by conservation group the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), which calls it the “the world’s largest soil carbon removal project to date and the first project generating carbon credits reliant on modified livestock grazing practices.”
This is based on the assumption that the “planned rotational grazing” methods introduced by the NRT will foster more vegetation — and therefore store more carbon — than traditional methods, to the tune of around three-quarters of a tonne more carbon per hectare per year. Over one year, that would amount to 1.5 millions of tonnes of carbon stored; over 30 years, the project claims it would generate around 41 million net tonnes of carbon credits for $300 to $500 million.
The project was registered by Verra — the world’s top carbon credit certifier — as Project #1468 and has generated at least 6.7 million credits between 2013 and Feb. 2023, 4.5 million of which have been purchased as offsets, including 180,000 by Netflix and 90,000 by Meta.
However, the report raises serious questions about whether any of that money actually accomplished anything. For example, the aim of the project is to increase vegetation, but NRT’s own maps for 2012 to 2020 show vegetation declining in 48.5 percent of the project area.
“[I]f, as the project asserts, vegetation cover is correlated with soil carbon, this would suggest that soil carbon in much of the area is in fact also declining,” the report author Simon Counsell wrote.
Then there’s the project’s foundational assumption — the “baseline” against which credits can be claimed. The project argued that vegetation declined during the ten years before it launched, but the evidence does not clearly support this or prove any variation came from overgrazing as opposed to changes in rainfall and the climate crisis itself. Beyond that, the idea that the land would be better served by imposed grazing methods may come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the latest science on biodiversity and Indigenous rights. While they currently represent only five percent of the world’s population, Indigenous peoples shelter 80 percent of remaining biodiversity in their territories. Study after study has shown that the best way to make sure that biodiversity stays protected is to assure Indigenous land rights.
“We have traditional ways of grazing. We have patterns of grazing according to the dry season and rain season,” members of the Borana Council of Elders said in an interview quoted in the report. “That is why our land has good vegetation. Even the wildlife wants to stay here because of the good vegetation.”
So why did NRT think it could do better?
“There is this reproduction of, I would say, colonial and racist attitudes that is still very difficult to change,” Fiore Longo, who leads Survival’s “Decolonize Conservation” campaign, told EcoWatch.
These attitudes have historically dominated the mainstream conservation movement, which has tended to set aside national parks and other reserves without the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous peoples and local communities, often evicting them from their homes and separating them from their livelihoods. Before it launched the Northern Kenya Grassland Project, NRT was already in the conservation business. It was founded by Ian Craig in 2004 by turning his family’s 62,000 hectare Lewa ranch into a “conservancy.” NRT now manages 43 community conservancies covering 63,000 square kilometers (approximately 24,324 square miles) — more than 10 percent of Kenya’s entire land area. Conservancies are supposed to be community governed to some degree, and NRT describes itself as “grassroots.” However, there is evidence that NRT is more top-down than bottom up. An Oakland Institute report from 2021 found it had “allegedly dispossessed pastoralist communities of their ancestral lands, through corruption, cooptation, and sometimes through intimidation and violence, to create wildlife conservancies,” as quoted in the report.
The conservancies are typically patrolled by rangers, Longo explained, and they are usually hired from tribes who are already in conflict with the groups they are expelling. Now that NRT is taking in more money for carbon credits, Survival International is concerned that this will be used to pay more rangers and spark more violence, and that the push to use land for carbon offset projects will repeat the worst mistakes of the conservation movement before it. There is already evidence in the report that NRT did not fully inform impacted communities to gain their consent to the project and that its legal basis for trading the soil carbon in the area is dubious.
“This organization created by a former colonial family is now explaining to pastoralists how they have to graze and is claiming that pastoralists are the cause of environmental destruction,” Longo said. “We have seen it several times in the history of conservation.”
This is why Survival International is using the NRT report to launch a new campaign opposing “Blood Carbon” — carbon offset projects on Protected Areas with a record of Indigenous rights violations.
“Selling carbon credits from Protected Areas will be a disaster for people and the climate,” Survival says. “It unites all the human rights abuses caused by fortress conservation, with all the environmental problems linked to greenwashing.”
The report and campaign come as there is growing concern about both the ethics and effectiveness of carbon offsetting. The 2022 Global Witness report on violence against land defenders noted two cases tied to carbon offset projects: Three land defenders were killed in Honduras in 2015 for opposing a dam funded as an offset project and thousands of people in Uganda have been expelled from their homes to make way for a tree plantation. A major investigation released at the start of the year found that 94 percent of Verra’s forest-based carbon offset projects did not remove any carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at all, and at least one of them actively harmed people by forcing Peruvian forest dwellers from their homes.
For Longo, carbon offsets are a false solution to the climate crisis that tempts consumers and companies in wealthy countries with the notion that they can solve the problem without changing anything about their lifestyle or business model.
“The reason we are today with a dying planet is because we have let the market lead our life,” Longo said.
The reality unveiled in the Blood Carbon report suggests we must move in a new direction.
“It’s not going to be this false solution that stops the crisis,” Longo said. “We have to reduce our emissions and recognize Indigenous people’s land rights.”
As part of its Blood Carbon campaign, Survival International is urging concerned individuals to write to Verra demanding it both delist the NRT project and cease from certifying any other projects on Indigenous lands that have a history of human rights violations and did not obtain Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
In fact, Verra launched a Section 6 quality control review of the Northern Kenya Grassland Carbon Project March 10, six days before the report was officially released. When asked if the review was because of the Survival International report, Verra responded that these reviews are triggered whenever Verra identifies concerns about a project, but did not say what rang the alarm in this case. However, Survival International communications director Jonathan Mazower told EcoWatch in an email that Verra had informed the relevant parties March 10 that its review had actually begun in January. Survival had shared a summary of its concerns with Verra on Jan. 23.
“It is likely that Verra put the project on review at some time after this, possibly prompted by receiving media enquiries about it, such as from Die [Zeit], the German newspaper in February,” Mazower told EcoWatch. (Die Zeit published an expose on the project March 17.)
He also thought a January start date for the review was incongruous for several reasons.
“[I]t seems somewhat odd that they would have taken the most serious step in their whole system (which can result in the project being de-registered) and not informed the parties about this for up to two months,” Mazower wrote. “It would also seem odd that Verra approved a new verification of the project in mid-December 2022, along with the issuing of more than 3 million credits, and then spontaneously halted the project only a few weeks’ later.”
In a statement on its website March 23, NRT said the Verra review had been launched “[a]s a result of Survival International’s comments.”
While the review continues, the project will be suspended and unable to issue carbon credits.
“Verra certified this project after it had undergone Verra’s comprehensive certification process, including review by an independent third-party auditor. At that time, Verra had not identified any non-conformances with VCS rules,” Verra said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. “After Verra had identified concerns in relation to project 1468, we opened a Section 6 review. We take such concerns very seriously and are committed to investigating them thoroughly.”
When asked about its purchase of credits from the project, Meta defended the theory behind nature-based carbon offsets.
“To maintain net zero emissions in our operations, Meta purchases carbon removal credits for any residual emissions that are difficult to reduce, and we evaluate the projects we support through a thorough due diligence process,” Meta sustainability manager Sylvia Lee told EcoWatch in an email. “As the voluntary carbon market evolves, we support ongoing reviews to strengthen projects and look forward to working with our partners to ensure they’re handled with the highest degree of care. We believe that nature-based solutions are a critical step to reaching a net zero future.”
NRT meanwhile, defended its project and argued that the report was inaccurate in its estimation of NRT’s effective assessment of soil carbon before and after the project, that the project had broader consent than the report suggested and that the claims of land grabbing and violence had been discredited.
“We are confident in the data and documentation behind the project and see the benefits of the project to the community and the environment throughout the year,” NRT said. “The result of the Section 6 Review will be public, as will the detailed point-by-point scientific response. We welcome this review as it will only work to strengthen the project.”
Indigenous Kenyans, however, pushed back against NRT’s account.
“We know NRT’s skullduggery game too well,” the Borana Council of Elders said in a March 30 statement shared on the Survival website.
The council said that the community had “little or no information” regarding the project and demanded that NRT leave their land, stop making transactions on it and release its audited financial accounts surrounding the project.
“The Indigenous communities fully support this report that is damming on NRT’s commercial operations on unregistered community lands to the detriment of pastoral communities who have been facing displacements, extra judicial executions and enforced disappearances through endless ethnic conflicts and blood bath supported and well organized by NRT,” the elders said.
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