Carbon forestry in Africa: who wins?

2015 is a crucial moment for sustainability and climate change, with the Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris following hard on the heels of the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals. What to do about carbon, forests, and forest management are crucial questions in reaching global agreements. But as recent research in Africa’s forest landscapes has shown, tackling climate change through forest carbon projects is far from easy.


Deforestation and land degradation are big contributors to global carbon emissions, and addressing these has become a major policy priority. Carbon offsetting – mediated by carbon markets and facilitated by international accords and global climate finance – has become especially popular. Carbon emissions in one part of the world (usually the industrialized north) are offset by initiatives that reduce emissions in another part of the world where there are plentiful forests and opportunities for new carbon sequestration (such as in Africa).

Such projects can, it is argued, additionally focus on poverty reduction and biodiversity protection, creating a win-win scenario, rather than causing ‘green grabbing’. This is the theory, but what of the practice? What happens on the ground when carbon forestry projects arrive?

Projects come in many guises, often under the umbrella of the Reduced Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program.

In this emerging field of environment and development practice, there are many new players, a whole panoply of models, processes, and procedures for verification and monitoring, as well as a hot politics of authority and control. Understanding what works, and what doesn’t is crucial.

This means asking some tough questions about people and landscapes. What actually happens when carbon forestry projects unfold in particular places? Who wins? Who loses? And what are the consequences – for carbon sequestration and offsetting, as well as for poverty reduction?

As our recent book on carbon forestry in Africa shows, carbon projects do not arrive on a blank slate. Many forests in Africa have long histories of intervention, including an array of forestry, environmental protection, and development projects. These have shaped and reshaped livelihoods and landscapes. They have generated experiences and memories that influence local responses to new interventions.

Our research has found that carbon forestry projects – like previous interventions in forest use, ownership, and management – have not been the panacea some expected. Multiple conflicts have emerged between landowners, forest users, and project developers. Achieving a neat, market-based solution to climate mitigation through forest carbon projects is not straightforward.

In Zimbabwe, a project developer, Carbon Green Africa, has allied in Hurungwe with local Korekore farmers and the Rural District Council. The project offers a range of benefits, including carbon dividends and “alternative livelihood” projects in exchange for protecting forests and planting trees. As the notional “traditional” and “administrative” owners of the land, they should have the authority. But they are pitched against powerful forces with other ideas about resource use and economic priorities. These include politically connected tobacco farmers who migrated to the area in the 1980s and ‘90s. Indeed, they did so at the invitation of the same local Korekore leaders now backing carbon. Today, they are making considerable sums of money and destroying substantial areas of forest when curing the tobacco. Farmers displaced after Zimbabwe’s land reforms in 2000 have also cleared land and reduced forest cover.

The new social, cultural, and economic landscape, evolving through waves of migration, makes an apparently simple REDD project immensely difficult to implement. Divisions based on ethnicity, class, gender, economic priority, and more can split the “community” notionally involved in the project. The assumption that climate mitigation through carbon offsetting in Africa’s forests is going to be easy is thoroughly challenged by the Zimbabwe case and the other examples in our book.

A new politics of access and control over forests and their carbon is emerging, making the noble aims of climate mitigation through carbon forestry very challenging indeed. There is a need to address conflicts head on and to develop a more politically sophisticated approach to carbon governance in complex landscapes.

This means that international action on climate change and forestry should take account of the complex, layered politics of Africa’s forest landscapes. As Jesse Ribot of the University of Illinois says, “Carbon forestry is privatizing, commodifying and financializing the world’s forests, recasting relations between state and market forest landscapes.”

This post first appeared on the Global Landscapes Forum blog. Photo: Jeff Walker / CIFOR (Flickr)

Book: ‘Carbon Conflicts and Forest Landscapes in Africa’