Should Chiapas Farmers Suffer for California’s Carbon?

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“We are not responsible for climate
change–it’s the big industries that are,” said Abelardo, a young man from the
Tseltal Mayan village of Amador Hernández in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas. “So why should
we be held responsible, and even punished for it?”

Abelardo was one of dozens of villagers
who had traveled to the city of San
Cristóbal de las Casas to protest an international
policy meeting on climate change and forest conservation. At a high-end
conference center, representatives from the state of California and from states and provinces
around the world were working out mechanisms intended to mitigate climate
change by protecting tropical forests. The group was called the Governor’s
Climate and Forests Task Force (GCF), and California’s
interest was in using forest preservation in Chiapas as a carbon offset–a means for
meeting climate change goals under the state’s 2006 Global Warming Solutions

Such an agreement among subnational
governments is unprecedented, and California
officials view it as an important way for the world’s eighth largest economy to
help the developing world. But judging from the reaction on the streets of San Cristóbal, Mexican
peasants see it differently. The lush, mountainous state of Chiapas has a long history of human rights
abuses, and the Mexican government has forcibly evicted indigenous families
from their lands in the name of environmental protection. To indigenous
peasants in the Lacandon jungle, the pending agreement has all the hallmarks of
a land grab.

And such culture clashes over land and
forests may become more common: As scientists, economists, and governments
worldwide struggle to find solutions to runaway climate change, they are
investing in one-size-fits-all financial strategies for emissions reductions in
developing countries. These policies tend to ignore local needs, land tenure
issues, small-scale economies, cultural practices, and histories. Communities
in developing countries are raising concerns that, in some instances, these
alleged cures may be worse than the disease.

The GCF was founded in 2009 when 16 states
and provinces, from California to Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, and from
Cross-River State, Nigeria, to Acre, Brazil, decided to explore ways to
implement a program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest
Degradation (REDD). REDD is a program intended to fight climate change by
stopping deforestation. Under REDD, the industrialized North hopes to offset
carbon emissions by paying the global South to preserve forests (which store
carbon). Since its acceptance into U.N. climate negotiations in 2005, the
program has grown popular among international agencies and governments
interested in funding rural development–and has generated fierce resistance
among sectors of the rural poor and indigenous peoples.

When indigenous peasant farmers in Chiapas hear that
they’ll be paid to stop growing traditional crops and reforest with African
palm trees, they see signs of a familiar pattern. And when they’re told that
they may have to leave their jungle villages to allow the forest to recover,
they’re acutely aware of the ongoing theft of their lands. In Chiapas, both projects–the planting of
biofuel crops and the forced resettlement of forest communities–are linked to
the local implementation of REDD.

To indigenous peasants in
the Lacandon jungle, the pending agreement hasall the hallmarks of a land grab.

Agencies and policy leaders acknowledge
the tension, but are sometimes dismissive of the depth of the problem. William
Boyd, senior advisor to the GCF and a professor of law at the University of Colorado,
said, “Any broad public policy is going to generate opposition. We understand
that, and we see the need to do a better job at communicating our objectives.”
But the problem is not merely communication. It is an issue of fundamentally
different ways of viewing the world. León Enrique Ávila, an agronomist and
professor of sustainable development at the Intercultural University of
Chiapas, sees REDD as “a continuation of the colonial project to do away with
the indigenous worldview.”

Ávila’s work is strongly rooted in the
indigenous concept of lekil kuxlejal, or el buen vivir–a complex worldview
involving harmony among people, the environment, and the ancestors. According
to this way of thinking, people are a part of–not apart from–nature. From this
perspective, even apparently benign Western notions of wealth, development,
conservation, and sustainability are as alien and as hostile as the more
recognized ills of consumerism, individualism, and war.

“REDD and projects of this type,” Ávila
said, ignore “that nature [has its own] rights, and treat it as a provider of
goods and services, a purely economic entity. This perspective is fundamentally
hostile to lekil kuxlejal.”

closely watched partnership

Of numerous REDD projects worldwide, the
agreement between California and Chiapas, expected to come online by 2015, is
the most advanced, and was the subject of great interest at the Chiapas GCF
meeting. “We are all watching the California-Chiapas project closely,” said
Iwan Wibisono of the Indonesian National REDD+ Task Force.

In 2006, California passed the Global Warming
Solutions Act, which mandates that the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions to
1990 levels by the year 2020. Under the act’s implementation plan, approved by
the California Air Resources Board in 2011, 15 to 20 percent of the state’s
mandated emission reductions will come from a cap-and-trade program that
regulates the state’s major industrial polluters. The program allows polluters
to meet part of their emissions-reduction targets by purchasing carbon credits.
Also known as offsets, these let a company pay someone else to reduce CO2
emissions instead of reducing pollution at the source. Currently, the state
only allows offsets in the United
States. But if the REDD plan goes through, California companies
could pay states in some of the world’s most forested regions not to cut down
their trees.

As one of his last acts in office, former
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a memorandum of understanding
with Chiapas, opening the door for California industries to
buy offsets generated there. (Other states working on similar agreements with California include Acre, Brazil, Aceh, Indonesia, and Cross-River State, Nigeria).

Two years later, the protocols for this
agreement are still in development by a non-governmental body called the REDD
Offsets Working Group, which is expected to release its recommendations before
the end of 2012.

of history

In preparing for the GCF meeting in San
Cristóbal, a number of Chiapas-based civil society groups formed a coalition
called REDDeldía (the English translation would be “REDD-ellion,” as in
“rebellion”), which held a parallel forum denouncing the GCF and REDD. The
group’s statement, issued in advance of the GCF meeting, called REDD “the new
face, painted green by the climate crisis, of an old and familiar form of
colonialism that advances the appropriation of lands and territories through
dispossession and forced displacement.” That sentiment was echoed by a similar
forum convened in San Cristóbal
the same week by La Vía Campesina, the world’s largest federation of peasant

For groups in Chiapas, these concerns are rooted in recent
local history. In 1971, the Mexican government issued a decree that gave about
1.5 million acres of the Lacandon jungle to the Lacandon Maya–one of several
ethnic groups that call the region their home–while retaining the rights to
exploit timber, minerals, and other resources. A second decree in 1976 made the
greater part of the jungle–the area with the richest biodiversity in Mexico–into a
UNESCO World Heritage site called the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.

Along with a few settlements from the
Tseltal and Ch’ol ethnic groups, who negotiated their way into the agreement,
the nominal owners of this territory were designated “the Lacandon Community.”
But the creation of the Lacandon Community came with a political cost: in order
to give the Lacandon Maya 1.5 million acres of forest, 26 villages of Tseltal
and Ch’ol people–over 2,000 families who had lived there for decades, if not
centuries–had to be moved.

After their expulsion, several peasant
farmer organizations demanded redress, and the resulting tension between the
Lacandon Community and its neighbors made it impossible, for decades, for the
Mexican government to successfully demarcate the territory. The demarcation
line became known as la brecha Lacandona–“brecha” meaning split, schism, or
gap. Some of the expelled communities later coalesced to form the Zapatista
Army of National Liberation, the indigenous rebel group that brought Chiapas to the world’s
attention with their 1994 uprising. Among the proto-Zapatistas and the other
peasant farmer groups in the region in the 1970s, one of the primary political
slogans was “No to la brecha Lacandona!”

With REDD, work is underway again to draw
la brecha Lacandona. In February, 2011, Chiapas Governor Juan Sabines began
distributing payments of 2,000 pesos a month to members of the Lacandon
Community as part of the state’s Climate Change Action Program, and the state
began expelling “illegal settlers” from the Montes Azules Reserve.

“The jungle was previously occupied by
over 900 communities,” Sabines told the GCF at the opening plenary. “Now we
have cleared them from the jungle. Today the Reserves are being conserved and
protected by their legitimate owners, who will soon have access to the carbon

Among the communities slated for removal
from the jungle is the village of Amador Hernández–1,500 Tseltal Mayan
subsistence farmers who escaped plantation servitude in the 1950s to make their
homes in bare wooden huts and cultivated scattered cornfields in the area that
is now the Montes Azules Reserve. On the first day of the three-day GCF
meeting, several campesinos from Amador Hernández and neighboring communities
entered the auditorium and requested a few minutes at the microphone. Chiapas
State Minister of the Environment and Natural History Fernando Rosas denied their
request, telling the community members that they should listen first to the
meeting’s proceedings. If they wanted to consider joining the REDD program, the
minister told them, he would meet with them at a later date.

Unsatisfied, the campesinos mounted a
protest. They handed out flyers declaring, “The government is lying to you–they
have neither informed us nor consulted us!” Eufemia Landa Sanchez, a woman from
a deforested region on the edge of the Montes Azules Reserve, then took the
microphone and read a message to the plenary.

“Transnational businesses have had plans
for the rural areas of Chiapas
for some time now,” Sanchez said. “The natural wealth of biodiversity and
water, of mines, of biofuels, and of course of petroleum, have led to the displacement
of people, the poisoning of the earth, and have made the peasant farmer into a
serf on his own land. And in every case they blame us and criminalize us. Our
supposed crime today is that we are responsible for global warming.

“Why do the wealthy want to impose their
will by force?” she continued. “The jungles are sacred, and they exist to serve
the people, as God gave them to us. We do not go to your countries and tell you
what to do with your lives and your lands. We ask that you respect our lives and
our lands, and go back where you came from!”

in the balance

Insiders in the GCF projected that, given
the complexities of linking an emerging market in California to forested lands
abroad, and the level of controversy in Chiapas, the Chiapas-California plan
has no better than a 50/50 chance of coming to fruition. Aside from the 2010
agreement, no formal protocols have been approved by the two states. And, aside
from a $1.5 million grant to the GCF from the U.S. State Department and hope
that a so-far hypothetical carbon market will provide some stable cash flow, little
funding is on the horizon.

“If we can’t build a $6 million fund to
make this happen, then we’ve got to think about other options,” said Boyd.
“Among these options, we’re looking at innovative models for leveraging private
sector investment.”

Three weeks after the Chiapas GCF meeting,
the California Air Resources Board (ARB) received a visit at its Sacramento office from a group of environmental justice
advocates with ties to the Global South–including an anthropologist who works
closely with Amador Hernández, an indigenous leader from Brazil, and
representatives of Friends of the Earth U.S. They drew a picture of land grabs,
government repression, and related abuses, and urged state officials to drop
all consideration of international forest offsets in California climate policy.
Edie Chang, assistant division chief for the ARB, thanked the visitors for
raising the issues, and assured them, “We’ve told these governments that we’re
far from making a decision.”

Jason Gray, the ARB’s staff counsel,
acknowledged the concerns as well: “We really only want to work with
jurisdictions that engage in consultation and participatory processes. … We
understand the political risks. … We would only want to be involved if California can take a
leadership role.”

What that leadership looks like remains to
be seen. But if land and culture are threatened by any policy advanced by the
GCF, indigenous peasant farmers in Chiapas
will not back down without a fight. “These campesinos don’t want a revolution
to change they way they live,” explained León Ávila, echoing the words of
Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. “They want a revolution because they
want to continue living as they always have.”

of San Cristóbal,
where the GCF meeting took place, by barenuckleyellow,
licensed under Creative

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