Local People Bridging the two Worlds of Carbon Forestry

by Geoff Wells (guest blogger)

Drones take to the skies, satellites whirl above our heads, computers churn out calculations and carbon markets ring up transactions – all in the name of forest conservation financed by carbon credits. But what is the role of local people in all of this? Should (and can) local roles be supported in this new world of technology?

Carbon forestry (where local farmers, mainly in developing countries, are paid to remove carbon from the atmosphere by planting and protecting trees) involves two worlds. One is a technical world of computer screens, calculations, reports and audits. The other is based in the reality of forest work in rural communities: a separate world of sun, dirt, sweat and machetes. The former world will not save a single tree without the latter. So in the context of increasingly bigger projects looking to cut costs, how can we ensure that the connection between these two worlds is not lost?

community monitoring

Community technicians and coordinators in Uganda chatting with a local farmer during a monitoring visit. These discussions are a key connection between the technical and local worlds in carbon forestry. (Photo: Geoff Wells)

I am a social and environmental researcher at the University of Edinburgh, and over the last three years I’ve had the privilege of adventuring to various developing countries to meet and work with the diverse bunch of people involved in Plan Vivo’s smallholder carbon agroforestry schemes. Working first on a research project funded by the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme, and now as a doctoral candidate funded by the UK National Environmental Research Council (NERC), in partnership with the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), I have been researching (amongst other things) how local actors fit into global programmes seeking to change local land use. Plan Vivo’s efforts to connect smallholders and communities to global markets for the protection and provision of environmental services is one example of this.

During my adventures I have been immersed in both of the worlds mentioned above. In one, I have crunched numbers with the scientists and experts who monitor and verify carbon, and have mingled with the business owners who buy the carbon credits. In the other, I have hiked over countless hills to see how small farmers plant and care for their trees, and have listened over many a kitchen table as they have told me of their arboreal successes and failures.

And in all of my voyaging, three things have become clear to me.

One is that these two worlds are indeed separate. They work with very different concepts, and at very different scales: just as farmers know little of statistical generalisations and computer models, experts inevitably know little of local quirks in environmental conditions, or village customs in managing farm land.

The second thing is that these two worlds need each other. Farmers need the technical world to provide expertise and generalised analyses that enable them to access carbon markets. The technical world needs the farmers, not just to dig the holes and put the trees in the ground, but to hone the (inevitably) generalised technical knowledge to the local environmental and social context.

The third and final thing is that the main (and often sole) connection between these two worlds is through a local, highly-motivated individual in the community: a semi-official central contact, sometimes called a community “representative”, “coordinator” or “technician”. These people understand enough of both worlds to act as translators between the two, they solve problems, and generally, simply make the whole thing work. They are sometimes (but rarely fully) compensated for their time, so may do it voluntarily out of their own interest, or perhaps for other reasons (e.g. to build their standing in the community).

The Plan Vivo Standard encourages this local connection: a participatory approach provides the bedrock for the entire Plan Vivo methodology and all Plan Vivo projects, in one way or another, rely on local people to do the organising. The importance of this local connection is also generally accepted more widely (at least theoretically) in other land use schemes. But, in my view, it does appear at risk of being diminished or crowded out.

Payment for ecosystem service schemes need to grow (or “upscale”) significantly if they are to play a major role in halting and reversing environmental degradation. A key challenge for smallholder projects is how to upscale and reach more farmers without blowing-out the costs of maintaining a personal relationship with each farmer. Increasingly we are seeing discussions around whether new technologies can provide a lower cost option than local engagement – discussions on whether it pays for a project to redirect funds from local engagement towards new analyses and gadgets (e.g. monitoring with satellites instead of field visits; introducing automated data collection and processing).

I would argue that, while these new technologies and processes can help, we mustn’t lose the connection between the two worlds of carbon forestry. To do so risks not only cutting off farmers from the goings on of the carbon market, but ultimately risks having less successful programs, and less carbon being removed from the atmosphere. I would argue that no matter how streamlined your processes, no matter how fast or precise your technology, it will never be a substitute for the good old-fashioned legwork and commitment of the local people who live near forests.

Plan Vivo’s ongoing work with myself and others seeks to examine and address this challenge. What do you think? How important is this local connection to project success? Without it can the two different worlds communicate? Are there alternative, efficient ways to maintain this connection alongside new technologies?

Analysing Forest Cover

A technical expert in Mexico demonstrates how to analyse forest cover using DigitalGlobe satellite imagery. These technical analyses are important at higher spatial scales, but rely on the work and commitment of local people to be applied on each individual farm. (Photo: Geoff Wells)

Geoff Wells is a PhD student at University of Edinburgh and a consultant working with IIED’s Sustainable Markets Group.

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