Turning the Lacandon Jungle Over to the Carbon Market

By Jeff Conant
Published in Z Magazine

In A Land to Plant Dreams, historian Yan de Vos describes the history of the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas as a series of dreams that have obsessed and overtaken those who come upon this remote mountain rainforest in the southeastern corner of Mexico. A jungle so dense and mysterious only a century ago that it was named “the Desert of Solitude,” de Vos declares that “the Lacandon is not a single reality, but a mosaic of multiple Lacandonas conceived and made concrete by many and varied interests.” 

The Lacandon’s dreamers include the commercial interests that, for centuries, have extracted mahogany, rubber, minerals, petroleum, and genetic material, leaving about 30 percent of the original forest, of which only 12 percent is said to retain its ecological integrity. Then there are the diverse communities who live there—Mestizo settlers along with Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolabal, Ch’ol, and Mam indigenous farmers, some who originated there and many others who arrived over the course of centuries, escaping forced labor on the fincas or war in neighboring Guatemala, seeking a plot of land to cultivate.


Then there is the group that has been given title to the largest swath of jungle—a small tribe called the Caribes whose ancestors migrated from nearby Campeche two centuries ago and who, through a complex history involving European anthropologists, American missionaries, and Mexican government officials, became known as the Lacandones. In direct conflict with the Lacandones, and with transnational capital, are the jungle’s best-known dreamers, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, who, beginning in the 1990s, occupied vast portions of the jungle and declared it autonomous territory.


Now, after centuries defined by its potential for producing goods, the Lacandon has entered the 21st century where it is being dreamed anew as “the lungs of the earth.” This jungle’s new dreamers include the state of California, market-oriented “environmental” groups like Conservation International, and the United Nations. Their dream is to harness the power of the burgeoning carbon market to preserve the Lacandon—the container for one-fifth of the biodiversity of all of Mexico—by turning it into a virtual carbon sink.


Enter the Governor of California


In 2006, the state of California passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32), which mandates that the state reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. The law was hailed as landmark environmental legislation for its aggressive action to reduce global warming emissions while “generating jobs, and promoting a growing, clean-energy economy and a healthy environment for California at the same time.”


Under the implementation plan for AB32, which was approved by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in December 2010, but held up in court three months later, up to 20 percent of the state’s total mandated emissions reductions would be achieved through carbon trading, rather than through actual cuts in industrial pollution at the source. This means that industries would be permitted to delay efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions—along with the associated toxic co-pollutants—by purchasing carbon allowances from outside California. As one of his last acts in office, just a week before the UN Framework Convention on Climate in Cancún, Mexico last November, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a carbon-trading agreement with the state of Chiapas as part of AB32. The agreement is predicated on an emerging global policy mechanism known as “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” or REDD.


Mary Nichols, the chairperson of CARB, announced California’s initiative at a high-level event in Cancún where pilot REDD projects were hailed by a gamut of global figures, including primatologist Jane Goodall, World Bank President Robert Zoellick, and Sam Walton, the CEO of Walmart. Nichols called the plan “a way for California to help the developing world by investing in forests. Saving our forests is good not only for the atmosphere,” she said, “It’s also good for indigenous peoples.” But many in Chiapas disagree. Gustavo Castro, Coordinator of Otros Mundos, a small NGO based in Chiapas, sees this as the leading edge of a new onslaught of forest carbon offsets and part of a broader trend of privatization of territories and natural resources. “Enter the governor of California, saying, ‘We’re going to approve a law in which California, the fifth largest economy in the world, is obliged to reduce its CO2, so we need to buy the fresh air from the forests of the South.’ When a natural function like forest respiration becomes a product with a price, it’s easy to see who’s going to end up with control of the forests.”


The law has also stirred up controversy in California where environmental justice advocates charge that such carbon trading schemes—reducing emissions on paper only—leaves lower-income communities of color to continue bearing the brunt of industrial pollution. Alegria de la Cruz, one of the lead attorneys for San Francisco’s Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE), whose lawsuit has successfully challenged the cap and trade component of the bill, says that, “The overarching goal of a pollution trading system has serious implications for fence-line communities.” Her co-counsel, Brent Newell, is more explicit: “Poor people are getting screwed on both sides of the transaction,” he said. “Only the polluters are benefiting.”


In late May, a ruling by the San Francisco superior court forced the California Air Resources Board to bring its cap and trade plan back to the drawing board in order to review alternatives. But as the spearhead of efforts to forge a pathway for carbon markets, the dream of converting the Lacandon into international carbon currency will not be disrupted so easily. “Our goal,” says Chiapas Governor Juan Sabines “is that the entirety of the surface of Chiapas will enter into the market for carbon credits and methane credits, beginning through agreements with polluting sub-national states, like California.”


Selling the Forest for the Trees


REDD projects are being piloted in many countries under the auspices of the United Nations REDD Program, the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other global bodies. The California project is one of a small handful of REDD agreements between sub-national entities. The armature of REDD is still very much in development, but in broad strokes it works like this: because trees capture and store CO2, maintaining intact forests is essential to mitigating the impacts of climate change. Under REDD, those who protect forests can earn carbon credits—financial rewards based on an assessment of the amount of CO2 a forest can store and a market-derived price per ton of carbon. They can then trade these credits to industrial polluters in order to generate revenue that, in theory, gives developing world countries and the forest-dwelling communities in those countries an incentive not to cut down trees.


Policymakers at the global level see REDD as offering a viable chance—“perhaps the last chance,” says World Bank President Robert Zoellick—to save the world’s forests, while simultaneously addressing the climate crisis, without jeopardizing economic growth. The major multilateral institutions support REDD and its growing list of spin-offs with dizzying acronyms, such as REDD+ and REDD++, which allow the policy to include aspects such as reforestation with exotic species, and offset credits for biodiversity. But many forest-dependent communities, environmental justice advocates, indigenous peoples’ organizations, and global South social movements oppose it. “It comes to seem very amiable for the governments and corporations of the North to say, ‘We’re going to pay you not to deforest,’ Gustavo Castro argues. “But in reality they’re saying. ‘We’re going to pay you so we can continue polluting’.” Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network has called REDD “a violation of the sacred, and potentially the biggest landgrab of all time.”


Among the conservation organizations that promote it, concerns about REDD tend to focus on whether the economic incentives it promises can be achieved without violating the international legal obligations that protect indigenous peoples and human rights more broadly. Indeed, one of the major concerns about REDD is that, because it offers financial incentives for leaving forested lands essentially untouched, it will take root precisely in areas where forest use—and ownership of forested lands—is in conflict, thus furthering divisions between communities and leading to local flare-ups. This is certainly the case in Chiapas where REDD is fast becoming a prime example of what can happen when you take a global initiative—the dream of distant policy-makers—and apply it by force to local realities.


Land Dispute in Chiapas


In 1971, the Mexican government gave the lion’s share of the Lacandon jungle—some 600,000 hectares of it—to the 66 families of the Lacandon (née-Caribe) tribe. A second decree in 1976 made the greater part of the rainforest into a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. As tenants and guardians of this vast territory, the Mexican government appointed the Lacandon tribe, along with a few settlements from the Tzeltal and Ch’ol ethnic groups. This group was designated “the Lacandon Community.”


The Lacandon tribe would appear to have walked away from the deal as clear winners. Miguel Angel Garcia, a scholar and environmental rights advocate who coordinates a small NGO called Maderas del Pueblo, calls them “the tribe that won the lottery without buying a ticket.” But, Garcia argues, the benefits they’ve gained come at a terrible cost. “The Lacandones, once treated as the ‘authentic’ indigenous people of the Lacandon, are now totally immersed in the market economy,” says Garcia. “The group in Chiapas whose rights have been most abused are the Lacandones. They’ve had their identity stolen, they’ve had their dignity stolen, and they’ve been transformed into walking folklore. There’s nothing worse.”


Cultural concerns aside, in order to give a million-and-a-half acres of forest to the Lacandon Community, 26 villages of Tzeltal and Ch’ol people—over 2,000 families—had to be moved. The tension and conflict that resulted made it impossible, for decades, for the Mexican government to successfully delimit the land in question. “The government was never able to mark the brecha Lacandona [the local term for the territorial demarcation],” says Garcia. “When they sent topographers to the zone, everyone united to throw them in jail. Up to now, the only thing they’ve been able to do is measure the brecha by satellite.”


The arbitrary land grab led several peasant farmer organizations to demand redress. Some of these groups 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 the brecha Lacandona.”


But now, with the promise of financing under REDD+, work is underway again to delimit the land and in February of this year, Governor 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. The payments, Governor Sabines said, are “to allow the completion of the forest inventory so that [members of the Lacandon Community] can access federal and international funds, as well as complement these funds with projects such as agricultural conversion outside the Reserve with species such as oil palm and rubber.”


In order to repurpose the jungle to generate carbon credits, the government must not only delimit its boundaries, it must evict illegal settlers. “The jungle can’t wait,” Governor Sabines recently told the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. “Of 179 ‘irregular’ settlements within the jungle’s protected area, most have been removed and only eleven remain,” the governor said. “Of these, some are Zapatistas. We hope they leave voluntarily, but if they want to stay, they stay.”


Given the pressures on forest-dwelling campesinos in a rural economy starved by NAFTA, the question of what is “voluntary” is not as cut-and-dried as the governor would like it to appear. Under international law, indigenous peoples can only be displaced from their homes under conditions of Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Because such consent is almost never granted, governments tend to find creative ways around it. Says Gustavo Castro, “There’s a lot of talk in the government’s documents, in the REDD scheme, of the need for consultation. But it hasn’t generated any consultation, and I doubt that it will. What they say to the communities is, ‘If you protect your forests you are being ecological, and you can have development, and we’ll pay you. We’re protecting the planet, we’re fighting climate change, and we’ll pay you to help.’ So then, the consultation consists of one question: ‘Are you with us?’ And the answer you can expect from rural communities is, ‘Of course we are.’”


But even this level of consultation appears to be absent. Past attempts to demarcate the disputed land have involved military efforts to remove settlers, and specifically Zapatista-aligned communities. In 2000, then-President Zedillo expropriated 3.5 hectares from the village of Amador Hernández to build military installations. In 2005, 160 Tzeltal families were displaced from Montes Azules to the pre-planned community of Nuevo Montes Azules, near the lowland city of Palenque. In late 2006, hundreds of armed residents of the Lacandon Community reportedly attacked the village of Viejo Velasco Suárez, leaving four people dead and four disappeared. In 2007, a joint police and military operation evicted 39 families from the communities of Buen Samaritano and San Manuel, also in the Montes Azules Reserve. Some of the displaced communities were removed by force, while others signed agreements to go willingly, on condition of receiving new land.


The Zapatista-allied village of Amador Hernandez, within the Montes Azules Reserve, is one such irregular settlement under threat of removal. In March 2011, the community composed a letter to the press, in which they wrote: “This past month, the governor of Chiapas traveled to the neighboring Lacandóna Community to make the first payments of the state-run REDD program; as he doled out the money, he told the beneficiaries that it should not be considered as a gift, but as a payment to guard the border against their neighbors, that is, us.”


Into the Jungle


In late March, photographer Orin Langelle and I left San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the colonial capital of Chiapas, and traveled 10 hours by truck and 15 kilometers on foot and horseback through the jungle, to meet some of the illegal forest-dwellers. Amador Hernandez is home to about 1,500 indigenous Tzeltal Mayans whose parents and grandparents had fled forced labor on the nearby haciendas and timber-camps and settled on what, to their misfortune, would later become the edge of the Lacandon Community, and be placed, on the map, in the very heart of the Montes Azules Reserve.


As we trekked through the mud toward the remote settlement, our guide, a young health worker who asked to remain anonymous, described the villagers of Amador Hernandez as essentially descendents of escaped plantation slaves. “For many people,” she said, “the Lacandon Jungle represents the possibility of liberation, a better future, the possibility of living a life in dignity. The jungle represents the road upon which people seek their liberation. The same jungle that has dignified the path of the campesinos has given them health, vines and herbs and medicinal plants. No one wants to die a slave anymore; no one wants to die of forced labor like they did for centuries before.”


On our arrival at the large clearing on a high hill that is the center of Amador Hernandez, the villagers, who hadn’t received international visitors for several years due to their remote location and their embattled situation, welcomed us cautiously. At a community assembly that night, Santiago Martinez, a young health promoter, read out a document in which the government threatened to send a team “within four days” to measure the brecha. The message had arrived a week before. He then gave a political analysis of the problem: “They think because they’re rich and they have a lot of resources, they can do whatever they feel like. They are promoting the idea of giving carbon credits to these industries so they can continue contaminating.”


From the angry voices that night we learned that, a year before our visit, all medical services, including vaccinations, had been cut off to the community. Several elderly people and children had died due to lack of medical attention. Implicitly or explicitly, they believed, this willful neglect on the part of the government was an attempt to force them to move or negotiate. “The fact that they did this after we refused to enter into any of their plans makes us believe that it has to do with our lands,” said Martinez. “They’re attacking our health as a way of getting access to our land.”


One by one, villagers stood up to denounce the government’s actions, and the logic behind them. “This whole plan of reforesting with trees that aren’t from here, and to register our land so we can sell it…it doesn’t work for us,” said a young man named Abelardo. “They treat us as if we’re not human beings.”


What Governor Sabines had described to the press as voluntary resettlement came suddenly into focus: when the government failed to achieve its ends through negotiation, it had turned to the tactic of starving the community of medical services. The following day, the villagers organized a medicinal plant workshop. They collected a dozen types of plants, showed us how they process them into tinctures, and spoke at length about the importance of biodiversity to their way of life. As the village clinic had emptied of pharmaceuticals, they’d taken it upon themselves to restock, with botanical medicines.


“This REDD project is their business, but it has nothing to do with us,” a man named Francisco Alfonso said as he led me on a walk to collect herbs. “The earth is our mother and it shouldn’t be sold. What’s more,” he said, “the government calls us destroyers, but it’s not true; we have several jungle reserves where nobody is allowed to enter. On the contrary, we take care of the jungle because it’s our medicine.”


That night our talks with the villagers became more casual. Several of the men insisted on sharing a phrase with me in Tzeltal. Santiago Martinez wrote it in my notebook: “Tenix ya yil sbaj te me yax chamotik ta lucha.” When I asked what it meant, he said, “No matter what happens, we’re going to die in the struggle.”


REDD: Ready or Not?


Much of the policy discussion around REDD is currently focused on “REDD-readiness,” a process that, in the jargon of the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, includes “local stakeholder consultations; institutional, technical, human capacity building; designing Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) systems; transparent, equitable and accountable benefit sharing mechanisms; developing safeguards and grievance mechanisms to protect the interests of forest communities and the poor; and clarifying national land, forest and carbon tenure rights.”


Yet a brief visit to Amador Hernandez revealed that, even before official plans for REDD were unveiled in Chiapas—indeed, at a moment when the promise of money from California was deeply in doubt due to the lawsuit that had stalled AB32—a process was underway that appears to patently violate international law, and to confirm the worst fears of REDD’s critics. If Amador Hernandez is to stand as an example, creating favorable conditions for forest-carbon projects in conflicted indigenous territories may invariably result in the kind of insidious and deadly approaches at work in Chiapas.


In the words of Miguel Angel Garcia, “This whole thing is bringing on a terrible cultural transformation; putting forests, a common good, into the market has the effect of tearing the social fabric and generating economic interests that go directly against the interests and values of the indigenous peoples. And it’s causing death; not only physical death, but the death of a culture, and of a cosmovision. It’s an ethnocide.”


As the ballooning carbon market struggles to transform the world’s forests from living habitat and cultural patrimony into mere carbon sinks, the case of Amador Hernandez serves as a cautionary tale. For these villagers, whose dream of a home in the rainforest is built on centuries of dispossession, can this tiny piece of jungle in the heart of Mesoamerica continue to provide them with a home, even as it becomes, for the investors, polluters, and industrialists of the North, the bought-and-paid-for lungs of the earth?


Published by Jeff Conant

Writer, social and ecological justice advocate, world traveler, family-man, gardener, bee-keeper, baker & tender of life in all her fine forms. Here on The Watering Hole you will find my books, both published, unpublished and in progress, my photographs and artwork, and my short (and long) essays and ruminations here in the late stages of the anthropocene as humanity struggles to turn away from millenia of destruction toward a future of co-existence with all creation…or not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: