Carbon commodification in the Peruvian Amazon: The Kichwa People’s Struggle Against Territorial and Climate Destruction

Matias Pérez Ojeda del Arco

As the consequences of climate change continue to upend people’s lives all over the world, the feeble actions to address and mitigate it continue to allow emissions in the global north, or centre, and offset them in pursuit of supposed emissions neutrality in the global south, or periphery. Not surprisingly, these market-based instruments have failed to show any positive results given their origins in savage capitalist logics (Fletcher et al., 2016). Moreover, these instruments often allow for violations against the socio-ecological and cultural fabrics of the peoples-territories targeted by climate change mitigation measures. This is the case with continuing practices of dispossession of Indigenous Peoples’ territories around the world to justify biodiversity conservation actions and the implementation of climate change mitigation mechanisms.

This article discusses the challenges being faced by the Kichwa people of the northern Amazon in Peru, specifically in the San Martin region. The populace of this area, represented by the Ethnic Council of the Kichwa Peoples of the Amazon (CEPKA), the Federation of Kichwa Indigenous Peoples of Chazuta (FEPIKECHA) and the Federation of Kechwa Indigenous Peoples of the Lower Huallaga of the San Martin Region (FEPIKBHSAM), has been fighting for years against the invisibilisation and even criminalisation of the role played by their local communities in favour of forest conservation and the fight against the ecological and climate crisis.

Deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon is occurring at an alarming rate.

In the last decade, projects to commodify and market carbon have been established in the San Martin region of Peru. In the Kichwa territory there is a REDD+* project which is rooted, firstly, in a system of Natural Protected Areas based on a colonial and exclusionary conservation model that operates without consent, and secondly, in discourses and practices that undermine traditional territorial governance and reveal a disastrous distribution of benefits. Through this confrontation between a REDD+ project and the territorial demands of the Kichwa people, we show that carbon commodification, aligned with neoliberal policies, namely a combination of privatisation, financing and appropriation (Leach and Scoones, 2015), should not be the model to follow in the fight against climate change with full respect for human rights and the important contributions of Indigenous territorialities. Meanwhile, the Kichwa people continue to be ignored as rights holders over their territories, as is the fact that strengthening their own local governance systems could be a fundamental step in the fight against climate change.

Conservation and systematic violations of the territorial rights of the Kichwa people

The two natural protected areas that overlap with Kichwa territories in San Martín are the Cordillera Azul National Park and the Cordillera Escalera Regional Conservation Area. The first area was created in 2001 by D.S. 031-2001-AG and the second in 2005 by Supreme Decree N° 045-2005-AG. Neither of them was adequately consulted, nor was there a due process for obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of the Kichwa and other affected Indigenous peoples, despite the fact that ILO Convention 169 (Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989) was in force and ratified by Peru since 1995.

In Peru, as in other geographies, it is still common practice to use the colonial narrative that Indigenous Peoples have not existed, and therefore Kichwa communities have no rights over their forests that are now “protected” under a fortress conservation scheme. As Mordecai Ogada from Kenya mentioned at the recent congress “Our Land, Our Nature“, an alternative event to the World Congress organised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in September 2021: “In the West, conservation is painted as left-wing, liberal, peaceful, green, inclusive and proletarian, but in the Global South it ends up being right-wing, conservative, exclusive, militarised, violent, intrusive, oppressive and racist”.

The truth is that the imposition of the two conservation areas in San Martin has dramatically affected Indigenous territorialities, as well as the legal security of the forests that have been managed, occupied, and protected by generations of Kichwa people. Unfortunately, this imposition also brings with it the great gap that the Peruvian State has yet to close in the collective titling of Indigenous lands, where as of 2020 there were approximately 75 Kichwa communities, which had yet to obtain secure tenure. Furthermore, due to the imposition of an exclusionary conservation model in San Martin, evictions and forced displacements of the Kichwa population have been recorded, and at times their traditional practices such as hunting and purmeo (the form of rotational agroforestry traditionally practised by Kichwa-Lamista communities) have been banned. The restriction of access to nature has already affected the cultural transmission of traditional ecological knowledge. There have also been cases of Kichwa hunters being prosecuted and countless internal tensions due to the confiscation of products obtained within the boundaries of the natural protected areas.

“Before asking permission from someone, from some institutions, we always asked permission from the forest. That is to say, we had to smoke a mapacho [handmade Amazonian tobacco cigarette] to be able to enter the forest, because the forest has its souls, maybe so that something doesn’t happen to us we have to ask permission by smoking a mapacho and we enter,”

 Manuel Amasifuen Sangama, 50

The above are just a few examples of the clearly anachronistic vision of conservation in Peru, despite the new global paradigm that seeks to include Indigenous Peoples in a context of human rights-based conservation. It seems that the messages of the Convention on Biological Diversity (Preamble and articles 8j and 10C); the AICHI goals related to protected areas (goals 11 and 18); the Durban Agreement of 2003; the World Conservation Congress of the IUCN itself in 2020, at its session in Marseille, France, amongst others, have not been taken on board by decision-makers within the State or NGOs linked to conservation in Peru. And it is within this context that a project to commodify carbon has been inserted in Kichwa territory, which, as mentioned by Leach and Scoones (2015), tend to position themselves to take advantage of those spaces captured by other initiatives that have already involved discursive and material legacies, the reconfiguration of local livelihoods, and new imaginaries and socio-political relations in conjunction with nature.

Invisiblilization of the Kichwa People: Who benefits from the sale of carbon credits?

In 2008, the REDD+ Project for the Cordillera Azul National Park was drawn up with the aim of ensuring the financial sustainability of the Park and avoiding any deforestation within it. Through an Administration Contract signed with the National Service of Natural Areas Protected by the State (SERNANP), the NGO Centro de Conservación, Investigación y Manejo de Áreas Naturales (CIMA) has been administering Cordillera Azul and executing the REDD+ project in an intervention area of 1.35 million hectares, and a buffer zone area covering 2.30 million hectares.

The supposedly good governance of the management of the Cordillera Azul National Park has led to the area being added to the prestigious IUCN Green List. However, the Kichwa federations have reiterated that the management is not being transparent about the sale of these carbon credits through the Cordillera Azul REDD+ project, which has, between 2008-2018, already generated the verification of at least 25 million tons of carbon, according to the certifier VCS.

From the very beginning, the Kichwa communities did not know why and how this carbon was commodified and separated from its complex socio-environmental tapestry and all Kichwa cosmo-ethics, to be reduced in a materialistic sense to a resource that ends up being an opportunity for the accumulation of money and power, dragging with it a complex network of actors who, in an asymmetry of power, participate in this ‘new’ socio-political meaning of carbon. It is also unknown how many carbon credits have been sold since the REDD+ project was officially established; who are the buyers and at what percentage  (although it is known that they are mostly oil, aviation and international transport companies from the North); who are the beneficiaries of the sales of carbon credits, and the process by which these actors were prioritised and selected; and whether a workshop considered as capacity building for settled communities and non-indigenous hamlets in the buffer zone counts as having received direct payment for carbon credits; and how CIMA determined the form of benefit sharing and under whose consent.

The lack of participation of the Kichwa people in the management of the Cordillera Azul National Park and in the REDD+ project, as well as their invisibility in the equitable distribution of the benefits generated by the sale of carbon credits, seriously violates various international human rights commitments and obligations assumed by Peru regarding the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Resistance against extractive projects on Indigenous lands is becoming organized and effective all over Peru.

In the face of this exclusion of the Kichwa people, which is known to both SERNANP (Peruvian National Service of Natural Areas Protected by the State) and CIMA (Center for Conservation Research and Management of Protected Areas, Peru) as direct actors involved in the REDD+ project and the management of the PNCAZ (The Cordillera Azul National Park), there is something deeply problematic in the intrinsic violence which is disguised under a narrative that in the San Martin region and in Peru we have before us a triple “win-win” solution that combines biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation, and local socio-economic development (Cavanagh & Benjaminsen, 2014). So much so that new actors have appeared on this complex socio-political carbon stage, such as the oil company Shell, as part of its portfolio of “natural climate solutions”, and the international extractive sector company Total Energies, with whom the Cordillera Azul National Park reportedly made the largest carbon credit sale in Peru’s history for US$87 million in 2021. A fossil fuel company facing serious criticism not only for its contributions to the climate crisis but also for serious violations against peoples and their territories in Uganda and Tanzania, among other geographies. Shell, for its part, has so far not been able to guarantee precisely how much CO2 has not been emitted by its CO2 neutral policies. These alliances between large corporate polluters, whose activities are intensifying the ecosocial crisis, and State bodies and conservation NGOs that continue to promote conservation based on territorial dispossession, reflect once again the colonial character of this dominant and violent model of conservation.

“We don’t know anything about the whole carbon issue. We know that there is a carbon credit, I don’t know how to say it, but we don’t know how it works, we don’t know 100% how things stand. There is no transparency. And a little while ago we found out that 15 park rangers are coming, they want to build their houses and renovate the signs. We organised ourselves in day and night patrols and we intervened and took them to a community meeting to ask them what activity they are going to do, because we don’t know how far the park extends and how much it overlaps with our collective territory. The park has moved everything now that it is on top.”
 Pedro Fasabi, leader of the Puerto Franco community.

The need for a new paradigm of conservation and climate change mitigation.

Several years ago, the Kichwa people of San Martin decided to recover their territory by means of strategic litigation through a range of constitutional lawsuits against the Peruvian State, including the cases of the Kichwa communities of Nuevo Lamas de Shapaja, Puerto Franco, Alto Pucalpillo and Mishkiyakillu. They have also brought a lawsuit against the national land titling policy that subordinates the right to collective indigenous property to the protection offered by natural protected areas within a fortress conservation paradigm. These demands converge on the territory, which by right belongs to the Kichwa people, to ensure the full enjoyment of their traditional livelihoods, the continuation of their territorialities and relationalities with the forest, the human and the non-human, and that this recovery opens up new paradigms such as the communities finally being recognized as key actors for any conservation action undertaken by the Peruvian State to meet its climate commitments. In these comings and goings, the Kichwa people have continued to learn and strengthen themselves by reflecting on how their fundamental rights have been violated, how to build legal case in a justice system such as the Peruvian one – which does not prioritise Indigenous Peoples – and by planning and carrying out various advocacy actions to seek justice for their cases. With these demands, the Kichwa people are not only challenging the exclusionary conservation model imposed on their territory, but also the abusive practice of generating benefits at the expense of their own forests, excluding them from the equation as potential beneficiaries.

“We must take care of the territory, otherwise our children will no longer know the forests. That is why we must plant fruits and plants so that the animals and birds, such as añuje, picuro, deer, ituchi, errizo, achuñi, pucakunka, paljil, mamacaraco, wirinin and others, can feed themselves. And we should also be able to feed ourselves with them, because what will happen when we don’t have anything to eat?” Nelsith Sangama Sangama, Kichwa leader.

Top down conservation models ignore and, in fact, rupture the ancient bond that Indigenous people have established and nurtured with nature.

Conclusion

In this context of confronting the climate and ecological crisis, the struggle of the Kichwa people reveals, on the one hand, the fundamental weakness of the dominant civilization: arrogance and rendering the other invisible. Capitalist modernity, with its totalizing character, continues to push us towards the denial of other sciences of care and practices to nurture the forest that are so valid and rooted in a deep and complex ecosocial knowledge. And projects to commodify carbon, such as REDD+ in the Cordillera Azul National Park, exemplify the flaw of this camouflaged narrative and practice that neoliberal capitalism is both the problem and the solution to the current ecosocial crisis. The simple fact of devising, conceiving, forming and entering into alliances between oil companies, States, and conservationist NGOs exposes the top-down conservation model imposed by the Cordillera Azul National Park as being on the same level as so many other practices of market-driven dispossession, as it crystallizes the ongoing attempts of capitalist modernity to violently occupy and dominate Indigenous territories. Furthermore, it constitutes the very opposite of the urgent need to recognize the positive qualities and realities of the Kichwa’s management, control and access to their own forests, expressed through their self-determination and the defense of a cosmological collectivity. On the other hand, the Kichwa struggle against the commodification of carbon within their territories of life pushes us towards the need to feel-think nature through a cosmocentric rather than an anthropocentric ethic, avoiding and condemning the commodification at all costs of what is sustained through reciprocal practices of care and life itself, if we really want to take a step forward in trying to get out of the civilizational catastrophe that the IPCC continues to remind us of.

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Matias Pérez Ojeda del Arco is with the Forest Peoples Program, UK

References

Cavanagh, C., & Benjaminsen, T. 2014. Virtual nature, violent accumulation: The ‘spectacular failure’ of carbon offsetting at a Ugandan National Park. Geoforum, 56, 55-65.

Fletcher, R; Dressler, W; Büscher, B., & Anderson, ZR. 2016. Questioning REDD+ and the future of market-based conservation. Conservation Biology 30:673–675.

Leach, M., & Scoones, I. 2015. Political ecologies of carbon in Africa. In: Carbon conflicts: political ecologies and forest landscapes in Africa. Routledge: London.

* REDD+ is a framework created by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP) to guide activities in the forest sector that reduces emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), as well as the sustainable management of forests and the conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.

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