HAS Several indigenous communities in the Amazon say “carbon pirates” have become a threat to their way of life as Western companies seek to secure deals on their territories for offset projects.

In the world’s largest rainforest, indigenous leaders say they are being approached by carbon offsetting companies promising significant financial benefits from the sale of carbon credits if they establish new projects on their land, as $2 billion market (£1.6 billion) booms with zero net commitments from companies in Europe and North America.

Governments agreed to a huge global expansion of protected areas over this decade at the Cop15 biodiversity summit last month with a goal of protecting 30% of land and sea by 2030. The agreement places respect for Indigenous rights and territories at the center amid fears of land grabbing.

Proponents of carbon markets, especially those that aim to protect rainforests, say that carbon credits are a good way to finance new areas and pay indigenous communities for the administration of their lands, as they have proven to be the best protectors of vital forests and ecosystems. The resulting credits could then be used for climate commitments by Western companies.

Many believe that while carbon credits are not perfect, they can provide the vital financing these projects need. Johan Rockström, chief scientist at Conservation International, which manages a number of carbon offset projects, recently told the guardian: “On the one hand, carbon offsetting is necessary and has a positive potential to provide incentives and therefore generate much-needed investment, for example, in natural climate solutions. [such as forests].” On the other hand, he says, there are the risks that people won’t make the necessary reductions in their own emissions.

The Guardian interviewed indigenous leaders from across Latin America as part of its research into forest-based carbon offsetting, speaking to representatives in police27Cop15, Amazon indigenous leaders summit in September and during visits to communities in Peru.

An indigenous leader of the Kichwa community
A Kichwa community leader, who claims to have been evicted from his land and received nothing despite an $87 million carbon deal. Photography: Angela Ponce/The Guardian

While some leaders have recognized the potential benefits of well-designed carbon markets, they warn that indigenous communities are being taken advantage of in the unregulated sector, with opaque deals for carbon rights that can last up to a century, lengthy contracts written in English and communities being evicted from their land for projects.

Examples include the largest carbon deal in Peruvian history involving an unnamed extractive company, where the Kichwa community claims they were evicted from their land in the Cordillera Azul national park and received nothing from the deal of $87 million. The park authorities say that everything has been done in “strict compliance with current legal regulations and with special respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.”

Several indigenous communities spoke of training in carbon market regulation and organizing global exchanges to help others avoid falling victim to “carbon pirates”.

Fany Kuiru Castro, indigenous Uitoto
Fany Kuiru Castro, leader of the Uitoto indigenous people, says that carbon offsetting is affecting almost all communities in the Amazon basin. Photography: Angela Ponce/The Guardian

Fany Kuiru Castro, a Uitoto indigenous leader from the Colombian Amazon, says the problem is affecting almost all communities in the Amazon River basin.

“When I visit other territories, almost all of them are in contact with a carbon-related business. They usually come with the promise of a lot of money if the community agrees to start a project. Sometimes they don’t let the communities have access to their land as part of the agreement but we live by hunting and fishing. For me, it’s dangerous,” she says. “The cruelest thing is that they come to the communities with long legal documents in English and do not explain what is in them. Many indigenous communities do not read or have a low level of literacy, so they do not understand what they are agreeing to”.

Wilfredo Tsamash, from the Awajun community
Wilfredo Tsamash, from the Awajun community in northern Peru, is against allowing extractive companies to buy carbon credits. Photography: Angela Ponce/The Guardian

Wilfredo Tsamash, from the Awajun community in northern Peru, says organizations are teaching themselves to understand the mechanics of carbon markets so they don’t get ripped off in deals, and says he doesn’t think extractive companies should be able to buy credits because of their role in global warming.

“They are trying to divide us. Carbon pirates enter communities, but often we don’t know where they come from, how they work, or who they are,” she says. “Its a big problem. Some of these NGOs are ghosts working in the background. I don’t think we should sell the credits to oil or mining companies. They are the ones doing the damage.”

Levi Sucre Romero speaking at Cop15
Levi Sucre Romero speaking at Cop15. A Costa Rican from the Bribri community, he is a defender of the rights of indigenous peoples. Photograph: Andrej Ivanov/AFP/Getty Images

Levi Sucre Romero, a Costa Rican leader of the Bribri community, said in a recent interview with Yale e360 that he thought the expansion of protected areas agreed in COP15 it could be a great opportunity for indigenous communities. But, he tells The Guardian, respect for indigenous territories and a share of the profits from carbon deals must be part of any market.

“We are organizing globally, from the Congo to the Amazon. The first thing that must be recognized is the right to land, our right to be consulted, not only at the central level but also at the local level. We also need political representation that we are the ones who care for the forest. Where there are forests, there are indigenous communities”, he says.

Indigenous communities represent about 5% of the world population but take care of 80% of its biodiversity. However, communities are frequently subjected to rights violations and attacks, often by illegal miners, loggers, and drug traffickers.

Shipibo leader Julio Cusurichi
Shipibo leader Julio Cusurichi of Peru wants the money from the sale of carbon credits to pay for better education and health care for his people. Photography: Angela Ponce/The Guardian

Julio Cusurichi, an indigenous Shipibo leader from Peru’s Madre de Dios region who won a Goldman prize in 2007, says money from carbon credits could help pay for better education and health facilities with careful planning, but with Too often, that doesn’t happen. .

“It is important to strengthen the structures of indigenous communities [as part of these offsetting projects]. This problem of carbon pirates is happening all over the Amazon. They can be projects of 30, 40, 100 years. Whoever has the money has the power, ”he says.

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