Eco-Exchange - April 2008 - Market-Based Conservation Merges Mexican Farming with International Businesses

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April 2008

Market-Based Conservation Merges Mexican Farming with International Businesses

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In the dry forest of southern Mexico, two thousand farmers are not only fighting global climate change but are also profiting from their efforts.  They are adapting sustainable farming and forestry techniques and covering their costs by selling credits for the carbon dioxide their forests sequester to international companies seeking to offset their own emissions.

Farmer -- Photo by Jeff Hayward/RA

The farmers are part of a program called Plan Vivo, which began eight years ago and has grown to become a global initiative that encompasses farms and forests in Uganda and Mozambique as well as a recently launched program in southern India. Each project is managed by local organizations and given unique names to differentiate between them. The Mexican farmers chose the name Scolel Té, translated from the Mayan languages Tzeltal and Tojolobal as "the tree that grows," a nod to their indigenous and mestizo roots.  It is managed by a Mexican cooperative called Ambio.

"Over time and through their work, many farmers participating in Scolel Té have changed how they think about natural resources management and are visualizing the long-term health and use of their forests as something practical," Elsa Esquivel of Ambio says.

Because they are farming in the forests of Chiapas and Oaxaca states, their new attitude is particularly important. These forests -- the largest remaining expanse of dry tropical forests north of the equator -- flank the southern valleys and foothills of the Sierra Madre de Sur, across much of southern Pacific Mexico.  Over several centuries, most of the forest has been lost to logging and agriculture, leaving behind severe erosion, water contamination, and other social and environmental problems.  The remaining forestlands provide resources for local residents, refuge for thousands of rare and endemic species, particularly salamanders and butterflies -- and a global gift as well: they sequester some 100,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year.

Flowers -- Photo by Jeff Hayward/RA

Scolel Té farmers receive payments for conserving their forests, protecting wildlife, and farming in a way that causes minimal environmental damage. That, Esquivel stresses, is the core of the conservation work done through Plan Vivo. "They safeguard the continued survival of community-owned forests, mountain temperate forests, and secondary vegetation that are homes to different plant and animal species," she says.

In addition to conservation, Plan Vivo spurs economic growth in Mexico and other rural communities in the developing world. Credits representing carbon dioxide sequestered by the ton are now traded on a voluntary carbon offset market and are available from Plan Vivo's project sites around the world as they become ready. Carbon credits sell for U.S. $5 - 15 per ton, and are sold to buyers such as Formula One championship auto races, the World Economic Forum, and the rock band Pink Floyd, who offset the entire production of their recent album. Estimates of the carbon sequestered through Plan Vivo vary from 50,000 to 100,000 tons; an independent verifier will determine the amount in 2008.

"The payments are used primarily to buy food, pay wages, provide education, and make housing improvements -- in other words, to acquire basic goods and services.  The social benefits are not immediately visible because the program encourages long-term planning, and people are trained to monitor the project and improve production in the communities where Scolel Té operates," notes Esquivel.

To verify that land management practices are changed, trees truly are planted, and forests are being conserved, carbon offset programs like Plan Vivo rely on third-party verifiers. Scolel Té farmers were trained to internally monitor their progress and identify any challenges in their work, and the international conservation NGO Rainforest Alliance audited their monitoring system to show that it complies with Plan Vivo's standards. The Rainforest Alliance is a fitting partner for Plan Vivo, since both enlist, rather than ignore, farmers and foresters in their conservation efforts, notes Jeff Hayward, the Alliance's verification services manager.

The Rainforest Alliance and other organizations are part of the emerging field of environmental standards verification, confirming that lumber is legally harvested, for example, or assessing the amount of carbon sequestered or the conservation value of a forest. Greenpeace recently rated the Rainforest Alliance's SmartWood program the highest among seven major verifiers of the legality of wood sources in its technical report Wood Products Legality Verification Systems published in January 2008. The report states, that SmartWood "is the only scheme truly developed in a balanced, multi-stakeholder manner and the only scheme to require 'prior informed consent' of indigenous people in its standards."

Hayward has led the Rainforest Alliance's Climate Change Initiative  work in countries around the world including Indonesia, Ghana, Uganda, Madagascar, United Kingdom, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, Chile, Panama, Brazil, and the United States.  "The excellent climate mitigation projects already validated or verified by the Rainforest Alliance have the ability to remove three million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year if they are fully implemented.  This is equal to 0.2 percent of annual global emissions from deforestation," he emphasizes.

Forest -- Photo by Jeff Hayward/RA

The Rainforest Alliance confirmed the strengths and weaknesses of the Scolel Té program, so that Ambio can identify areas for improvement.  "The number of participants and parcels that Ambio has been able to bring together to practice improved agro-forestry is impressive," Hayward says. "This project is a small but important incentive to farmers to plant trees, tend their agro-forestry plots, and restore overgrazed hillsides. It stimulates reforestation, which may not have taken place, and supports the rural poor through a viable offset of carbon emissions. We are hopeful that our observations and suggested improvements can benefit the project."

As they restore agricultural ecosystems and support the rural poor, this and similar programs, Hayward maintains, are important milestones in the collective challenge to reduce carbon emissions. He concludes that, "We're applying our 20 years of experience in verification, standard-setting and market-based conservation, and maintaining certainty in the credibility of the complex climate science involved in these activities. By venturing into the diverse and rapidly-developing area of climate change, the Rainforest Alliance is advancing our mission to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods."

Contacts: Jeff Hayward, Rainforest Alliance, tel: +202/294-7008, fax: +212/659-0098, jhayward@ra.org, www.rainforest-alliance.org.  Elsa Esquivel Bazán, AMBIO.  Tel/fax: +967/678-8409; ambiofbc@prodigy.net.mx, www.planvivo.org/fx.planvivo/scheme/mexico.aspx.