When the United Nations process on climate change unveiled the program known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) three years ago, it was hailed by its architects as “an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.” In December 2010, the program was redubbed REDD+—to emphasize the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.
REDD is part of a larger plan to trade carbon credits to provide an incentive to keep forests standing. The seller of the credits (generally a government or land-holder in the developing world) is paid to keep carbon sequestered in forests. The purchase of these credits allows the buyer (generally a company in the industrialized world) to engage in activities that emit carbon. Environmental groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally serve to broker and help oversee the deals. Each ton of emitted carbon per purchased credit can be deducted from the yearly toll when computing emission caps established for participating nations under the Kyoto Protocol. In theory, this will result in a net reduction in global emissions by offsetting carbon released through industrial pollution.
But indigenous leaders gathered at December’s U.N. climate summit in Durban, South Africa, charged that projects initiated under the REDD program are eroding Native control of forest territories. One case in Peru’s Amazon rainforest brings these accusations into sharp focus. A proposed deal involving the remote Matsés indigenous people and an Australian dubbed by critics as a “carbon cowboy” named David Nilsson has led to protests, legal charges, and a controversy concerning Internet censorship.
The Matsés live in the Loreto region of Peru’s northern Amazon—principally along the Río Yavarí, which forms the border between Peru and Brazil, and its tributary the Gálvez. Only “contacted” in the 1960s, the Matsés have legal title to a far larger land area than any other indigenous people in Peru—452,735 hectares, known as the Matsés Native Community, and titled to them in 1998. It covers 14 communities, each with its own leader, who participates in a general assembly to govern the territory.
This titled land covers about half the Matsés’ traditional territory; the remainder is protected as the Matsés National Reserve, declared in 2009, and (despite its name) under the control of Peru’s national government. The Matsés are still petitioning the government for expansion of their titled territory, as well as a role in managing the Matsés National Reserve.
Shortly after the creation of this second reserve, Nilsson began eyeing Matsés territory, working through a Hong Kong–registered company called Sustainable Carbon Resources Ltd. (SCRL). Established in November 2010, SCRL appears to have no physical office in Hong Kong.
SCRL first attempted to enter talks on a carbon deal with the Loreto regional government, based in the Amazon River port of Iquitos. Apparently failing to win much interest, Nilsson next approached the Matsés. In an exchange of letters, Matsés chief Angel Dunu Maya agreed to a meeting between Nilsson and the Matsés headmen in March 2011. At the meeting, in Iquitos, Nilsson reportedly held out the prospect of high returns from the sale of carbon credits. SCRL drafted a joint venture agreement—in English—and a meeting was scheduled for mid-April with the Matsés General Assembly, to sign the agreement. The meeting was to be held in the Matsés’ own territory.
Contacted by e-mail, Nilsson denies that the joint venture agreement was a contract—the word widely used in local Peruvian press accounts of the affair.
An ugly picture is painted in local media accounts. At the Iquitos meeting, the Matsés were told that the contract must be in English because “the World Bank and the U.N. only recognize the English language” for carbon contracts, according to witnesses quoted by the Iquitos newspaper La Región. Matsés leaders were told they would reap “billions of dollars” from the deal, according to indigenous testimony in the newspaper. Nilsson denies these claims.