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Opinion

Carbon Colonialism Has No Place in Liberia’s Forests

Liberia is one of the last countries in West Africa to still have vast tracts of forest – but this valuable resource is disappearing at an alarming rate. Credit: Shutterstock.

Liberia is one of the last countries in West Africa to still have vast tracts of forest – but this valuable resource is disappearing at an alarming rate. Credit: Shutterstock.

MONROVIA, Sep 15 2023 (IPS) - The fate of Liberia and its forests are entwined. Yet a new climate change deal, set to be announced at the UN climate change talks in Dubai this November, would drive a wedge between our communities and their woodlands.

Currently, forests make up more than two-thirds of Liberia’s land area, and are crucial for people’s livelihoods. They were illegally plundered by the former President Charles Taylor to fund a civil war that left an estimated 150,000 dead.

If this deal proceeds, it is likely to do so under dubious legality and without the prior consent of the communities living in the forests.

What’s more, it is part of a global trend called ‘carbon colonialism’, where instead of taking concrete steps to decarbonise, corporations offset their greenhouse gas emissions by paying to preserve forests or other ecosystems—often against the wishes of the local or Indigenous communities who live there

And since 2003, when the war ended, vast swathes of forested land have been signed over to foreign investors, as a corrupt minority have enriched themselves through illegal logging at the expense of the impoverished majority. We have lost nearly one quarter of our forests to economic development projects since then—with most of the loss occurring in the last ten years. This is a disaster for the communities that live on these lands and for efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change.

Now another chapter is unfolding in the tangled history of Liberia’s forests.

At the end of March, Liberia’s Ministry of Finance signed a memorandum of understanding with a United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based consultancy called Blue Carbon LLC, giving it the exclusive right to manage an area of rainforest covering one tenth of our national land. The deal, which has been negotiated in secrecy, is reportedly in the process of being finalized.

Under the agreement Blue Carbon will pay Liberia to manage and preserve one million hectares of forest for 30 years, and sell carbon credits from the emissions ‘saved’ by protecting these forests to major polluters, who will use them to offset their own emissions.

That is a significant chunk of our country, set to be pawned to the planet’s major polluters, enabling them to continue extracting and burning fossil fuels while claiming to protect the planet.

If this deal proceeds, it is likely to do so under dubious legality and without the prior consent of the communities living in the forests.

What’s more, it is part of a global trend called ‘carbon colonialism’, where instead of taking concrete steps to decarbonise, corporations offset their greenhouse gas emissions by paying to preserve forests or other ecosystems—often against the wishes of the local or Indigenous communities who live there. A similar deal with Zimbabwe’s government was announced in the middle of August.

 

‘Greenwashing’

Money is desperately needed to support local communities protecting their forests in Liberia as much as anywhere and there may well be ‘offset projects’ that are truly beneficial for local or Indigenous communities—but this is not one of them.

The chairman of Blue Carbon LLC is Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum, a member of the UAE royal family, which has major interests in the country’s oil and gas infrastructure.

The UAE—a fossil fuel state—is planning a huge expansion of oil and gas even though, at the end of the year, it will host the UN’s COP28 climate summit.

To burnish its environmental credentials ahead of the COP, the UAE’s government and various state-run companies have hired some of the world’s biggest PR companies to mount a greenwashing campaign.

The Blue Carbon deal—which is set to be unveiled at the COP to show how the UAE is fulfilling its commitments under the Paris Climate deal—is part of this greenwashing.

 

Dubious legality

Study after study has shown that community land rights is the best tool to preventing deforestation, better than the government or private sector managed protected areas—like those that ostensibly would be implemented if the Blue Carbon deal is finalized. The UN’s most recent report on climate change emphasizes community land rights as critical in both climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

The deal, which ignores this body of research, is also a primary threat to rural Liberians and their hard-won land rights. Around 70 per cent of land in Liberia is owned by communities. Roughly one third of our people live in forested areas, and the local people who live on the land targeted under the deal will only be consulted about it after it has been signed – that is, if they are consulted at all.

As such, it represents a ‘climate land grab’ that reverses some of the steady progress that Liberia has made on recognising community rights.

The deal’s legality is also dubious, and the agreement appears to violate our constitution and a number of Liberian laws, notably the National Forestry Reform Law (2006), the Community Rights Law (2009), the Public Procurement and Concessions Act (2010), and the Land Right Act (2018).

One can only sell carbon if you own it.  Liberian law is clear that communities own their customary forest lands and the resources on them.

The conditions of our people are worsening by the day. Liberia is one of the last countries in West Africa to still have vast tracts of forest – but this valuable resource is disappearing at an alarming rate.

Liberians must remain open to working with anyone, including corporations, who can help us protect our forests and our peoples’ rights. But we must remain resolute in our opposition to false climate solutions such as this deal.

 

Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor has championed community forest and land rights in Liberia for two decades. His efforts were recognized with the Whitley Award for Environment and Human Rights in 2002 (UK), the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2006 (US), Award for Outstanding Environmental and Human Rights Activism from the Alexander Soros Foundation (US), and the Mundo Negro Fraternity Award in 2018 (Spain). 

 
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