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The Injustice of Carbon Markets 

Land is increasingly being grabbed for carbon removal and offsets leading to displacement, conflicts and financialization of nature  

Indigenous and rural women in the Brazilian state of Acre have experienced how market-based forest conservation schemes undermine their ways of life and ability to caring for their ecosystems. The REDD+ program was introduced by state authorities, donors, and big conservation groups with the promise of combining better protection of forests with reduced greenhouse gas emissions, as well as income and other benefits for rural communities. The program, however, has led to more land grabs, deforestation, and extraction while destroying communities’ traditional livelihoods, farming and food systems. Instead of an increased legal protection of Indigenous and rural women’s tenure rights, it has placed their life, bodies, and territories into markets. Worldwide, communities face a huge expansion of carbon offset projects from forests and soils driven by states’ and corporate net-zero targets. The Tenure Guidelines contain provisions that support Indigenous and rural women’s struggles for their rights, self-determination, and ways of life, which are critical to ecosystem protection in the face of the climate and biodiversity crises 

The b
roken promises of REDD+ programs

The state of Acre, located in the western part of the Brazilian Amazon and 80% covered by forest, started a project under the REDD+ (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) program in 2012. The project, funded by the German development bank KfW, was promoted among Indigenous Peoples and rural communities as a way to turn environmental forest management practices into economic and new livelihood opportunities. Between 2012 and 2020, KfW, in charge of the German REDD ‘Early Movers’ program, poured more than USD 25 Million into the project. Soon, it became a model to showcase the benefits of environmental protection through payments to forest users who adopt practices that contribute to the conservation of so-called ecosystem services, namely forests’ carbon capture.  

But while ministers as well as representatives of international institutions and large conservation NGOs poured into the region to see the formula that supposedly reconciled economic development with environmental protection and climate benefits, the reality for local communities turned out to be very different. Indeed, the promised benefits did not materialize. What is more, the projects even created new problems, especially for women. 

Firstly, the introduction of REDD+ projects was not accompanied by systematic demarcation of community lands as a basis for the legal protection for their tenure rights and systems. In addition, whereas financial benefits did materialize, in most cases these did not stay in the communities but benefited external agents who acted as brokers or who set up NGOs in the cities in order to manage the complex system of carbon accounting at the basis of REDD+ payments. To be eligible to receive some of the financial benefits, some community members began to create their own organizations, but this came at the cost of altering the social fabric and fragmenting the communities. 

Local people have also complained about a lack of effective participation in the design and management of the projects. Indigenous women were particularly discriminated against and invisibilized, according to their own organizations. In some cases, women were targeted by special training courses in what local organizations have referred to as ‘purplewashing’, i.e. using activities focusing on gender equality as a way of giving a more responsible face to compensation schemes, which promote models of relations with nature that in and of themselves are patriarchal and excluding.

A group of children from an indigenous community play in the Amazon River. / Toni Arnau – RUIDO Photo


The establishment and implementation of REDD+ projects in Acre fundamentally altered the ways of life of communities and undermined their self-determination and food sovereignty. For example, communities were informed that they would be paid so-called ‘green grants’ under the condition that they would no longer cut or burn any trees, as part of their traditional way of small-scale food production in the forest. The projects thus forbid them to pursue their traditional livelihoods, which are linked to opening parts of the forests for food production. Whereas these practices are based on traditional knowledge and carried out in respect of natural balances, abandoning them meant that communities started to buy most of their food, and even became dependent on donations of industrial food. Losing their food-related practices has come along with declining nutrition and has also entailed a huge cultural loss, as women ceased to pass on the age-old knowledge related to agroecological food production to the younger generations. 

In some cases, in addition to receiving grants for not cutting down any trees, communities were included into re/afforestation programs. Under such schemes, seedlings were distributed to local people who were then supposed to plant them. However, without any additional support, such schemes turned out to put the burden on communities who were already struggling with the manifold challenges arising from the projects.  

The loss of traditional ties within the communities, their relationship to the living environment, leading to the destruction of livelihoods and the impoverishment of many people, ended up forcing them to seek other ways of making a living. Whereas some people started to parcel the land and sell it, others started to sell wood, thus increasing deforestation, rather than reducing it. The loss of their forests particularly affected women who often pursued livelihoods related to the use of forest products, such as medicinal plants or using creepers for handicraft. Indeed, rural women in Acre and other parts of Brazil often engage in ‘extrativismo’, which refers to a traditional way of life defined by the harvesting of non-timber forest products, often in combination with subsistence agriculture. One example is the extraction of latex from rubber trees growing inside the forest, also called rubber tapping.  

The destruction of communities’ social fabric and their traditional ways of life has also led to distress migration into the cities. Once again, women and girls have been particularly affected. In many cases, the only way for them to make a living is to engage in illicit activities or to sell their bodies for exploitation. 

The establishment and implementation of REDD+ projects in Acre fundamentally altered the ways of life of communities and undermined their self-determination and food sovereignty. 


Felled tree in a deforested area in the Brazilian Amazon. / © Toni Arnau – RUIDO Photo

Financialized conservation vs. community forest management  

At the heart of the dispossession and loss of autonomy faced by rural women and communities in Acre lies a fundamental contradiction between two distinct approaches of ecosystem protection and, lastly, a fundamentally different way of relating to Nature. On the one hand, REDD+ epitomizes a conservation paradigm, which considers humans and Nature as separate, and is grounded in a logic of domination and exploitation. On the other hand, Indigenous Peoples’ and other traditional communities’ management practices are based on a deep holistic understanding of the interdependencies between human societies and their natural environment, and do not conceive Nature primarily as functional to human wellbeing. For forest communities, taking care of ecosystems is an integral part of their livelihood activities, including food production. This conception is very well expressed in the importance attributed to the Samaúma tree, as explained by Letícia Yawanawa, an indigenous leader from Acre: 

“Our Samaúma, according to our history, to our spirituality, is a very large tree in the middle of the forest, that is why we call it a woman, she means fruit, she means shade, she is the greatest of all. Now things are worse because with tree after tree being felled, wood that grew for 40, 50 years being chopped down in a few minutes, it’s very sad for us to see this. 

If the Samaúma were a woman who could speak, she would be crying, she would be shouting when her children are taken away. With that come the droughts, which affect the people of our lands because our lands are surrounded by people we don’t even know. The animals end up leaving that deforested place, the igarapés [name given in the Brazilian Amazon region for a stream that flows into a river] are drying up, as are the rivers at the other end. As an indigenous woman, I look upon this with much sadness.” 

Indigenous’ women’s approach to the ecosystems in Acre and elsewhere is diametrically opposed to conservation and restoration practices that are centered on single species and on economies of scale, and which exclude rather than include local people. In Brazil, it has led to criminalizing women’s traditional practices, such as the production of handicraft from Caixeta wood. The protection of this species of tree aimed to limit the unsustainable extraction of this wood for the (industrial) production of luxury goods, which is a real problem. However, the way in which the ban was introduced by establishing “ecological stations“, meaning areas of highly restricted use, has taken away from women and rural communities important forms of cultural expression and a source of income. At the same time, has fostered the expulsion and permanent persecution of these communities.

The case of Acre illustrates well several additional problems with REDD+. One of the main issues is that the program does not address the actual drivers of deforestation (such as the expansion of industrial agriculture and other extractive activities) but focuses on supposedly destructive community practices. Moreover, the design of the program does not allow to establish a clear causal link between its implementation, reduced deforestation, and positive climate outcomes.

Whereas the program’s promoters stress that the so-called ‘result-based payments’ are tied to a measurable and verifiable reduction of emissions, the complex carbon accounting system is based on average numbers of deforestation in the entire state of Acre, without contemplating the situation in a specific location. What is more, the supposed reduction of emissions from the project is calculated on the basis of hypothetical assumptions of the emissions that would have been created if the project did not exist. Acre is a case in point: today, deforestation rates in the state are well above what they were when the REDD ‘Early Movers’ program started.

At the heart of the dispossession and loss of autonomy faced by rural women and communities in Acre lies a fundamental contradiction between two distinct approaches of ecosystem protection and, lastly, a fundamentally different way of relating to Nature.


A small forested island in the middle of the Amazon River. / © Toni Arnau – RUIDO Photo

Dispossession through offsetting and speculation  

The REDD+ program in Acre shows how environmental protection and climate change mitigation have become a pretext and driver for the dispossession of people from their lands, forests, and territories. A central aspect here is the financialization of people’s territories and management practices. Indeed, the “result-based payments” made to communities for preserving their forests’ ecosystem services transforms community practices into a paid-for service – in addition to the fact that the very concept of “ecosystem services” is based on the assumption that Nature can be fragmented into units and processes to which monetary value is attributed. The financialization of Nature is even more pronounced with carbon credits that are traded on carbon markets. Compensating, or offsetting, greenhouse gas emissions in one place with carbon capture in another place, such as the Amazon, is also part of REDD+ and central to corporations’ climate pledges. 

In recent years, offsetting schemes such as REDD+ have been relabeled as so-called ‘Nature-based solutions’ or ‘Natural climate solutions’. These programs have become central to market-based responses to climate change and rapidly declining biodiversity. They have been incorporated into several international agreements, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Global Biodiversity Framework. Governments, fossil fuel companies and other business sectors have already embraced NBS in the context of their ‘net zero’ pledges. For them, they present an opportunity to buy their way to ‘net zero emissions’ and ‘no net loss of biodiversity’ through carbon and biodiversity credits for offsets. The risk is that it will enable and legitimize hugely harmful practices of extraction by stipulating that they can be compensated through conservation or afforestation elsewhere. As such, they risk fueling more land grabs and human rights violations, especially of Indigenous Peoples, smallholder food producers, and other rural communities. 

However, proof is piling up that these mechanisms do not actually fulfil the promises made. Recent research shows that there is simply not enough land available to realize the ‘net zero’ pledges made so far: the 1.2 billion hectares of land currently included in pledges are equivalent to the size of the world’s total food-producing base. Moreover, the world’s biggest carbon credit certifier recently announced that it would completely revise its rainforest offset program, after media reports revealed that the existing scheme was flawed and “more than 90% of its rainforest offset credits do not represent genuine carbon reductions.” Like the “result-based payments” in Acre, offsetting is thus not primarily intended to serve achieving environmental goals, but rather functional to greenwashing destructive practices and transforming the existential ecologic crisis the world is facing into yet another business opportunity for corporate and financial actors.  

Another celebrated soil carbon offset scheme spread over 1.9 million hectares of indigenous pastoral lands in Kenya has also come under fire and been halted. Questions have been raised about the approach of the project to alter ancient historical practices of pastoralists and then assume these changes are storing carbon. While big polluters such as Netflix or Meta (Facebook) have bought carbon offsets to continue polluting, indigenous herders who are least responsible for climate change are being asked to change their way of life while also suffering from the prolonged drought caused by climate change.  

Yet, carbon markets are being increasingly integrated into the global financial system. In October 2021, the New York Stock Exchange created a new asset class and accompanying vehicle called Natural Asset Company (NAC), i.e. specialized corporations that hold “the rights to the ecosystem services produced on a given chunk of land, services like carbon sequestration or clean water.” Thus, despite being presented as a way to generate funding for environmental protection measures, NAC are intended to be at the center of the further commercialization of Nature by monetizing ‘ecosystem services,’ thus transforming natural processes into financial assets that are estimated to be worth US$ 4,000 trillion.  

Besides the serious human rights impacts of offsetting schemes such as REDD+ and their questionable benefits for ecosystem protection, Friends of the Earth International points out that ‘Nature-based solutions’ is such a vaguely defined concept that it “threatens to corrupt and co-opt genuine solutions such as agroecology and community forest management (CFM) by lumping them together with dubious and destructive practices […] and linking them to opaque market-based schemes.” 

In recent years, offsetting schemes such as REDD+ have been relabeled as so-called ‘Nature-based solutions’. These programs have become central to market-based responses to climate change and rapidly declining biodiversity.


Protest against REDD programs in Reserva Extractivista Chico Mendes. / © World Rainforest Movement

Monetizing ecosystems undermines the right to land 

REDD+ and other offsetting schemes directly impact the right to land of Indigenous Peoples and rural communities. Firstly, whereas Indigenous Peoples and rural communities are instrumentalized as service providers for acting as stewards of ecosystems; state, corporate and financial actors are incentivized to obtain the effective control over land, forests and other ecosystems. Even where this does not lead to outright theft of land through ‘green grabs’, offsetting schemes deprive communities of the decision-making regarding their territories. This is exemplified by the ways in which Acre communities found themselves as strangers on their own lands, because they were no longer able to pursue their ways of life and use their natural resources according to their traditional knowledge and practices.  

Secondly, offsets intrinsically tie conservation in one place to destruction elsewhere. Consequently, adverse impacts on the right to land due to extractive activities in those other territories need to be considered when assessing the impacts on climate and ecosystem protection. The experience of Acre communities with REDD+ shows that the ‘green’ and ‘brown’ (extractive) economies tend to advance together, even in the very same region. According to Sempreviva Organização Feminista, 

“[the green and brown economies] are two sides of the same coin: the more destruction advances, the greater the field opened up to compensation initiatives. The more nature becomes scarce, the higher the value of the green bonds that trade it according to the law of supply and demand. In this equation, communities’ territories and common goods enter the financial markets as collateral for these bonds, and become mere assets.” 

Communities have described that extractive activities have increased since the compensation schemes started, leading to rising rather than reduced deforestation. This is supported by official numbers on deforestation in the state of Acre, which show that this state has become the leader in deforestation among the Amazon states with Brazil leading the global figures on deforestation, in a tremendous contradiction compared with the arguments of the promoters of REDD+ and offsetting mechanisms. The destruction of ecosystems in recent years has further been accelerated by the bad policies adopted by the Bolsonaro government.  

Brazil is also a good example of how environmental legislation, which is functional to economic and corporate interests, undermines the rights of Indigenous Peoples and rural communities, including their right to land. The country’s revised Forest Code of 2012  obliges landowners to conserve or restore the native vegetation of a percentage of their land, it also provides them with an alternative: instead of restoring illegally cleared forests, they can buy so-called forest restoration credits, which compensate the destruction with conservation elsewhere.

Consequently, in areas where land prices are high and destructive practices are lucrative, these forest restoration credits allow landowners to continue deforesting as long as they acquire sufficient credits to offset the destruction. The main function of the Forest Code is thus to place conserved areas on the market. In other cases, corporate and individual landowners have grabbed intact lands to comply with the legislation regarding intact areas. Unsurprisingly, these lands and forests are usually used by Indigenous Peoples and rural communities.  

In areas where land prices are high and destructive practices are lucrative, forest restoration credits allow landowners to continue deforesting as long as they acquire sufficient credits to offset the destruction.


Logging road in the Reserva Chico Mendes, where a REDD+ program was implemented. / © World Rainforest Movement

Using the Tenure Guidelines to oppose market-based climate change policies 

Guaranteeing Indigenous Peoples’ and rural communities’ right to land is a central part of the solutions that genuinely aim to stop and reverse ecosystem destruction and cool the Planet. The Tenure Guidelines provide important reference points to support communities’ struggles for their land in the context of REDD+ and compensation schemes. 

Firstly, these Guidelines put forward a holistic approach (para. 3B5), which recognizes the interconnectedness of tenure and the uses of land and other natural resources. This is closely connected to the Tenure Guidelines provisions requiring states to recognize different values and functions of land, including social, cultural, spiritual, and environmental values (paras 9.1 and 9.7). Moreover, protecting and promoting sustainable livelihoods for marginalized people is part of the Guidelines’ paramount objective (para 1.1), and is mentioned as one of states’ main responsibilities related to tenure (para. 4.1). This is complemented by the requirement for states to promote diversified sustainable management of land, fisheries and forests to address climate change, in particular through agroecology (para. 20.5). 

As the example of Acre shows, instrumentalizing Indigenous Peoples and rural communities as service providers for offsetting schemes undermines their traditional knowledge and practices regarding sustainable management of forests. In order to support these, the Tenure Guidelines underline states’ duties to legally protect communities’ tenure rights and systems (section 5), including customary tenure systems (section 9). In this context, they also emphasize women’s tenure rights (para 5.4) and the need for states to promote gender equality in the governance of tenure (para. 3B4).  

These provisions of the Tenure Guidelines are to be interpreted and applied in concert with the provisions contained in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Similarly, authoritative interpretation of states’ human rights obligations regarding land contained in General Recommendation No. 34 of the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on the rights of rural women and CEDAW General Recommendation No. 39 on the rights of Indigenous Women and Girls, as well as General Comment No. 26 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) on land, should be used to support these struggles.  

The Tenure Guidelines provide important reference points to support communities’ struggles for their land in the context of REDD+ and compensation schemes.


This article has been possible thanks to the information and support provided by Friends of the Earth International and World Rainforest Movement. 

This article is largely based on the text “10 Years of REDD+ in Acre and its Impacts on Indigenous Women and Female ‘Extrativistas”, published by World Rainforest Movement