Saturday, January 28, 2023

Ensuring justice for communities in the blue carbon boom

An article on blue carbon social safeguards of the Vanga Blue Forest project, one of the project sites of the UNEP/GEF Blue Forests Project:

Economist Impact / 25 Jan 2023 / Ensuring justice for communities in the blue carbon boom

The demand for blue carbon credits is growing rapidly. Buyers from industry, government and civil society are increasingly seeking to offset their emissions by funding the restoration and protection of coastal ecosystems, as awareness grows of their power to sequester carbon and deliver many other benefits. The current supply of blue carbon credits falls well behind demand, so there is great incentive for the development of new projects. To date, carbon credits have only been issued from mangrove conservation and restoration, although work is under way to certify seagrass and saltmarsh ecosystems.

Socioecological system

Mangrove forests are a socioecological system. This means that where communities live alongside mangroves, people become intrinsically part of nature. Fisher-people benefit from the boost that mangroves provide to fish populations as a sheltered habitat for them to breed and grow. The forests’ biodiversity boosts tourism and supports resilient ecosystems and food chains on which many people depend. Communities living inland are protected by the natural sea wall that the forests create. The forests provide a source of timber that coastal populations rely on for cooking and building, and a source of other products including honey, fibres, dyes and medicines. But this reliance on mangrove products, particularly timber, is contributing to forest degradation and loss in areas with high levels of poverty. This means that the people who depend the most on mangrove forests must be put at the heart of conservation efforts.

Blue carbon projects are certified by one of several carbon standards. The core function of these standards is to ensure that the carbon being claimed by the projects is accurate and verifiable, but each framework also includes its own criteria for social, environmental and economic elements. For example, the Plan Vivo Foundation prioritises poverty alleviation and the inclusion and support of communities tackling the climate crisis through its projects.

Extensive research has ascertained what makes community-based conservation effective and socially just. This involves not just consulting those involved but ensuring that they play an active role in the governance, management and decision-making of projects and their interventions.

  • Community-based conservation involves not just consulting those involved but ensuring that they play an active role in the governance, management and decision-making of projects and their interventions.

Community engagement

Effective community-based management takes time, resources, patience and an open-ended, iterative approach to developing and managing projects. It must capture the diversity and complexity of what defines a “community” and be adaptive to changing social, economic and environmental contexts. Community engagement and involvement is not a tick-box exercise confined to the project-development phase; it is a principle that must be embedded throughout the project lifespan with the understanding that community needs, expectations and ambitions can change as the project progresses.
Community engagement

Blue carbon projects present unique challenges for community engagement and involvement. For example, the certification process is onerous and demands scientific, technical, ecological and political knowledge and capabilities. These are not always skills that community groups hold—at least, not in the way demanded by carbon standards—meaning that “outside” help is almost always needed to develop and sometimes manage a project. While a partnership approach is not unusual in conservation, the reliance on partners in a carbon project may give rise to conflicts over project ownership and sharing the benefits of carbon revenue.

To develop a socially just and effective blue carbon project, the challenge of meaningfully involving communities must be addressed. However, the increasing demand for blue carbon credits creates an incentive for rapid project development to generate large volumes of credits. This incentive is at odds with the time and resources required to adequately engage and involve people in project development and management.

Quality over quantity

This conflict between the quantity and quality of projects and their credits must be understood by governments, funders and buyers of carbon credits. Funders and national blue carbon strategies must prioritise local people’s needs and inclusion alongside carbon benefit, understanding that without the former, the latter is unachievable or unsustainable. This means addressing the root causes of degradation—in many cases, such as in East Africa, the need for timber as a result of poverty. It also means undertaking meaningful and comprehensive engagement with communities and maintaining their involvement throughout the project lifespan through iterative engagement and adaptation. Community-led projects such as the Mikoko Pamoja and Vanga Blue Forest projects in Kenya have demonstrated how projects can deliver community benefits and justice alongside carbon benefit, and their example has been followed elsewhere in Africa and further afield.

With the current boom in demand and funding for blue carbon, there is great potential for climate, environmental and social benefits to be realised. It is essential, however, that this “blue carbon fever” doesn’t allow quantity to take priority over quality.

Mwanarusi Mwafrica will be speaking at the 2023 World Ocean Summit’s session on “Developing blue-nature-based solutions to address global climate and biodiversity challenges” on February 28th at 12.00 GMT, in Lisbon. The sessions will discuss how credible blue-nature-based solutions are being developed, why it is important to develop coastal ecosystems to protect biodiversity as well as for carbon offsetting, and how this is happening.

About the authors

Robyn Shilland is director of ACES, a Scotland-based charity supporting community-led blue carbon projects, including the Mikoko Pamoja and Vanga Blue Forest projects. Her work involves co-ordinating the certification of projects to the Plan Vivo Standard and working with communities to develop and manage effective blue carbon projects. She has 10 years’ experience of working in the carbon market and conducting research into carbon-offsetting ethics and social justice in carbon projects.

Mwanarusi Mwafrica is the project co-ordinator for Vanga Blue Forest. She is responsible for the everyday management of the project and co-ordinating community engagement and governance. She has three years’ experience working with the Vanga community on sustainable mangrove conservation and protection in Kenya.