In a world where carbon credit markets are taking advantage of Indigenous people and their forests, the United Nation is losing its leadership on combating climate change, says Indigenous leader Levi Sucre Romero.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Romero, who is from Costa Rica and is coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests, calls out the “carbon cowboys” — the brokers who he says are wrecking efforts to allow Indigenous communities to have ownership of the carbon credits generated on their land, and who, by acting unscrupulously and secretively, are undermining global hopes of using nature to mitigate climate change.
Back in Costa Rica after attending this month’s UN negotiations on biodiversity in Montreal, he also warns that the goal under discussion in Montreal of protecting 30 percent of the Earth’s land and oceans could be wrecked by other deals that will bring new funding to conservation — but at the expense of the people whose lands are to be conserved.
Despite such warnings, Romero remains an optimist. Like many Indigenous leaders, he combines anger with pragmatism, historical insights with political savvy, and cultural awareness with hard negotiating skills. He sees the importance of combining Indigenous knowledge with modern expertise to fight the twin perils of climate change and ecological meltdown.
After a history of grabbing land from Indigenous communities, he believes his home nation of Costa Rica can offer a model for how Indigenous rights and ecological restoration can go hand in hand. And he believes there are enough people of goodwill to begin the new conversations that could make it happen.
Yale Environment 360: You began as a farmer, and now you’re a leader and activist. Tell us your story.
Levi Sucre Romero: I am still a farmer. I am from the Indigenous Bribri people of southeastern Costa Rica. My parents told me when I was young how we lost our lands more than a hundred years ago when the government gave them to a big international businessman [American entrepreneur Minor C. Keith] to grow bananas. I realized from a young age that our rights had been violated for the economic interests of others. And listening to those stories motivated me towards activism, to defending and restoring the rights of my community, then more widely of other Indigenous people in my country and in Mesoamerica and the world. I am convinced about what I am doing and that we can be successful.
e360: You are just back home from the COP15 conference on biodiversity in Montreal. Some people are worried that the big proposal there to protect 30 percent of the planet for nature will result in land being taken from Indigenous peoples. Do you fear that too? Or can the plan help Indigenous peoples to protect their own land better?
Romero: It could be a real advance if it is done right. But what concerns us is how the new protected areas are going to be established. In our view, the rules being developed do not yet sufficiently require consulting with us or fully ensure our free, prior, and informed consent. That is really worrying for Indigenous peoples especially, because most of us do not have legal title to our territories.
We are working with the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, an international grouping of Indigenous and community organizations, on five issues: land titling; ensuring no criminalization of our leaders; consultation with free, prior, and informed consent; direct funding for Indigenous conservation; and acknowledgement of the importance of traditional Indigenous knowledge in combatting climate change. We find that the poor situation on these issues is the same across the world. The pressure on our lands, our resources, and our rights is the same everywhere.
“The rules being developed to govern the market in carbon credits do not include strong participation of Indigenous peoples.”
Without these safeguards, the 30-percent goal could displace Indigenous peoples, take our land, and destroy our knowledge about how to use that land sustainably. That would be bad for us and bad for biodiversity too.
e360: Can rules be written to prevent this green land-grabbing?
Romero: Yes, of course. But we have seen in the climate negotiations already what can go wrong. The rules being developed to govern the market in carbon credits do not include strong participation of Indigenous peoples or protection of their rights. The recent talks at COP27 [the UN climate conference] in Egypt just said that national legislation should be respected, but we know that national regulations are easily violated by governments and due to corruption. Now we see the same thing happening with the biodiversity talks in Montreal.
So yes, we can write rules. But there is no real push in these international agreements to create strong international regulations that protect Indigenous peoples and their rights.
e360: The European Union just announced trade rules aimed at banning imports of commodity products that cause deforestation. Do you think that will work and will benefit Indigenous communities defending their lands against agribusiness?
Romero: We are fearful, because once again the rules are putting us in the hands of the same national governments that are already violating our rights. They should be targeting the people who fund all these destructive activities, the international banks and so on. The danger for us lies in investment decisions being made against the interests of people who do not have the economic resources to defend themselves.
e360: But some governments are better than others. Your country, Costa Rica, is famous for having restored forests in recent years by making payments to landowners for environment services. Did Indigenous communities benefit?
Romero: Yes. The payments for environment services give direct funding to Indigenous communities. From 1997, the government has had a dialogue with us on environmental issues, and we have an accumulated experience from this that I believe can be a good example for other countries.
But there is still a debt that Costa Rica owes to its Indigenous peoples. Our land was taken from us and in places is still being taken. Even if the law recognizes lands as Indigenous, the government hasn’t given full title. The country still owes Indigenous peoples more recognition and protection of our lands. We still don’t have justice, and violence against us keeps increasing.
e360: Where does the violence come from?
Romero: There are continuing disputes over land. We have conflicts with both small producers and big companies that are trying to expand their monocultures. Then there are the narco-traffickers. They try to take our land to grow their crops and for airstrips. That’s a big problem across Latin America.
e360: You were at the climate COP27 in Egypt. How do you think it went?
Romero: There was no advance. We are stuck where we were at COP26 in Glasgow [in 2021], demanding rights to our land, to participation, consent, consultation, and respect for our traditional knowledge.
“There is less and less discussion on how to strengthen the safeguards that Indigenous communities need.”
e360: What about funding? In Glasgow, $1.7 billion was promised to fund Indigenous communities to pursue their land rights as part of protecting the carbon in their forests. Are you seeing any of that money?
Romero: Only 19 percent of the money promised has been disbursed so far, and of that only 7 percent has gone directly to Indigenous peoples and local communities. A lot of intermediaries, like financiers and big NGOs, are taking the rest.
Most governments don’t have the tools or structures to make funding directly to us. Before the next COP we want to find ways to solve this problem, though I think it may take five years to finally achieve this. It will require a lot of will from policymakers to create new ways of working with Indigenous peoples. That’s going to be a big challenge.
e360: Many people see the sale of carbon credits as a big opportunity for Indigenous peoples to benefit from the carbon in their forests. Yet you say that the negotiations in Egypt failed to set safeguards for Indigenous communities in the operation of the market for carbon credits. What has gone wrong?
Romero: The carbon market has changed a lot. Ten years ago polluting companies wanted to invest directly in forests to compensate for their emissions through carbon sequestration. They went directly to forested countries to look for carbon credits. Some genuinely wanted to respect the rights of Indigenous communities.
But now there is another group of actors who don’t care about that. They just want to trade in carbon credits. It is a market for them — very capitalistic. They don’t care about the climate or forests or people. There is little control over what they do right now. The United Nation is losing its leadership on combating climate change, and there is less and less discussion on how to strengthen the safeguards that Indigenous communities need. We are very concerned that this is going backwards.
e360: You have said that secrecy is an important problem in carbon trading. Why?
Romero: In this new market, carbon credit traders say they have a commercial relationship with governments that has to be confidential. To maintain that confidentiality, we have no right to know who is buying these carbon credits or what they are planning to do with our forests. For example, the Honduran government has started declaring sovereign carbon credits for sale that exclude us from the process. They are undermining rights that we have been trying to defend in the last few years.
Some “carbon cowboys” do go to our communities, but they just turn up and say, “Sign here.” They make a lot of false promises to the communities, who sign away then their rights to the carbon in their forests. There are no rules. We used to hear about blood diamonds; this is blood carbon. Carbon credits have become a financial market instead of a solution to climate change.
This is becoming an issue with biodiversity too. There is a trend in Mesoamerica for governments to declare protected areas and then make deals for conservation with big NGOs that dispossess Indigenous peoples. It is big business, and that is worrying us.
e360: Some people have recognized this problem and want to do things better. The LEAF Coalition, which has received a lot of money from big corporations like Amazon and BlackRock to buy carbon credits, makes big promises for delivering higher environmental integrity and better social safeguards, particularly for Indigenous communities. What do you think?
Romero: Indigenous peoples must have a seat at the table, so we shall see. But I have faith. We have agreements with the LEAF Coalition for generating high-integrity carbon credits by including the rights of Indigenous peoples in agreements. Sometimes there are still problems. For example, in Guyana, they certified carbon credits without going through the procedures we had been discussing
“A growing amount of science shows Indigenous knowledge is important for biodiversity and for tackling climate change.”
But we understand we’re in a dialogue. If companies, governments, and Indigenous peoples can listen to each other, this situation can improve. We keep making progress, little by little. And at the end of the day, climate change is not a problem only for Indigenous peoples, it is a problem for the whole of humanity. We have to look for an answer together.
e360: Back home from the negotiations, do you see the effect of climate change on your farm?
Romero: Yes, the effects are very visible. We produce every kind of food: beans, corn, rice, yucca, plums, and all kind of fruits, as well as cacao and bananas. A lot of our traditional knowledge about how to grow these crops is based on our knowledge of weather patterns. But the weather is changing a lot. The species that we eat need some stability when it comes to weather. Without that, there is no production.
We are seeing big floods that take away our houses and fields and damage roads. Sometimes the droughts go on for so long that we cannot grow crops because of lack of water. In some places we need five or six times as much land to grow corn as we used to.
To produce food in these new circumstances, we have to harmonize our traditional knowledge with outside technical and scientific knowledge. So my message to the world is that we Indigenous peoples are here and ready to share our knowledge and our ways of living. A growing amount of science shows that Indigenous knowledge is important for biodiversity and for tackling climate change. I don’t believe that we have all the answers, but I do believe the solution lies in pooling our strengths and coming together.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.