Sirebe tribal ranger Elijah Qalolilio Junior in the rainforest.

Sirebe tribal ranger Elijah Qalolilio Junior in the rainforest. Douglas Junior Pikacha / Nakau

Solomon Islands Tribes Sell Carbon Credits, Not Their Trees

In a South Pacific nation ravaged by logging, several tribes joined together to sell “high integrity” carbon credits on international markets. The project not only preserves their highly biodiverse rainforest, but it funnels life-changing income to Indigenous landowners.

When head ranger Ikavy Pitatamae walks into the rainforest on Choiseul Island, the westernmost of the nearly 1,000 islands that make up the South Pacific archipelago of Solomon Islands, he surveys it with the heart of a tribal landowner and the eye of a forester.

Leading the way up a track into the bush, he wades into a glassy stream, stirring small, brown fish into a spin. Surveys have identified some 50 freshwater species in these waters, a haven of biodiversity in a nation ravaged by high rates of logging. At the sound of a thumping whoosh overhead, Pitatamae points up just as two Papuan hornbills flash across a gap in the canopy. “They always fly in pairs,” observes Wilko Bosma, a lanky Dutchman trailing behind the ranger. “They’re committed for life.”

Bosma made his own commitment to this forest after landing here 25 years ago as an idealistic forestry graduate, working alongside Indigenous tribal landowners on small, sustainable timber projects. That’s how, in 2004, he came to establish with tribal partners a local conservation NGO — the Natural Resources Development Foundation (NRDF) — and got to know Linford Pitatamae, the older brother of ranger Ikavy and a leader of their tribe, the Sirebe.

Linford Pitatamae, a leader of the Sirebe tribe.

Linford Pitatamae, a leader of the Sirebe tribe. Jo Chandler

Together with a handful of neighboring tribes, the Sirebe resisted offers of quick money from the Malaysian companies whose ships lurk off the coast, piled with logs for export to China, and began laying plans to profit from allowing their trees to stand. Aerial maps reveal their remarkable success: the only expanse of green on the island that is not scarred by logging roads.

“If we misuse or destroy this land, we will not have any other,” explains Linford Pitatamae. “So we have been committed to protect our lands, our forests, our rivers and streams, and all the resources for quite a long time.”

Finally, the Sirebe’s long game is paying dividends. In 2019, the tribe’s three-square-mile forest became the first legally protected area in the nation, a “beacon of conservation and natural resource management,” according to Culwick Togamana, Solomon Islands’ environment minister⁠. In February 2022, the Sirebe became the nation’s first landowners to receive payment from international investors for keeping their forests intact. With neighboring tribes also securing protected areas and selling “high integrity” carbon credits to buyers looking to offset their greenhouse emissions or burnish their green credentials, the Babatana Rainforest Conservation Project — named for the tribes’ shared language group — now covers 26 square miles of protected tropical rainforest.

A sign marks the boundary of protected Sirebe land.

A sign marks the boundary of protected Sirebe land. Douglas Junior Pikacha / Nakau

Ikavy Pitatamae opens his phone to record his sighting of the hornbills in a biodiversity app, then uploads a photograph of a fallen tree into another app used for tracking changes in forest conditions. The calculations underwriting the value of this project on the international carbon market began with painstaking surveys the rangers conducted over six months, prior to its verification in 2021. They measured everything growing and living within a list of survey sites 80 feet in diameter. Rangers repeat the surveys every 10 years and annually conduct transect surveys that record every change and every animal spotted. Rangers routinely patrol boundaries, checking for incursions. Reports are verified by independent auditors and against satellite imagery.

Pushing through the dense tangle of vines and shrubs to the base of a giant brown terminalia tree, Ikavy Pitatamae demonstrates how baseline data are collected. He passes a measuring tape around the tree’s girth, then aims a laser beam up to where the trunk — likely 200 years in the making — branches out. Loggers would covet this specimen. Pitatamae’s data points verify that this forest contains harvestable and marketable timber that would likely be felled were it not protected — thus demonstrating a core carbon market requirement that the trees would not otherwise exist without this project. The data are also necessary for tallying the forest’s carbon store, or inventory. The magnificent canopy, the forest’s messy middle story of young trees and saplings, and the biomass of its understory would all be just collateral damage to loggers coming for this tree’s trunk. But left standing, they are part of the complex calculus paying the rangers’ wages and supporting others in the tribal communities and villages.

Ranger Elijah Qalolilio Junior uses a smartphone map app as he monitors the forest.

Ranger Elijah Qalolilio Junior uses a smartphone map app as he monitors the forest. Douglas Junior Pikacha / Nakau

Since 2022, the Sirebe have received five quarterly payments for their forest project. The money should keep flowing until 2045, when the contract comes up for renewal. The payments are made by Nakau, the Pacific-wide, rights-based, nonprofit operator that coordinates the Babatana project and works in collaboration with NRDF. Similar payments are in the pipeline for neighboring tribes as their projects are verified and added to the Babatana project portfolio.

The Babatana project is owned by the tribes, who also retain their carbon rights. This structure, it is hoped, will help the project overcome some of the criticisms aimed at other carbon-trading schemes internationally, including that they perpetuate extractive colonial dynamics in their dealings with forest people and have led to episodes of conflict and violent dispossession.⁠ Many experts have been damning of projects’ lack of consultation with local people and transparency, and there is substantial evidence that some projects are pure greenwashing.

Among those critics is the Australian sociologist Kristen Lyons, a sustainability and development expert who spent years observing projects in East Africa that failed to deliver what they promised. With her fellow University of Queensland sociologist Peter Walters, she’s taken the position that carbon offsets not only enable big industrial polluters to continue emitting, they also recruit traditional landowners “as unwitting accomplices to this environmental procrastination,” as the scholars wrote in a 2021 book chapter.

The Sirebe forest at dusk.

The Sirebe forest at dusk. Douglas Junior Pikacha / Nakau

Nonetheless, after several years of monitoring the Solomons project, Lyons and Walters argue that it is a regionally significant example of best practice for carbon projects in a small nation. “I have been, historically, incredibly critical of carbon offset projects,” Lyons says. But after applying an environmental justice lens to her study of the Babatana project, she notes, “My view has shifted.”

Lyons observes that while forest owners should, in theory, be powerful stakeholders in a global market worth hundreds of billions of dollars, in reality they are often far from equal partners. Indigenous people may struggle with impenetrable jargon from the wrong side of the digital divide, often in their third or fourth language. But on Choiseul Island, local engagement is strong. Lyons says she has seen communities using money received from the offsets for programs that reflect their own priorities, including agricultural, sanitation, and education projects, which will provide lasting value even if the carbon caper goes belly up tomorrow.

“We need to attend to human rights, particularly Indigenous rights, as we’re seeking to attend to the climate crisis,” says Lyons. “And so, if local communities — particularly Indigenous communities — are saying this is a pathway [they] want to explore, I think it would be a terrible thing if there was not the support [for it].”

Rangers Ismael Norokesa (left) and Mosses Zoleveke (right).

Rangers Ismael Norokesa (left) and Mosses Zoleveke (right). Douglas Junior Pikacha / Nakau

Their work in the forest completed, the Pitatamae brothers and Bosma climb aboard their motorized canoe and slowly navigate down the shallows of the Kolombangara River, past crocodiles, kingfishers, and flood-eroded banks. Big rains used to come once a season but now occur five or six times in succession, says Linford Pitatamae. The damage is far worse in logged areas, where floods wash out crops and sediment contaminates clean water and coastal fishing grounds.

This river flows through 330 square miles of lowland, riparian, and montane forests that contain some of the richest biodiversity remaining in Solomon Islands. On the northern bank lies the 18-square-mile protected area of the Padezaka tribe, whose carbon project is in its last stages of verification. “This area is heavily threatened by logging,” Bosma says. “It’s been quite an achievement that they could get it [protected] in time.” Some neighboring tribes have let loggers in, and muck from the churned landscape, logging camps, and roads is spilling into the water catchment.

Leaving the river, the canoe picks up speed for the last bumpy leg home, over open ocean, and finally pulls up on the sand at Sasamungga, at the midpoint of Choiseul’s south coast. The sprawling village is home to around 1,000 people from the Sirebe, Siporae, Vuri, Padezaka, Garasa, and Lukulombere tribes, whose ancestral forests are inland, in the river country we’ve just left. Like many Pacific forest people, they have over the decades drifted to hubs like Sasamungga to access education, markets, health services, transportation, and jobs.

A male oriole whistler on a forest ranger's hand.

A male oriole whistler on a forest ranger's hand. Douglas Junior Pikacha / Nakau

Only about 10 percent of the small but growing Sirebe population have paid employment outside the village, Linford Pitatamae says, so most of the community have had a hand-to-mouth village life, relying on what they could earn from fishing and agriculture. Now, their carbon project sells around 17,423 credits a year on the international market under a deal extending 30 years. It takes in roughly $263,350 a year, of which 20 percent goes to NRDF, 20 percent to Nakau, the project coordinator, and 60 percent to the 27 households of the project owners. In a subsistence economy in one of the poorest nations in the Pacific, that’s life-changing income.

One man put his household’s share into a new outboard motor and insulated boxes to store fish for sale. His neighbor invested in equipment for a mechanical workshop. Families have installed solar panels and toilets with septic tanks, upgraded their homes, and plumbed water taps that deliver rainwater collected in new tanks.

Five percent of payments go into the Sirebe women’s savings club — $2,360 every quarter. Karah Qalo, who founded the club, says the 33 members use it to pay their children’s school fees, buy materials for their food gardens, invest in bakery projects and bee keeping, and run their phones. Their situation is radically different from that of women from forest communities that have been logged. Local custom largely holds that only men have authority over the land, while women have only the right to use the land — including for gardening, firewood, or water collection. When male leaders allow loggers in, says Qalo, they get cash, but the women lose everything. “The water will be polluted, air pollution, everything will not be good because of the pollution of the machines.”

Cup fungus (left) and a Woodford's fruit bat (right) in the Sirebe forest.

Cup fungus (left) and a Woodford's fruit bat (right) in the Sirebe forest. Douglas Junior Pikacha / Nakau

Carbon marketeers usually describe the carbon that is sequestered and traded as the core benefit of their business and any positive social or economic outcomes for local people as co-benefits. But Nakau chief operating officer Alex McClean argues that from the perspective of forest people, “the carbon is close to irrelevant. What matters to them are improvements to their life and livelihoods.” He likes to turn the measure of integrity on its head, so things like jobs for rangers and funds that empower women become core benefits, with carbon reduction the icing on the cake.

But carbon market pioneer Mark Trexler, while not commenting specifically on the Nakau model, questions this approach, and the application of an environmental justice lens to carbon projects. “‘High integrity’ in the offset space has to refer to climate change mitigation benefits,” he says, not to co-benefits including forest community impacts. “If voluntary markets become seen primarily as a way to send money to impacted communities, we’re talking about carbon contributions, not offsets.”

Nakau CEO Robbie Henderson says demand for the Babatana project is strong and that “we could definitely sell our credits several times over at the moment.” Some buyers don’t use those credits to offset anything, he says, but rather to demonstrate their environmental commitment. Some agree not to claim carbon neutrality; some offset residual emissions. An exclusion list prohibits the sale of credits to support any fossil fuel expansion.

Ranger Clinton Gatavae.

Ranger Clinton Gatavae. Douglas Junior Pikacha / Nakau

Linford Pitatamae recalls plenty of skepticism when he and Wilko Bosma started talking to the community about the crazy notion of selling their forest, but not their trees. “At first, we didn’t think this was a real project,” Pitatamae says. “The community didn’t really understand.” It took years of “continuous engagement, training, [and raising] awareness” to win support, he says, then more years to work through the hurdles of verification and certification to get to this point. Now he’s hearing from landowners across the island, and the nation, who are hungry to learn more.

“We believe we have to respect the environment — that will bring us a good future,” says Linford Pitatamae. “We still have our trees [and] good drinking water sources. Our birds are still there. Our sacred places are still there.” He spends long hours most days locked away from the forest he loves, grinding through the paperwork and complexities of keeping this enterprise going. But he’s not complaining. “This is the right path for rural Solomons to follow,” he says.

Correction, April 22, 2024: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the names of two Solomon Islands tribes. They are the Vuri, not the Viru, and the Garasa, not the Garesa.