Survival International's new report exposes serious problems with the Northern Rangelands Trust's soil carbon project on Indigenous land in Kenya
Report marks the launch of Survival International's “Blood Carbon” campaign
The Northern Kenya Grassland Carbon Project is “the world’s largest soil carbon removal project to date and the first project generating carbon credits reliant on modified livestock grazing practices”. That’s according to the Northern Rangelands Trust, the organisation that runs the project.
Survival International’s new report exposes major flaws in the project.
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Written by Simon Counsell (former Director of Rainforest Foundation UK) the report is titled, “Blood Carbon: how a carbon offsets scheme makes millions from Indigenous land in Northern Kenya”. The report marks the launch of Survival International’s “Blood Carbon” campaign.
The Northern Kenya Grassland Carbon Project covers more than two million hectares, consisting of thirteen of the Northern Rangelands Trust’s “conservancies”. These conservancies are supposedly managed for the benefit of wildlife as well as local people.
More than 100,000 people live in the project area, including Indigenous Samburu, Maasai, Borana, and Rendille people.
In a brochure about its conservation programme NaturAfrica, the European Commission states that,
“The community conservancies of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), which are supported by the EU, among others, also generate significant revenue streams from rangeland productivity improvement, including carbon credits earned for soil carbon capture over an area of 2 million hectares of conservancy land.”
The project could raise between US$300 and US$500 million, and potentially even more. Meta and Netflix are among the buyers of offsets from the project.
On 10 March 2023, the carbon standards company Verra wrote to the Northern Rangelands Trust and the validation/verification body Ruby Canyon Environmental, Inc to inform them that Verra is “opening a quality control review” of the project. Until the review is closed, no carbon credits from the project can be sold. The project status on the Verra Registry is “on hold”.
Survival International’s report raises serious questions about the credibility of the offsets generated by the project and the impact of the project on the Indigenous Peoples living in the area:
Impacts on communities: The project relies on breaking down Indigenous People’s traditional grazing systems, replacing them with a centrally controlled system closer to commercial ranching. In addition to being culturally destructive, this could endanger livelihoods and food security by preventing migration during seasonal droughts.
Additionality: “The project does not present a credible case for its carbon additionality,” Counsell writes. It relies on the assumption that traditional grazing patterns were leading to soil degradation and that only the carbon project could improve this. This assumption is not backed by empirical evidence.
There is no evidence that “planned rotational grazing” proposed by the project is actually happening across most of the project area. Neither is there any evidence that such a system would actually store more carbon in the soil than traditional patterns of pastoralism.
Baselines: Similarly, the project’s story about what would have happened in the absence of the project is based on the assumption that traditional grazing is causing degradation. There is no empirical evidence for this assumption. “The limited information provided by the project purporting to show a decline in vegetation quality prior to the project does not in fact show this at all,” Counsell writes. If anything, the quality of vegetation has declined since the project started, suggesting that soil carbon is also declining.
Leakage: The 1,000-kilometre project boundary is almost impossible to monitor in any meaningful way. “The quantification of leakage is in fact little more than guesswork,” Counsell notes. The project admits that containing livestock with the project area is contrary to traditional grazing patterns that can include long-distance migrations. These are crucial for the survival of livestock and people, especially during droughts.
Project monitoring: Reports produced by the 13 conservancies “are generally extremely poor in quality,” Counsell writes. The reports lack information about the number of animals present, their location, and their movements. The project relies on remote sensing of an index of vegetation cover as a proxy for soil carbon, rather than measuring soil carbon directly. The project admits that this involves very large margins of error and inaccuracy.
Permanence: Long-term changes in weather patterns, including longer and more severe droughts, are extremely likely across the project area, as a result of climate change. This in turn will result in a reduction of vegetation and soil carbon storage.
Consultation, free prior and informed consent, and grievances: “There is wholly unconvincing evidence presented that NRT has properly informed communities about the project, let alone received their free prior and informed consent to it,” Counsell writes. Survival International’s research found that very few people in the project area clearly understand what the project is about, their roles, responsibilities, and supposed benefits from the project.
There is no grievance mechanism for the project, which is against Verra’s current requirements. At least one conservancy has formally withdrawn from the project.
Legal basis of the project and rights to trade carbon: There are serious issues about the legal basis of the project. At least half the project area consists of Trust Lands. Under the Community Lands Act 2016, County governments hold lands in trust until they are formally registered by communities. None of the Trust Lands in the project area have been registered. In September 2021, a constitutional petition was presented on behalf of communities in the project area at the Isiolo Environment and Land Court. The petition challenges the legal basis of NRT’s establishment of conservancies in Trust Lands. The case is still in process.
An agreement to trade the carbon stored in the soils of the conservancies was signed between NRT and the conservancies only in June 2021. That’s eight-and-a-half years after the project started.
Distribution of benefits, and outcomes: The project claims that the 30% of total funds that goes to conservancies are for purposes determined by the communities. In reality, 20% of the conservancies’ money has to be spent on NRT’s rotational grazing and rangers. A further 20% is for purposes which have not been specified. The remaining 60% is distributed at the discretion of NRT, through an opaque process. Community leaders in the project area believe this is used to exert control over communities and to promote NRT’s priorities.
The project’s validation and verification: “Far from having undergone ‘rigorous’ assessment,” Counsell writes, “numerous fundamental problems with the project were not properly addressed during its validation and the subsequent verification of its first claimed 3.2 million tonnes of carbon storage.”
In a statement, the head of Survival International’s Decolonize Conservation campaign, Fiore Longo said that,
“After years of violating human rights in the name of so-called ‘conservation’, now Western NGOs are stealing Indigenous land in the name of ‘climate mitigation’. As this report clearly shows, NRT’s project is based on the same colonial and racist misconception that pervades many big conservation projects: that Indigenous peoples are to blame for environmental destruction. But the evidence shows precisely the opposite – that Indigenous peoples are the best conservationists. This project is not just dangerous greenwashing, it’s blood carbon: NRT is making money by destroying the way of life of those least responsible for climate change.”
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Please do sign Survival's petition to Verra at https://act.survivalinternational.org/page/123852/action/