The World Bank's Carbon Fund: Undermining indigenous rights or saving the planet?

Men row along the Amazon River in Brazil. The World Bank's new Carbon Fund has insufficient safeguards to protect the land rights of local and indigenous people, according to members of civil society and indigenous rights groups. Photo by: World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

The World Bank’s emerging Carbon Fund, which provides payments to participating countries that are taking measures to reduce deforestation and carbon emissions, is under scrutiny from civil society leaders and indigenous rights groups, citing its insufficient safeguards to uphold land rights of local and indigenous peoples.

But as industry insiders told Devex, in order to develop a market for carbon that incentivizes the maintenance of forests and achieves results in the face of looming climate change, the World Bank and Carbon Fund donors may need to look beyond a cookie-cutter approach to land rights and remain open to to the political contexts and policies of participating Carbon Fund countries.

A changing climate and new era for development 

The post-2015 development agenda is quickly coming to fruition and sustainability is shaping up to be the theme of the next 15 years of development work. The threats posed by climate change and fast-growing populations underscore the pressing need for an international community engaged in new approaches to development — approaches that support the growth of communities without harming the health of the planet.

The World Bank is making climate change a headline priority in its development work. This is evident in the institution’s new environment and natural resources global practice, new climate change crosscutting solutions area, and emerging Carbon Fund.

While the methodological framework for the Carbon Fund requires assessments of tenure rights in participating countries, it does not require that specific land or resource tenure provisions for communities be put in place before a country is deemed ready to participate in the fund. This fact concerns civil society leaders and indigenous rights activists who fear the new fund will instigate corruption and land grabbing in forested countries, which they say will ultimately undermine the rights of indigenous peoples.

But how can the World Bank and other development institutions ensure land tenure rights for all when working with diverse governments to save forests and respond to climate change?

Creating a carbon market

Developed as part of the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, the Carbon Fund is still in its pilot stage and is designed to distribute payments to developing countries that are taking steps to reduce carbon emissions and prevent deforestation. The fund currently has 14 countries in its portfolio. As trustee and secretariat of the FCPF, the World Bank oversees and coordinates the Carbon Fund.

Speaking Wednesday at the World Bank’s Land and Poverty Conference in Washington, D.C., Ellysar Baroudy, coordinator for the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and BioCarbon Fund, said that community land and resource tenures are not a prerequisite for participation in the Carbon Fund because there are a “huge variety” of policies country by country. Some countries like Mexico give communities ownership of much of the forests, while other countries such as the Congo employ a more complicated model of logging concessions and contractual arrangements.

But Baroudy outlined safeguards that the FCPF is implementing to ensure that community voices are heard as the Carbon Fund comes to fruition.

“In the preparation work we’re placing a lot of emphasis on effective stakeholder participation,” Baroudy said, adding that a new strategic environmental social assessment “really helps to identify and assess key risks relevant to any program.”

Land and resource tenure assessments are also being conducted to provide insight into each country’s land policies as well as social and political contexts. Benefit-sharing mechanisms too are being developed with community support. Lastly, Baroudy emphasized that a grievance and redress mechanism is being put in place for any relevant stakeholders.

Still, civil society organizations such as the Rights and Resources Initiative feel the World Bank should be doing more to protect the land rights of citizens, including indigenous communities.

Last month, RRI released a report in which it accused the World Bank of facilitating carbon trading without first protecting human rights.

The report argued that a majority of the then 11 countries in the Carbon Fund pipeline had insufficient legal frameworks for protecting the land rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.

“On its current path, carbon trading will allow governments to make the decisions and control the proceeds of the market, undermining local peoples’ rights and putting at risk the protection of the forest itself,” said Joji Cariño, director of Forest Peoples Programme, at the launch of the report.

“Indigenous Peoples and local communities, who have been stewards of the land for generations, are likely to be further marginalized and dispossessed. Stronger leadership is needed by the World Bank to respect local rights and help governments direct benefits to support local forest owners,” Cariño said.

Strong legal frameworks for land rights should be among the requirements needed to join the Carbon Fund, according to Jenny Springer, director of global programs at RRI.

But other land and resource experts feel a cookie-cutter approach to tenure rights established by the World Bank would be a mistake.

“Any tenure institution is as good as the context it’s in,” Nayna Jhaveri, resource tenure specialist at Tetra Tech, told Devex. “So it depends really on the drivers of political economy, of development.”

According to Jhaveri, the discussion of REDD and tenure has so far been largely focused on the issue of rights. But performance, she said, and delivering of outcomes is as essential and should not be overlooked.

“I think context and political economy and the role of tenure within it is critical,” Jhaveri said. “So it could be that on paper tenure rights are good, and in practice they’re not … Sometimes in practice they’re rolled out very well, and then on paper there is nothing.”

Jhaveri underscored that the FCPF is in “it’s early days of learning” and emphasized the importance of making “good use” of the first round of tenure assessments.

As the Carbon Fund continues to develop, it will do so under the critical eye of civil society organizations intent on protecting indigenous and local populations. But reducing carbon emissions and protecting forests will require sufficient buy-in from the governments of developing countries, many with their own unique land policies and approaches to tenure.

How do you think the World Bank’s Carbon Fund should address land tenure, indigenous rights and deforestation? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

To read additional content on land and property rights, go to Focus On: Land Matters in partnership with Thomson Reuters.

About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.