The UNFCCC’s ideas to protect and develop coastal ecosystems have been dubbed ‘a false solution’ by civil society organizations, but praised by others
March 10, 2016 — In the coastal town of Tanjung Balai in North Sumatra where Riza Damanik grew up, learning how to fish is a right of passage. But, he says, initiatives by the Indonesian government over the past couple of decades have left small-scale fishermen like him adrift.
First came intensive shrimp farming, which a 2007 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation blamed for mangrove depletion. Then came palm oil; in an effort to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, extensive sections of coastal areas were converted into palm oil plantations to produce biofuel.
The consequences were catastrophic. Damanik recalls how the fish catch plummeted and major floods swept away entire villages. The biofuel policy was a death knell for these small communities, who were displaced from their ancestral lands and fishing grounds.
Damanik, the chairman of Kesatuan Nelayan Tradisional Indonesia (KNTI) – Indonesia’s traditional fisherfolks’ union – took his plight to meetings held by civil society organisations alongside the UN climate talks in Paris in December.
At the Climate Action Zone, a space dedicated to sharing experiences on climate change actions, attendees raised questions about the solutions proposed by the UN, in particular the blue carbon initiatives put forward by United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Blue carbon refers to carbon dioxide stored in coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, coastal salt marshes and seagrass meadows. The concept was first introduced by a number of UN institutions in the 2009 report, Blue Carbon: the role of healthy oceans in binding carbon.
Blue carbon initiatives aim to protect and develop these coastal ecosystems as they play a vital role in pollution filtration and carbon storage, which is crucial for mitigating global greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change.
Organisations like Conservation International (CI) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognize this – as do some CSOs – and have been at the forefront of initiatives to highlight the importance of blue carbon in conservation efforts, and getting governments to include conservation within their policy-making.
Through their efforts, the International Blue Carbon Initiative (ICBI) – lauded as the first integrated programme focused on mitigating climate change by conserving and restoring coastal marine ecosystems globally – came into existence.
Yet blue carbon schemes in general have been dubbed a “false solution” by CSOs like the World Forum of Fisher Peoples. Controversy has risen over how agencies propose to conserve endangered areas: by monetizing mangroves and including them within carbon markets.
“It is virtually ocean-grabbing, under another name,” says Mads Barbesgaard, chair of political affairs at Afrika Kontakt. “[The idea of blue carbon initiatives] doesn’t tackle the core of the issue that’s driving the climate crisis,” which he believes is pollution caused by transnational corporations and unsustainable industrial techniques.
“Instead, it paints a rosy picture in which transnational corporations can continue to pollute in one place as long as they do a bit of so-called conservation somewhere else, without paying much attention to what conservation actually means to the people who’ve lived off these resources for generations.”
For CSOs, blue carbon schemes represent an extension of programmes such as REDD+ that are said to breed initiatives geared towards the commodification of nature. “The underlying idea of blue carbon initiatives is to shift the focus of our government away from their obligation to ensure the rights of small-scale fishers,” says Damanik. “The overall proposal of blue carbon initiatives is to expand ocean grabbing practices which, for us, means risking the loss of our food, jobs, and welfare.”
On the other hand, those in favor of blue carbon initiatives say they can lead to a prosperous marriage between the public and private sector to target environmental woes.
Gabriel Grimsditch, a IUCN representative, believes that environmental markets can bring green into the mainstream. He adds that such initiatives speak to transnational corporations in a language they understand, and these are then more likely to factor environmental issues into their ongoing activities. In short, these markets can then help societies take the step towards creating a greener economy.
“If organised correctly, [carbon markets] can provide sustainable financing for environmental management and conservation without depending on donor hand-outs,” he says.
While this would represent a breath of fresh air for cash-strapped conservation efforts, Grimsditch issues a word of warning. “Social and ecological safeguards and regulations are important for carbon markets in order to avoid malpractices, perverse incentives and abuses.”
Back in Langkat, the KNTI is working with a number of organisations and local government bodies to restore the ravaged coastal ecosystem on their own terms: “for the benefit of the people and the planet – not for profit”.
It might not be the easiest path, but this is just one battle in their struggle to assert that the best solutions to climate change are those based on their traditional knowledge and artisanal practices.