Finding win-wins: carbon offset schemes and Indigenous co-benefits

By Cathy Robinson, CSIRO; Anna Renwick, University of Queensland; Tracey May, CSIRO; Emily Gerrard, Allens Law Firm; Rowan Foley, Aboriginal Carbon Fund; Michael Battaglia, CSIRO; Hugh Possingham, University of Queensland; David Griggs, Monash University; Daniel Walker, CSIRODecember 22nd, 2015

With careful and thoughtful engagement, carbon offset schemes can be designed to ensure they deliver both carbon mitigation benefits and associated benefits for Indigenous peoples.
Tire tracks through grass with trees growing either side

A five year old forest planted for carbon offset and biodiversity outcomes at Minjelha Dhagun, at the base of Mt Barney, Qld. Minjelha Dhagun is a co-operative of eight Indigenous clans from the Yugambeh language group. Image: Greenfleet/Flickr

In Paris earlier this month, COP21 participants opened up debate about the global climate change problems that should be prioritised, the solutions that should be pursued, and the values that need to be incorporated.

One of the major issues discussed was Indigenous peoples and climate change. A UNESCO forum held in the lead up to COP21, Resilience in a time of uncertainty: Indigenous peoples and climate change, considered why and how Indigenous people will be impacted by, and are uniquely placed to assist with climate change mitigation and adaptation solutions.

Relevant to these efforts is the conviction that climate change policy needs to promote Indigenous benefits associated with carbon offset projects. This requires projects to be designed to acknowledge and protect Indigenous participation and ownership and make sure they reflect the priorities of local Indigenous people.

As forum attendees heard, this work is underway around the globe. Indigenous leader efforts, on-the-ground experiences and scientific research have cross-fertilised to consider if and how carbon offset projects that are being delivered in partnership with local Indigenous communities, through payment for ecosystem services (PES), can achieve Indigenous carbon co-benefits, including jobs, re-establishing traditional obligations to country, as well as knowledge sharing and cultural activities.

Woman talking with man sitting next to her

Emily Gerrard speaking at the UNESCO forum in Paris, December 2015.

From Australia, one of our research team, Emily Gerrard, a lawyer and co-head of the Climate Change Group at Allens, was invited to the UNESCO forum to discuss the role of the private sector in carbon co-benefits. Emily drew on her work as part of a CSIRO-convened National Indigenous Climate Change (NICC) research project and broader partnership that sought to identify opportunities for Indigenous people to mitigate climate change in ways that benefit Indigenous on-country enterprises and maintain Indigenous rights.

In our paper just published in Environmental Science and Policy, we show that PES schemes—such as tree planting programs—don’t always offer a simple ‘win-win’ solution to complex policies like carbon offset agreements. Despite positive intentions, simply engaging Indigenous peoples in climate mitigation schemes doesn’t always deliver both the carbon offset and the associated co-benefits. Where co-benefits aren’t achieved, it places these schemes at risk of failure and of negatively impacting Indigenous communities.

Yet, as our research shows, carbon PES schemes can be designed to ensure they deliver both the carbon offset and associated benefits, for Indigenous communities but also for biodiversity.

Designing carbon offset schemes to benefit Indigenous peoples

We surveyed Indigenous organisations right across Australia to determine what their motivations are for participating in carbon PES schemes, and therefore how they can be designed to deliver co-benefits.

First, Indigenous carbon PES agreements need to let local communities provide informed consent and maintain decision making authority to guide on-ground activities.

Second, the co-benefits should motivate Indigenous landholders and community groups to engage in carbon offset agreements.

Our study showed that Indigenous people across Australia are motivated to participate in PES schemes that support their broader caring for country activities. Indigenous engagement in carbon offset economies is seen by many (92% of Indigenous respondents surveyed) as a means of fostering economic development in their communities and improving the health and well-being of their people.

When survey respondents were asked what co-benefits motivated Indigenous communities to engage in carbon economies, some noted a hope for employment opportunities that suited the skills and capabilities of local people. Others emphasised the beneficial outcomes of tree planting, fire management, and/or feral animal control activities as part of the communities’ broader effort to care for their country.

Looking closer, we found that Indigenous communities with better access to tenure, and with human, financial and land management resources, want to use carbon economic partnerships and pathways to provide sustainable carbon enterprises for their families.

These communities are also highly motivated to engage in other co-benefit activities such as managing or restoring habitats and preserving threatened species—all issues of global concern. Core to this effort are robust partnership with scientists, policy makers and entrepreneurs engaged in the carbon market that support existing cultural, environmental and economic Indigenous enterprises.

One Indigenous respondent explained that it was critical these efforts ‘sustain our cultural signature on the landscape’.

Fitting in with the landscape and local knowledge

Third and finally, the study found that carbon projects need to be carefully designed to fit the regional context. Our research team combined national spatial, social and biological datasets from Australia to explore where Indigenous carbon projects occur, why Indigenous people participate, and how effectively these schemes meet Indigenous co-benefit, biodiversity and carbon emission mitigation goals.

Activities designed for climate mitigation outcomes might not align with local knowledge, which is embedded in Indigenous law and associated with particular places in the landscape. One interviewee noted, for example, that ‘we need to burn country the right way,’ but expressed concern that burning guided by Indigenous knowledge and management goals may not deliver the optimal burning regime for carbon offset goals.

Others emphasised that tree planting activities need to recognise the importance of planting trees that enhance the ‘health’ of the environment—specifically, the health of native plants, particularly those valued for eating, ceremonial and/or cultural purposes.

Implementing successful carbon offset projects in partnership with Indigenous communities requires careful and thoughtful engagement with those communities.

Through an innovative translation of science, Indigenous knowledge and legal expertise, the NICC Project was able to deploy these findings to advise carbon legislation and policy in Australia, ensuring that Indigenous people are able to both participate in and benefit from projects in the future. The findings can also be used to enhance the design and implementation of carbon offset projects that meaningfully engage with and benefit Indigenous communities around the world.

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