Farming Carbon Credits a Con for Africa: The many faces of Climate Smart Agriculture

By Teresa Anderson, The Gaia Foundation
(16 December 2011) -African Agriculture has been ignored by UN Climate Change discussions!” bellowed the South African minister for Agriculture, Tina Joemat-Pettersen at the high-level launch of Climate Smart Agriculture during the Durban climate negotiations. “We need your ideas to over throw this dictatorship of Climate Change! No Agriculture, No Deal!”Her words echoed those of South African president Jacob Zuma, whose own rhetoric forcefully pushing for a deal on Agriculture had raised eyebrows for ignoring UN etiquette that prefers its host countries to act as impartial facilitators.

However, South Africa was not alone in its vision for African Agriculture. On the same panel, Zuma and Joemat-Pettersen were joined by Kofi Annan, Meles Zenawi, Mary Robinson and Andrew Steer of the World Bank- all calling for Climate Smart Agriculture, and all clamouring for the UN to agree a work programme on Agriculture to make this happen.

So what is this Climate Smart Agriculture?  According to the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), it is a system of agriculture that can give developing country farmers a “triple win”.  They point out that the right kinds of “sustainable agriculture” can do 3 key things:  help farmers increase yields, help them adapt to climate change, and help to mitigate climate change by either reducing emissions or sequestering carbon.  It is a view that many of us have held for some time.  The African Biodiversity Network, for example, has long called for more support for agroecological practices that offer a holistic solution to climate change, biodiversity and farmers’ needs in a changing climate.

Climate Smart Agriculture advocates point to a World Bank pilot project in Western Kenya, where 60,000 small-scale farmers are reducing fertiliser and pesticide use, and building up their soils with compost, manures and crop residues.

So why then if Climate Smart Agriculture is so great, were farmer and civil society groups, who are in favour of agroecological practices, so wary of the push for an Agriculture deal that would supposedly enshrine it in a UN climate agreement? Why did over 100 African and international civil society groups send a letter to African ministers asking them to reject the Climate Smart vision?

The many faces of Climate Smart Agriculture

Well, as the high-level launch so clearly revealed, what Climate Smart Agriculture actually means and to whom is not so easy to pin down. It seems that Climate Smart Agriculture means many things, to many people.

Simon Mwamba of the East African Small Scale Farmers’ Federation (ESSAFF) explains: “Climate Smart Agriculture is being presented as sustainable agriculture – but the term is so broad that we fear it is a front for promoting industrial, ‘green revolution’ agriculture too, which traps farmers into cycles of debt and poverty.”

On one hand the head of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) has talked powerfully of the resilience to droughts and floods conferred on soils by building up organic matter, the potential of carbon in soils to address climate change, and the need for Climate Smart Agriculture.  On the other hand, those representing an altogether different, more industrial model of agriculture are also lining up to claim Climate Smart Agriculture as their own.  Kofi Annan, chairman of the Bill Gates-funded Alliance for a New Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) clearly sees no contradiction between his call for a “uniquely African green revolution”, (promoting fertilisers, pesticides and hybrid seeds) and more “sustainable agriculture” under Climate Smart Agriculture.  According to him, the Climate Smart vision also includes “Africa exporting food to the rest of the world, and thus contributing to global food security,” – a worrying plan when there cannot be a more urgent task than ensuring Africa’s food production goes towards feeding its own people first.

Others lining up under the so-called “sustainable agriculture” and “Climate Smart” banner were YARA (the world’s largest fertiliser company, based in Norway) and FANRPAN (the food and agriculture policy research network that promotes the agribusiness agriculture vision). One of the arguments heard a number of times, was that a rising global population will necessitate higher food productivity.  The suggestion was clearly that industrial agriculture (or “sustainable intensification” as they call it), will be part of that picture.  Where once “sustainable agriculture” meant something specific to the environmental movement, the term has been co-opted to now mean the exact opposite.  The Climate Smart crowd can clearly see the benefits of using similar vague language.

The many faces of Climate Smart Agriculture show that its advocates understand that to get civil society on board, they need the eco-friendly image of the Kenya pilot project.  But this is being used as an agro-ecological poster boy to usher in more intensive and industrial models of agriculture that are in complete opposition to the agro-ecological model that many of us would rather support.

Carbon finance for African farmers?

But there is another key aspect to Climate Smart Agriculture that is even more worrying, and that is the question of how this vision is to be financed.  While much of the rhetoric focuses on the need to help farmers adapt to climate change, it is the mitigation benefits of agriculture that has some mouths watering.  Climate Smart Agriculture thus comes in a package with carbon offsets, enabling the carbon credits generated by farmers’ carbon sequestering activities, to be sold to consumers in rich countries who believe that they have now “offset” their polluting activities.

Proposals to expand carbon markets to include agriculture come amid much enticing talk of leveraging finance for African agriculture.  But many groups are concerned that these promises will come to nothing – and will threaten farmers’ livelihoods.

Observers note concerns about putting African farmers under the control of fickle carbon markets.  “There is no money for agriculture in Africa from carbon offsets.  The financial structure of Climate Smart Agriculture is built on evaporating carbon markets.  Carbon markets are in collapse, and projects will have unreliable and inadequate finance.” Points out Steve Suppan of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

Because it takes several years of project implementation before any carbon credits can be sold, carbon offset projects also face the major challenge of finding investors to pre-finance their efforts, so that they can set up and run for years without earning income.  The responsibility for pre-financing these projects has so far fallen to governments, with the result that this has become a major diversion of the same public funds that are so urgently needed to address climate change.  With carbon prices plummeting, and projected to hit €3 a ton, the meager profits generated by selling carbon credits can never hope to recoup the public finance investment, let alone leverage real funds.  All that happens is that taxpayers find themselves propping up failing carbon markets, for the benefit of carbon commodity speculators.

African negotiators at the Durban negotiations have also expressed their doubts about carbon offset promises.  Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, head of the African group, says that carbon markets will not work for Africa because the majority of African farmers farm on fewer than two hectares of land, “which is not enough to sequester an amount of carbon that would be meaningful to sell.  We’re very suspicious that offset schemes will lead to a perversion of African agriculture, with farmers farming what is incentivized, and giving up traditional crops.”

Mpanu-Mpanu is not wrong about the poor returns for farmers from carbon offsetting.  The much-vaunted World Bank pilot project in Kenya will only generate between $5 and $1 per year per farmer.   Yes, you read that right: $1 per year per farmer.  The Kenyan  farmers, however, are unaware of this, having been promised an unspecified sum after 3 or more years.  All they know is that their financial reward will depend on their reported performance.

Carbon land grabs and GM crops

ABN’s Anne Maina outlines an additional concern for African farmers from the drive for soil carbon markets. “Soil carbon markets could open the door to offsets for GM crops and large-scale biochar land grabs, which would be a disaster for Africa.  Africa is already suffering from a land grab epidemic – the race to control soils for carbon trading could only make this worse.”

It is worth noting that Monsanto already argue that their Roundup Ready GM crops should be eligible for carbon offsets.  They claim that the application of their glyphosate herbicide (sold as “Roundup”) on their herbicide-tolerant GM crops, reduces tillage for weeding, and therefore reduces loss of carbon emissions from the soil.

Advocates of “biochar” also claim that by burning biomass into charcoal dust and burying this in soil, carbon can be sequestered and climate change reversed.  The science on these claims is highly doubtful, and not been proven to work beyond 3 years.  However, farmers’ more immediate worries come from biochar advocates’ claims that 500 million to one billion hectares of land in Africa should be put over to biomass plantations to produce biochar.  Such a plan, if it ever goes ahead, would dwarf even the current African land grab for biofuels and food exports.

Furthermore, there are serious challenges to be overcome in measuring soil carbon sequestration.  The amount of carbon sequestered can be highly variable according to soil type. And there is the ever-present risk that sequestration can be easily “reversed” through ploughing, addition of fertilisers, or other changes in land management.

In spite of this, GM and biochar proponents are keenly watching UNFCCC discussions to see whether the negotiations will provide a carbon offsetting opportunity to subsidise their spread.

Africa the Problem?

The Climate Smart rhetoric can nonetheless sound enticing.  As Sri Mulyani Indrawati, managing director of the World Bank Group said at the same high-level launch event, “Agriculture needs to move from being part of the problem, to part of the solution.”  She is right about that – but it is disingenuous to imply that it is African farmers who are the cause of the problem.  Instead, it is the industrialised food system in the North that is responsible for agriculture’s runaway emissions.  This discourse about agriculture as the solution, and the aim to expand carbon markets onto African soil is thus about shifting the blame and responsibility for addressing climate change from rich countries onto African farmers, even though they are not the ones who have caused it.

As paralysis gripped the Durban climate negotiations, the one thing most people could agree on was that whatever the outcome, the level of ambition is still far below what is needed to address climate change.

But the cynical use of this argument – from the same players who consistently undermine any action – to then call for African farmers to shoulder the burden of solving climate change is frankly despicable.  Thus this rhetoric about African farmers is not about climate change, it’s about expanding carbon markets to keep them afloat.   Prof Doreen Stabinsky of IATP explains:  “The Bank’s agenda is clearly an agenda of a carbon broker and trader – who makes his money on volume, not quality. More carbon for markets – including soil carbon – very simply means more money for the Bank and carbon project developers. This is about neither poverty alleviation, nor development.”

“This is a diversion, and a betrayal of the real need to reduce emissions.” Adds Helena Paul of EcoNexus. “It will only worsen climate change and food insecurity.”

Todd Stern’s passion for Agroforestry

As negotiations got underway at Durban, the loudest voices calling for an Agriculture work programme under mitigation were the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Even the big guns, such as chief US negotiator Todd Stern joined the call.  When an African negotiator asked why they felt so passionately about this issue, the rich countries replied in unison that they felt it was important to enable African subsistence farmers to adapt to the challenges.  They wanted to see more research in, among other things, crop rotation and agroforestry.

Really?  This was a surprising new and caring side to the US.  Who knew about Todd Stern’s passion for Agroforestry?  (And this, the man who in the last frenzied minutes of negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol apparently said “If equity’s in, we’re out,” in response to India’s futile pleas to shoulder a lesser burden than the US.)  I like to picture Todd among his fruit trees, humming peacefully as if all were right with the world.

Or, if one were more cynically minded, it might make more sense that the US push for an Agriculture work programme was about furthering US interests.  Such as the expansion of carbon markets onto African soils, and the shifting of responsibility for climate change from rich countries onto the poor.

Choreographed Consensus for Climate Smart Carbon Credits?

As negotiations at Durban progressed, the World Bank expressed confidence that they would get their Work Programme on Agriculture under the negotiations about climate change Mitigation.  Their certainty seemed well-placed.  After all, they had laid the groundwork before coming to Durban, by paying for a ministerial conference on Climate Smart Agriculture for African agriculture ministers in South Africa in September. They had held a Global Science conference on Climate Smart Agriculture in Wageningen, the Netherlands in October.  At each, they claimed, statements calling for Climate Smart Agriculture had been produced and endorsed.

A Work Programme on Agriculture, to be set up under the Mitigation discussions, would essentially create an ongoing and open door for soil carbon offsets and Climate Smart Agriculture to be copy and pasted into the climate negotiations and any future agreement.

But a closer look reveals African caution about the Climate Smart rhetoric.  Of 54 African countries, only 9 agriculture ministers have actually signed the Climate Smart statement.

Behind the scenes, in the last hours of the Durban climate negotiations, some countries were refusing to go along with proposals for an Agriculture Work Programme.  One African negotiator, preferring to remain anonymous, pointed out that dealing with agriculture as a mitigation issue rather than adaptation “would lead to developing nations forcing carbon markets on Africa, thereby avoiding putting money up for adaptation.”

In the end, against all expectations, Africa’s caution prevailed against the World Banks’ choreography.  Instead of agreeing to an ongoing Work Programme, a compromise text was reached, requesting the UNFCCC’s scientific body to consider issues related to agriculture at their next session.  What this means is that the door for Climate Smart carbon offsets is no longer propped wide open, and there is a chance to close that door in the coming year.

The promise that carbon offsets will bring finance for African agriculture is highly doubtful.  The claim that Climate Smart agriculture will meet farmers’ needs is extremely dubious.  But the pressure on African farmers to solve the climate problems they did not create, is simply outrageous.

In Durban, the World Bank’s wish was not granted on African soil. It is now down to African farmers, and African civil society to stop African soil itself from being turned over to the carbon traders.

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