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For our team based in the Medellin office, it's a three-day journey to the Predio Putumayo Indigenous Reserve, including 500 km by boat along the Putumayo river. On International Day of Forests, South Pole staff join an Indigenous community member to reflect on their experiences of developing the REDD+ projects that are saving Colombia's Amazon rainforest.
At South Pole, we are a company of experts. We look at complex problems, apply rigorous methodologies, and produce consistent results that help the world cut emissions and get one step closer to a socially just, low-carbon world. Of all the projects we work on, this couldn't be more true than when it comes to forest protection.
We have a solid track record of tackling climate change by preventing deforestation and degradation. But we couldn't do it without the experts on the ground. Today, on International Day of Forests, it is a moment to step back and consider: who exactly are the experts?
Indigenous people make up just 6% of the global population but manage or have tenure rights over more than a quarter of the world's land surface. This includes more than one third of the world's intact forest, and 80% of Earth's known biodiversity.
We spoke to Samuel Monsalve Correa, Mary Luz Villar, and Daniela Herrera Serna, our leading technical experts on forest protection in Colombia and Adelita Rimabake, a co-developer from the Predio Putumayo Indigenous Reserve, to understand what goes into designing and running a robust REDD+ project that is led by Indigenous communities.
Image: New Wittenberg, AIZA, community members during a day of community work.
Indigenous communities have known for time immemorial how to protect their forests and have a deep connection to the land. "Our relationship with the forest is based on respect. Our Law of Origin laid out by the Creator, 'Moo Buinaima' ensures we take care of the forest. For example, we must replace each tree we cut down," says Adelita.
Indigenous communities have known for time immemorial how to protect their forests, but marginalisation has slashed the resources at their disposal to guard against threats such as mining or agricultural encroachment. Forest protection projects– or REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) project– can support these communities by channelling private finance to support their forest-saving activities. However, like forest ecosystems themselves, well-managed REDD+ projects are complex endeavours.
For some of our projects in the Colombian Amazon, we at South Pole interact directly with Indigenous community groups. Trust and transparency are key, and our experts have learned over many years how to understand, respect, and follow existing internal structures and customs when meeting with communities and Indigenous leaders.
Our first experience working directly with Indigenous communities in the Colombian Amazon was in 2018, through a project developed under one of the country's national programmes. “ One Indigenous Association heard about carbon finance and asked South Pole for a proposal on how a REDD+ project could work for them" Daniela explains. “This triggered interest from other Indigenous Associations."
When communities have expressed interest in a REDD+ project, expectation management is vital. Daniela continues: “We are always upfront about the benefits that REDD+ can and, importantly, cannot bring. Managing expectations can be a big challenge as too many communities have had experiences in the past with outsiders [including other carbon project developers] over-promising on things that cannot be delivered."
The idea that companies from foreign countries want to support a community-run forest protection project can often seem a million miles away from the local communities (both literally and figuratively). Our project teams have found that explaining the REDD+ ecosystem and the roles of different actors is a critical, continuous part of building a trusting relationship.
All of the project details need to be translated into the local language or dialect and explained in person. This is no easy feat considering the over 400 languages spoken in South America and "within the Predio Putumayo project area, only about 5% of the communities we work with can access 2G and 3G phone service" says Samuel. Travelling by boat between villages takes hours or sometimes days, and of the 51 communities included in the project, just four have radiophones to pass important messages to other communities, such as requesting emergency healthcare or announcing an important meeting of the Indigenous Association.
For South Pole experts based in the Medellin office, it's a long three-day journey to the Predio Putumayo Indigenous Reserve, including 500 km by boat along the Putumayo river. But being in the rainforest and connecting with the local community is always a highlight for our team.
Image: Snaking through the impermeable undergrowth of the Amazon rivers become like natural highways for getting between villages
Once a REDD+ project gets the green light from all groups involved, the next step is designing a transparent and inclusive governance structure. For that, a number of community members, like Adelita Rimabake, are trained and employed by the project as "co-managers" or "local developers."
These trained community members facilitate broad community engagement to give all groups a voice. "I hold talks and receive advice from the elders first-hand, so when we start designing project activities I can represent the needs of the communities", explains Adelita. They also help inform everyone about changes that may impact the project – including climate policies and national legislation. Having a local, familiar face to represent the project ensures close and continuous collaboration with the community members.
Image: Adelita Rimabake with a community elder
For the Predio Putumayo project, we organised two 4-day workshops to exchange knowledge about how to protect the Amazon rainforest over the long term, and build the skills needed to effectively run a REDD+ project. With one workshop hosted at our Medellin office for 15 community members and the other in the Predio Putumayo Indigenous Reservation, everyone - both the local developers and our South Pole experts - had the chance to learn from one another.
Image: South Pole staff and project co-developers after a successful workshop session, where topics include how to gather project data using GPS.
In Latin America, many Indigenous communities have plans to improve their living conditions, protect their ancestral lands, and support growing populations. However, funds can be limited, so any extra income can help to turn these aspirations into reality. REDD+ projects serve to assign monetary value to the carbon locked away in the community's land. A sense of ownership–shared by the entire community–is critical to a project's success. “The project belongs to the community. A carbon partner like South Pole is just the facilitator, someone who can build local capacity and provide support where needed," says Mary-Luz.
But how does this unfold in practice? Raising awareness in the local communities is done through stakeholder consultations and assemblies to connect the ambitions of the project to the reality on the ground. Following local customs, these meetings are often held over a shared breakfast in a community building called a 'maloca' or 'Ananeko'. Each of these traditional long-houses is unique to the community and they are a place where elders can gather each night to 'manage and take care of the world.'
Images: Men repairing the Maloca roof using expertly woven palm leaves to keep rain out.
Images: Training and awareness over a shared breakfast at the Vaupes project; REDD+ awareness community meeting taking place within a maloca for the Predio Putumayo project;
Upholding community and Indigenous leadership and respecting local cultural practices such as these ensures that the REDD+ project activities maintain and improve their lifestyle in a way that follows their Indigenous vision
The promotion of chagras, an ancient small-scale cultivation method where over 30 and as many as 80 different crops – including bananas, peanuts and cassava – are grown together in a harmonious way is an example of this. "To prepare the chagra we need to ask permission from the spiritual beings, the owners of the forest, so we can prepare the land and sow crops", Adelita says.
Forest-friendly income-generating activities like these ensure the ongoing sustainability of REDD+ projects, with community members typically continuing with project activities even after carbon-related income has stopped flowing.
Image: Adelita Rimabake, a co-developers at the Predio Putumayo project, shows us around a chagra, where a variety of crops and plants are grown together, creating a symbiotic food system or a “forest within the forest".
Encouraging this cultivation method increases food security for growing populations in a sustainable way and one which is consistent with local practices. The forest isn't harmed, yet additional income is provided thanks to surplus crops; the community can grow stronger without compromising their natural capital.
Forest-friendly income generating activities like these ensure the ongoing sustainability of REDD+ projects, with community members typically continuing with project activities even after carbon income has stopped flowing.
And this brings us to one of the most fundamental aspects of a well-designed project: managing the bottom line. When it comes to a mechanism to share the financial benefits of a project, South Pole's experts can propose a tailored approach, but communities will ultimately define their own way to manage the carbon income. At the Vaupes Forest Protection project, for example, community members are finalising how their REDD+ project income will be transparently managed and channeled through different committees led by the different Indigenous Associations.
“The Predio Putumayo Indigenous Reserve is our territory: here resides our history, our ancestors, sacred places, medicines and healing plants, our family. Here is our future," says Adelita. By acting as guardians of their forests, Indigenous communities are not just protecting their home, they are providing a service to the whole world.
REDD+ projects can play a critical role in allowing communities to fulfill this service and protect their forests against destructive land-use practices. And projects thrive when the community takes the lead. “We have a lot to learn from Indigenous communities," Daniela advises. “It's important that we listen.
Our forestry carbon projects harness carbon finance to create systems that aim for shared prosperity, economic development and cultural and biodiversity protection. Find out more about them here.
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