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From 30th November to 12th December, governments, intergovernmental agencies, the private sector, civil society, donors and other stakeholders will be represented at the 28th United Nations Climate Change negotiations (Conference of the Parties – COP28) in Dubai. Governments will convene to pick up the discussion from where they left off during last year’s negotiations in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, where the parties agreed to provide “loss and damage” funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters. The Loss and Damage Fund is a form of “payment for past actions that contributed to the climate crisis”, where rich nations are to pay damages to developing nations that are more vulnerable to climate change. The countries agreed to establish the fund last year and it is expected that the negotiations will now focus on its operationalisation.

This year’s COP is also happening against the backdrop of the inaugural Africa Climate Summit that took place in Nairobi in September. The Africa Climate Summit was an occasion for African governments to consolidate Africa’s position ahead of COP28, to discuss what global climate-related plans mean for Africa, and to develop the continent’s plan for addressing climate change. It was the moment to draft (and agree on) “Africa’s climate action plan”. The Nairobi Declaration, signed by twenty countries at the end of the Summit, called for new climate financing models for climate mitigation and adaptation measures.

Another topic that has gained traction in the lead-up to COP28 is “carbon trading” or “carbon offsetting”. Carbon offsetting describes the process by which companies opt to meet their emission reduction targets by funding projects that reduce or remove emissions from the atmosphere (or increase carbon storage) in other locations. The most common carbon offsetting projects are those that involve land restoration or the protection and regeneration of forests. African governments have been championing carbon offset projects as part of national actions to address climate change throughout the year. So far, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia have drafted laws or regulations to guide carbon trading.

Earlier in November, CNN reported that Blue Carbon, a UAE company, has “secured” African land the size of the United Kingdom for carbon offset projects across five countries: Kenya, Liberia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Blue Carbon has so far not confirmed the total size area of all its projects, how much money it has provided in financing, or how many credits it hopes to generate. According to another report published in The Guardian in late November, the deals cover 20 per cent of Zimbabwe’s territory, 10 per cent of Liberia, 10 per cent of Zambia, and 8 per cent of Tanzania. The latest deal is reported to cover “millions” of hectares of forests in Kenya. In addition to the direct implications of the land deals on the land rights of rural communities, another problematic detail is that Blue Carbon will have exclusive rights to sell the credits for 30 years (credits that these African countries cannot use for their climate commitments in that period), and will take up to 70 per cent of the revenues from the sale of carbon credits. The agreements are in the initial stages and are yet to be finalised; the company plans to present its deals at the COP28 summit as a “blueprint” for carbon trading.

The deals cover 20 per cent of Zimbabwe’s territory, 10 per cent of Liberia, 10 per cent of Zambia, and 8 per cent of Tanzania.

With the growing interest in carbon trading, there will likely be an increase in demand for land on which to undertake carbon offset projects. The majority of these projects will be undertaken on rural lands in Africa. The rush to meet this demand will have significant implications for rural communities that rely on land and land-based resources for their household food security and their livelihoods. However, with an estimated 90 per cent of Africa’s rural lands being undocumented and informally administered, rural communities that have been custodians of these lands and have legitimate claims to them may not get their fair share of the proceeds of carbon offset projects. There has already been a case of a carbon offset project in Kenya where the private company that acted as the intermediary for the deal allegedly received the largest share of the proceeds. The pastoralist communities that are the custodians and legitimate claimants of the land on which the carbon project was undertaken benefitted the least from the deal.

In 2019, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) passed a land tenure decision that called for the recognition of the tenure rights of communities living in areas targeted for land restoration. The decision is an acknowledgment that actions to protect forests and restore land will have significant impacts on the communities that live in the target areas and rely on land and land-based resources for their livelihoods.

As African governments prioritise the protection, regeneration and conservation of forests among other actions to restore degraded lands and mitigate climate change, they should ensure that these actions also contribute meaningfully to the livelihoods of the continent’s rural communities. The UNCCD’s land tenure decision provides lays the ground to ensure that efforts to protect the environment do not jeopardise the wellbeing of rural communities. The decision calls for the application of the principles of responsible land governance in land restoration programmes so as to reconcile community livelihoods with national environmental targets.

The pastoralist communities that are the custodians and legitimate claimants of the land on which the carbon project was undertaken benefitted the least from the deal.

Securing community land rights prior to implementing carbon offset projects (and other climate mitigation and adaptation measures) will not only act as a safeguard for their livelihoods, but will also encourage them to implement local-level measures that will contribute to national conservation plans. Findings from research conducted on this topic in Kenya, Benin, Madagascar and Malawi by the sustainability think tank TMG Research show that securing community land rights and tenure rights can incentivise them to become the stewards and champions of land restoration. Documenting tenure rights in areas targeted for environmental projects and programmes will be beneficial to the efforts to meet national environmental targets.

Additionally, if countries are to fully realise the potential of land restoration, national restoration plans will have to go beyond protection and conservation of public forests to include support for well-coordinated community-level contributions to restoration targets. For Africa, this will involve promoting forestry on private lands and support to communities to conserve and regenerate community forests. The efficacy with which this can be undertaken will be informed by the extent to which land and tenure rights issues have been resolved.

In the case of public forests, resolving tenure rights issues will entail documenting tenure rights and strengthening the capacities of community forest associations to meaningfully inform forest management decisions. For community forests, a first step in resolving tenure rights and land rights issues will be to register ungazetted community forests as community lands in accordance with the national laws for administering communally owned lands or customary land. (In Kenya, this national law is the Community Land Act of 2016.) TMG’s research findings demonstrate that documenting community lands in line with the existing legal framework (and improving the perception of tenure security) can further encourage communities to implement sustainable land management practices and to manage forest regeneration on communally owned lands.

Even as countries develop legal frameworks to regulate carbon trading (defining rights, roles and responsibilities in the context of carbon markets), we have to acknowledge that some of the carbon offsetting deals go beyond the scope of national laws. These deals are being signed between countries from different regions of the world (belonging to different regional economic blocs), and countries that are worlds apart in terms of development. The layer of regulation presented by regional blocs may not be sufficient for carbon markets. We also cannot overlook the power imbalances that are a result of the economic might of the countries and blocs of countries that will be buying these carbon credits.

This topic will benefit from a global decision to guide the land governance component, to hold these governments to account as they implement forest conservation and land restoration programmes, and to ensure these programmes do not lead to human rights and land rights violations. As the carbon markets topic gains traction, African governments need to present a position similar to the UNCCD’s land tenure decision, and to ensure that the urgency to mitigate climate change will not leave rural populations on the continent in a worse position. It is in the interest of these governments to ensure that their rural populations do not become even more vulnerable despite external parties investing hundreds of millions of dollars in land-based projects undertaken on the continent’s rural lands.