Getting Down To Business: The Tolo River People Shift From Building Their Carbon Project To Selling The Offsets

After three years of preparation and four years of development, the Tolo River community of Colombia in 2013 began earning carbon offsets for saving their endangered rainforest. For the project to deliver on its potential, they must now sell the offsets and manage the income.

12 May 2015 | “I feel pain when the forest is hurt,” says Eusebio Guisao, who is part of the Tolo River community in Colombia. “We are born here, and we love nature the way we love our grandchildren.”

Guisao and the others in his community are not the only ones who suffer “when the forest is hurt.” By developing their REDD project – technically known as the Chocó-Darién Forest Conservation Project – the Tolo River community are keeping neighboring ranches from converting half of their ancestral community rainforest into cattle pastures. That means they’re preventing about 2.8 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from going into the atmosphere over the next 30 years – and earning 2.8 million offsets in the process.

In climate terms, it’s as if they’d prevented 15,000 railcar-loads of coal from being incinerated, but financially the community doesn’t earn those offsets all at once. Instead, offsets are released as their actions and impacts are verified over the 30 years of the project. Even after all that, the project won’t translate into income if they can’t sell their offsets – a job that has fallen mostly on Brodie Ferguson, whose company, Anthrotect, acted as project developer.

An anthropologist by training and a natural people person, Ferguson says he nonetheless underestimated the challenge of becoming a salesman.

“When we got the verification in late 2012, we thought we could just make a few phone calls and sell the issued credits,” he says. “But we found it was a lot more work than that.”

Prospecting

Like any good salesman, Ferguson began with his Rolodex. He sought advice from Colombian mentors and colleagues from the days of his doctoral research on land tenure and conflict, especially Manuel Rodriguez at the University of the Andes, who served as Colombia’s first Environment Minister in the 1990s.

“The first thing we did was reach out to everyone and say, ‘We hit these milestones. We’ve got these credits for sale – if there’s anyone you know, let us know. It’s a great project,’” Ferguson  says. “You start spreading the word, and eventually people get back to you and say, ‘It sounds interesting; send me more info.’”

But the only “info” he had was a stack of technical documents that they’d created as part of the verification process, and those were dense reading even for experts. So he distilled the essentials into brief project profiles that were easier to digest.

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Tolo River people’s leadership: from left to right: Eusebio Guisao, Ferney Caicedo, Everildys Cordoba, Aureliano Cordoba. Photo Credit, Tanya Dimitrova

 

“Most decision-makers would only give us a few minutes to summarize what amounted to two to three years of work, and we’d only move on to the details once they showed an interest,” he says. “If they were interested, the process was more straightforward: setting up calls, meeting face-to-face whenever possible – we learned to be ready to present the project on a moment’s notice.”

For larger sales, and especially tenders, you’ll be asked to write up a formal proposal.

“It can feel like a never-ending process,” he says. “A colleague might put you in touch with a company that’s looking to offset. The Sustainability Director gets excited and wants your help pitching it to the Vice President. Then you support the management as they present it to the Executive Board. Later there are the accountants, the lawyers, the shareholders, and the consumer. We have to find ways to streamline these processes if we’re going to have an impact at a global scale.”

What Buyers Want

One thing he learned quickly enough: companies that aren’t already thinking of their climate impacts won’t give offsetting a second glance.

“Companies usually purchase offsets as part of a broader sustainability strategy that starts with measuring and reporting their carbon footprint before reducing and offsetting,” he says. “You can present an amazing project to them with a very compelling story, but if they haven’t made the decision to measure their [carbon] footprint, then you’re out of sync with them.”

The Pitch

Once it was clear that a buyer was serious about their carbon emissions and at least vaguely understood offsetting, Ferguson would shift the story to the Tolo River community and what the project meant to them.

“Being one of the first REDD+ projects in the world gave us an edge, but it’s really the community engagement that sets the project apart for our buyers,” he says. “It’s so difficult to live and work in a remote, neglected place like the Chocó, that most youth end up leaving. The REDD+ project has allowed one community to reverse that dynamic and put the conflict behind them, and that’s very important for the Colombian organizations that support our project.”

Independence Drilling

Their first buyer was a Bogota-based, family-owned oil services company called Independence Drilling. The company had launched a sustainability strategy in 2012 that included measuring its carbon footprint. It began reducing its emissions by shifting to electric drilling machines, but that still left it with over 20,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions for 2013. Juan Camilo Padilla, sustainability officer at the time, understood the role offsets could play and contacted Ferguson.

“I had been in touch with Juan Camilo previously about a reforestation project when he reached out from Independence,” says Ferguson. “I was impressed with their sustainability work and their ambition to really lead their sector.”

The forest patrollers take rest in the buttress roots of a giant tree. Photo credit, Tanya Dimitrova

The forest patrollers take rest in the buttress roots of a giant tree. Photo credit, Tanya Dimitrova

But he still faced a tough negotiating process before the deal was done.

“There was a lot of back and forth over volume, pricing, and the terms of the contract itself,” he says. “It was a good three or four months of presentations, negotiations, and review before we signed the deal.”

After months of discussions, company president Rose-Marie Saab signed off on the agreement to offset their annual emissions, and Independence became the first carbon-neutral company in the Colombian oil-and-gas sector, at least for that year.

Brokers vs. Sales Force

The Independence commitment would only cover about 20% of the total annual credits generated by the project, so Ferguson set out to build a network of salespeople and brokers to sell the remainder.

“Individual sales associates are good for bringing in potential buyers, but they don’t save as much time as you’d like since the project management and the community still need to accompany the sale,” he says. “Brokers, on the other hand, can be very effective – with the downside that you may not always know who your end buyer is.”

Ferguson says community sales associates can also be part of the solution.

“Two of our recent sales were led by Everildys and her team in Acandí,” he says. “They always have all the info they need to present the project, and they can tell the story from a first-hand perspective.”

Stand for Trees: Retail Delivers

A recent development for the Choco-Darien REDD project has been its participation in a group called Stand for Trees, which is a retail sales platform through which individual consumers – not companies – support forest conservation by buying carbon credits. Consumers can choose which particular project to support – including that of the Tolo River community. Ferguson found Stand for Trees through Code REDD, a marketing organization that supports REDD projects.

Ferguson is cautiously hopeful about the future of sales. “Stand for Trees has a lot of potential. The forest carbon market is still tiny, maybe 250 million a year. Stand for Trees could help us reach the million or so in revenue that our project needs each year, and help give REDD projects more visibility overall.”

Now, the project is gearing up for auditors to verify a second lot of nearly 200,000 tonnes that correspond to the project’s activities from 2012 to 2014. “We’re almost sold out of the first batch of 104,000 tonnes that were verified in 2012,” Ferguson says. “That means we’re only now seeing the revenue for activities we carried out over three years ago. This is the enormous challenge we’ve had to face.”

Plans for the Money

As in most community projects, the Tolo River People do not receive individual cash payments from the sale of carbon credits. “Giving out money to not cut the forest makes people lazy,” says Guisao, who now works as a forest ranger. Instead, the group’s communal funds can only be used for jointly-decided projects or emergencies – which means some tough decisions have to be made.

One recent day after a morning patrol through the forest, the crew relaxed under the shade of a sun shelter that Guisao built from palm trees, waiting for the afternoon heat to pass.

“We should fix up the village school and offer professional courses for adults,” suggested one member.

“We should build an aqueduct to pipe down clean water from the hills to the village,” another offered.

The proposals are endless, and range from using the money to subsidize seeds for struggling farmers, improve the dirt road to the village, and get a cell phone tower to enhance phone service in this remote region. One mentions start-up funds for a food-delivery service by a women’s collective. Another dreams about building a community center.

“We could hire a rural nurse and buy some medical supplies,” says Guisao, whose son was born by C-section 25 years ago – a procedure that today would require evacuation to a larger city after public services in the region collapsed in the 1990s.

No roads exist between this part of Chocó and the rest of the country. Most people would take the boat to the nearest city – three hours of turbulent bouncing in the Caribbean Sea, which may even prove fatal for a sick patient. If the family could afford it, one could take a 45-min charter flight to the regional capital, but few Tolo River community members have this option. The airfare costs more than the monthly salary of a forest patroller. The community fund could pay for emergency medical evacuations.

The former logger Frazier Guisao, Eusebio's brother, taking a break at the edge of the forest. It takes daily effort to prevent that field from expanding into the pristine rainforest habitat. Photo credit, Tanya Dimitrova

The former logger Frazier Guisao, Eusebio’s brother, taking a break at the edge of the forest. It takes daily effort to prevent that field from expanding into the pristine rainforest habitat. Photo credit, Tanya Dimitrova

“We feel like the central government doesn’t think we are part of Colombia,” says Guisao. Without government support for social services, many of the locals feel they are completely on their own.

“Power to the People”

The forest conservation project has improved the lives of Tolo River community members in many ways unrelated to the carbon savings and climate benefits to the world. In addition to the jobs it has directly created, it has helped them protect their natural resources for the generations to come and secure their pristine water supply. It has provided them with a renewed sense of place, of land ownership and a community. They hope that soon it will also provide them with means to fund their own development in a direction they choose.

“Our organization gives power to the people, not cash,” says Everildys Córdoba, the project coordinator. “I wouldn’t work in it if we were distributing money instead of information.”

By “information,” she is talking about community members’ legal rights. A few years ago, before the REDD project started, her brother hurt himself while walking through the forest one day. A branch snapped back and gravely injured his eye. He had to be evacuated by boat and needed surgery to save his vision. But the doctors ignored him for more than a week and he lost the eye.

When a person knows his rights – in this case, the right to medical care — he can press for medical attention, says Córdoba, and insist on the proper level of care. “How much power is in the simple question, ‘Why?’” she says.

The greatest benefit of this forest conservation project, according to Córdoba, is that it teaches people how to demand their rights, such as successfully defending their land tenure against expanding cattle ranchers, as the Tolo River community has done.

The forest patrol team at work. The men are armed with nothing more than a GPS and the t-shirt with the community organization name.

The forest patrol team at work. The men are armed with nothing more than a GPS and the t-shirt with the community organization name. Photo credit, Tanya Dimitrova

And such empowerment is not the sole social benefit of forest conservation. Running such a project requires a strong and well-organized management team; Córdoba and her colleagues have received training and experience in administering the community organization, handling international investment and dealing with legal issues. In a region where until recently violence was a part of daily life, being part of a strong organization can make all the difference in the world.

In the 1990s – the worst years of social unrest for Chocó – everyone lived in fear. Paramilitaries – mercenaries hired by rich land owners – ruled the region through torture and murder. If you were caught on the street after curfew or in the forest, they would accuse you of supporting FARC, Colombia’s rebel organization, and simply kill you. National law enforcement was non-existent.

Even worse, they would come to your home, kidnap and kill your children and force you to sell your land, Tolo River community members recall. Hundreds of people went in exile, or “displacement.” Everyone lost family members.

In the past decade, life has improved a lot in Chocó. Today police and army soldiers patrol both the town streets and the countryside. But the former paramilitaries still live in town.

Yet the Tolo River crew is not afraid to perform the forest patrols. The Guisao brothers, young Ferney Caicedo and the others go for their daily perimeter checks, not carrying weapons, ready to face whomever they may come across.

Ferney Caucedo marking GPS coordinates during a forest patrol.

Ferney Caucedo marking GPS coordinates during a forest patrol. Photo credit, Tanya Dimitrova

“I used to be afraid,” says Córdoba. “But no more. I have 1,500 people behind me now. If something happened to me, the entire community would stand to defend me.”

“Our only defense is that we are organized and determined enough to seek our rights,” says Eusebio.

The Forest Is Its Own Reward

For Guisao and his brother, Frazier, the REDD project has already delivered tangible benefits: both are now employed as forest rangers, and both say you can’t put a price on the value of the forest itself.

“The forest is like a precious mine,” says Eusebio Guisao, describing the ecosystem services provided by the forests. “It gives us water, food, regulates our climate. If we destroy it, we can’t get these things out of it.”

Indeed, the Tolo River community forest harbors an astounding natural richness. A carbon inventory performed two years ago revealed that a plot of just 1,000 square feet could contain as many as 20 distinct tree species. Botanists on the inventory team identified hundreds of different trees, many of them new to science. In addition, the forest is home to unique birds, mammals and insects, such as the critically endangered cotton-top tamarin and the Baird’s tapir, listed as “vulnerable” in the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In addition to being a sanctuary for wildlife, the Tolo River forest plays a critical role for both the community and the surrounding cattle ranches: it provides them with a steady supply of clean stream water through the Tolo River and its tributaries. Community members, cattle ranchers and scientists are unanimous in attributing water security to the standing trees.

“We are really happy here as a community,” says Guisao. “If we could show this to others, they would understand that it’s not money that resolves problems. It’s self-determination.”

Edited by Ann Espuelas

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