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Brazil’s justice system challenges the phenomenon of ‘carbon land grabs’

Posted in category:
Opinion
Written by:
Written by: Daniel Porcel
Written by: Joanna Cabello
Published on:
reading time 3 minutes

Brazil is central to the controversy surrounding the expanding carbon offsetting industry. Perhaps more than any other country. With large swathes of the Amazon within its territory, Brazil has attracted scores of project developers keen to exploit the opportunity to produce and sell carbon credits. But the country has also witnessed the reality of the offsetting industry: land grabs, and abuses of the rights of the Indigenous Peoples are regularly reported in the Amazon. The central claim of forest-based offset projects is that the schemes protect forests, but there is mounting evidence(opens in new window) they add little value while causing much harm.

Carbon land grabbing’

Unlike many other countries where the same story is playing out, Brazilian justice system officials have stepped up to confront the offsetting industry. In 2o21(opens in new window) and 2023(opens in new window) , the Pará State Attorney General’s Office and the Pará Public Prosecutor’s Office filed Public Civil Actions questioning the authenticity of the property titles for part of a large REDD+ offsetting project in the state of Pará, Brazil. According to the 2022 lawsuit, which is ongoing, 126,000 hectares have titles of questionable origin, and the Pará’s Public Prosecutor Office is asking the courts to cancel these titles. The 2023 complaint alleges that the proponent of the project has no legal right to the land since it’s been proven to be public. This resulted in 386,000 hectares of forest being returned to the state. Both lawsuits mention “carbon land grabbing”, a term coined in Latin America, which underscores just how significant the problem of land grabs for carbon offsetting has become.

Forest-based carbon offsetting schemes need forest land, and lots of it, to make the product they sell—carbon credits. Their customers are mainly big multinationals in the global North, who can use the credits to cancel out their emissions, while the majority of the land they use is in countries in the global South. As the industry expands, it needs more and more land. From Zimbabwe(opens in new window) to Brazil, we see the land these actors control is home to thousands of, mainly traditional and indigenous, communities.

Public Civil Actions as a tool for REDD+ projects accountability

In July 2023, the Public Defender’s Office of Pará filed four more Public Civil Actions(opens in new window) against the carbon offset project developers and the municipality of Portel. The legal documents also allege that Verra, the international carbon offset certification body based in the US, officially certified the areas targeted by carbon credit projects as 100% privately owned, even though they encompassed public forests to which traditional communities have rights. Following the allegations, Verra has said(opens in new window) it is starting a new review process for this project.

The legal actions also allege violations of the rights of the traditional communities that occupy these areas, including the right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.

The move by Brazilian justice system officials to defend land titles and community rights has garnered much attention. This is partly because such action bears official witness to the abuses that communities and civil society groups—in Brazil and other forest-rich countries targeted by carbon project developers—have tried to raise the alarm about for years.

Brazil’s legal framework also provides the possibility for Indigenous and traditional community organizations to initiate legal actions on their own behalf, and some groups have begun to do so as part of efforts to challenge the harms caused by carbon offset projects.

In 2023, the Federal Public Ministry, together with the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the State of Pará,(opens in new window) publicly acknowledged that carbon offset projects could impact communities’ autonomy in managing their territories and had to make clear that offset projects should not involve land-grabbing or human rights violations.

Additionally, other Brazilian government agencies have also taken action. In 2024, in the face of repeated reports(opens in new window) of carbon project developers harassing traditional communities to sign offset project contracts in their territories, the governmental body responsible for protecting Indigenous rights in Brazil (the Indigenous Peoples National Foundation – FUNAI) advised Indigenous organizations and leaders not to engage in negotiations and agreements involving the commercialization of carbon credits on Indigenous lands(opens in new window) . FUNAI suggested that contracts should not be signed until criteria and guidelines for the inclusion of Indigenous lands in the voluntary carbon market are defined.

COP 30 in Brazil: a rallying moment for protecting forests and communities

The positive and potentially precedent-setting moves by officials in Brazil to protect people and land rights need strong visibility in the run-up to and during the 2025 UN climate conference. Brazil will host the event, and for the first time, the global dialogue will take place in the Amazon region, in Pará state. The reality that Pará justice officials have sought to address in the Public Civil Actions mentioned above should inform the ongoing debates around carbon offsetting and carbon markets.

For several years past, the COP has been dominated by industry backers of carbon offsetting, putting millions into lobbying officials. The host nation will undoubtedly be under pressure, but the Brazil COP is a rallying point for Indigenous and traditional communities, CSOs and activists who share a common belief that the best way to protect forests and biodiversity is to recognize and respect the rights of those who have lived on the land and territories for generations.

A full briefing on the carbon offsetting industry in Brazil can be found here.

  • Combatting Carbon Industry Capture (pdf, 2.06 MB)

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Posted in category:
Opinion
Written by:
Written by: Daniel Porcel
Written by: Joanna Cabello
Published on:

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