As the first indigenous-led conservation effort to be financed through the sale of carbon offsets, the Suruí Forest Carbon Project (PCFS in Portuguese) dramatically slowed deforestation and incubated sustainable livelihood programs in Brazil’s Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory (TISS), but a dramatic surge in illegal mining activities throughout the region in which TISS is located has forced the Paiter-Suruí indigenous people and their partners to suspend the program indefinitely.
Verra’s Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) will use its global AFOLU buffer pool to fully compensate for the losses and ensure the environmental integrity of all carbon offsets already sold. The project offers key lessons for current and future efforts to slow deforestation around the world.
The Paiter-Sururi launched the PCFS in 2009 to slow deforestation in their territory. They began by engaging environmental NGOs and forest carbon consultants to estimate the rate of deforestation that would occur if business continued as usual. Working with Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) and France’s AgroParis Tech, they developed a model called SimSuruí, which took into account historical deforestation rates and prevailing pressures within the TISS, such as illegal logging and unregulated agriculture, as well as geographical features such as topography, proximity to roads, and the state of the existing forest.
They then created a “life plan” which aimed to save both the forest and their traditional way of life, in part by promoting sustainable livelihood activities that don’t drive deforestation, such as chicken farming, handicrafts production, and the harvesting of Brazil nuts. To catalyze these activities, they created a proposal for generating carbon offsets by avoiding deforestation under a then-emerging mechanism known as REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus sustainable forest management).
They submitted the proposal to scientific and civil-society organizations for third-party review under the VCS process, which yielded a consensus that, if prevailing trends continued, at least 13,575 hectares of the 248,147-hectare indigenous territory would be deforested over the next 30 years, releasing 7.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The Paiter-Suruí then voted to implement a moratorium on illegal logging and halt other activities driving deforestation in the hope of earning carbon offsets for keeping deforestation rates below the baseline scenario.
The project dramatically reduced deforestation within TISS for the first five years of operation (2009-2014), before the discovery of gold deposits, even as rates in surrounding territories nearly doubled. In these years, it successfully repelled incursions from illegal logging enterprises, despite an unwillingness on the part of federal and local authorities to prosecute those responsible.
During this period, the project generated 299,895 carbon offsets certified under the VCS, with each offset representing one metric ton of reduced carbon dioxide emissions. The total reductions had the same environmental impact as taking 64,000 cars off the road for a year, and 48,366 of the offsets (approximately 15%) were placed in the VCS “buffer pool”, which aggregates offsets from multiple projects around the world to ensure against reversals in any single project.
The Paiter-Suruí sold the remaining 251,530 offsets to entities that used them to reduce their own carbon footprints, with proceeds from the sale being used to catalyze six sustainable community development initiatives and train nearly two dozen indigenous rangers to conduct biomonitoring and surveillance expeditions within the territory.
In 2011, Paiter-Suruí patrols operating on behalf of the project identified new logging roads and traced them to nearby mills, and in 2012 the Paiter-Suruí Parliament formally appealed to President Dilma Rousseff and to Marta Azevedo, then president of the Federal Indigenous Authority (FUNAI), to intervene. Those appeals were ignored, but the project continued to reduce deforestation until 2014, when gold and diamond deposits were identified in the territory.
In February, 2015, the Metareilá Association, one of the community organizations that represents the Paiter-Suruí, documented and reported several instances of illegal mining (known as ‘garimpo’, in Portuguese) to authorities, but this time the pressures proved insurmountable – in part because a small contingent of Paiter-Suruí members who colluded with miners then used income from the activities to purchase cattle and increase pasturelands within the TISS, but also, as The Guardian documented in 2017, because religious and anti-development extremists aligned with the pro-mining contingent within the Paiter-Suruí in a misguided effort to “save” the people from the ravages of the market economy.
As the loss exceeds the 48,366 offsets that the Paiter-Suruí contributed to the VCS buffer pool, VCS is retiring additional offsets to fully ensure the environmental integrity of the project.
One man can’t stop a tidal wave, and carbon finance can’t end deforestation on its own. The PCFS clearly delayed the rise of deforestation in TISS, but it couldn’t prevent it without regulatory support as indigenous territories across the region experienced record deforestation in 2017.
At the same time, the introduction of new deforestation drivers highlights the challenge of balancing the need to establish a conservative baseline to ensure environmental integrity with the need to accurately reflect changing circumstances and create incentives for ongoing efforts to combat emerging pressures, as the VCS loss report makes clear.
“Mining activities in the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Land are recent and had not been registered until 2015 as one of its deforestation vectors,” the report concludes. “Therefore, the deforestation model that composed the project’s reference scenario – based on the dynamics and historical rates of deforestation verified at TISS prior to the start date of the project – did not include activities related to the informal mining of high-value minerals.”