PBS’s “The Carbon Hunters” – Hunting the Elusive Facts

Marc Schapiro’s Frontline World program, “The Carbon Hunters”, which aired May 11 on PBS, purports to investigate the effects of the global carbon market on tropical forests and local communities, specifically targeting the Guaraqueçaba forest reserves in the Atlantic forest of southern Brazil and the Juma project in Amazonas state.

Schapiro argues that U.S. corporate investment in forest carbon credits has displaced and impoverished local communities.  But the key premises of several parts of the program are deeply flawed.  Here’s where he went wrong:

1. Carbon market for forest carbon credits doesn’t actually exist

First, the alleged carbon-related conflict in the Guaraquecaba forest reserves is not based on any actual or proposed carbon trading program. No carbon market currently exists in which “carbon credits” from this project can be traded, and there is no indication in existing or proposed climate polices that they ever could be. The only compliance carbon market in the world, the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, does not allow trading of forest carbon.  Brazil’s National Climate Change Plan and the law that established its national emissions reductions target last January would not recognize or support the Guaraqueçaba project, because its purpose is to reduce national level deforestation, which is occurring in the Amazon, not the Atlantic Forest. GM, Chevron and AEP invested in this project in the mistaken hope of learning how forest carbon offsets of greenhouse gas emissions might work, and possibly for the purpose of influencing energy and climate policy.  The American Clean Energy and Security Act approved by the House of Representatives contains provisions that would potentially allow credit for reducing national emissions from deforestation by large emitters such as Brazil, but not for individual projects such as Guaraqueçaba.  The major cause of deforestation is large-scale cattle ranching and soybean farming, not the small land-holders depicted in the story.   This is hardly a current, or fair, picture of what carbon credit for reducing deforestation might look like, should it ever exist, as many serious conservationists, indigenous peoples and this author hope.

2. “People versus parks” conflict not new

The second major misrepresentation in the story takes the decades-old people versus parks conflict and tries to cast it as the new and sudden result of carbon trading. What Schapiro depicts as the consequence of the carbon market turning trees into commodities is, in fact, the result of a flawed conservation strategy that goes far beyond, and long pre-dates, the Guaraqueçaba reserves or any thought of carbon crediting.

Trees have been traded as timber for thousands of years and industrial logging continues to be one of the principle threats to indigenous and forest peoples and their forests worldwide.

The conflicts that Schapiro shows are typical of nature reserves throughout Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. Only about 7% of this extremely species-rich biome remains of what once covered an area twice the size of Texas.  Traditional conservationists maintain that pristine, people-free nature reserves are the only way to protect those last remnants, and consequently have promoted the creation of reserves and the exclusion of local communities wherever intact forest remains.  This has resulted in chronic conflicts between environmentalists and indigenous groups and local communities throughout the biome.  The decades-long dispute between the Pataxó indigenous people and federal environmental agencies over the Monte Pascoal National Park in Bahia is a notorious case; the Ilha Comprida Environmentally Protected Area, Juréia-Itatins Ecological Station and Alta Ribeira State Park in São Paulo, and the Serra Geral forests of northern Rio Grande do Sul, are sites of a few of the community-versus-conservation conflicts that characterize the region.

3. Reporting often one-sided and inaccurate

The tone and framing of this story are strongly reminiscent of the rhetoric of those environmental organizations that oppose carbon markets and emissions trading on ideological grounds. In their view the market is the problem, so how can it be a solution?  The thinly-veiled ideological agenda is exacerbated by the fact that the director does not identify the Landless Movement (MST) activist who guides him in the Guaraqueçaba reserve, although MST’s explicitly anti-capitalist agenda clearly is relevant to a story about corporate financing for conservation.

The further segments of the story continue the one-sided, often grossly inaccurate, reporting.

4. Stipend program intentionally misrepresented

Schapiro’s depiction of the Amazonas state payment for ecosystems services or “Bolsa Floresta” program in the Juma reserve is a skein of half-truths and misrepresentations. The claim that reserve families spend half of their monthly stipend on trips to town to receive the payments conceals the key fact that families regularly have to go to town in any case – to sell produce, buy supplies or get medical care – and often go in a community boat that carries up to ten families, lowering transport costs.

The claim that the Bolsa Floresta has “put [residents Dalvina and her husband] out of work” because they can no longer plant crops is simply false. There is no prohibition on planting in the reserve; families can use the existing gardens and secondary forests, where they usually plant, but have agreed not to clear primary forest.  Schapiro was obviously looking for someone to say that the stipend was insufficient, as is evident in Dalvina’s comment. What she actually says is, “Yes, it’s too little,” but the translation says only “it’s not enough,” obscuring the reporter’s leading question to the effect of  “Isn’t the stipend too little?”

Various other independent reports document that many reserve residents are vocal supporters of the program – but these voices are not included in Schapiro’s account.  It is not surprising that the program has strong local support – Schapiro’s story neglects to mention that  the stipend, intended to supplement, not substitute, existing income, is only one of four lines of investment in the overall program.  Income generation is addressed through subsidies paid for sustainable forest products. The price of Brazil nuts, a major source of cash income in the reserves, has gone from about $2 to $6 per twelve-liter “can” for reserve residents, and other products also pay more. About $70,000 per year is invested in subsidizing sustainable production in each of 12 reserves, including Juma. Beyond this, the program supports social services, as well as communications and transport infrastructure for local residents’ organizations  – motorboats, fuel, solar panels, internet connection, computers and supplies. In 2009, the program invested $685,000 in the Juma reserve alone, a very considerable amount in the poor and isolated regions.

5. Carbon credits not an easy way out for U.S. companies

The clear message of this program is that carbon credit for reducing deforestation means that U.S. corporations would simply purchase credits and continue to pollute. If the actual policy proposals on the table bore any resemblance to this fairytale, passing climate change legislation in the U.S. would be far simpler than it in fact is.  In reality, both the bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and the American Power Act introduced in the U.S. Senate would commit the U.S. to very substantial reductions in our  own domestic emissions from fossil fuels. Modeling of the House bill’s provisions shows that considering all domestic and international sources of offsets and credits, including all credits from the Amazon and other tropical forest regions, more than 60% of the reductions by 2050 would have to come from U.S. industrial, power, and transport sectors, even under optimistic estimates of forest carbon supply.  Brazilian reductions in deforestation would amount to at most 4% of the total.

6. Inaccuracy used for shock value

Schapiro’s disregard for basic standards of accuracy is at times breathtaking. He  compares the value of a tree on an illegal loggers’ truck said to be worth $1,000 at a sawmill with its supposed value of “$1 on the carbon market”.  But the $1,000 tree is a rare and valuable hardwood species that typically occurs at a density of less than one tree per hectare (2.47 acres) even in the restricted areas where it grows, and is worth a few hundred dollars at most when still in the forest. A very low estimate of the average carbon value of an Amazon forest is 100 tons carbon per hectare, or 366 tons CO2, which at $10/ton for preventing emissions is worth more than three times as much as the hardwood tree delivered to the sawmill, and much more than the tree in the forest.

In light of Frontline’s well-deserved reputation for hard-hitting investigative reporting on often controversial topics, the public expects much more rigorous analysis of issues and a much more transparent, less ideological, standard of journalism than this story shows.

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  • […] On his blog on EDF’s website, Schwartzman argues that the video is wrong on six counts. But only one of his arguments stands up and even that is pretty shaky. Schwartzman’s response amounts a series of straw men put forward in a weak attempt to discredit Schapiro’s reporting. […]

  • […] In the month since PBS’s Frontline aired its misguided story, "The Carbon Hunters", on May 11, Environmental Defense Fund and other environmental groups have worked diligently to set the record straight. […]

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