11/19/2012 02:58 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2013

Climate Change, Carbon Offsetting, and the Destruction of Local Communities

With the recent passing of Hurricane Sandy and the effects that it left in Haiti and the East Coast of the United States, the issues of climate change and its consequences are inevitably on the forefront of our minds. Undoubtedly, the need to limit our carbon emissions is ever more urgent and necessary. The question remains however: How are we to do that?

The most widely accepted international mechanism to reduce carbon emissions is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that came out of the Kyoto Protocol. According to Barbara Haya of International Rivers and Karen Orenstein of Friends of the Earth, the CDM "allows industrialized countries to support projects that decrease emissions in developing countries and then use the resulting emissions reduction credits towards their own reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol."

Under the CDM, first world countries that have signed on to the Kyoto Protocol can avoid making domestic energy policy changes that would reduce carbon emissions through supporting supposedly "green" energy projects in the developing world. But is this policy of carbon offsetting a "green" solution?

This issue is especially relevant in the Mayan Ixil region of the Guatemalan Highlands. Over the past five years, the government of Guatemala has opened up the Mayan Ixil peoples lands to multinational energy companies eager to cash in on the abundant rivers that flow through the territory of the Ixil people. To date, there are two mega hydro projects functioning, three others in the process of being built, and a dozen more waiting for government approval.

The two hydro projects that are currently functioning are the Hidro Xacbal Dam of the Honduran company Grupo Terra and the Palo Viejo Dam of the Italian energy giant ENEL. Both of these companies have submitted their projects to the CDM and are awaiting approval to receive carbon crediting.

According to the Project Design Documents presented by the companies to the CDM, the two projects will combine to allegedly reduce over half a million metric tons of CO2 emissions each year. Each metric ton of carbon dioxide reductions is considered to be one "certified emission reduction" (CER). Currently, CERs cost in the range of $15-$17 USD, meaning that, if the CDM approves the two mega-hydro projects for funding, then these two companies will receive around eight million dollars yearly for creating "green" energy.

To the casual observer, the reduction of half a million metric tons of CO2 per year may seem commendable, but what is the perception of these projects from the local indigenous communities where these projects are being built?

According to the ancestral authorities of the Mayan Ixil community of Cotzal, the mega hydroelectric projects have caused prolific damages to their traditional way of life, to their community cohesiveness, and to their local environment. Fernando Morales is a fisherman who lives downstream from ENEL´s Palo Viejo dam. According to Morales, "four years ago, before the dam was being built, we used to be able to catch up to 20 pounds of fish in a few hours. Now, we´re lucky if we´re able to catch one pound in a whole day´s work."

The Palo Viejo Dam has destroyed the ecological balance of the local rivers that it uses to produce electricity and thus devastated the livelihoods of small fisherman and their families who depend on the river for their sustenance.

Another concern of the Ixil people in relation to the mega hydro projects is related to the issue of indigenous rights. The ancestral authorities of Cotzal affirm that, "we have rights over our mountains and forests and rivers and that right includes the entitlement to benefit from the wealth of these to create a better life for our communities according to our cosmovision and culture." Regrettably, all of the hydro projects in the Ixil region have been authorized without the free and prior informed consent of the Ixil people as mandated by international law and are a major cause of environmental degradation and community conflict.

Morales laughed at the idea that the hydroelectric companies that were destroying the rivers of his community could receive funding through the CDM for creating clean energy. "Does this look like "clean" energy?" he asked while pointing to the muddy river flowing through his community. "The big government officials in their offices in the city might think that these companies bring clean energy, but they need to come to our villages to see the reality of the consequences of these projects."

The experience of the Ixil people with the mega-hydro dams being built on their ancestral lands reveals why carbon offsetting through the CDM doesn´t work. At best, it is a mechanism for rich, industrialized countries to avoid changing their domestic consumptive patterns of energy through funding projects whose true consequences are unknown and ignored.

Agrarian writer Wendell Berry states that, "any manufacturing enterprise should be formed and scaled to fit to the local landscape, the local ecosystem, and the local community." Berry adds that all stakeholders in any industry "should not be an outsider but rather a sharer in the fate of the place and the community. The deciders should live with the result of their decisions."

The projects that the CDM funds are implemented by companies that have no connection or responsibility towards local communities or to the well being of the local environment. Despite the rhetoric around "corporate social responsibility", it is evident that these companies are interested above all else in making money. The CDM then, is but another opportunity for multinational companies to "green wash" their image and a deceptive system that permits industrial countries to offset their carbon emissions through funding the destruction of "local landscapes, local ecosystems, and local communities."

For the industrial world to reduce its carbon emissions while not destroying the livelihoods of peasant and indigenous communities in the developing world, two fundamental questions regarding lifestyles are going to have to be addressed.

Firstly, in response to the growing energy needs of our world, we must prioritize initiatives that do not disrupt or negatively affect the traditional lifestyles of local communities. Around 17% of the projects being funded by the CDM are mega-hydro projects that, as in the case of the Mayan Ixil, devastate local communities and traditional lifestyles while only 0.5% are dedicated to solar projects. A Guatemalan company called Greenergyze recently presented an offer to the Guatemalan government to generate 5 MW of solar energy. According to figures presented by the company, the investment to install solar power capacity is considerably less than that the cost of mega-hydro dams while at the same time causing much less environmental impact.

Secondly, the affluent, consumer lifestyle that characterizes the industrial world is unavoidably disconnected from any specific place or community. This lifestyle of "being everywhere but belonging nowhere" is in large part responsible for global tragedies such as climate change. If we never truly belong to a particular place, then our lifestyles are never going to be contained by the necessary limits and possibilities of each place, nor are we going to be concerned for preserving or protecting that place. The inevitable outcome of many individuals living a lifestyle unchecked by local limitations is seen, for example, in the absurd amount of greenhouse gas emissions by the industrial world. It is this lifestyle that, when confronted with the need to reduce its carbon emissions, prefers to pay for projects that ruin places and communities irrelevant and unfamiliar to them rather than question their own patterns of consumption. If we are to responsibly and seriously confront the issue of global warming, our most urgent need is to change the scale of our livelihoods and to accept the necessary and healthy limitations of each place.

The CDM is thus not a viable way to combat global warming because it cannot intimately know the complex reality of the communities where the projects it funds are being implemented. From behind a desk in New York, it is easy for CDM officials to believe when companies like Grupo Terra affirm that the Hidro Xacbal Dam, "presents the possibility to provide a remote, forgotten, former war torn area...with essential infrastructure and the means to channel development projects in the area while respecting the lifestyle and the culture of local communities."

On paper it is easy to distort the truth and fabricate illusions. The reality, however, can only be seen from the underside, from the forgotten communities, and from their particular reality.