The Surui Indians, who live deep in the Amazon rainforest, first made contact with the outside world 40 years ago. For centuries the Brazilian tribe spent their days hunting with bows and arrows, gathering nuts and fruits and using native plants to treat the sick.
Today they are using sophisticated tools to save their land: GPS, satellite imagining, YouTube and blogs dedicated to documenting the destruction of the rainforest and educating the modern world about their indigenous way of life.
As part of their efforts to keep loggers at bay, the Surui tribe wanted to sell carbon credits for reforestation and forest conservation projects on their land. But first, they needed to know whether they could. That’s where our Brazil office came in.
In 2008, Forest Trends, a Washington DC-based conservation group, hired our firm to determine whether indigenous people could participate in carbon trading schemes and whether the Suruis had legal title to carbon credits on their 600,000 acres of land located in the state of Rondonia.
For six months, Sao Paulo partner Rodrigo Sales and two associates researched international and Brazilian law to answer those questions, drawing on the firm’s long history as pioneers in developing global emissions trading markets and shaping climate change law around the world.
In November 2008, the team issued a legal opinion finding that the Suruis owned the carbon trading rights on their land and could sell these offsets on the global market — paving the way for other Brazilian tribes to do the same.
“We found that under the Brazilian constitution, Indian land belongs to the government, but Brazilian Indians have the exclusive right to use it and reap the benefits of the land,” says Sales, who leads the firm’s Latin America climate change and emissions trading practice.
In a subsequent legal opinion released in December 2009, the team expanded its analysis of the Suruis’ carbon trading rights and advised the tribe on commercializing its carbon credits. The legal opinions are not binding, but will likely influence the Brazilian government’s approach to future global warming deals under President Lula, who has shown support for the rights of indigenous people.
“This study is an important political and legal instrument in recognizing the rights of indigenous people to the carbon in their forests,” says Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui, leader of the Surui tribe.
With deforestation accounting for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, projects to replant and conserve the world’s forests have gained increasing attention as a method for reducing climate change. Because trees absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, they capture greenhouse gases, reducing these gases in the atmosphere.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries such as Germany and Japan can meet their emission reduction targets by investing in projects to reduce greenhouse gases in developing countries. Funding these projects, called Clean Development Mechanism
(CDM), is often less expensive for developed countries than reducing emissions within their own country through efforts such as switching from coal to gas.
With Kyoto targets putting CDMs in high demand, selling carbon offsets can create a lucrative revenue stream for developing countries like Brazil — the reason it’s so important to establish who has the right to benefit from these carbon trading deals.
“When these carbon credits are traded, it will give the Suruis the finances to use on behalf of their community,” Sales says.
The Suruis have already begun replanting 3,700 acres of forest on their land that loggers have cut down and are preparing to sell the offsets on the global carbon market. The tribe plans to sell carbon credits for preserving the remaining 593,000 acres of existing forest once it is internationally recognized as a vehicle for reducing climate change.
Forest conservation does not currently qualify as a CDM, meaning carbon credits derived from saving a forest cannot be used by countries to meet their Kyoto targets. The only types of forestry projects that now qualify are reforestation (replanting a forest that’s been cut down) or afforestation (planting a forest where one never existed).
But when the Kyoto Protocol is renegotiated in 2012, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation
(REDD) projects are widely expected to be included in the framework. Advancements in technologies such as GPS and computer mapping will likely make it easier for international climate change officials to reach a consensus on standards for the commercialization of REDD credits.
When they do, the Suruis will be poised to reap the economic benefits of future carbon trading deals. Backed by our firm’s legal opinions, they have a greater chance of being able to establish their right to the revenues from those deals and to use the funds to build schools, health clinics and coffee farms.