For the past 9 years, ecologist and climate change expert Isabella Masinde has been offering technical advice to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), which has designed a carbon trading scheme to conserve resources and reward farmers in 16 African countries. She leads the Kenyan delegation to UN Climate Change talks.

African farmers have first-hand experience of the impact of climate change, with erratic weather patterns seriously threatening their crops and livestock. Carbon trading initiatives offer them some hope of improving their livelihoods while adopting more sustainable ways of managing land and increasing output.

What exactly is carbon trading and how does it work?

Carbon trading is an instrument used as an incentive to have communities conserve their forests and woodlands. It is a payment that the local communities receive in return for the sacrifice they make to forgo the use of their land for several years so that it can sequester carbon. Under this arrangement, we encourage smallholder farmers to practise agroforestry. That means they plant their food crops alongside trees. We also encourage farmers in a given area to surrender at least a portion of their land for tree planting.

How does this initiative encourage food production if farmers have to forgo the use of their land?

This initiative is not supposed to cause a decline in food production, but rather to increase both food production and forest coverage. We know that most farmers have small pieces of land. However, through education and proper information on the negative effects of climate change, most farmers have agreed to forgo portions of their land for trees. They then use the remaining part to practise sustainable agriculture. Food is plentiful in areas where we are now sequestering carbon.

What are the specific benefits to smallholder farmers?

AWF, which doubles as the implementing and marketing agency, selects communities to benefit from carbon trading. A trust fund is then established through which communities are paid. AWF contacts buyers in the developed world, who then transfer the money to the trust fund account.

Each member of the community gets cash payments. Carbon trading is done in tonnes, and 1 t could be between US$4 and $5 (€3 and €3.5). The community gets 60%, a government entity to support conservation gets 20% and the implementing agency gets 20% for monitoring and evaluation and to ensure compliance. In Kenya, 120 farmers are benefiting from carbon trading, while in Tanzania, 200 farmers are on the benefits list. In the last 3 years, each farmer has received US$300 (€220) to improve their livelihoods and also enhance their new farming techniques including agroforestry. In the next year and before 2013, more farmers – about 500 – will have benefited from the new trade-off.

Is it right that carbon trading in developing countries should compensate for continued pollution in industrialised countries?

The rich countries must be held accountable on their promises to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It will be meaningless for developing countries to be told to plant more trees if the rich counties continue to pollute the atmosphere.

What prompted your carbon trading initiative?

We realised that forests contribute to either global warming when cut down, or to cooling when they sequester and store carbon. My advice to farmers in Africa is please, plant more trees to save our continent.

How are livelihoods changing for communities living within and around the carbon trading projects?

The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), with other partners, is working to develop fair and equitable benefit sharing schemes that will ensure that benefits are realised at household level. In addition, AWF is facilitating the development of alternative livelihood options that will bring economic benefits to the community.

What are the challenges you face?

Carbon projects are very expensive to implement. They take a very long time. The idea of selling carbon sounds alien to most community members, but with the benefits that have started trickling in, they now know they have hope. However, the main challenge is land ownership. The majority of smallholder farmers have no land of their own, hence there is increased encroachment into forests and other designated areas.

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