Chiapas to California: preserving forests for dollars?


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The Mexican state of Chiapas, home to the left-wing Zapatista revolt of the mid-1990s, is now eager to join a most capitalist enterprise: California’s upcoming cap-and-trade market for carbon emissions.

Chiapas Gov. Juan Antonio Sabines Guerrero and California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Linda Adams are making the rounds of the global climate talks in Cancun, touting a deal: California companies will pay Chiapas to protect its rain forest.


‘California has opened its international market for carbon credits,” Sabines told a meeting of 700 forest advocates Wednesday, adding that Chiapas has the “best inventory of soil, forest and jungle” in Mexico. He estimated that Chiapas could sell carbon credits of as much as 2 million metric tons into the California market over eight years.

Market prices are highly uncertain, but if carbon credits were selling at $20 a ton, that could mean as much as $40 million to help Chiapas save its forests. The cutting and burning of tropical forests, including the cloud forests in southern Mexico, account for as much as 15% of global carbon dioxide emissions which are trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. Rising temperatures worldwide are leading to melting glaciers, rising sea levels and stronger storms, according to scientific studies.

More than 190 nations are gathered in Cancun this week, struggling to craft a treaty that would curb carbon emissions, including an agreement to reduce deforestation. With the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass cap-and-trade legislation, some developing nations are looking to California as a source of funds to help their forest-dwellers develop other sources of fuel and income.

Steven L. Kline, a vice president of Pacific Gas & Electric, one of California’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases told Cancun delegates and activists that the company hopes to use international offsets to help with “keeping customer costs low and demonstrably reducing global emissions.”

Under California’s cap and trade program, expected to be approved by the state’s Air Resources Board next week, industries such as power plants and refineries could pay Chiapas to help save its rain forest in exchange for offsetting some of their own emissions in California.

The forest carbon that Chiapas preserves would have to be verified by international auditors. California companies could then use the credits to offset up to 2% of their emissions. Chiapas is counting on a “memorandum of understanding” it signed last month with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at a “climate summit” at UC Davis. The Brazilian state of Acre also signed on to the agreement which commits the three states to develop rules that would allow international offsets to qualify for California’s trading market.


“When we started to design our carbon market, we heard from businesses that they wanted to buy offsets — and please, no geographic boundaries,” said Adams, who said she had insisted that a cap-and-trade program be part of California’s 2006 climate legislation. “We want most offset [projects] to be in California, but a small portion outside the state.”

In Chiapas and Acre, “these pilot projects will pave the way for others,” she added, noting that other provinces and subnational states in Latin America, Africa and Asia have expressed interest.

Many forest experts caution, however, that such subnational deals do not necessarily cut overall forest emissions because companies that destroy forests for logging, soybean crops or palm oil plantations can move their business elsewhere. Only an international treaty that would fund deforestation curbs on a global scale would make a real difference, they say.

Moreover, with GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stepping down next month, it remains to be seen how enthusiastically a Democratic administration under Jerry Brown will embrace international carbon trading. “We are nowhere near bringing in Chiapas into an offset program,” cautioned ARB spokesman
Stanley Young. “It’s still early days. There is a memorandum of understanding, but we need more discussions.”

In the early stages of the California market, beginning in 2012, he said, only U.S. offsets will be included under rules already adopted to measure carbon from urban forestry, methane digesters on dairy farms and destruction of ozone-depleting industrial chemicals known as CFCs.

[For the record: 11:05 a.m. Dec. 10: From Louis Blumberg of The Nature Conservancy: ‘There are four categories for sources of domestic offsets in the ARB regulation. The fourth is projects from the forestry sector (distinct form urban forestry). There are three project types for which rules are being adopted: reforestation, improved forest management and forest conservation. Credits from projects in the US and potentially Mexico and Canada would be allowed.]


Before international forests are included, “there has to be rigorous verification and dependable accounting,” Young said. “We’ve got to get the U.S. forestry protocol projects up and running.”

Chiapas, on Mexico’s southwestern border, has 47 forest preserves covering more than 5,000 square miles, but swaths of rain forest, even within the preserves, are being cut down for subsistence farming by a growing population.

Chiapas is known for its majestic cloud forests, such as the Reserva de la Biosfera el Triunfo, home to such iconic species as resplendent quetzals and horned guans.

It is also one of the poorest regions in Latin America, which made it fertile ground for an insurgent group, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, led by the media-savvy Sub-Comandante Marcos. The rebels emerged from forest hideouts in 1994 and captured world attention in a violent revolt against the Mexican government.

After being defeated in several clashes with the Mexican army, Zapatistas faded from international view as peace talks dragged on. Today 32 municipalities remain affiliated with the group.


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--Margot Roosevelt

Photos, from top: Cloud forest in Chiapas, Mexico--Credit: Conservation International / Miguel Ángel de la Cueva; male cougar (Felis Concolor Mayensis) in Chiapas--Credit: Conservation International/Fulvio Eccard; children in Chiapas--Credit: Conservation International / Miguel Ángel de la Cueva