Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Getting it Wrong in Guatemala

Mechanisms fall neatly into place for bringing low-carbon development to the world's poorer countries. The UN's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) reviews projects worldwide and certifies them for low-carbon efficiency. That allows them to gain funding from EU countries, whose Emissions Trading System (ETS) allows investors to earn carbon credits for capital they invest in such projects, which credits become part of the EU's overall carbon reduction strategy, as presented to the UNFCCC in Paris this December. Eventually the 'Green Climate Fund,' which recently opened for business in Korea and is slated to receive $100 billion/year if wealthy countries keep their promises, will act as a sort of World Bank for such projects.

It's a neat system, until you look at it up close in, say, Guatemala, where the $250 million Santa Rita dam and hydroelectric generating plant are Exhibit A. Certified by CDM, the project was moving forward with support from local landholders, but peasants, thousands of whom will be removed from their lands by the project, began to object. Elite proponents responded with shootings, beatings, and threats, tactics reminiscent of Guatemala's 'dirty war' of the 1980s when 200,000 Guatemalan peasants were brutally killed. Augusto Sandino Ponce, whose landowner father was a lieutenant of General Rios Montt in that campaign (Rios Montt was  convicted of genocide by a Guatemalan court in 2013), was implicated in the shooting of a crowd of peasants last spring, resulting in several deaths.

The international community became concerned last August when two children were executed by a drunken gunman employed by the hydroelectric company. Their uncle, David Chen, a community activist and the apparent target of the shootings, was meeting at the time with the rapporteur for the InterAmerican Human Rights Commission, which had begun to investigate the attacks on local farmers.

Will projects like Santa Rita become the hallmark of the climate movement in developing countries? The CDM has been widely criticized for its narrowly quantitative criteria, and an NGO watchdog, Carbon Market Watch (CMW), has begun to monitor its work. Proponents cited the gains to local farmers from cheap, clean electricity, but others have noted that most of that electricity will be sold in international markets. The scale of the project, with its 40-foot dam, requires evictions and disruption of the local economy, and in that context a haunting detail is worth noticing: when Sandino Ponce's gunmen fired on local peasants last April, the people were gathered to celebrate a ritual where the farmers ask the earth for permission to plant their crops. Clearly those farmers understand something profound about environmental stewardship. As all the nations and powers of the world meet in Paris to recalibrate the global economy along sustainable lines, could those farmers be empowered to share with us what they know?

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