Ezekiel Phillippo is explaining his way of life down a crackly phone line. ‘You must understand that we always protect our environment because that is how we survive. Our cultural history is to live within the natural environment, and we have a historical and religious connection with the landscape and the hills,’ he says.
A member of the Hadza tribe in northern Tanzania’s Yaeda Valley region, he’s recently returned to Tanzania after a whirlwind trip to America – his first time leaving his forest community, let alone the country – to accept a 2019 Equator Prize, an award given to indigenous groups developing solutions to climate change.
The Hadza are one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes in Africa, with approximately 1,300 tribe members. They have no domesticated animals, nor do they grow and store food. They eat a mainly plant-based diet, foraging for food including seeds, honey and edible plants, and hunting animals in their native forest land. For 40,000 years, time has passed quietly for this removed community, but development, farming and deforestation is placing pressure on their way of life. In the past 50 years they have lost 90 per cent of the land they rely on.
The main driver of deforestation in this region is slash and burn agriculture. ‘More and more people were coming in and cutting the trees and burning them, trying to take our land,’ Ezekiel explains. Opportunistic farmers from other parts of Tanzania cut away wild forests and then burn the remaining vegetation, leaving clear land and a nutrient-rich layer of ash to fertilise crops and grow food.
Faced with the extinction of their traditional lifestyle, the community were approached by Carbon Tanzania, a social enterprise working to reframe how people glean value from natural environments. With them, the Hadza launched a new project: trading carbon offsets from the forests that cover their territory. ‘Carbon emissions are already locked into forest ecosystems. The saving is based on what’s not being cut down,’ says Marc Baker, Carbon Tanzania’s CEO.
Marc argues that the factors driving deforestation are economic, and so the solution needs to be economic. According to the Carbon Tanzania website, ‘effectively protecting and restoring forests has the potential to deal with 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030’. Their projects across East Africa prevent the emission of over 200,000 tonnes of CO2 each year.
The solution came as something of a surprise to the Hadza community: ‘We didn’t know what carbon was before this project came along, but we learned it is in the trees and has a value. Just by protecting our land – which we want to do anyway – our forests keep the air clean,’ says Ezekiel.
The Yaeda Valley project covers 32,000 hectares of land, or the equivalent of nearly 27,000 football pitches. It’s home to more than 400 species of birds, large mammals including elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo, and it is a major carbon sink. Like all forests across the globe, the trees here convert carbon in the atmosphere during photosynthesis and sequester it. When a tree is cut down or burned, this carbon is released into the atmosphere. What’s more, there’s one less tree around to catch carbon. For comparison, new research shows that deforestation in the Amazon region has led to up to one fifth of the rainforest emitting more CO2 than it absorbs. Experts estimate that the world’s atmosphere is currently holding about 415 parts per million of carbon. If the destruction of the Amazon continues it would add roughly another 38 parts per million of carbon.
Carbon Tanzania calculates the carbon saving of keeping the Yaeda Valley forest intact (116 tonnes of CO2 per hectare above and below ground) and then sells carbon credits to companies across the globe trying to reduce their carbon footprint. With the money raised, young men from the Hadza community are trained as law enforcement officials and are recognised by the Tanzanian government as people with a legal right to protect their land. The community also put the money they make from the project toward educating their children and paying for healthcare. So far, the community has raised $250,000. ‘Culturally the Hadza are seen as a poor people who live in the bush without cows, sort of second class citizens without any value. Now the carbon project based [here]… is one of the biggest revenue earners in the district,’ says Ezekiel.
Carbon offsetting is a controversial topic though, and many environmentalists argue that it allows big businesses to continue operating irresponsibly while funding schemes that make them appear less polluting than they really are. A 2019 blog post from UN Environment states: ‘The climate crisis is now considered our gravest existential threat. Fifty per cent of climate changing pollutants have been pumped into our atmosphere – from power stations, cars, agriculture – since just 1990, and this amount is growing every second… carbon offset projects will never be able to curb the emissions growth, while reducing overall emissions, if coal power stations continue to be built and petrol cars continue to be bought, and our growing global population continues to consume as it does today.’
Marc argues that while carbon offsetting isn’t a long-term fix, economically empowering indigenous communities is a powerful tool: ‘Social inequality and social equity are a key part of the issue with climate change. [Carbon offsetting is] a way to protect land and make it valuable… it’s about reducing where we can and offsetting where we can’t, and in the next 30 years hopefully it won’t [be needed],’ he says.
This touches on criticisms sometimes levelled at the conservation industry: that it is disconnected from indigenous communities, that there is a lack of diversity in conservation and environmental organisations and a lack of community engagement. According to Ezekiel, proving that indigenous land has value places the power with the communities and is a fundamental part of the solution: ‘For people to understand the problems that the Hadza are dealing with it has to be a Hadza talking,’ he says. Reflecting on his time in New York, he concludes: ‘What I’ve realised over the past week is that it’s our responsibility to tell the world that we can protect our land and we can deal with these problems, but the world has to be told that we [indigenous communities] need to be part of the conversation. We are looking after forests that are useful to the whole world.’
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