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One of Shell’s Amazon carbon offsets projects raises serious human rights concerns

One of Shell’s Amazon carbon offsets projects raises serious human rights concerns

Indigenous peoples claim and reportedly live in different parts of the Cordillera Azul National Park

David Hill Dec 15

Indigenous Kichwa leader Nelsith Sangama, from Peru, in Glasgow recently where she spoke against carbon offsetting. Credit: Forest Peoples Programme

The last six months or so have been uncharacteristically bruising for oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell, at least as far as its public profile is concerned. Not only did a court in The Netherlands rule in May that it must cut its global carbon emissions by 45% by the end of 2030 compared with 2019 levels, but then in August the Dutch advertising watchdog concluded that the company should abandon its campaign promoting “carbon neutral” driving. In late October the UK’s Channel 4 broadcast “Joe Lycett vs the Oil Giant”, which included the British comedian impersonating Shell’s CEO Ben van Beurden and defecating out of his mouth, and then the very next day journalists from SourceMaterialGreenpeace’s Unearthed team and Bloomberg published investigations into the “Drive Carbon Neutral” campaign.

If you look at Shell’s website, central to that claim about supposedly “carbon neutral” driving is Peru. “It’s easy. Sign-up and your fleet can drive carbon neutral, simply by using the Shell Card. Shell takes care of the rest. We offset your fleet’s unavoidable carbon emissions through the purchase of carbon credits from a portfolio of carefully chosen nature-based projects,” the website states, before listing several countries where those projects are located – the first being Peru.

It’s similar with Shell’s claims about selling “carbon neutral” liquified natural gas to Taiwan. “Nature-based carbon credits have been used to offset all emissions generated – from exploring for and producing the natural gas, to use by the final consumer. Credits used for this deal are bought from Shell’s global portfolio of nature-based projects,” its website states, before naming three such projects – one of them in Peru.

But is it really so “easy”, so “simple”, and have its projects truly been so “carefully chosen”? Leaving aside any wrangling over methodologies and what some people have dubbed “magic maths”, which will always dog any carbon offsetting project because of the hypothesising involved, not to mention that Peru’s government was already legally obliged to protect three of the “protected natural areas” involved in two of the Peruvian projects from which Shell has been buying carbon credits years before those projects even started, there is the fact that one of those projects, dubbed “Cordillera Azul, Peru” by Shell, raises serious human rights concerns.

That is because an indigenous federation called the Consejo Étnico de los Pueblos Kichwa de la Amazonía (CEPKA) and one Kichwa community, Puerto Franco, claim that the Cordillera Azul project, which pertains to the Cordillera Azul National Park, Peru’s third largest park, is blocking the community’s land title claims. They argue that roughly several thousand hectares of the park is actually part of the community’s ancestral lands, and that they weren’t consulted about either the park or project before they were established, as was their right under international law. In July it was revealed that the federation and community have filed a lawsuit against Peru’s Environment Ministry and other state agencies over the latter’s alleged “failure to comply with [the] obligation to protect and title the collective territories of Indigenous Peoples, putting their lands and livelihoods at risk”, according to the UK-based NGO Forest Peoples Programme (FPP).

In the statement announcing that lawsuit CEPKA adviser Marco Sangama, a Kichwa man, was quoted saying that Puerto Franco “has been excluded from any possibility of titling their lands” due to the project, and then in another, fiercely critical statement later that same month CEPKA and two other Kichwa federations slammed the project and named Shell specifically – accusing it of trying to “clean-up its image in the Global North.” In late October, at the UK’s Royal Anthropological Institute’s Anthropology and Conservation Virtual Conference, Sangama described the park as a “model of exclusionary conservation” which had been imposed on the Kichwas “arbitrarily.”

Both the park and project were also denounced in Glasgow during the recent United Nations’ climate change conference, dubbed “COP26”, by CEPKA’s vice-president and other indigenous leaders – not just in meetings and protests outside, but inside the conference too. “Indigenous peoples have protected our lands for generations while companies continue destroying the Earth,” CEPKA’s Nelsith Sangama told a protest by indigenous peoples against carbon offsetting held at the conference’s entrance. “Instead of titling our collective lands, Peru promotes exclusionary protected areas and sells carbon offsets to these same oil and aviation companies.”

Around the same time, CEPKA and Puerto Franco held a meeting with the Environment Ministry agency responsible for parks, SERNANP, and the NGO contracted to run Cordillera Azul on the state’s behalf, the Centro de Conservación, Investigación y Manejo de Áreas Naturales (CIMA), which has developed the carbon project. According to a multi-author report by CEPKA, FPP and Instituto de Defensa Legal representatives about that meeting, the Kichwas have been in “constant conflict” with the park since its establishment and still do not feature in its official Management Plan. The Kichwas reiterated their demand for title and access to their ancestral land, for an opportunity to contribute to managing the park, and for a share of the “conservation benefits” – to which SERNANP and CIMA representatives apparently seemed “openly disposed.”

“We have our rights and we’re claiming our territory,” Puerto Franco’s secretary, Roberto Carlos Guerra, reportedly said at the meeting. “Gentlemen from the state and CIMA, we’re demanding that as a people: the demarcation of our territory. You never came to do any prior consultation.”

“They showed us on the noticeboard: “That’s where the park is!”” community elder Alpino Fasabi was reported to say at the meeting, remembering back to around the time the park was established in 2001. “Two men surprised us by turning up and they changed the name of the River Shillushillu to Chupichontal. But it is us who know that area. I’ve walked it day and night with my grandparents and no one can come here and deceive us. They came to violate our rights and tell us where the park is.”

Puerto Franco, on the park’s western side, is just one Kichwa community. How many others out there might step forward and demand their land back, either by issuing similarly furious public condemnations or taking legal action?

When I raised this issue with Shell, just one of many companies buying credits from the project, and asked if they would commit to reviewing doing so, it wouldn’t supply an on-the-record quote but stated that engaging with local communities is essential to manage the park and that engagement is not done by Shell itself but by the government and CIMA – the latter subsequently didn’t respond to any of my questions. The company also stated that the project has been assessed by independent auditors, and that it only ever buy credits approved by third-parties.

Extremely serious and lamentable as all this is, it isn’t the only human rights concern raised by the Cordillera Azul project. A huge chunk of the park has been designated a “strictly protected zone” because it is reportedly inhabited by indigenous people living in “isolation”, as Peruvian law and the UN refer to them. Obviously, like the Kichwas in Puerto Franco, such people were never consulted about the park or project, as was their right under international law, but nor should they have been, given their apparent decision to live in “isolation”, as also is their right under international law, and the potential catastrophe if contact is made with them. If consultation can’t be done with indigenous people regarding a potential project involving their territory, then that project shouldn’t proceed.

Official documents for the Cordillera Azul project acknowledge the existence – or the possibility of the existence – of “uncontacted” indigenous people in the park and state that “every attempt” has been made to ensure they won’t be affected, but Shell, at least on its “Nature-Based Solutions” website page, makes no mention of them. Is that because the company doesn’t realise that such people are reported to live there, or because it doesn’t want to draw attention to them and risk a scandal? When I raised this with Shell, they simply acknowledged that there are indigenous people in “isolation” in the south of the park.

The Uruguay-based NGO World Rainforest Movement (WRM) is currently circulating a statement rejecting all so-called “nature-based solutions” and offset schemes, partly under the argument that, apart from the fact they’re not designed to address the main causes of the climate crisis, they will “enclose the remaining living spaces of Indigenous Peoples” who will subsequently “face more violence, more restrictions on their use of their lands and more outside control over their territories.” Although WRM doesn’t specifically mention indigenous peoples in “isolation”, like those in Peru’s Cordillera Azul, that argument applies equally to them too. How fitting that that statement, which to date has been signed by more than 250 organisations from more than 60 countries, names Shell in its very first sentence.

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