Is it possible to pin down the precise moment when an idea is born, when a thought becomes action, when a concept becomes reality? Carbon Tanzania was an experiment in conservation innovation thought up, discussed, chewed over and eventually put into practice by Marc Baker and myself 10 years ago when we began financially supporting forest protection activities by the Hadza communities of the Yaeda Valley in Northern Tanzania. This marked the formal beginning of our flagship Yaeda Valley REDD Project, and the start of a journey that has seen the evolution of a completely new model for forest conservation in Africa.
But this process spanned more than a decade of working and travelling together throughout Tanzania and East Africa, working in rural areas where natural resources such as forests were often abundant (if not pristine), filled with amazing wildlife (but not charismatic megafauna) and where it was assumed that local communities should be bearing the costs of looking after these important, but overlooked, forests.
To celebrate these 10 years of experimentation, development and growth at Carbon Tanzania, I had a conversation with Marc during a recent trip to Western Tanzania where we signed an MoU with the Tanganyika District Council which begins the process of developing a REDD project in the Tongwe West Local Authority Forest Reserve. This forest reserve is contiguous geographically with our existing Ntakata Mountains REDD Project and as such this will eventually lead to the protection of an area exceeding 5000km2 of miombo forest which harbours the vast majority Tanzania’s wild Chimpanzee population, and is a testament to the local authority’s commitment to conserving their extensive natural forests.
Jo: I started by asking Marc when, and how, he feels Carbon Tanzania really came into existence.
Marc: “Towards the end of 2007 we became aware of a methodology for carbon accounting called “REDD*” and it resonated with us because we had spent so much time driving around Tanzania thinking about and having wide ranging often meandering discussions about conservation. We had talked about how conservation had not been working and how we thought things could be better. I think these discussions primed our brains to be receptive for when a potentially powerful solution presented itself. At the same time we were connected to a network of individuals and organisations in the conservation space who were thinking deeply about the same issues. One of them, TNRF**, was engaging stakeholders and communities to think about alternative ways to manage their lands and resources, while another, UCRT***, was actively working with indigenous land owners to secure land-tenure and user-rights by creating legal land claims such as the Hadza community’s Certificate of Customary Right of Occupancy.
Our friend Fred Nelson saw that this provided the basis for a system such as REDD that assigns a value to the land and resource by measuring and quantifying its carbon content and the efforts to protect it within a legally binding contract between the resource-owner and a project developer. This gave us the impetus to investigate the various methodologies and standards that existed to guide the development of such a project (we chose Plan Vivo for Yaeda Valley due to its emphasis on working with indigenous communities), and this really was the moment that we realised we were onto something!
We soon realised that creating carbon assets using these methodologies requires long term engagement with resource-owners, and this made us realise that short term, NGO-style or donor-lead approaches would not provide the necessary finance in the long run, and we resolved to create Carbon Tanzania as a social enterprise modelled on business practices and principles and with a clear remit to secure buyers for the resulting carbon credits on commercial terms. Developing Yaeda allowed us to further evolve our thinking about how this mechanism could be used for valuing and therefore protecting landscapes.”
Jo: I followed up by asking Marc if there was a specific event that marked the beginning of the Yaeda Valley Project on the ground?
Marc: “I remember talking to Dismas Partalala and Richard Baalow of UCRT in 2010 about how our imagined REDD project might work – to their credit they did not dismiss me as a complete madman! They helped to facilitate conversations with the two original Yaeda Villages (Domanga and Mongo wa Mono), and we told the communities that once the CCRO had been officially signed off we would be able to begin a project. We explained that the project was about carbon and about their trees, and that if they protect these trees, we will be able to deliver revenues for those trees.
So it was that a decade ago, in early 2011 the CCRO was finalised with the support of our landscape partners, UCRT, The Nature Conservancy and Dorobo Fund, and we were able to officially begin the project. Even then we didn’t really have a clear idea of how we were going to do this, we didn’t understand how much money it would turn out to be, we didn’t really understand how we would create institutional relationships with the communities, we hadn’t worked out how we would structure payments, and so in a real sense we were innovating as we went through the process. We all had to learn as we progressed, but looking back it is an enormous credit to both the communities and UCRT that they trusted us with this process and perceived the opportunity to benefit from protecting their newly secured natural resources.”
Jo: It is said that we consistently overestimate what we can achieve in one year, and underestimate what can be achieved in a decade, and our experience bears this out a hundred times over!
So it is clear that implementing the Yaeda Valley REDD Project was a key step in the establishment and development of Carbon Tanzania as an organisation. I asked Marc how fundamental the iconic, prize winning project Yaeda Valley Project has been to Carbon Tanzania becoming a pioneering conservation business?
Marc: “What we were doing at that time was not understood by many people. We had to talk in basic language, but for the majority, it was purely conceptual. Yaeda has provided a working example of our philosophical approach, and allows us to “show” not “tell”. Yaeda will always be the place that we cut our teeth. We innovated, we learned how to communicate with the communities about what we do, it’s where we learned how to transfer revenues and ensure that the revenue was recognised in the way it should be, it’s where we learned how to engage with government, it’s where we developed the framework that has guided us as we have expanded. It has given us the basis for exploring how carbon finance could be used better in the conservation space, and it forced us to understand how the markets for carbon credits actually work in reality. It means that when people contact us nowadays they frequently say, “wow, you people have really thought about this!”. And that is because we have, we have really thought deeply about this! ”
Jo: So what are the most important lessons learned in Yaeda that we have been able to take forward as we developed our other two projects in the Makame Wildlife Management Area and in the Ntakata Mountains?
Marc: “For me the key takeaway has been to always lead with the conversation about revenue, and ensure that revenue is something that you are able to deliver in a timely manner. It’s hard for people to conceive that this carbon thing will be important to them or people they represent until the money starts to flow. When it does it crystallises everything else that we have been talking about in terms of the importance of the forest resource and the landscape. It has taught us that people need to be able to realise in a practical sense the value of the forest in monetary terms to ensure forest conservation. The fact is that people understand on a visceral level the value of their environment, but applying this value is the critical point, and for people to say “OK, we are getting paid for it, we will look after it” is just not as big a jump as many people might imagine. You do not need to teach people how to protect their environment, this is innate, you just need to provide the framework in which they can receive monetary value for those resources and they will take care of them”
Jo: Carbon Tanzania now runs three fully verified REDD projects. What was the point at which the company was able to make the leap from implementing a small, experimental scheme to broadening our scope to more varied geographies and larger landscapes?
Marc: “The moment that we engaged with HRSV, a Dutch social impact investor, and received investment funds for the expansion of the Yaeda Valley activities, was the moment that we realised that this could be a real thing, that this was beyond simple innovation, and was a model that was becoming mature in its form and potential. Receiving this investment demonstrated that this was something more than a mere initiative, but was something for which the world might actually be willing to deploy funds and capital.”
Jo: So are you suggesting that the investment had much deeper significance for Carbon Tanzania than simply the capital itself?
Marc: “Yes, the greater impact than just the money was the recognition that someone outside the conservation world, without a specific environmental background, understood enough about what we were saying and doing to take a bet on the concept becoming more and more valuable to the world over time. For us this was a powerful thing because it made us realise that we might be onto something bigger.”
Jo: Of course I agree, and it’s instructive to remember that we received our first investment from HRSV shortly after the Paris Agreement was signed in December 2015. So I asked Marc to comment on whether the Paris Agreement and the commitments that it contains has helped or hindered what we have been trying to achieve since then?
Marc: “The Paris Agreement was critical because it was the whole world, every nation bar two or three, saying “we know climate change is a real thing and we know we need to address it”, even though at the time we didn’t necessarily have all the answers or knowhow to. I actually attended one of the side sessions at Paris in 2015 but was surprised that very few businesses were represented on the various panels, but fortunately this is very different from the conversations we are having today.”
Jo: Yes the Paris Agreement specifically invokes the involvement of the private sector to be a significant actor in climate action alongside national governments. What would you say it is about our business approach that sets us apart from the more conventional NGO and Donor driven conservation approaches that have dominate the nature conservation space over the past 70 or so years?
Marc: “We pay the communities directly, and that is the big thing that surprises people working in the NGO and other sectors. When we talk about satellite analysis they understand that it involved GIS and other technical inputs, when we talk about land use planning they are completely familiar with land rights issues and indigenous rights, but when we talk about paying the communities the questions begin – how do you do that? how do they use? what is the framework? how does it work? What happens when the project stops? What happens if the communities waste the funds? Many people have been deeply suspicious of this approach, but equally these questions have made us think very carefully about how to avoid the pitfalls, and we can now answer these questions with confidence, and we can say that if you want to keep forests in the ground they have to be valued.’
Jo: Right, an important lesson indeed. When I think about what we bring to the table, we are not saying to a community that we have come to help them with something or that we are bringing something that we feel might be valuable to them, what we are actually saying is that they have something that is valuable to the world, and we would like to talk to them about how to make that value real. It means that we are requesting that we pay under contract for a specific service that they can provide, namely habitat protection and conservation. So my final question is whether you think that this more transactional approach to valuing nature is going to continue to grow and become prominent, or is there a risk that the more traditional approaches to conservation continue to crowd the space?
Marc: “Well we definitely need to put our faith in the regulatory processes and ensure that they are adequate. We have certification systems and standards in our “carbon” world that guarantee that the emissions reductions that we are generating are genuine, and that is important in laying the foundation for further growth in the sector. But I also see more and more NGOs coming to realise that the private sector, finance and corporates are an increasingly important source of funds for this kind of work, and I see a merging of approaches where NGOs realise that they have to learn from the efficiencies and directness of business in delivering measurable outcomes, while business is seeing that is needs to learn from the NGO ability to focus on impacts such as the SDGs in order to satisfy the emerging, blended market for climate impacts.“
Jo: I think we all agree on this one. These partnerships are increasingly being built between businesses and NGOs, government actors, research institutions, philanthopists and global financial bodies, and this complementarity neatly mirrors the aspirations of the Paris Agreement in its goal of mobilising all stakeholders to play their part in addressing the climate change challenge.
*REDD = Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation
**TNRF = Tanzania Natural Resource Forum