By: Steve Zwick, Kelley Hamrick and Christopher Pollon Ecosystem Marketplace

Forest-carbon projects are now conserving as much forested land as you’ll find in all of Malaysia. It’s a stunning achievement, but one that needs to get big fast if we’re to make a dent in global greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, jurisdictions like the Brazilian state of Acre are developing “jurisdictional REDD” programs to do just that.

From a carbon-accounting perspective, the biggest challenge is getting enough random samples over a long enough period of time to offer carbon-stock estimates that are 95 percent certain, which is what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends. That can be costly, because, despite all the advances in satellite and even drone technology, it still requires sending teams out into the forest with tape-measures. Then someone in the jurisdiction – usually in the forestry department – has to blend those findings with satellite images going back decades to document the jurisdiction’s land-use change over time – how much forest has been converted to field and then to farm, and sometimes back again.

Roughly 2,500 years ago, people of the Amazon Basin started blending charcoal with pottery to create a thick, rich soil called terra preta (dark earth) – evidence of a now-lost system of sustainable agriculture that enhanced rather than depleted the soil. The practice eventually spread across the continent, and it appears to have sustained indigenous civilizations for centuries.

Terra preta began disappearing shortly after Europeans arrived in the Amazon 500 years ago – an arrival that sparked migration and conflict well beyond their early coastal and river settlements.

Chief José Maria’s knows little of this ancient history, but he knows that by the time his people, the Shawãdawa, were officially contacted by Brazilian authorities in the 1900s, they’d abandoned their ancient practices in favor of migratory slash-and-burn agriculture. After contact, decimated by war and disease, they became dependent on modern farming methods that kill the forest, deplete the soil, and poison the rivers.

In 2008, Chief José Maria heard that the government of Brazil’s state of Acre wanted to learn his people’s ways and the ways of neighboring people like the Ashaninka and Yawanawa. The government’s goal was to re-create the long-lost practices that worked so well for so long, and to support them through a legal framework called the System of Incentives for Environmental Services (Sistema de Incentivos a Serviços Ambientais / “SISA”).

SISA, he learned, would even pay his people to improve the way the forest functioned – the way it filtered water, captured carbon, and fortified the soil. It would pay them, in other words, to keep Acre’s agricultural system functioning for centuries to come.

In 2011, he began participating in workshops designed to implement SISA and its “Payments for Ecosystem Services” (PES), but by late 2013, he was tired of talking and anxious to get to work.

“When will PES arrive?” he asked wearily. “We’ve held about five different meetings …”

The answer came in early 2014, when the state paid R$3.6 million ($1.6 million) to the Acre Association of Indigenous Agroforestry Agents (Associação do Movimento dos Agentes Agroflorestais Indígenas do Acre/AMAAIAC) to reverse decades of degradation caused by the shift from forestry to cattle farming and other practices that destroy the forest.

“PES is difficult to understand, but it is not rocket science,” says Charamaxa Huni Kuin of the Huni Kuin people. “These are the things that indigenous agroforestry agents have been doing, and the work is getting stronger.”

In April of last year, the government put up an additional R$3 million ($1.34 million) to support and implement indigenous Life Plans across the state. Deployment was delayed until later in the year because of anti-corruption laws that prevent big payouts too close to an election, but money is now being doled out in payments ranging from as low as R$50,000 ($22,390) to as high as R$210,000 ($94,000), and it’s being used for a broad range of activities – from strengthening land management to promoting associations and communities to generating income for women.

It’s all part of the world’s first large-scale “jurisdictional REDD” program.


In some ways, a jurisdictional REDD program is a lot like an individual REDD project, but scaled up to cover an entire jurisdiction – which could be an entire country, or a state within a country, or a region, like Ghana’s cocoa-producing area.

The basic concept is the same as a project: buyer and seller haggle over how much forest would be lost if business continued as usual, and they agree on a “reference level” that represents a business-as-usual scenario. Then the buyer agrees to pay for activities that reduce deforestation below that reference level.