Peoples’ defence of climate stability

Activists involved in the defence of climate stability have been concerned about the destruction caused to lands, diversity and the very existence of communities by the extraction of fossil fuels. They have been equally concerned over the attempt to use forests and plantations as ‘carbon sinks’, a process which also involves the destruction and displacement of communities and ecosystems. We reproduce below a call for a moratorium on the expansion of the oil frontier by OILWATCH, an international movement against fossil fuel-mining in the tropics, and a statement on forest and plantation ‘sinks’ by the World Rainforest Movement, a global coalition, based in Montevideo, of grassroots communities and NGOs in defence of forests and indigenous communities.

The oil frontier and peoples’ survival

WHILE governments and scientists engage in the climate change debate, local populations are taking actions into their own hands by stopping oil mining and preventing more carbon dioxide from polluting the atmosphere.

From Colombia through Nigeria to Burma, there is a groundswell of peoples’ resistance in defending their lands, diversity and their very existence. Every project that they stop holds back further catastrophe to the earth’s climate, which has been destabilised by industrial development based on fossil fuels.

The link between climate change and fossil fuels is now recognised.  Oil, gas and coal are the main sources of CO2 emissions, caused by the burning of these fossil fuels as the primary source of energy in industrial society.

In spite of the climate crisis, the main focus of discussion between different governments is not how to decrease the amount of oil on the market  (as was agreed upon at the Kyoto conference in 1997) but how to lower the cost and therefore continue  with a model of development based on the use of fossil fuels as the main source of energy. 

Although lowering the consumption of oil is a goal of the protocol, the supply of oil on the market continues to rise  as a result of new reserves.

The new oil reserves are mainly located in countries with large areas of natural forest and in deep seas. The extraction of oil in these cases has  a double impact on climate change.  Firstly, marine photosynthetic organisms that absorb atmospheric CO2 are destroyed, and secondly, processes of deforestation increase (which  releases CO2 into the atmosphere). At the same time, increases in the use of fossil fuels stored underground and  the emission of gases worsen the greenhouse effect.

Industrialised countries, which  are the biggest emitters of CO2,now want to occupy both the territories of  non-industrialised countries and international waters. These same countries want to occupy the South with forest plantation projects and with the mortgage of forest areas through the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol.

In spite of the absence of governmental measures in the developing world, traditional and local populations across the South are now taking part of the solution into their own hands: ‘to close the tap’ of oil  ready to be burned, and in this way defending their right to a sustainable life.

Burning away the future

Three point five billion tonnes of crude are used every year. This results in  burning  three GigaTons of carbon.  In addition,  the consumption  of gas and  coal  is estimated to  be equivalent to an annual production of six GigaTons of carbon.

It  has been calculated that there are around one trillion barrels of oil in underground reserves, including reserves in production, reserves tested but not exploited, and those yet to be discovered. This equals approximately 117 GigaTons of releasable  carbon.

Current CO2 emissions are already exceeding the absorption capacity of the planet and are causing huge disasters. A further increase of carbon in the atmosphere will provoke, among other things, widespread profound ecological changes in forests, extinction of plants and animals, the disappearance of glaciers, crop changes, a decrease in freshwater reserves, flooding, the loss of coral reefs, avalanches, storms, diseases, and death.

According to Article 3 of the Climate Change Convention, measures are needed  to ‘anticipate, prevent or minimise the causes of Climate Change, and to mitigate  adverse effects’.  These objectives can be met by stopping the expansion  of the oil frontier.

Survival of people and nature

Local communities, which have a close relationship with nature, have traditionally been marginalised by development, especially of oil consumption, production and development.

A moratorium on the expansion of the oil frontier is a matter of survival, because the material, social and cultural bases of survival are being destroyed in the process of extracting  fossil fuels.

For local communities, the main objective is not to demand a legal declaration of a moratorium, but to actually apply it with the supreme right of peoples’ resistance.

Preventing the extraction of oil allows and enables the conservation of forests, which are indispensable for the survival of local populations, and for the environmental services which they provide. Without doubt, the zones where watersheds or coasts are protected by forests are less adversely affected by climate changes. 

The local communities that protect these forested areas have greater possibilities of maintaining the stability of the climate in their region.

If forests are conserved, biodiversity is also protected and this is another basic guarantee for adaptation and resistance to changes in the climate. Farmers who are able to maintain a wide diversity of seeds will be able to confront adverse climatic conditions, using their varieties which are resistant to drought, frost and other calamities.

As has often been the case  throughout human history, small farmers guarantee and protect food security, even though they  compete with industrialised farmers whose economies are subsidised by oil.

Declaration of OILWATCH at the Climate Change Conference, November 2000, The Hague

THE OILWATCH international coalition of indigenous peoples, local communities and NGOs strongly called for the following:

* Immediate and effective measures to be taken to stop CO2 emissions in the sites of origin.
* The expansion of the oil, natural gas and coal frontier to be halted, by means of a moratorium on the exploration of new areas, as a step towards the transition to clean and low-impact renewable energy, and the total elimination of fossil fuels as a primary energy source.
* A moratorium on bilateral and multilateral loans, and on national credits and subsidies for hydrocarbon extraction projects and for fossil fuel energy generation projects.
* Energy sovereignty and efficiency to be achieved, conservation methods to be applied and clean renewable low-impact energy to be developed.
* Compensation and remediation for damage caused by climate disasters and by extraordinary events such as El Nino, the loss of coastlines around the world, floods such as those in Southeast Asia, South America and other regions, threats to island countries, and the constant loss of deltas and estuaries.
* Oil companies to be declared responsible for the impacts of globalisation based on fossil fuels, leading the process at every level, including production, distribution, processing and commercialisation of fossil fuels.
* Recognise the existence of the ecological debt and incorporate it in climate change negotiations, with the institutional help of fair and efficient financial mechanisms, assuring the ecological and economic rights of everyone around the world.
* The immediate cancellation of the external debt of countries of the South, which results in pressures for unsustainable energy extraction and use resulting in climate change.


A moratorium on oil mining

In Kyoto in 1997 when CO2 reduction targets were being fought out by governments and industry, OILWATCH, together with hundreds of other organisations, called for a moratorium on the exploration for  oil, gas and coal. This was reiterated in The Hague climate change conference last November.

The call is for no new exploration activities, the closing of oil wells, phasing out of oil and gas extraction to be replaced by alternative, renewable energy sources, and a declaration of oil-free zones.

The moratorium is a unilateral declaration of peace and well-being for the planet,  based on the following arguments:

1.   Oil activity is an  outrage against the survival of indigenous  populations and threatens local communities with ties to the earth.

2.   The use of oil increases the greenhouse effect, unleashing severe changes in the climate.

3.   The extraction of hydrocarbons destroys forest and marine ecosystems, thus decreasing CO2 absorption and increasing emissions into the atmosphere.

4.   Hydrocarbon activities induce other activities that also destroy  ecosystems, such as the opening of roads and the construction of  infrastructure for oil activity. Additionally, oil activities generate social problems that in turn intensify pressure on natural resources.

5.   Due to the agreements contained in the Kyoto Protocol, the world reserves of fossil fuels should not be used.

6.   The production of oil in Third World  countries  is  a  subsidy  to industrialised  countries  since  they buy energy at a cheap price and then sell  expensive   products   to  the  Third World.

7.   The money obtained from the sale of oil is inferior to the amount needed to  restore all the damage caused by such activity.

8.   Among the impacts generated by these activities is the forced displacement of traditional communities.

9.   Oil activity induces migration of foreign populations, producing more pressure on resources.

10. Oil has a cultural value for many of the world’s indigenous populations . For many peoples, oil is an element that plays a fundamental role in terms of the earth.

Each barrel of oil NOT extracted constitutes a positive contribution  to climate stability. Thousands of millions of barrels are still underground thanks to the struggles of traditional indigenous populations who defend their territories and their rights.  The local communities that prevent the extraction of oil are keeping carbon in the only safe deposits that exist:  in the depths of the earth.

A catalogue of resistance against oil-company activities

* In December 1998, Ijaw youth from 40 clans in Nigeria launched Operation Climate Change. They confronted oil companies in the Niger Delta, closed oil wells, extinguished fires that flared 24 hours a day and closed production stations. At least 60% of the Niger Delta oil wells were closed, thus keeping 770 million tonnes of carbon in the ground. Many of these wells remain closed.
* In Nicaragua, regional authorities and indigenous coastal communities discovered in 1998 that an offshore oil exploration concession had been approved. Following a legal challenge, the concession was revoked. Community and public pressure continues to stop any new concessions even as the government and foreign companies try to push on with the exploitation. Companies interested in the bidding round for the year 2000 were ARKANSAS Petroleum Co-Houston, Australian International Oil and Gas Exploration Co, David and Namson Consulting Geologist, Hountail Co. Texas Industrial, Perforadora de Campeche-Mexico, Oklahoma Petroleum, Perez Compaq from Venezuela, Harken from Colombia, ELF Petroleum, Norge AS from Norway, ENI-AGIP from Italy, and Balamain Resources Pty Limited from Australia. 80 million tonnes of CO2 are involved. Legal actions and actions of resistance: occupation and recuperation of land, blocking roads, local, regional and national movements, national and international campaigns.
* In Colombia, the U'wa indigenous community is locked in violent confrontation with Occidental of the US and the Colombian government. In 1992 an oil exploration agreement was signed that would affect the ancestral territory of the U'wa. The company was required to do a preliminary consultation with the indigenous population. Occidental did NOT carry out this consultation. On 10 August 1995, the U'wa population launched a legal challenge. The Superior Tribunal of Santa Fe of Bogota ruled in favour of the U'wa and declared the licence void. The Supreme Court of Justice overturned the decision in favour of Occidental. On 3 February 1997, in another decision the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the U'wa and granted Occidental 30 days to complete the consulting process. The U'wa turned to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to demand that the Colombian government respect the community's rights.

In 1999, one arm of the Colombian government increased the protection of the U'wa from 61,156 to 220,575 hectares (14% of their ancestral territory). But another part of government granted the environmental licence to drill a well. In November 250 U'was occupied two of their ancestral areas. On 19 January 2000, 5,000 military personnel invaded U'wa territory. The government of Colombia ordered the expulsion of the U'wa population, and they were violently moved in helicopters. On 11 February 2000, U'was were violently moved from another site. Three children died and various adults were wounded by military actions. On 11 September, the national government declared the zone that is ancestral U'wa territory to be of public interest and the region is once again militarised. On 15 September, the U'wa population submitted demonstrating that their land is protected by certificates granted in the 17th century.

153 million tonnes of CO2 are not emitted by the resistance.
* In Ecuador, the Cofan communities have resisted oil activities since 1969, confronting oil companies, including Texaco of the US, and the Ecuadorian military. Companies involved: Texaco (until 1992), Petroecuador and Lumbaqui Oil Ltd. The affected areas are part of the Ecuadorian Amazon forest. Peaceful occupation of oil platforms, burning as a last resort, public campaigns, lobbying of national government and international solidarity have successfully stopped at least 4 million tonnes of CO2 from being released. The civil actions led to the following: in 1997 the highly contested and fragile Imuya zone was declared by the national government as perpetually closed to extractive activities; in 1998 the Cofan community closed down the Dureno 1 oil well and this same community is one claimant in a lawsuit aginst Texaco in New York; in September 2000 work by Ecuadorian company Lumbaqui Oil to reopen the Rubi 1 well was stopped - Santa Fe company of the US had in 1998 drilled Rubi 1, causing an explosion and severe contamination of Cofan land, waters, fish, medicinal plants and trees. Santa Fe left the country.


The above is adapted from the OILWATCH Position Paper to the Climate Change Convention COP6, November 2000. OILWATCH is an international network of ecological, human rights, religious and local organisations that supports the resistance initiatives against fossil hydrocarbon exploitation in the tropics. It promotes the search for clean, sustainable and ecological energy sources. Website:


Forests and plantations in the carbon dealers' market - a statement by the World Rainforest Movement

IN 1997, the negotiators of the Kyoto Protocol came up with an ingeniously-named project: the 'Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).' For the lay person, the message was that the governments of the world had finally agreed to create a mechanism that would allow development which is atmospherically non-polluting. But what this wording hides is anything but clean.

This mechanism is in fact a licence to pollute. In Kyoto, industrialised countries committed themselves to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but they simultaneously invented a way out of those same commitments. The mechanism is simple: instead of cutting emissions at source, they would 'compensate for' emissions by implementing projects in other countries. Some of the possible projects involve forests, tree plantations and soils that would allegedly act as 'carbon sinks'. Climate negotiators have perverted the meaning of those words to create a CDM which is in fact only a Carbon Dealers' Market, through which some will economically benefit at the expense of the world's climate.

One of the main aims of some industrialised-country negotiators at the Convention on Climate Change is to have plantations accepted as carbon sinks within the so-called Clean Development Mechanism. The reasoning seems quite straightforward: while trees are growing, they take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fix the carbon in their wood. They thus act as 'carbon sinks' and therefore help to counter climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Everything looks logical but, when seriously analysed, a lot of problems arise.

The first problem is that this kind of 'carbon sink' is not aimed at supplementing measures adopted to reduce the use of fossil fuels. On the contrary, the aim is to allow industrialised countries to meet their reduction commitments without actually reducing emissions to the extent agreed upon. If, for instance, a country has made a commitment to reduce fossil fuel emissions from 100 to 90 units, then instead of reducing by 10 it could reduce by only five and plant trees to absorb the remaining five.

Secondly, a widespread trade in plantation and forest 'offsets' would block or undercut necessary and urgent measures such as energy conservation, consumption reduction, more equitable resource use, and equitable development and sharing of clean, renewable and low-impact sources of energy.

Problem, not solution

The above shows that 'carbon sink' plantations are not a solution to the real problem, which is the continued use of carbon reservoirs - coal, oil and natural gas - that is at the root of the current climatic crisis. At the same time, plantations are a problem in themselves. Large-scale tree plantations are commonly a direct cause of deforestation, usurp needed agricultural lands, replace valuable native ecosystems, deplete water resources, worsen inequity in land ownership, increase poverty, lead to evictions of local peoples, and undermine local stewardship practices needed for forest conservation. This means that before they become a 'carbon sink' they in fact cause 'carbon leakage' (to use the climate negotiators' obscure language). That is, carbon that was safely stored in forests is released through deforestation. The carbon balance is thus negative, because most forests store much more carbon per hectare than any plantation. It is clear that deforestation contributes to climate change through the release of carbon in the forest biomass. Thus, forest conservation and rehabilitation activities need to be promoted both to conserve carbon - in the case of primary forests - and to absorb it - in the case of secondary forests allowed to re-grow.

The inclusion of forests in the Clean Development Mechanism is a difficult issue, as anyone willing to pay for a 'carbon forest' service will be continuing carbon dioxide emissions elsewhere. They will also be supporting the extraction of fossil fuels elsewhere. In both cases there will be affected communities. Among them might be a community in another country living near the polluting industry buying the carbon credits from the forest community. Or there might be an indigenous community - in a third country - affected by oil extraction in its territory. For these two communities affected 'long distance' by the carbon project, carbon forestry projects could well be a 'lose-lose' proposition.

Finally, for the indigenous peoples - as they declared in the First International Forum of Indigenous Peoples on Climate Change (Lyon, France, 4-6 September 2000) - 'sinks in the CDM would constitute a world-wide strategy for expropriating our lands and territories and violating our fundamental rights that would culminate in a new form of colonialism'. They therefore state that this type of sinks 'pose[s] the threat of invasion and loss of our land and territories by establishing new regimes for protected areas and privatisation.'

It is clear that 'carbon sinks' are not the solution but will bring more problems, without solving the root cause of the problem. Like it or not, the industrialised countries - which are responsible for the climatic tragedy that is occurring - have a great problem to solve and that is the reduction of emissions and the transition to clean, renewable and low-impact energy sources. Only then could a solution to safeguard the future of the Earth and its inhabitants become possible.