African civil society concerns about soil carbon markets

On 13-14 September 2011, African agriculture ministers gathered in Johannesburg for a World Bank-sponsored meeting on "climate-smart" agriculture. The term "climate-smart" is controversial, as many civil society organizations and some countries have insisted that there should be a holistic and people-centred approach to agriculture, towards sophisticated agro-ecological forms of agriculture that prioritize farmers and rural livelihoods, and healthy produce, soils and ecosystems. Hence, climate change responses should be integrated along with other factors as part of an integrated approach to agriculture that supports development. Thus, agriculture should be "development-smart" rather than merely "climate-smart".

This meeting appears to be a follow-up to the Hague Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change, held from 31 October – 5 November 2010. More than 100 civil society organizations had signed on to an open letter expressing serious concerns about that meeting. (See TWN Information Service on Sustainable Agriculture, 1 Nov 2010: Civil Society Statement of Concern on the Hague Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change (October 31 – November 5)).

At the Hague meeting, a "Roadmap for Action" was produced as a Chair's Summary. Third World Network produced a number of briefing papers for that meeting on 'Ecological Agriculture is Development-Smart' and 'Agriculture is not a Carbon Commodity'. These briefing papers can be accessed at:

Among the agenda items for discussion at this Ministerial in Johannesburg is 'Financing for Climate-Smart Agriculture'. This could potentially be used to turn Africa's soil carbon into a commodity for trading in the carbon market – expanding the land grab into a soil grab. Civil society has been concerned by these moves, because the push for soil carbon markets is unlikely to benefit African farmers and is instead a dangerous diversion from the urgent adaptation needs of African agriculture. It also diverts focus away from changing unsustainable production methods and consumption patterns in developed countries, and instead would exploit Africa's soil carbon to meet developed countries' emission reduction obligations. 

The Johannesburg agenda specifies that a Communique on 'The Road to Durban and beyond' will be developed, preceded by a Dialogue on 'Agriculture and UNFCCC'. It is notable that at the very same time, Environment Ministers will be meeting in Bamako, Mali at the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) to discuss and adopt the African common position for the UNFCCC COP 17 in Durban, which includes climate change and agriculture. 

Concerned civil society groups with a presence in Africa have sent the letter below, addressed to African agriculture ministers, rejecting soil carbon markets and calling for public adaptation funding instead.

With best wishes,

Lim Li Ching

Third World Network

131 Jalan Macalister

10400 Penang



To: The Agriculture Minister

Dear Minister,

African countries face significant challenges ahead due to changing climate, brought about by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. Crop yields are expected to fall significantly because of climate change and the already frequent droughts will be intensified by higher temperatures.

Developed countries are legally obligated under Article 4.4 of the UNFCCC to provide financing for the adaptation efforts of developing countries. Unfortunately, one of the few financing options gaining momentum, which has been put forward thus far by some developed countries and the institutions such as the World Bank, is to turn Africa’s soil carbon into a commodity that can be sold to speculators. In other words, instead of providing the public funds to meet their clear obligations, developed countries want to enlist Africa’s farmers to mitigate developed country emissions in order to earn financial support for their adaptation needs.

However, there is a strong possibility that markets will not even be interested in such soil carbon credits, due to significant technical problems in proving that soil carbon sequestration really works. Soil carbon credits aren’t yet on any “compliance market,” meaning that the credits are only accepted on the much smaller “voluntary market”, and then only at a substantial discount from other kinds of carbon credits. The World Bank’s calculations of potential benefits assume that these problems can be resolved, but no solution has been offered.

Additionally, the transaction costs for soil carbon projects are extremely high: the developer of the first, and only, World Bank soil carbon project warns that farmers should not expect payments because all the monies earned will go toward project management and technical support. In fact, the money earned from the carbon market is not even expected to cover the full costs of the project – the Swedish aid agency is expected to make up the difference. Under a best‐case scenario, the typical African farmer with less than four hectares could expect to earn no more than five dollars (US$5) per year from soil carbon mechanisms.

Perhaps most importantly, the emphasis on capturing carbon in soils will force African governments and African farmers to shift their priorities away from the very serious adaptation challenges the continent faces in order to, in effect, help individuals and corporations in the developed countries meet their mitigation targets instead, by providing offsets. Developing systems for the monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of soil carbon will not help smallholder farmers and herders in Africa; the main beneficiaries will be governments and companies in North America and Europe. Creating the complex infrastructure for soil carbon mechanisms is a dangerous diversion from the adaptation needs of African agriculture.

Let us be clear: we strongly support the agro‐ecological practices that may also lead to an increase in soil carbon – not because they would earn money on new financial markets, but because they make good economic and environmental sense for Africa, and contribute to resilience against climate change. We support innovative sources of public finance – sources such as levies in the shipping and aviation sector, a tiny fee on financial transactions, or use of IMF special drawing rights – to support wider use of such techniques. We are very concerned that the African governments might be putting their hopes in a mirage – an unproven market that likely will not function. Rather than submitting to a convoluted, unlikely market mechanism, African governments should forthrightly demand what is theirs: funding for adaptation that will provide sustainable futures for African farmers, African herders, and African consumers.

We encourage you to reject any deal to set up soil carbon markets and make a strong statement for public adaptation funding in all upcoming fora – the AMCEN meeting in Bamako, the ministerial conference in Pretoria, and at the Durban COP in December.


1.                  ActionAid International

2.                  African Centre for Biosafety

3.                  Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC)

4.                  Bodjrenou Nature Tropicale ONG, Membre de l’IUCN

5.                  Centre for Civil Society Climate Justice Project, University of KwaZulu‐Natal, Durban, South Africa

6.                  Citizens for Justice‐(CFJ) Friends of the Earth, Malawi

7.                  Climate Network Africa

8.                  Coalition to Protect African Genetic Heritage.

9.                  Earthlife Africa Cape Town

10.              Espoir Pour Tous, DRCongo

11.              Ethiopian Society for Consumer Protection (ETHIOSCOP)

12.              Fédérationdes Agriculteurs et Eleveurs du Rwanda (IMBARAGA)

13.              FERN

14.              Friends of the Earth, Ghana

15.              Friends of the Earth, Mauritius

16.              Friends of the Earth, Moçambique

17.              Institute for Sustainable Development, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

- Winner of the 2011 Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development

18.              Institute for Zero Waste in Africa

19.              Jubilee South Africa

20.              Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre

21.              Kenya Debt Relief Network (KENDREN)

22.              Land Access Movement of SouthAfrica (LAMOSA)

23.              La Via Campesina

24.              Maendeleo Endelevu Action Program

25.              National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE)

26.              NGO Les Amisdela Terre‐Togo

27.              Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA)

28.              PELUM‐Kenya

29.              Sudanese Environment Conservation Society (SECS), Sudan

30.              Third World Network

31.              Women on Farms Project