Carbon credits from award-winning Kenyan offset suspended by Verra

  • The carbon offset certifier Verra told Mongabay it had initiated a “quality control review” of the Northern Kenya Grassland Carbon Project, which claims to store carbon by managing Indigenous livestock grazing routes.
  • The project has been a darling of carbon market supporters, winning a series of awards at COP27 last year, where it was described as “exemplary” by Kenyan President William Ruto.
  • A new report by the advocacy group Survival International said the offset was altering long-standing Indigenous herding practices and couldn’t accurately account for how much carbon it was removed from the atmosphere.
  • Purchasers of carbon credits generated by the product include Netflix, Meta and NatWest.

Carbon offset certifier Verra has suspended issuance of credits from an award-winning project in Kenya, Mongabay has learned, after serious questions were raised about its validation and methodology.

Indigenous rights advocacy group Survival International released a report March 16 saying that the offset, called the Northern Kenya Grassland Carbon Project, can’t accurately count its carbon savings and is altering long-standing Indigenous livestock grazing practices.

In a statement emailed to Mongabay, the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), a Kenya-based conservation group that manages the offset, criticized the Survival International report, saying it “uses scant cherry-picked evidence to question an exceptionally complex and detailed model.”

The project, which claims to increase carbon storage in the soil of northern Kenya’s savanna grasslands by managing the grazing patterns of livestock herds, has been a darling of offset supporters since it began generating credits for carbon markets in 2021. At last year’s COP27 climate conference, it was awarded the prestigious Triple Gold distinction by the Climate, Community & Biodiversity Alliance; in his speech to conference attendees, Kenyan President William Ruto called it “exemplary.”

But Survival International’s investigation found that third-party validators hired to assess the project had raised more than 100 “findings” — a euphemism for “concerns” in the review process — before Verra ultimately decided to verify the carbon credits it generated.

An Indigenous Borana herder at the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy in northern Kenya. Biliqo Bulesa is one of the conservancies participating in the offset. Image by NRC/Raimond Duijsens via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Earlier this month, Verra vowed to rework parts of its methodology after an investigation by The Guardian found that the majority of its verified rainforest carbon credits were doing little to slow climate change. A spokesperson for Verra told Mongabay that a “quality control review” had been opened on the Kenyan project, which has already supplied tens of millions of dollars’ worth of credits to corporations like Netflix, Meta and NatWest.

“Consequences of such a review include suspension of further [verified carbon unit] issuances until the outcomes of the review are known,” said Anne Thiel, senior communications manager at Verra.

NRT calls the offset the “world’s largest soil carbon removal project,” and promises that over a 30-year period it will remove 50 million metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere — around three times Kenya’s current total yearly emissions. By managing where and when livestock like cattle and goats graze, the idea is that vegetation in NRT’s “community conservancies” will have a chance to recover rather than being overused by Indigenous herders. But Survival International says that in practice, that means setting up new management bodies inside the communities and imposing strict control over long-standing herding practices.

“It’s a very odd kind of approach of doing something that Indigenous peoples have basically always done,” said Simon Counsell, a consultant who visited Kenya’s northern rangelands to gather data for Survival International’s report. “The whole basis of additionality with this project, which is the fundamental requirement for an offset, is really up for question. What are they bringing that’s new to this area that the Indigenous peoples weren’t already doing?”

A black rhino in Northern Kenya’s grasslands. Photo by George Powell for Mongabay.

Counting sheep

The offset, geographically one of the biggest in the world, sprawls across 1.9 million hectares (4.7 million acres) of megafauna-rich savanna in a region that’s home to pastoralist groups like the Borana, Turkana and Samburu. It’s also known for its luxurious safaris, where wealthy tourists can spot black rhinos, giraffes, lions, elephants and other iconic East African species. NRT supervises 43 protected areas, called community conservancies, that are governed by an elected council of Indigenous representatives. By sheer land mass the conservancies cover nearly 10 percent of Kenya, with most located in the country’s expansive northern savanna grasslands.

In exchange for keeping wildlife and biodiversity safe in the conservancies, NRT shares a portion of tourism revenue with their Indigenous managers, funding rangers and other support staff who monitor them and keep hunters away. Thirteen conservancies are members of the offset project, which is described by its planners as a model that will be implemented elsewhere on the continent as well.

NRT says that by working with the conservancies’ leaders to design tighter grazing plans for livestock and hiring people to bring the herds further from towns than they would normally travel, soil carbon levels will increase as vegetation becomes more prevalent. In theory, this benefits the global climate by removing that carbon from the atmosphere and trapping it in the ground. In exchange for implementing the grazing plans, communities get payouts from the sale of carbon credits from the project.

NRT rangers in the Sera Community Conservancy. Image by USAID Biodiversity & Forestry via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

But Survival International says that under close scrutiny the project’s carbon storage claims start to fall apart. During Verra’s official validation of the offset, an external consultant recorded 114 issues with the project. Among them was NRT’s inability to prevent herders from taking their livestock outside the offset’s boundaries to graze — meaning that protecting foliage inside the offset doesn’t mean that it’s not being eaten in neighboring areas instead.

This type of problem is so common in carbon credit markets that it has its own term: “leakage.”

According to Survival International’s report, the potential for leakage in the offset is highlighted by what the group described as shoddy record-keeping of where the herds were at any given time. Monthly maps of grazing plans submitted by participating conservancies didn’t always line up with satellite data showing where livestock had likely been in reality. In other cases, the records of livestock movement were dramatically out of sync between neighboring communities when they should have shown the same data. In one conservancy, the number of goats recorded in January was 40,000 higher than in the map drawn up in June.

A report of grazing activity prepared by the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy in 2014, compared with satellite data of vegetation loss in the same period. Survival International says the discrepancy indicates some of the grazing maps are inaccurate and the plans aren’t being followed.

“In reality, the project doesn’t even really know where most of these cattle are a lot of the time essentially, and therefore they don’t know the amount that’s gone outside the project area or how much carbon has leaked elsewhere,” Counsell said.

Besides the difficulties in tracking livestock movements accurately, Counsell said that herd-grazing patterns are having a limited impact on the region’s vegetation when compared to the problem the offset supposedly exists to address: climate change. Kenya is in the midst of a “catastrophic” multiyear drought that’s decimating pastoralist communities, wildlife and landscapes across the country, raising concerns over whether any carbon storage gains the project achieves will even survive in the long run anyway.

“Their own reports show that for about 40% of the entire area, the grazing quality is going down,” Counsell said. “Their information shows that it’s gotten worse over a period of years, and that’s probably because of climate change. The area is desiccating and it’s getting drier and hotter there.”

People and livestock near a well.
Kenya is in the midst of a “catastrophic” multiyear drought that’s decimating pastoralist communities, wildlife and landscapes across the country. Image by ILRI/George Wamwere-Njoroge via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

NRT pushes back

In an email to Mongabay, NRT said Survival International had made a series of factual errors about how it calculated the project’s carbon savings. Leakage of livestock grazing into neighboring areas is included in those calculations, albeit through estimates, the group said, and its soil carbon storage figures are generated through advanced satellite modeling, not the self-reporting maps drawn up by the project’s community grazing councils.

“We welcome any review of the verification process as this will only work to strengthen the entire project and model,” said Tom Lalampaa, CEO of the Northern Rangelands Trust. “The project has brought incredible and tangible benefits to the environment and to the communities of northern Kenya.”

Mark Ritchie, founder of U.S.-based Soils for the Future and one of the project’s lead designers, told Mongabay in an interview that a still-unreleased soil sample analysis showed a significant increase in trapped carbon in some of the conservancies, and that the findings were set to be released after peer review. He criticized Survival International’s report for what he said was a lack of scientific rigor.

“It always bothers me quite a bit that a report can come out like this that isn’t peer-reviewed, that then is treated as if it was, and is offered credibility as if it was,” he said.

While admitting the leakage concerns were legitimate, Ritchie said there was no way to entirely prevent cattle from leaving the boundaries of the project area without fencing them off — a move that would be certain to lead to conflict inside and among the conservancies. Instead, the project builds a leakage estimate into its carbon storage projections.

“Pastoral systems are always open,” he said. “So either you have to say there’s no such thing as a carbon project in a pastoralist system, or you have to make adjustments for that.”

Theil from Verra told Mongabay that the certifier couldn’t comment directly on Survival International’s criticisms of the project until it completes its quality control review.

“Verra initially approved the project and issuance based on the information available in the monitoring report and in the Validation and Verification Body’s (VVB) verification report. Verra now has additional information that needs to be further assessed by the VVB,” Thiel wrote.

Goat herds returning home at sunset in Namunyak Conservancy.
Goat herds returning home at sunset in the Namunyak Community Conservancy, one of the 13 participating conservancies in the offset. Image by USAID/Donatella Lorch via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

A changing world for Kenyan herders

Whatever the offset’s climate benefits, Survival International says there’s another, more immediate problem with the project. For it to work, Indigenous communities in the conservancies need to agree to bring their herding practices under a new form of management, with the ultimate goal being to convert them into a monetizable carbon credit. That means that older systems of livestock management that already existed in those communities are giving way to that new system. Not everyone is pleased with the change.

“It’s already automatic that we look after our vegetation and environment so that we can keep our livestock there,” said Abdullahi Gonjobe, chairman of the Borana Council of Elders, in a phone interview with Mongabay. “It’s not something that we are supposed to be told. We are born with it, it’s Indigenous knowledge that we have.”

But NRT says the changes aren’t just good for the environment, they’re good for the communities themselves. While most of the revenue from the sale of the carbon credits either goes to the consultancy firm that markets the credits and helped set up the project, or direct operating costs for the conservancies, around a quarter of the proceeds end up in a “carbon community fund” that can be used to finance drought relief, scholarships and other local priorities.

Some researchers say those funds, and the bodies set up to administer them, can themselves be a source of division within pastoralist communities at times, though.

“With these conservancies, for communities there are pros and cons,” said Tahira Shariff, an anthropologist and researcher with PASTRES, a think tank that analyzes pastoralist livelihoods. “There are a few members of the communities who support the conservancies because of the benefits, but for the majority of the population, especially in the pastoral areas where I come from, it has brought about a lot of division because of feelings of exclusion and that only a minority is involved in decision-making.”

NRT and its technical experts say they don’t agree that the new conservancy grazing councils are a major departure from preexisting systems. The grazing plans that form the basis of the offset are collaboratively written with the community’s leaders, they say, and then implemented directly by local conservancy managers, not outsiders.

“At no time in the project have we ever told people, this is where you should go and this is how many animals you should have,” Ritchie said. “The only thing the project has ever done is say that in order to regenerate your rangeland you need the following two rules of thumb: you never graze in any one area longer than a month, and when the grass gets shorter than a certain height, you leave.”

A Samburu woman milking her goat.
A Samburu woman milking her goat in the Namunyak Community Conservancy. Image by USAID/Donatella Lorch via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Describing the changes as a radical shift from centuries-old Indigenous practices is misleading, Ritchie told Mongabay. Those practices already changed after independence, when previously nomadic communities began to build more permanent settlements in areas where they could access government services, creating new pressures on local ecosystems and leading to unsustainable grazing.

“All of the decisions about where the herders go are still totally made by the communities,” he added. “They’re not made by the project at all.”

But Shariff bristled at the idea that herders need an external intervention to help them manage a landscape that’s been their home since long before Kenya was a state at all.

“I think one major problem that pastoralists have is these assumptions and this narrative that they’ve been doing things wrongly and need to be guided the right way,” she said. “For example, the Borana pastoralists that I’ve been researching for the last four years have a very sophisticated and organized way of managing grazing patterns.”

While Indigenous groups in the region are less nomadic than they used to be, the meager presence of government services in a few areas is only part of the explanation for why they’ve stopped moving around as much as they used to. The presence of infrastructure and conservation projects surrounding them on all sides is a bigger factor, Shariff said, not lack of knowledge or care about their ecosystem.

“I really disagree with the idea that pastoralists are grazing in an unplanned manner and now they need to be governed,” she said. “Actually it will bring lots of complication and competition among them.”

There’s also a cruel irony under the surface of the offset’s relationship with the conservancies. While emissions-heavy corporations in the U.S. purchase carbon credits generated by it, allowing them to claim progress toward their net-zero climate goals, the pastoralists who produce those credits are suffering some of climate change’s most devastating impacts. This year’s drought in Kenya is so bad that President Ruto has been urged to declare it a national disaster.

“Today, due to the prolonged drought, the livestock has perished,” said Gonjobe, the Borana elder. “Ninety percent of our livestock is gone. We are poor now.”

In the long run, the question of whether Netflix can confidently tell its customers that some of the emissions caused by their weekend streaming binge are being cleansed by Kenya’s soil may be moot — at least for those who’ve been walking on it for the past few thousand years.

“This drought is actually exacerbated by these land pressures, whereby people have to compete with development infrastructure, conservancies and farming groups,” Shariff said. “And pastoralists are dying squeezed in between them.”

Banner image: Samburu pastoralists walking with their herd in Isiolo County, Kenya. Image by ILRI Livestock CRP/ Kabir Dhanji via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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