Two community scouts on patrol in Yaeda. (Photo courtesy of Carbon Tanzania)

The forest in Yaeda Valley, northern Tanzania, feels old—very old. It is here that, twice a year, Hadzabe community members gather for a special meeting that affects them all. During this meeting, they decide how to spend their hard-earned carbon credit income. We are not talking about some elusive, intangible concept of metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions, but rather about the equivalent of thousands of US dollars. Most recently, the community decided to contribute some of this income to community funds dedicated to education, and some of it to a health insurance plan, to ensure greater access to school and health care for its members. The income also creates employment, providing wages for the walinzi wajadi (community scouts) who patrol the ancient forest that the Hadzabe have called home for thousands of years.

In a recent article, Gautam Shah powerfully argued that “Business model innovation is what we really need to eliminate the dependency on limited funding for large-scale implementations of technology and other programs for conservation.” We could not agree more, and this is what we have been working toward with communities such as the Hadzabe. Two of us are conservation biologists, and we founded Carbon Tanzania, an innovative conservation organization with a primary focus on providing unique skills, knowledge, and interventions that lead to the production and market delivery of forest-based carbon offsets. Central to this conservation approach is a fundamental respect for local community land rights. Using community customary rights of occupancy (CCROs), a form of land ownership under the Tanzanian Land Act, we and our partners at Ujamaa Community Resource Team have enabled communities to own their land. That ownership gives them the most powerful motive imaginable to conserve the immediate environment on which their way of life depends, and it simultaneously affords them increased options for how they can manage and gain income from protecting that land.

It also does the world at large a huge favor. Consider this: Deforestation currently accounts for about 10 percent of annual emissions—almost as much as the total annual output of all cars and trucks on the planet. Protecting forests could prevent these emissions entirely and further account for 2 percent of other global emissions through carbon sequestration.

The concern with this business model is that carbon credits are much maligned by the public as a failed global system that gives big corporations a license to pollute. Despite the market-based nature of our approach—and the massive environmental value it offers us all—our carbon credit sales efforts currently face a challenge in attracting a broad range of buyers, and thus falls short of Shah’s model of market-based conservation in one main way. Shah calls for solutions that:

  1. Sell a product or service that the public values and will buy.
  2. Generate revenue directly investible in conservation outcomes.
  3. Don’t have a negative impact on the environment.
  4. Don’t rely on donations or grants.

Our work checks three out of Shah’s four boxes, namely 2, 3, and 4. The revenues from our sales of voluntary carbon credits are going directly toward conservation, not as a donation, but as earned revenue feeding the business model. Our solution has an undeniable, evidenced positive impact on the environment, and we are increasingly relying on earned income and investments from impact investors such as Hooge Raedt Social Venture from the Netherlands, not on grants and donations. We and others, however, struggle with point number 1—ensuring that a significant swath of the public will actually buy our product.

To sell conservation, as Shah writes, organizations often turn to shocking but hackneyed “photographs of stranded polar bears, emaciated orangutans, or mutilated elephants,” But this strategy represents a profound oversimplification of reality. Endangered animals need functioning ecosystems to live alongside humans in landscapes like those protected by the Hadzabe in Yaeda. As ecosystems and traditional human populations disappear, so do the animals.

A marketers’ perspective might suggest that we pivot, and sell a product that customers care about and will pay to support, such as the chance to save an emaciated orangutan or mutilated elephant. But what if the customer is wrong? We believe it’s true beyond doubt that the Hadzabe of Yaeda are already selling an intrinsically valuable service and product that’s important to us all. How then can we convince potential consumers of that?

An important signal that may eventually influence consumers to this end came on April 22nd this year, when 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement, recognizing that “Climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies,” and acknowledging that “All parties should take action to address climate change and respect, promote and consider the rights of indigenous people and local communities.” (One of us, Marc Baker, was at the conference that formulated this agreement in December 2015, where he talked about what Carbon Tanzania has achieved over the last five years and how reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, or REDD-plus, provides an excellent model for combating climate change, providing jobs, and supporting community land rights.)  

In many ways, reflecting on the principles behind the recently launched Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement also calls for a collaborative approach, bringing the private sector, international partners, and governments into a public-private partnership to better protect the world’s ecosystems. That framework means companies can invest in forest protection using verified emission reductions generated by programs such as the ones that Carbon Tanzania has been developing. The agreement also ensures that under the Warsaw Framework, an explanatory document that lays out the mechanisms by which greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved, REDD-plus will comply with what Amazon Forest Policy’s Chris Meyer and researcher Dana Miller describe as “market-based measures such as those being implemented and created by California and the International Civil Aviation Organization.”

The world has said yes to REDD-plus. The Paris Agreement is a call to businesses, institutions, and government to work in partnership to better protect the world’s forests. Tanzania is in a strong position to fulfill this global agreement by engaging with current and future investments in forest conservation, and by creating a broad public-private partnership that incorporates existing initiatives to improve forest management. Carbon Tanzania has already paid more than $100,000 in results-based payments to Hadzabe communities in the Yaeda Valley because businesses and individuals bought their verified carbon credits.

We have the projects on the ground, the global agreements have been signed, and the mechanisms for results-based conservation are in place. Perhaps all we need now is for the wider global community to acknowledge that it is time to focus on using market-based payments to conserve ecosystems and landscapes, and not just the elephants that depend on them.