ON A SWELTERING JUNE AFTERNOON, AFRO-Colombian community leader Aureliano Cordoba led a small expedition into the tropical rainforest of the Choco a region that extends hundreds of miles along Colombia's Pacific coast. Cordoba walked the group through the jungle, pointing out how his people were already managing tens of thousands of acres of rainforest threatened by neighboring ranches and logging. The forest teemed with life; birds shrieked and insects droned while small brown cangrejos, or forest crabs, scuttled along the exposed roots of towering trees. The group paused to admire a striking yellow and black frog, one of potentially dozens of this forest's endemic inhabitants that have yet to be scientifically identified.
The Choco rainforest is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, but an alarming rate of deforestation now threatens the region's unique ecosystems as well as the traditional black and indigenous communities that have been stewards of this land for hundreds of years. In response, residents from a network of about three dozen traditional Afro-Colombian communities, collectively known as Cocomasur, are participating in an innovative conservation program that they hope will both curb deforestation and affirm their legal right to the land.
Cordoba, Cocomasur's legal representative, and the communities are working with a for-profit start-up in Medellin called Anthrotect to develop the Choco-Darien Conservation Corridor, a 30-year project whereby the Cocomasur communities will sell carbon credits on the international voluntary carbon market in exchange for preserving their forests. Their carbon-offset project is based on the United Nations' model for mitigating climate change, known as Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDO), and it is set to become one of the first projects of its kind in the world to sell credits for protecting virgin rainforest rather than replanting land that's already been deforested. The communities hope to begin selling carbon credits on the international market later this year, with average annual revenue expected to be close to $750,000, according to Anthrotect founder and director Brodie Ferguson. They plan to reinvest revenues in an array of activities to protect biodiversity, develop other environmentally sustainable businesses, and improve local governance and infrastructure.
The Cocomasur communities view the project as a rare opportunity to take control of their own economic development while protecting their forest and traditional way of life, after decades of violence and displacement.
BETWEEN 1995 AND 1998, THE MUNICIPALITY OF Acandi, where Cocomasur is located, became a flashpoint in the conflict between the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right-wing paramilitary groups battling for control of lands that were the traditional territories of indigenous and Afro-Colombians. Between a quarter and a third of Cocomasur residents fled.
As in other parts of western Colombia at the time, paramilitary organizations began acquiring Afro-descendant lands through force or by offering an attractive price to desperate people who feared the consequences of resisting. Their forests were lucrative drug- and weapon-trafficking corridors to the coasts. Once cleared, they were prime territory for profitable large-scale agriculture and cattle-ranching operations....