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The sexual abuse case rocking the carbon offsetting industry

November 21, 2023
topic:Human Rights
tags:#Kenya, #carbon credits, #carbon offset, #sexual abuse, #Survival International, #indigenous people
located:Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo
by:Cyril Zenda
Hidden scandals at Kenya's flagship carbon offset project cast a shadow over the entire sector, prompting questions about its commitment to safeguarding human rights.

"It’s so cruel… our sisters are just not safe working at that company."

This is how one unnamed male employee of Wildlife Works Carbon (WWC), a US-headquartered carbon credits developer that runs the Kasigau Corridor REDD+ Project (Kasigau) - a carbon offsetting forest and wildlife conservation programme in southeast Kenya, summed up conditions at his workplace. 

"I can’t allow my sister or wife to work at that company because the things that will happen to her there can affect her for the rest of her life."

The worker revealed this during in an investigation led by the Amsterdam-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), a global public good organisation, and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC). The investigation has unearthed systematic sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation of women by senior male staff at the celebrated carbon off-set project.

"[We] live and work in fear… because we can be dismissed at any time without good reason," one female employee told the investigation as she explained the risk they face daily for rejecting sexual advances by senior male workers.

Heavy Dossier Of Sexual Abuse

SOMO and KHRC have recently released a report titled "Offsetting Human Rights… sexual abuse and harassment at the Kasigau Corridor REDD+ Project in Kenya." The report unveils a collection of evidence documenting sexual abuse of women at the project, drawing from testimonies provided by 31 current and former employees, along with members of the local community.

The sexual abuses reported at WWCs’ Kasigau project include physical assault and attempted rape on company premises or land, as well as persistent harassment and the use of humiliating sexualised slurs.

The investigation shows that senior men in the company used their positions of power to demand sex in return for promotions and better treatment at work. Refusal of these sexual demands was met with retribution, including bullying, intimidation and the denial of promotions or other work-related benefits.

One employee testified that, "Women are treated as sex objects but nothing happens because [the perpetrators] intimidate everybody."

The culture of abuse at the Kasigau project was widely recognised by both women and men who were, and interviewees repeatedly named the key perpetrators of the abuse. According to the investigation, the abuse has persisted for a decade or more.

'Compelling Evidence Of Abuse'

SOMO director Audrey Gaughran said their investigation found compelling evidence that the culture at WWC’s Kasigau project is one that has enabled sexual abuse to become commonplace and common knowledge.

"Again and again we heard harrowing accounts of assault, abuse, intimidation, and degradation of women by men in positions of power at Wildlife Works' Kasigau project," Gaughran said in the report.

The investigation established that female employees were not the only targets. The wives of male rangers were also reportedly pursued by one perpetrator and blackmailed that their husbands' continued employment depended on them having sex with him.

The report established that poverty in the region and very limited employment alternatives mean people are desperate to obtain and keep jobs at Wildlife Works, even when the cost is so egregious.

Located in Taita Taveta County in southeastern Kenya, Kasigau is home to roughly 360,000 people, mostly subsistence farmers engaged in cultivating crops like maize, green peas and cassava, while also tending to livestock such as goats, sheep and donkeys.

Humiliating And Degrading Treatment Of Female Community Members

The investigation concluded that abuse of power by senior male staff also extended to the local community. SOMO and KHRC received testimony from women living in the villages surrounding this project about encounters with WWC rangers that left them traumatised, humiliated and, in some cases, in physical pain.

Rangers allegedly subjected women found gathering firewood or grazing their livestock on company land to humiliation and abuse, forcing them to kneel on the ground for three hours or longer.

"We cried and cried," one woman told the investigators, "but there was no mercy."

Kenya Human Rights Commission programme manager Mary Kambo said in the report, "We are calling on the Kenyan government to conduct an independent investigation into the serious allegations of sexual abuse at Kasigau.

"As a bare minimum victims must get redress, perpetrators must be held to account and safeguards be put in place to protect the human rights of Wildlife Works’ employees and the local communities."

Probe Prompts Action

After being made aware of the SOMO/KHRC investigation, both WWC and Verra, the global carbon credits verifier, issued statements responding to the allegations.

In its statement, WWC founder and president Mike Korchinsky said that although an investigation by a third party in the sexual abuse allegations "found many of the allegations were not substantiated," they had suspended three staff members over the issue.

"We identified that two individuals had engaged in deeply inappropriate and harmful behaviour for which we have zero tolerance. This was heart-breaking for me to learn, and should never have happened. I am deeply sorry for the pain that has been caused."

Korchinsky added that the firm was already acting on the allegations.

"Upon learning about these allegations perpetrated by senior male staff members of Wildlife Works, we took immediate action and commissioned an extensive third-party investigation by an independent firm of Kenyan legal experts in sexual harassment and discrimination whose investigators are trained in gender-based violence.

"We also suspended the two named staff members and an additional staff member we were able to identify pending the outcome of this investigation."

In 2018, US-based group Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) also accused a WWC project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) of harming local communities and failing to protect forests.

On its part, the already embattled Verra said it was suspending the sale of credits from the Kasigau Corridor project while also launching an investigation into these allegations.

"Verra is taking immediate action," the self-styled credits certifier said in a statement. "The project and any further credit issuances will remain on hold until Verra completes the investigation. We are grateful for the important work of these organizations in bringing these allegations to light."

In March this year, Verra also suspended the sale of credits from another Kenyan offset project after a damning report by Survival International exposed major flaws in the Northern Kenya Grassland Carbon Project, a carbon credits scheme run by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) on land inhabited by more than 100,000 Indigenous Samburu, Borana and Rendille people.

A Compromised Investigation 

SOMO’s Gaughran said the problem with the WWC probe was that it was an internal investigation led by a private legal firm, which did not make it satisfy the requirements of an independent investigation. 

"It is vital that the investigation into sexual abuse at Wildlife Works’ Kasigau project be fully independent, compliant with human rights standards, and that it leads to accountability and remedy for all those affected."

In the aftermath of the statements by WWC and Verra, SOMO responded with a statement in which it observed "with deep regret" that neither WWC nor Verra are speaking about providing support and remedy to the women and families who have been affected by sexual abuse and harassment. 

"The abuses we uncovered date back a decade or more," the statement reads. "While it is important that Verra has taken action, the serious allegations of abuse, which Verra will now investigate, were not picked up by Verra or the audit process that is integral to its carbon offsetting system.

"This raises serious questions about the auditing and accreditation system that underpins the carbon offsetting industry that has enabled such abuses to go unchecked for so many years."

'A Deceptive Business'

Many governments, environmental NGOs and companies believe in the potential of carbon credits to mitigate climate change, generate income and solve problems like rapid deforestation.

Carbon markets were among the key focuses at the inaugural Africa Climate Summit held in Kenya this September, where President William Ruto described African carbon sinks as an unparalleled economic goldmine." The voluntary carbon market quadrupled in size to reach USD 2 billion in 2021, and is predicted to be worth up to USD 50 billion by 2030.

Carbon credit schemes operate by initiating projects that either diminish carbon emissions or capture them from the atmosphere. These avoided emissions can then be converted into internationally tradable carbon credits.

On paper, these arrangements lead to a win-win situation in that they supposedly allow local communities and governments to generate income for conservation projects while companies get to "offset" their carbon footprints by investing in these environmental schemes. 

Scrutiny of carbon credit schemes by major environmental groups, academics and the global media have exposed fundamental flaws in these programmes, positing that they offer a false solution to climate change. While experts are increasingly sceptical that carbon offsetting schemes will benefit the climate and communities, their potential to generate profits for investors are less in doubt.

The Kasigau Corridor constituted the very first REDD+ project in Kenya. REDD+ is short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing countries. Verra approved its first phase in 2011. Since then, dozens of corporations and development actors, including Microsoft, Shell, the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank and the European Investment Bank have bought Kasigau-based carbon credits from Wildlife Works to offset their emissions.

Kasigau’s credits have been passed off as 'high quality,' due to its branding as a community-centred initiative that "protect[s] nature by empowering people" through jobs and - to use industry jargon – 'community benefits,' such as school bursaries, water tanks and women’s rights workshops.

A bevy of multinational corporations have now purchased carbon offsets from Kasigau. These include banks such as Barclays and BNP Paribas and consultancy firms such as McKinsey & Company.

Within the fashion industry, Kering, the French owner of Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, have all purchased Kasigau’s carbon credits. Other companies that have invested in or bought Kasigau-based credits include Audi and Netflix.

Gaughran said the carbon offset industry is significantly driven by the demand created by these big multinationals.

"Carbon offsetting is a deceptive business that profits from commodifying nature and communities. It enables corporations to greenwash and avoid real emission reductions," she said. 

A Delicate Balancing Act Between Rights And Profits

Asked by FairPlanet if it is possible to strike a balance between the protection of human rights and the pursuit of profit, particularly in the context of most carbon offset projects, Lindsay Otis Nilles, a policy expert (Global Carbon Markets) at Carbon Market Watch, said that while this balance may be achievable in theory, it often falls short in practice.

"In theory, a balance should be possible because there are already safeguards in place to prevent these kinds of abuses," Otis Nilles told FairPlanet. "As we see in practice, however, this is not necessarily the case, and striking this kind of balance is difficult to do." 

She said this point is illustrated by the concerning findings of various investigations into VCM projects.

A report looking into REDD+ projects provides one example. "Safeguards implemented by Verra are weak, do not protect communities from harm, and are not properly upheld by the validation and verification bodies (VVBs)," it states. "The study highlights several cases where VVBs blatantly ignored negative effects and simply rubber stamped projects."

Nilles added that a review conducted on behalf of Carbon Market Watch found that only one standard body, Gold Standard, provides appropriate recourse to file grievances to communities affected by climate projects.

"The remaining assessed standards have inadequate or non-existent grievance mechanisms. This situation leaves local communities and indigenous peoples vulnerable and infringes on their access to justice," the report concluded.

Lasse Leipola, a climate policy specialist at FinnWatch, told FairPlanet: "I would say it is possible to balance human rights and profits, but this poses a clear challenge that needs to be addressed by all the actors involved including government and buyers."

"I would also like to emphasise that respecting human rights does not have to be at odds with making profits," Leipola wrote to FairPlanet.

"When the safeguards are required by the auditors and buyers, it should no longer be possible to cut corners and make bigger profits by neglecting negative impacts of the projects. I am quite confident that if carbon market actors can put in place credible mechanisms to address these issues, the buyers are also willing to pay more."

African Governments come Under Pressure From Investors

Asked if African countries can resist pressure from foreign investors as to insist on human rights, Otis Nilles referenced Zimbabwe as a case in point.

"What I can say is that Zimbabwe’s recent decision to drop its ambitious plan to require project developers to give 25 per cent of profits to IPLCs (Indigenous peoples and local communities) could be used as an example to show that governments can (and do) succumb to pressure if faced with a decision between making investors happy versus protecting the rights of IPLCs.

"Zimbabwe appears to have admitted that they did this to remain competitive to the right investors. FinnWatch’s Leipola admitted that African and other Global South countries might not be able to resist undue pressure from investors."

"Currently there is such a risk," Leipola wrote. "I would hope that as the problems in the current projects are being brought to public attention, the buyers would become more mindful of what they are buying. And the possibility of such a shift in demand is something that African countries should take into consideration," he concluded. "There has been a demand for cheap low quality carbon credits, but that may not be the case in the future."

Image by abolova.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Kenya Democratic Republic of the Congo
Embed from Getty Images
“I can’t allow my sister or wife to work at that company because the things that will happen to her there can affect her for the rest of her life.”
Embed from Getty Images
SOMO and KHRC's investigation has unearthed systematic sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation of women by senior male staff at the celebrated carbon off-set project.
“In theory, a balance should be possible because there are already safeguards in place to prevent these kinds of abuses.” Lindsay Otis Nilles, a policy expert (Global Carbon Markets) at Carbon Market Watch.
“In theory, a balance should be possible because there are already safeguards in place to prevent these kinds of abuses.” Lindsay Otis Nilles, a policy expert (Global Carbon Markets) at Carbon Market Watch.
Lasse Leipola, a climate policy specialist at FinnWatch.
Lasse Leipola, a climate policy specialist at FinnWatch.