Beyond Carbon Credits: TIST Combines Reforestation, Health, and Livelihood Efforts

Carbon offsets have fallen in and out of favor since they were established with the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Critics say they allow wealthy organizations to placate consumers and claim their products are “green” without making any real, lasting changes. But, if the scheme works properly, some action is supposed to be taken somewhere, so what is it like at one of these credit-producing organizations?

While in Kenya for collaboration with the African Population and Health Research Center, ECSP Senior Program Associate Sandeep Bathala visited one such organization – The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program, or TIST – which is not only fulfilling carbon credits but also improving local livelihoods, farming practices, and healthcare.

Community-Level Organizing

The foundation of the TIST program is small community-based groups that support and encourage each other, sharing best-practice knowledge to help improve tree cultivation. There are 650 such groups of up to 12 members in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and India. TIST trains group members to plant trees using sustainable techniques which help improve tree survival. As the trees grow, the sequestered carbon becomes a new cash crop for them to sell on the international market.

In many of the areas TIST works, slash and burn farming techniques have depleted the soil of much of its nutrients, making it more and more difficult for subsistence farmers to eke out a living each year. Planting trees, especially those indigenous to the area, helps halt soil erosion and make other crops more fruitful. In addition to benefiting the farmers in the program, the reduced erosion helped motivate other farmers in the area when they saw the TIST farmers were losing less topsoil.

Farmers are also trained in sustainable practices for more traditional crops, including maize, millet, and groundnuts. Methods like digging holes instead of traditional plowing help reduce soil erosion and rotating crops to replace nutrients in the soil are designed to both make farms more productive and minimize damage to the environment.

The small groups are also self-maintained. Group members elect leaders on a rotational basis, and encourage best practices among farmers like careful weeding and maintenance of tree groves. Members are also trained in computers skills to help manage data independently. The groups keep track of their tree groves, monitoring the age, varieties, and quantity of trees for each given year, allowing them to accurately report how many carbon credits they have available for sale.

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