In Nicaragua, Poor Farmers Boost Their Income By Planting Trees To Soak Up CO2

How a nonprofit is making carbon offset programs effective on the ground.

About 10 years ago, Kahlil Baker had a good idea. He would pay farmers with spare land to plant trees. The trees would soak up carbon dioxide and, in return, he could claim “carbon credits” based on the greenhouse gas reductions.


Initially, though, he struggled. The smallholder farmers he spoke to in Nicaragua were suspicious because the pay-back period was not immediate, and they would have to do planting and growing before getting paid.

“If you build a well, people understand–there’s the well. If you plant trees and say people are going to make money over 10 years, they’re more [suspicious]. It’s like ‘you’re going to get me to work and pay me back next year?’,” he says.

The farmers did come around eventually, and the project, called CommuniTree, is now well established. One farmer became two, became ten, and now there are 450 families with trees on their lands, all soaking up climate pollution.

“We can’t expect people in poorer countries to plant trees for the sake of it. It’s got to improve their livelihoods. But until people actually see the money in their hands, it’s hard to convince them,” Baker says.

CommuniTree, from a Montreal group called Taking Root, is one of six finalists in this year’s Fuller Challenge, organized by the Buckminster Fuller Institute. Others include this rain-harvesting school in Kenya and this cellphone service that prevents ethnic violence.

Taking Root looks to exploit land that farmers aren’t using fully. Baker says smallholders in Nicaragua will grow beans and corn in one area, but let the rest go to livestock pasture. CommuniTree uses satellite mapping and on-the-ground analysis to identify pasture land that’s unlikely to be needed for other crops, so it’s not taking food away from anyone.


Baker says farmers typically make about $2,000 back from their plantings over a ten-year period–which doesn’t sound like much, except most of the farmers typically earn only $2 a day. He claims a boost in household incomes of up to 20%.

Carbon credits work on the principle that, if you want to sequester CO2, it’s cheaper to plant trees in Nicaragua than, say, refit a power plant in Minneapolis. Some find the idea distasteful, though, as credits are bought by companies in advanced countries allowing them to continue polluting. But Baker argues that’s a silly argument. Credit programs put a price on carbon dioxide and incentivize polluters to find cheaper, cleaner ways of doing business, he says (so they don’t have to keep buying credits).

“I feel it’s unfair this industry gets picked on,” Baker says. “When someone donates money for poor children, they don’t ask if you’re paying off your guilt because society has inequality. It’s a similar thing with this.”

Baker hopes to expand CommuniTree beyond its start in Central America. And he’s now working with Catholic Relief Services, a major charity, which is interested in adding the idea to its development toolkit. Meanwhile, Taking Root also wants to develop a marketplace for goods produced from the trees.

“We grow trees as part of an economic system. It’s important there’s a long-term source of revenue, as well as a short term source,” he says.

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[All Photos: via CommuniTree]


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.