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The Invisible Supply-Chain of Going Climate Neutral

Carbon Offsetting, Agroforestry, and the Case of Uruguay
Image of a path running through the middle of a planation. The path is shown in the middle of the image with trees lining each side of it.
Plantation (C) Laura Maghetiu

Ever since I first read about the German government’s new Foundation Development and Climate Alliance, I was intrigued. The foundation’s aim is to connect any actor with ‘climate-neutrality’ ambitions, from firms to football clubs, with voluntary carbon offsetting brokers. Their webpage is essentially a state-funded service provider, cataloguing ‘climate-positive’ projects that the offset purchaser can freely choose according to personal preference. Click here and plant a tree has entered our cultural ductus, however, many of us (including myself at the time) are not aware of the complex market mechanisms that have evolved behind such a promise. While skimming the foundation’s catalogue, I stumbled upon ‘carbon-positive’ forest plantations in Uruguay. Since I used to work and live in the country some years ago, I knew that in the past 30 years, the Uruguayan forestry sector had expanded in unparalleled ways. This has been exacerbated by the arrival of the foreign paper pulp industry, which has up to now installed three large-scale paper pulp mills. Operating within exceptional legal frameworks and free-trade zones, the industry has highly benefitted from state support. In this sense, both carbon offsetting marketing and the expansion of agroforestry, which can be visualized as the start and the end of a carbon credit’s supply chain, are benefitting from intimate state-market entanglements. Thus, my field trip was aimed at exploring and establishing the territorialized link between the (foreignized) agroforestry sector and the internationalized carbon offsetting industry.

A lorry carrying logs on the back of it crosses a bridge over a motorway.
Camion. (c) Laura Maghetiu

Upon my arrival in Uruguay, I was expecting to investigate a single carbon offsetting project containing one large-scale forest plantation. However, through document research and semi-structured interviewing, I ended up finding 11 projects containing up to 28 plantations, while informants have confirmed that this constitutes only half of the forest cover that will soon be offset-certified. Moreover, informants have drawn my attention to a diverse range of enterprises, through which the agroforestry sector has tapped into carbon offsetting schemes: biomass plants using forestry residues and the production of ‘carbon-neutral’ meat through small on-farm forest plantations. I thus rapidly discovered that the climate-neutrality nexus plays an increasingly important role in Uruguay and that understanding the dynamics of the forestry business seems incremental to comprehend this change. To do so, I inspected various forest plantations and was even able to visit one of the large-scale paper pulp mills (see pictures). I was able to interview 5 carbon brokers, 5 paper and timber industry actors, 5 state actors, 9 civil society actors and 8 researchers. Topics included the past, present, and future of agroforestry and carbon offsetting, the (in)visibility of carbon trading and Green (state) developmentalism in Uruguay. One of my interviewees, Prof Dr Matías Carámbula of the Social Sciences Department at the public Faculty of Agronomy, ended up introducing me to relevant departmental and visiting staff and warmly invited me to participate in courses and seminars. Through his generous encouragement, I can now access a network of local researchers that encourage me in channeling my key findings towards an understanding of globalized emissions reductions politics and its materialization in Uruguay.

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