Feasibility of a community-driven carbon credit project in the Philippines: what it takes, how it’s done

April 2, 2024

For three months, Wovoka had been all hands on deck in conducting a feasibility study for a restoration project spanning approximately 3,000 hectares in Camarines Norte, Philippines. This project is based on the tenurial instruments of four People’s Organizations (POs), each holding individual lease contracts with the government. 

This article narrates the Wovoka team’s experience while spearheading a consortium-based carbon credit project in the Philippines. We wrote this article to get the attention of project developers working on restoration projects in the Philippines and policymakers who are at the formative stages of crafting a regulatory framework for carbon credit initiatives. 

Keep reading to learn about Wovoka’s community-driven approach, what it takes, how we do it, and why.

About Camarines Norte

Our partner People's Organizations (POs) are groups of farmers in the Camarines Norte province in the Bicol region with upland and coastal lands that are reforestable.

For context, Camarines Norte is a coastal province located on the eastern side of Luzon. Travel from Metro Manila to Camarines Norte takes roughly 10 hours by road or 1.5 hours by air, with our team based in the capital. We liaise with PO leaders via a Facebook Messenger group chat, coordinating site visits and scheduling virtual meetings.

Like many areas in the Philippines, Camarines Norte faces challenges with internet connectivity, complicating communications, and the use of digital tools like Zoom or Google Meet for online gatherings among PO members.

Mapping activity with the POs

Mapping the project site is a major component of the feasibility study. This allows for identifying land cover and specific plantable sites within the area. A significant hurdle the team had to overcome was conveying technical information to PO members, who vary in their understanding of the subject, through virtual meetings. Our primary concern with this setup is the risk of losing crucial information in the process. 

Wovoka's Head of Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) shared how he took extra steps to ensure that the PO members have a clear understanding of the task. “We devoted extra time talking with POs using the local language, even if it meant talking to them one by one and repeating the same instructions. We also conducted an in-person mapping activity to gather specific information from the POs during site visits.”

The Wovoka team and the partner PO members during a joint geotagging activity

Geotagging activity

Collecting geotagged images in the field is also another major part of the mapping process. These images would serve as sample datasets for an AI-based algorithm that would create an automated classification of satellite maps and, ultimately identify the plantable sites for the whole project.

Based on our interview with the PO leaders, each of our partner POs faced challenges, including a lack of mobile devices and familiarity with geotagging apps and map reading. 

One of our recent MRV solutions was setting up a data collection tool using free software that can be used by the POs even without the internet. This solution was more user-friendly and immediately addressed connectivity issues.

Process Lead Joshua Chua teaching CAMADA President Ramil Raviz how to use the new data collection software for geotagging in the field even without the internet.

Regulatory compliance

No carbon credit project can start without established land rights. A key legal requirement that we needed to secure before starting the project was the tenurial instrument, which ensures that our partner PO has the authority to implement changes in land use or forestry practices, leading to carbon credit generation. 

Securing land tenure for the POs

In the case of the Philippines, this is the Community-Based Forest Management Agreement, or CBFMA, issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which grants a 25-year lease to the POs and renewable for another 25 years. 

The process of securing land tenure requires PO members to deal with government bureaucracy. This involves frequent travel to various government offices that is both time-consuming and costly and also results in lost income as members have to take time away from their usual jobs. 

Ginny Tiongson, Director of Biodiversity and Community Development, spearheaded efforts to streamline the renewal process.  “The main challenge was gathering all the necessary documents from DENR since each one also has pre-requisite documents that can only be granted by other government agencies.”

With no centralized repository for documents, physical legwork was necessary to ensure that our papers were moving. To expedite the process, Wovoka hired a local focal person early this year to assist the POs in procuring documents.

“At the end of the day, it all boils down to the willingness to exhaust all options and channels available to us to make the process pick up the pace,” Tiongson shared.

Along the way, we learned the value of being proactive and gained a better appreciation of having a good working relationship with government offices at all levels to ensure timely and continuous progress in the long process of regulatory compliance.

The Wovoka team met with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Region 5 and the Forest Management Bureau to discuss the issue of tenure.

Complete transparency with our partner communities

Since we are working with the community, one of the most critical aspects of the project was ensuring that the POs clearly understood the project's objectives and risks, given that the project was in the feasibility stage and there was potential non-continuation due to factors beyond our control.

The concepts of carbon credits and the voluntary carbon market were new to everyone involved. We made it a point to simplify these concepts during site visits by developing infographic materials using the local language to make these concepts more accessible.

Transparency is paramount. We believe that our team's presence in the Philippines and shared cultural background with the community made it easier to communicate and build trust with our partners. 

We kept open lines of communication, shared all documentation materials from the project financier, and shared honest projections of the reforestable area and what the realistic income might be. 

As a result, out of the nine POs that we reached out to, we went forward with only four, which goes to show how these decisions and projects are not easy to make for a community if done seriously. 

Next steps

Since the implementation of carbon credit projects in the country is still in the early stages, there are no robust regulations in place yet to ensure compliance with international standards.

For example, one of Verra’s new requirements is having an extended permanence monitoring of at least 40 years for carbon credit projects, which presents a challenge to POs who have fewer years left in their tenure. Wovoka is actively collaborating with the Forest Management Bureau to plan the next steps in our regulatory compliance. 

Being at this stage of the development of the carbon credit industry in the country, we recognize the tremendous potential in store for us. We are making a huge impact by collaborating with the right government agencies and going straight to the community to introduce Wovoka and the concept of carbon credits.

Why we do what we do

Looking back, everyone always told us that carbon project development is difficult and many advised us not to pursue it, and instead to go for the SaaS or marketplace solutions — but the science is clear that project development is the core problem of this market. So we let the non-profits and international finance institutions develop sales and monitoring tools, while we focus on what matters.

The reality is that venture capital today largely overlooks the core issue of mitigating risks associated with early-stage project development. Wovoka, a small team of 9, intends to focus on this critical aspect. We invite others to do the same and share notes to ensure that we have any hope of achieving the IPCC target of more than 3 Gigatonnes of nature-based solutions.

We do not have a scalable software solution to market to investors, but our commitment to refine and implement a community-based approach in our carbon projects is how we intend to grow roots and drive the most meaningful impact. We are convinced that this strategy offers greater sustainability over the long term.

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