Statement on the SRF Investigativ report

The SRF Investigativ research team has published a detailed report on the myclimate project “Community Reforestation in Nicaragua”. It was also recorded on other SRF formats such as Radio-Nachrichten and 10vor10 (scheduled for Thursday, 24 August). myclimate explicitly objects to the allegations made in the report, which raise doubts about the treatment and acceptance of the participating farmers as well as about the environmental integrity of the project.

The report “Zu wenig Geld: Bauern kritisieren Schweizer Klima-Projekt” (Too Little Money: Farmers Criticise the Swiss Climate Project) is the result of a long process: the two journalists responsible made initial contact with myclimate in autumn 2022. Since then, myclimate and its project partner Taking Root have done everything possible within their own framework to support the research. For example, we organised a project visit, but it did not take place because the journalists could not enter the country. The journalists also selected the project in question themselves, and myclimate gave them free rein when it came to selecting the project. myclimate also answered all questions in detail, gave interviews and shared project data and documents (such as contracts with participating farmers).

Evaluation of the report from the perspective of myclimate:

The article was written according to journalistic standards, but is very one-sided in its accusations and implicit criticism. myclimate explicitly disagrees with the allegations and points of critique conveyed in the report.

Together with our project partner Taking Root, we firmly reject the allegation of a suggested widespread dissatisfaction or unfair treatment of the participating small farmers. The project involves thousands of families and owes its success not least to word-of-mouth publicity on the ground. We believe it is dishonest to add the statements of fewer than ten farmers who have also left the project as a reference for dissatisfaction.  

We also strongly object to the implied statement that the project is not as effective as communicated by myclimate and Taking Root and regularly verified by the Plan Vivo Standard. The method used by SRF does not allow for any conclusions to be drawn about biomass growth and does not stand up to the on-site measurements carried out annually by Taking Root. This was also explicitly confirmed by the ETH researchers who conducted the study for SRF.

Nor do we understand doubts about insufficient proximity or control over the project or poor communication. Based on the latest IPCC report, we remain firmly convinced that effective global climate protection must go hand in hand with a change in land use in general, towards more intact and protected (forest) ecosystems.

As set out in this statement, we are able to refute all the criticisms listed based on facts. We will do this in a condensed way, point by point. The individual sections can be accessed directly via the links below. On request, myclimate will be happy to share a long version with further data, facts and arguments.

Carte blanche for climate change deniers – damage to the climate, pioneers and the local population

In conclusion, we very much regret that this “investigative” report, which involved a great deal of effort on both sides, casts doubt on a climate protection project that has been extremely successful for more than ten years and, therefore, further confuses people with regard to climate protection. This is the result of a very one-sided selection of interviewees, a methodology that seems to suggest project success monitoring from Switzerland, but is unsuitable for determining biomass growth (carbon storage), and a small-scale way of doing it.

Of course, there is potential for optimisation in every project. Taking Root is, therefore, constantly developing the project and its quality mechanisms. Due to their own obligation to compensate if a plot of land is lost, which entails financial outlay, it is in their vital interest to help participants as much as possible and to take any complaints seriously. At the same time, biomass build-up must be guaranteed in the interests of project integrity. After all, myclimate has an obligation to support effective and verifiable climate protection among its customers.

Only those companies and private individuals who have not taken up their responsibility for climate protection for years will benefit from the confusion that may be caused by what we consider to be a dubious piece of journalistic reporting. The approach of making “perfect the enemy of good” comes entirely at the expense of those who volunteer (or plan to volunteer) and, last but not least, at the expense of the climate and the population of the project countries, in this case, Nicaragua. It is regrettable that Swiss television pays little heed to myclimate’s arguments and, as a result, does not provide fair, balanced and climate-friendly reporting.

myclimate’s categorisation of the main points of criticism in the report (condensed)

The participating farmers have to contribute a lot of their own effort to the project, are not adequately compensated for it and are, therefore, critical of the project.”This allegation is based on the testimonies of nine farmers who have left (or had to leave) the project and are not in the least representative compared to the number of thousands of families taking part, which has been steadily growing for years due to word-of-mouth publicity.

The report complains that participating farmers are dissatisfied with the programme. We vehemently disagree with that. The fact is that participation is voluntary and primarily advertised by word of mouth, whereby farmers see the positive results of their colleagues and ask to participate in the programmes. In addition, many farmers who initially took part in the programme with one plot of land added additional plots in the following years. The steady growth of the programme over the past 15 years is a clear indication of the satisfaction of farmers.

The survey was conducted among a total of 11 farmers, nine of whom, according to SRF, have not or are no longer taking part in the project. It is these nine who are also critical (two of the nine are cited in the report). However, to be able to make a well-founded and reliable statement, a representative study would have to be carried out that primarily covers farmers actively involved in the project. It would be interesting to know whether the respondents – who have probably conducted a video interview with foreign journalists for the first time in their lives – have used the mechanism offered to lodge complaints.

The journalists did not ask basic questions in the report, such as how long the farmers concerned received support from the programme before they left the programme, or whether they left the programme due to poor performance, for example (which would be proof of the seriousness of the programme). It is understandable that families who have had to leave the programme express their dissatisfaction and look for reasons beyond their own responsibility. However, turning this into a point of criticism is highly questionable from a journalistic point of view.

In a project with voluntary participation and the explicit demand to invest their own time and effort, it is also perfectly normal for some participants to leave the project, sometimes even in discontent. The 200 farmers who have left the project explicitly mentioned by SRF represent a loss of land of 8%. This, in turn, represents a 92% success rate, but is an excellent figure for a nature-based solutions project with weather dependencies and thousands of participants. The fact that this is not mentioned in the article is a serious omission and gives the audience a false impression.

Participation in the project is not only purely voluntary for the families in Nicaragua, they also have the option of withdrawing from the programme at any time, without having to make any repayments to the programme. For this reason, too, there are formal complaint mechanisms to solve farmers’ problems at an early stage. This is not least in the vital interest of the organisation Taking Root, as they have to replace any plot of land lost to the project due to dissatisfied participants at their own expense.

We also find it difficult to accept the criticism and statements from ethnologist Birgit Müller. Unfortunately, we cannot trace whether Ms Müller had contact with farmers who actually took part in the project. This does not seem plausible, as the Plan Vivo Standard clearly defines or expressly excludes farmers who have very small farms or no unused agricultural land from participating in the project.

These statements suggest that Ms Müller did not examine the Plan Vivo Standard in detail and did not fully comprehend the (admittedly very complex) project down to the finest level of detail, and that the interlocutors she mentioned could not have been involved in the project.

We regret that we were unable to hold a meeting with Ms Müller in advance of the report to clarify this suspicion and the issues on our part. Here we would have expected the journalists to involve us in the spirit of balanced research to verify and clarify the situation. Unfortunately, we have not been involved in this regard.

“ETH Zurich’s analysis of satellite data raises doubts about the actual growth of trees (biomass).” However, the method used is unsuitable and the conclusion implied in the report that the project is ineffective is simply incorrect. This can be proven by on-site measurements.

The approach of using remote sensing to test the success of a reforestation project or its impact “independently and unrelated to a particular location” is understandable. However, the method NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) has flagrant weaknesses. It can only partially supplement the method currently used on site, but neither replace nor – and this is essential for the overall conclusion – cast doubt on the results of this complex on-site measurement. Satellite data and an NDVI analysis are unable to answer the question “Was carbon really stored as stated?”.

The method, as implemented by the ETH researchers, appears to be applied correctly and with integrity. However, the interpretation of the data is awkward and not a justification for making a statement, as the report implies. The analysis of satellite data in the project area commissioned by SRF simply does not support the claim that the growth of trees in most plots is low.

Simply put, the NDVI, as a widely used indicator for large-scale analyses of satellite data, represents the “density of green” within a pixel of a satellite image. For various reasons, this “density of green” in the project areas is not a reliable measure of the success of the project, as it cannot differentiate between new plantings, trees and other “green sources”. The analysis merely shows that the project has generally shown a positive development in most plots, but it is not possible to deduce from the available data how strong and resilient this development is.

However, further development of a remote sensing method and data analysis would be extremely welcome for many reasons, which is why Taking Root is keen to continue the dialogue with the researchers.

“myclimate has no control over the project, as myclimate has only been on site twice in ten years.”myclimate actually has been and continues to be regularly involved with the project over the past ten years. For example, there is a direct exchange with the project partner several times a year. But also through the Plan Vivo Standard, which certifies the project, and other organisations involved in the project, a constant flow of information is guaranteed. Mistrust of the project is completely unfounded.

Our team has already visited the supported project twice on site and another visit is planned for this year.

We also hold quarterly direct coordination meetings with the Taking Root project team. Their CEO reports on the progress of the project in person every two years in Zurich. The performance data is transparently shared with us by the project partner. In addition, we are in close contact with other supporting organisations and subject the project to a regular internal due diligence review. The review by Plan Vivo’s Technical Advisory Team also provides another evaluation channel.

These comprehensive evaluation methods keep us up to date and, at the same time, reduce the environmental footprint of unnecessary air travel. As we work extremely closely and trustingly with Taking Root, there is no need for more intensive monitoring.

“The promise of long-term CO2 retention in trees is not being kept, as there are no mechanisms to ensure permanence.”

This is a statement that we vehemently reject here, as our aim with this project is to achieve a sustainable change in land use that has also functioned in Swiss forest management since 1876. This accusation is also in stark contrast to the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The current IPCC World Climate Report clearly highlights: without comprehensive protection of existing forests, without reforestation measures and without mechanisms to make forests more resilient, we will not reach the climate targets (as well as the biodiversity targets set out in the Montreal Protocol).

Reducing the “Community Reforestation in Nicaragua” project to just planting trees fails to hit the heart of the matter – as with most other projects in the field of land use and forestry (LUF). These projects aim for a sustainable, long-term change in land use. For this reason, the “loss” of individual trees is not a decisive criterion – the constant life and growth of the forest ecosystem and the increase in its resilience is.

This change is achieved by consciously encouraging farmers to preserve and manage their forests sustainably. Compared to technical solutions, which could also be used as a comparison for the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, forests have the potential to absorb significantly more CO2 while also enabling biodiversity and influencing local weather and its effects.

In addition to planned afforestation, effective mechanisms for the coexistence of agricultural land and forests must be established. This can be done by means of laws and bans, i.e. state regulation, or by economic incentives that benefit the local population. That is the idea behind the project in Nicaragua.

“myclimate communicates about the project and its own involvement in a non-transparent and imprecise way.” This allegation is also completely unfounded, as myclimate provides transparent information on its website and also acknowledges the very long partnership and close relationship.

The SRF Investigativ team criticises myclimate for advertising the project as its own. We maintain that we do not do this. On the website with the project description, the partners or the project owner and, therefore, the structure of the project are explicitly described.

We also have long-standing and very close contacts with many of our projects. These contacts, which in some cases are exclusive to us, often enable these projects to develop successfully in the first place. This “close relationship” also gives rise to the understanding expressed in the use of the term “our projects”.

Additional information: climate protection in countries with a democratic deficit

The journalists were not allowed to enter Nicaragua. Nicaragua is considered an undemocratic country – is this the right place for such a project?

The political situation of a country is analysed and assessed in the preliminary due diligence process. The key factors are the opportunities for reducing or saving CO2 and the sustainable development of the people affected by the project.

Another essential feature of the audit and our monitoring is that no funds intended for project services or project participants end up directly or indirectly with political actors. By definition, our project partners are never governmental or government-related institutions, but generally NGOs, social entrepreneurs, companies, etc.

Any doubts about the flow of funds may be a reason to end a project collaboration, which was specifically decided and implemented by us in a previous project in another country (Myanmar). This is an ultimate, drastic and painful step because, ultimately, it is the people on the ground who have little or no responsibility for political developments who end up suffering.

 In the case of the Nicaragua project, we have not seen any indication that the political situation is having a negative impact on the project. The project does not work directly with the government – it only has a LoA with the local government and registers the reforestation plots with the local forestry authority.

It cannot be the job of a climate protection organisation to impose sweeping political sanctions. This is more a task – which could be investigated – for large international companies or commodity traders.

It is doubtful that the government would even notice a withdrawal on our part, in contrast to the local people, who benefit greatly from the implementation, and in contrast to the climate and biodiversity.

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