Because of their potential to simultaneously address climate change mitigation and rural development challenges, projects linking smallholders to voluntary carbon markets through “climate smart” agriculture are growing in number, with major agricultural development institutions promoting such efforts. Carbon payments to smallholders participating in such projects are generally nominal, but project developers contend that co-benefits, mostly associated with increased yields, create the rationale for smallholder participation. Nevertheless, such projects can create risks for smallholders related to: the long time-frame before benefits are realized; elite capture; or contractual obligations to non-local practices.
The Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project incentivizes smallholders to sequester carbon in agricultural soils through the adoption of sustainable agricultural land management (SALM) techniques including: planting long-term trees on croplands, mulching crop residues, composting livestock manure, and adopting hybrid seed varieties. The main premise of the project is that SALMs improve soil quality which leads to increased biomass production. As the biomass is returned to the soils, soil carbon increases. The increased soil carbon generates carbon credits while leading to improved crop production and thus improved food security for participants. SALM technologies are disseminated by project extension officers who train groups of participants to implement the new technologies on their respective farms.
My qualitative research on the project focused on participant observation as well as formal and informal interviews. I conducted research in about ten villages in two regions of Western Kenya. I interviewed five groups of people: project participants, former participants, non-participants, the poorest members of each village, and project staff. In total, I interviewed around 120 people, collecting information on: the risks and benefits for smallholders participating in the project; which community members do / do not participate in the project and why; causes of and adaptation to climate change from the perspectives of project participants; and communications related to carbon payments.
 The “poorest” members of each community were identified by key informants from the respective community.