In the Colombian Andes, Figuring Out How Crypto Can Save the Climate

Earnest eco-crypto nerds at a three-day retreat attempted to resolve interoperability among crypto-climate projects.

AccessTimeIconNov 3, 2022 at 4:32 p.m. UTC
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Eliza Gkritsi is CoinDesk's crypto mining reporter based in Asia.

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COCORNA, Colombia – At the end of September, a group of crypto and climate nerds descended on Colombia’s mountainous rainforests to discuss how they can work together to save the planet. It was, to say the least, an event to remember; complete with hydrotherapy, a sharing circle, getting lost in the woods in the middle of an evening storm, nightly bonfires, hints of infighting and a sense of honesty rare to crypto conferences of today.

The event was organized by the Blockchain Infrastructure Carbon Offsetting Working Group (BICOWG), which aims to support crypto projects with a climate focus. Members of the working group were at the retreat, including representatives of event sponsor Regen Network, a layer 1 blockchain company that is building a marketplace for tokenized natural assets.

Also present among the diverse 50-odd participants were representatives from major layer 1s including Solana, Filecoin, Ripple and Hedera Hashgraph; the Global Blockchain Business Council industry association; Verra, the world’s largest voluntary carbon offsets issuer; and a number of different crypto-climate projects big and small, old and new. There was even a Chinese internet-of-things (IoT) firm.

The inaugural BICOWG retreat took place at Tierra de Agua, an eco-hotel near Cocorna, about an hour southeast of Medellin. The significance of the venue was not lost on the retreat participants. Running through the hotel is a stream that ends in the Samana River, one of the tributaries of the Magdalena River, which traverses most of Colombia from the Andes to the Atlantic, irrigating crops and livelihoods along the way. The Samana is the last free-flowing river in the Antioquia region of Colombia because others have been dammed to harvest hydropower.

Antics

The three days were jam-packed with activities, some of which, upon description, will sound like the kind of tech-hippy antics for which WeWork’s Adam Neumann was ridiculed.

There was a hydrotherapy session, when attendees sat under an icy waterfall in their bathing suits, then rubbed themselves with guava juice (for exfoliation) before entering a steam bath.

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Attendees of the Blockchain Infrastructure Carbon Offsetting Working Group inaugural retreat visiting the home of a Wiwa indigenous tribe member, Sept. 2022. (Eliza Gkritsi/CoinDesk)

One afternoon some 30 or so of us headed for a hike to a nearby Indigenous community. We entered the bamboo and clay houses of members of the Wiwa tribe, who still live in a traditional way. Under candlelight, the Wiwa explained the importance of balance between the energy of the north (symbolized by the eagle) and the south (represented by the condor). Between these poles, they believe, is the hummingbird, in perfect balance.

Most of the activities were held in a large room at the hotel with a high, conical ceiling and no walls. A hummingbird happened to be nesting right in front of the speaker’s area, in a hanging lamp shade, quite a coincidence given the visit with the Wiwa tribe. The symbolism was not lost on the attendees, and many pointed it out throughout the retreat.

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At the nightly bonfire for the Blockchain Infrastructure Carbon Offsetting Working Group retreat, Sept. 2022.

Each of the three nights the group gathered around a bonfire, and the retreat closed with a sharing circle, at which each of the 50 participants spoke about their takeaways from the experience.

As New Age-y as some of these activities seem, the end result was that it drew closer this community of people genuinely interested in climate-positive action. The group, many of whom were initially strangers, worked productively together to come out of the retreat with solid action items.

Regeneration focus

The term “ReFi” for “regenerative finance,” is envisioned as the antidote to “degenerative finance,” the type of economic system we are in today, which many at the retreat claim is leeching the blood out of the planet and its people. Regenerative finance is building economic models that actually resuscitate the natural environment and human communities.

“It’s a meme,” explained Antonio Paglino, who leads ReFi Barrichara, another region of Colombia that is currently in the early stages of being “regenerated” through a collaboration between the local community and crypto. “Next year we might be using another term” but the mission will be the same, he said.

I asked Jahed Momand, co-founder and general partner at climate-focused venture capital firm Cerulean Ventures, if working on climate-positive solutions makes him more hopeful about the future of the world. He said, “Absolutely not” with the resoluteness that one declines their least favorite food. The world will fundamentally change for the worse as a result of the climate catastrophe, it’s the degree that they are fighting for, he said.

It was clear to me that the attendees were quite realistic about their goals and how they could achieve them.

The idea of regenerative finance is fascinating. It brings together a holistic approach that takes into account social, economic and political aspects of how blockchains can build markets that make the world a better place, instead of unleashing crypto-based financial freedom on the masses and hoping everything works itself out.

One for all and all for blockchain

The main focus of the retreat was to get all the different projects talking to each other about interoperability and how to avoid duplicate efforts.

Perhaps due to this focus, close to zero shilling of projects happened during the three-day event, a remarkable achievement within the crypto community. One of the participants pointed out later that this is exactly what set this group apart – they weren’t after the spotlight or money.

The phrase “getting our house in order” was repeated at several of the workshop presentations as people emphasized that internal divisions must be ironed out before the ReFi movement is ready to start promoting itself on the world stage. As an outsider, it was hard to get a glimpse of the divisions among this small group but the signs were there. Many expressed their surprise that arguments hadn’t broken out.

At the end of the retreat, several working groups were formed, split along different categories of action (social, technical, structural, etc.) to continue the process of achieving true interoperability. As several of the participants noted at the sharing circle, “the proof is in the pudding,” and the success of the event will be judged by whether anything concrete comes out of it.

Through the workshops, conversations swirled around the subject of ego; whether it can or should be mitigated to pursue interoperability. An interesting division appeared on the second night during a Jeffersonian dinner, at which each table had to discuss a topic and take into account everyone’s thoughts.

My table went pretty deep down a philosophical rabbit hole, discussing how societies construct egos, how people’s egos are a defense mechanism, and how all of this is detrimental to collaboration and achieving harmony etc. By contrast, the table right next to ours concluded that ego should not be mitigated but harnessed to achieve greater goals.

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Environmental activist Casson Trenor at the Blockchain Infrastructure Carbon Offsetting Working Group retreat, Sept. 2022. (Milton Giraldo, edited by CoinDesk)

Carbon obsessed?

Also during that Jeffersonian dinner, Casson Trenor, an environmental activist, called out the movement’s fixation with carbon offsets. Perhaps because these are the easiest thing out of which to make tokenized markets, given that carbon markets are already fairly developed, the ReFi movement has focused a lot on carbon credits. Other “nature-backed assets” are in the works, but few have materialized yet.

After two days of talking about tokenized markets for carbon offsets, with several presentations on the topic, Trenor asked, exasperatedly, “Why are we still talking about carbon offsets? We need emission reductions, now,” surprising the audience. Over the next few days presenters and attendees would almost defensively say in their speeches that they were thinking about other tokenized assets as well – which wasn’t exactly Trenor’s point.

The noncarbon-obsessed participants seemed happy to be included in the conversation and learn from people who have been part of the movement for years. “It’s been great to be a part of this as someone who is working on a different aspect of sustainability,” said Gjermund Garaba, chief technology officer at Empower, a blockchain platform for tracing plastic collection and recycling.

Towards the end of Day One, Daniel Hwang, formerly with f2pool and stakefish and a leading member of BICOWG, hosted a fireside chat with Benoît Clement, chief of financial innovation at Verra. Clement’s presence at the conference was a big deal – many of these crypto projects have based their existence on the fact that voluntary carbon markets are inadequate and lack transparency.

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Daniel Hwang and Benoit Clement at the Blockchain Infrastructure Carbon Offsetting Working Group retreat, Sept. 2022. (Milton Giraldo)

Hwang asked hardball questions and Clement answered diplomatically. Verra is exploring the potential to collaborate with Web3 projects and has asked for feedback on how to approach third-party tokenization. However, so far “a lot of action has been taken [by crypto projects tokenizing carbon credits] without all the t’s being crossed and i’s being dotted,” he said.

Crypto’s inherent anonymity might be problematic for a marketplace that handles millions of dollars from credited, regulated institutions. “Maybe when there’s hundreds of millions of dollars in money going through a market it’s good to know who that money is coming from” as well as who retires carbon credits, Clement said. Another important question is defining when speculative investment is warranted and good for projects and investors, he pointed out.

Despite the talk of interoperability, some attendees banded together to sign a 12-page statement that the voluntary carbon marketplace should not, in its efforts to accommodate Web3, actually slow down innovation.

Next steps

All that being said, there was a certain insularity to the group and, as a complete outsider normally focused on an industry that many of the attendees find somewhat abhorrent (bitcoin mining), I found it hard to break in. It was my impression that many formed real, human bonds during the three days.

By its own admission, this group is not ready to go public, and the language they use and the narrative they promote needs to be refined for a broader audience. Many of the discussions did feel like the terse echo bubbles that the world dislikes about crypto.

How some of their projects will be taken by the wider world remains to be seen. Their ideas do not at first instance match well with the majority of investors, funds and asset managers. The group seemed ambivalent as to whether it wants to attract the attention and support of the big powers of the world, or whether it wants to work independently of them. Still, some of the attendees are headed to COP27, the United Nations’ biggest climate conference. There, they will talk about their work and ideas to some of the world’s most influential people.

To use the ego-driven capitalists or not? That is the question.

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Eliza Gkritsi is CoinDesk's crypto mining reporter based in Asia.


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Eliza Gkritsi is CoinDesk's crypto mining reporter based in Asia.