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[NAIROBI] Developing world communities could become part of the multi-billion dollar carbon market if a project to assess the amount of carbon locked up in soils proves successful.

The three-year Carbon Benefits Project, launched by the UN Environment Programme, will measure carbon in the land and trees of small farms in China, western Kenya, Niger and Nigeria.

"The project could open the market to millions of farmers, foresters and conservationists in the developing world," says Peter Gilruth, director of the Division of Early Warning and Assessment at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The land of farmers in these areas will be used as test-beds to develop a cost effective, user-friendly and scientifically rigorous method to model, measure and monitor carbon.

The hope is that if the reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) scheme — which will reward countries for sustainable forest management — gets the go-ahead at the Copenhagen climate meeting in December the door will be opened to rewards for other land management practices.

The project's total budget is US$10.7 million. Approximately half of this is being provided by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) with the remainder coming from partner organisations.

David Skole, director of the Global Observatory for Ecosystem Services at Michigan University, a partner organisation, says the project has two main parts: modelling to predict soil carbon content over time depending on land management and measurement of carbon levels to verify the models using techniques such as satellite remote sensing.

In Kenya, the project targets catchments in and around Lake Victoria. Eleanor Milne, a partner in the project and Affiliate Scientist at Colorado State University, says that the project builds upon existing work carried out by scientists at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in 2007.

Milne says the biggest obstacle to overcome is standardisation. A range of methods are used to measure, monitor and model these benefits, making it difficult to compare different sustainable land management initiatives, she says.

She adds, "If the project works well, we will have taken a large step closer to a situation where small holders will be able to benefit from the rewards offered by carbon markets."