Tolo River patrol

On a stifling hot afternoon, five men make their way through the dense rainforest of northern Colombia. Frazier Guisao, a former logger, heads the single-file line, slicing through the thick undergrowth with a machete to carve out a narrow tunnel.

Guisao and his team wear T-shirts embossed with bright letters spelling out COCOMASUR, an abbreviation of the Spanish name of their small Afro-Colombian enclave, known as the Black Communities of the Tolo River and Southern Coast.

Hallie Bateman

When the group pauses for a break at the base of a giant almendro tree, Guisao looks up to examine it. Trees in this region can reach as high as 10-story buildings. The trunk of this one would take 15 people hand-in-hand to surround. “This wood is worth around three million pesos in town,” he says. That’s about $1,500.

Guisao and his team are here to make sure that these trees are never cleared for profit, though.

Three years ago, the Tolo River community decided not to log its 32,000 acres of rainforest, and instead to protect it for its pristine habitat and the river that gives the community both its name and its only source of fresh water.

In addition to these obvious benefits, the forest offers another valuable service: The trees and soil are a safe depository of carbon. When rainforests are burned or cleared, carbon escapes into the air in the form of carbon dioxide, a gas that warms Earth’s climate.

Increasingly, companies and governments around the world are willing to pay communities like the Tolo River to preserve rainforests as a way of offsetting their own carbon emissions, and slowing climate change. In 2012, governments and corporations bought a half a billion dollars worth of carbon offset through a global, United Nations-lead initiative known as REDD -- short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

The program has drawn criticism for corruption, improper carbon accounting, and project developers taking advantage of illiterate indigenous peoples. Still, forest conservation through REDD can be part of the solution to both deforestation and climate change.

This is the story of one community that found a way to do it right.