The carbon offset industry is booming. But how fair is the trade?

In Uganda, a debate rages over the benefits of tree-planting schemes

By Anna Sussman

Photo by Annie Marie Musselman

Down a dirt lane from Turinawe lives the local elder, Mujafragense, who has resided in the village his whole life. He recalls the evictions of the early 1990s. “I saw the fire on the hillside and watched the people run from their homes,” he says. “Mothers were screaming and crying. You could see fear on their faces.” Mujafragense agrees that the evictions have also caused overcrowding and food shortages.

But the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) insists the displaced villagers were trespassers. According to the UWA, the villagers moved into the area during Idi Amin’s reign and were living on the land illegally, destroying its delicate ecosystem. The national parks have been established “for wildlife conservation, the conservation of natural resources,” says Sam Mwandha, director of field operations for the UWA. “But they had been encroached. Local people cleared the land and planted their crops. They have now been removed, and we are trying to have the forest come back.” He denies that the eviction of the encroachers had to do with the million-dollar tree-planting contract the UWA won in the mid-1990s from FACE. The foundation, for its part, refutes claims of mistreatment and maintains that its work in Uganda complies with principles of responsible forest management as well as local and international laws.

Because of stories like that of the Turinawe family—episodes involving eviction, brutality, and exclusion stretch back well over a decade now and include hundreds of complaints and several lawsuits—today, in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, a debate rages over the benefits of tree-planting schemes. Does the global eco business of carbon offsets actually sow rewards for the people here? Mwandha says if you looked at the villages around the park before and after the tree-planting project, a “big leap for the better” is apparent in the standard of living. He says local mothers and fathers are now gainfully employed as tree planters. And there’s more. “We are improving our climate, wildlife like elephants have returned to the park, and we are getting funds to replant areas that were encroached that would have remained grassland for a very long time.”

But Timothy Byakola, an activist with Kampala’s Climate and Development Initiatives, says otherwise. He has fought tree-planting schemes nationwide since their introduction in 1994. Byakola and his colleagues claim deals like those in Kibale National Park are preconditioned on the removal of those living in the park. He says the projects have resulted not only in brutal evictions but also in a decrease of important resources for local people, who can no longer access the firewood and herbs that grow in the forest. “It was promised to the local people that these trees were not going to take away their rights to access the forest,” he says. But they have. Villagers living nearby have told Byakola that they have been shot at when attempting to enter park ranger–protected forests.

There is a lot of hostility between the villagers and the tree-planting project, says Byakola. In some areas, he says, locals sneak over park boundaries in the night and uproot the freshly planted saplings, undoing any potential for carbon absorption. And the jobs promised to local people don’t pay enough. “From the testimonies of the communities, the money is not enough to send a primary child for one term in school. It’s not enough for milk for one person,” Byakola says.

Many villagers around Kibale National Park say the scarcity of land and lack of food caused by the evictions left them with few options other than to take a job with the tree-planting project. Still, they appreciate the opportunity for work, and employees are provided with food, a small wage, healthcare, and safety gear like covered shoes—benefits unheard of elsewhere in Uganda. Even village elder Mujafragense worked planting trees. He says that on the whole, despite the low wages (about a dollar a day), the brutal evictions, and the overcrowding, his village is better off thanks to the project.

Mwandha maintains that tree planting makes sense for Uganda and the world. “If I am a consumer in the West, I understand that I am polluting the environment, there is nothing in my own country that I can do to reduce the impact on the environment, and there is an opportunity to support a country like Uganda—then why shouldn’t I support it? Not only to offset, but also to improve the conditions in the countries where that happens to be.”

But Byakola believes it’s not that simple. “It is business,” he says. The UWA has already sunk more than a million dollars into tree planting—that’s major money in a country where the average person earns less than $300 a year. What makes it “into the pocket of the local people,” says Byakola, “is another question.”

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