Offsetting carbon emissions may sound good to tourists with a guilty conscience. But a carbon sink tree planting project around Mount Elgon is helping deprive local people of their land and livelihoods.
By Timothy Byakola and Chris Lang. Published in Tourism Concern’s In Focus
It all sounds so easy. “When we decide to fly we can’t get around the pollution (CO2 and other gases) that this causes, but we can compensate for these emissions by planting and protecting trees that ‘soak up’ the CO2 as they grow,” a Dutch company called GreenSeat explains on its website. They calculate that the paltry sum of $28 would cover the costs of planting 66 trees to ‘compensate’ for the CO2 emissions of a return flight from Frankfurt to Kampala.
But a closer look at one of these projects, Uganda’s Mount Elgon National Park, reveals serious problems invisible to anyone paying to offset their guilt about flying. A Dutch organisation called FACE (Forests Absorbing Carbon-dioxide Emissions) Foundation is GreenSeat’s main partner in the project and is largely responsible for overseeing the tree-planting activities, working with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). The project involves planting a two to three kilometres wide strip of trees just inside the 211 kilometre boundary of the National Park. To date, 8,500 hectares out of a planned total of 25,000 hectares have been planted.
The project’s co-ordinator says it has improved forest regeneration along the park’s boundary, especially agriculture and employment opportunities. It is also certified by Société Générale de Surveillance (SGS) and is routinely monitored. It seems that the Mount Elgon project ticks all the right boxes.
However, local council officials dispute the employment claims as the project employs few people and most of the jobs are seasonal. They complain that the project has taken away what little local communities had. FACE reports that the main negative impacts have been increased scarcity of land, reduction of access to park resources and the increase of dangerous animals – but that these were caused by the conversion of the area into a National Park in 1993 rather than reforestation by UWA-Face. Once
awarded national park status those living within its boundaries lost their rights and the Ugandan Government ruthlessly evicted people without compensation.
The UWA’s park rangers receive paramilitary training. “The wildlife people who operate there have killed over 50 people. People feel that the Government favours animals more than the people,” David Wakikona, MP for Manjiya County told the Ugandan newspaper New Vision. The UWA’s approach has resulted in conflicts where communities have deliberately destroyed the trees – for them a symbol of their exclusion from land that was once theirs. In 2003, a strip of eucalyptus trees over four kilometres long marking the park boundary was destroyed. Park rangers actively patrol the boundary region and prevent villagers from grazing their goats and cows.
In March 2002, UWA evicted more people from Mount Elgon, many of whom had lived on the land for over 40 years. Park rangers destroyed villagers’ houses and cut down their crops. With nowhere to go, the evicted people were forced to move to neighbouring villages where they lived in caves and mosques. Cosia Masolo, an elder who lived in Mabembe village for over 50 years says that: “When the UWA people came with their treeplanting activities, they stopped us from getting important materials from the forest.”
“Evicting people is not part of the UWA-FACE project,” GreenSeat say. “It is a result of the Government’s decision to enforce the laws regarding farming in the National Park.”
But GreenSeat and FACE cannot guarantee the climatic impact of the Mount Elgon project. The only way of knowing the true impact of carbon stored is by following the thousands of people who have been evicted from the Park and comparing their carbon emissions before and after the evictions, which is simply impossible to predict with any accuracy.
Neither GreenSeat or FACE have evicted anyone. But on its website GreenSeat advertises its Ugandan tree-planting project to sell carbon offsets. The FACE Foundation’s partner at Mount Elgon, the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, has forcibly evicted people with its military-trained rangers. If the treeplanting is to continue, more people will be evicted. Rather than offsetting carbon emissions, GreenSeat, FACE and SGS have been offsetting their own responsibility for evictions.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in New Internationalist magazine.
Timothy Byakola is a researcher for Ugandan NGO Climate and Development Initiatives. Chris Lang works with the World Rainforest Movement and is based in Frankfurt, Germany.