Cash for trees: Homegrown carbon offset program bears fruit

Christopher Bendana, Ryan Lenora Brown

When Marie Gorreti Kemiyonga flicks on her light switches in her two-room house in this rural district of western Uganda each evening, she thanks the trees.

A decade ago, Ms. Kemiyonga and her family were farmers living in a mud brick hut with a grass roof when they were approached by a local organization called the Environmental Conservation Trust of Uganda (ECOTRUST) with what seemed like a rather strange proposal.

Plant trees on two hectares (five acres) of their land, and in return, they would be paid about 3.5 million Ugandan shillings (a little less than $1,000) over the next 10 years. 

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Though she found the idea odd, Ms. Kemiyonga couldn’t see a downside, so she said yes. Soon, she was laying out rows of spindly saplings on the steep stony hills below the family’s homestead, and in the dark soil just behind the hut. Not long after receiving her first payment, she used the money she earned to start a small piggery. About a year later, the family sold the pigs and used their earnings to build a new tin-roof house with a small solar panel to provide electricity inside.

All around her, others in Rubirizi were profiting from the trees too. Some paid their children’s school fees, or started new businesses, or even purchased old secondhand cars. 

For many of Rubirizi’s residents, selling their omwooya, or air, felt like a windfall (no pun intended). But for ECOTRUST and its investors, the farmers were actually the ones providing the service, as part of a carbon offset project called Trees for Global Benefits. It worked like this: Companies and individuals who wanted to zero out their own pollution could pay Ugandan farmers to grow trees, which were meant to soak up the same amount of carbon dioxide that the buyers were emitting elsewhere. 

Worldwide, these carbon offsets have become one of the major ways that the world’s largest polluters try to reduce their environmental footprint. But they are not without controversy, particularly when they involve the planting of trees.

CARBON COLONIALISM

In the past two decades, tree-planting carbon offset projects have been accused of a range of ills, from grabbing land from local communities for plantations to planting invasive foreign species to, simply, not being very effective. Trees, after all, can die, burn down, or otherwise not produce the benefits promised to investors. That means they are often more expensive than other carbon offsets like renewable energy, and can also be more complicated to set up and maintain. 

But more complicated doesn’t necessarily mean worse, some environmentalists say. It can also – under the right circumstances – mean that more people benefit too. 

“As long as it’s done ethically, with a clear benefit to the communities [planting the trees], then it can work,” says Saliem Fakir, head of the policy and futures unit at the World Wide Fund for Nature, South Africa. “You can’t be so puritanical that you don’t pursue projects that are overall good. But you also have to be wary of potential side effects.”

Those side effects are something many in Uganda know well. In the 1990s and early 2000s, a number of Western companies cut deals with Uganda’s National Forestry Authority to plant massive tree plantations on protected land, which they used to sell carbon credits. One group, a Norwegian forestry company called Green Resources, leased rights to nearly 12,000 hectares of forest land, and then, in short order, began evicting entire villages of people living on the land, destroying houses and crops and arresting people who “trespassed” at what had once been their homes. Similar land grabs happened in other parts of the country. That led many detractors to label the tree-planting outfits “carbon colonialists” – Westerners once again using Africa to extract a natural resource without concern for how it would affect local people.

“These companies would say ‘we’re planting trees and that’s good for the environment,’ which allowed them to completely push aside these other issues like local people’s livelihoods and biodiversity,” says Klara Fischer, an associate professor of rural development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who has written about the negative impacts of such tree plantations in Uganda. “Because the climate change threat is so strong and focused in people’s minds, it almost eclipsed everything else.”

AN EQUITABLE MODEL?

But ECOTRUST says it approached the Trees for Global Benefits project differently. For one thing, it paid the communities it worked with for the use of their land, rather than forcing them off of it. 

For instance, before Ms. Kemiyonga and her husband signed up to plant trees in 2009, they had about four hectares of land, which they used to grow millet, groundnuts, and beans. The ECOTRUST representatives explained that if they set aside some of that land for growing trees, they could make money in two ways. 

First, as the trees grew, they’d be paid in regular installments. And once the trees reached maturity, some could become a source of income of their own. And the family would be allowed to prune their forest for firewood, too.  

That sounded like a good arrangement, so the family agreed. 

And ECOTRUST was convinced that the family would benefit in other, less immediate ways as well. The village where Ms. Kemiyonga and her family live in western Uganda sits perched on the edge of one of the country’s vast natural rainforests, Kalinzu. The lush green forest is the second largest in the country, and a hotbed for biodiversity. But over the past 20 years, it has been severely threatened by encroachment from neighboring communities, which cut the forests for timber, charcoal, and agricultural land. 

Indeed, overall forest cover in Uganda has declined from 24% of Uganda’s total land area (4,933,271 hectares) in the 1990s to 9% (1,956,664 hectares) in 2018, according to the National Forestry Authority. 

But now, the country is trying to reverse that trend. In 2014, Uganda joined the Bonn Challenge, a global pledge to restore deforested land, committing to repairing or growing 2.5 million hectares of trees by 2020.

Pauline Nantongo Kalunda, the executive director of ECOTRUST, says the Trees for Global Benefits program is contributing to that goal – without turning its back on people who live in the places where forests are being restored.

She says that in the last 16 years, the project has been responsible for planting 6,200 hectares of new forest, which can hold about 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide. And a wide range of local and international companies have bought carbon credits through the project, including local companies like the Uganda Breweries and international ones like Max Hamburger, a Swedish chain that bills itself as selling the world’s first “carbon positive” hamburger.

“The program helps complement the ecological role of [forest reserves],” says Xavier Mugumya, the climate change coordinator at the National Forestry Authority.

NO SILVER BULLET

But the project has also run into hiccups along the way. 

Some farmers, for instance, were initially hesitant to join the project because of rumors that Trees for Global Benefits, like other carbon offset projects in the country, wanted to steal their land (ECOTRUST says it has calmed this fear by enlisting farmers in its program to educate others in the region about its benefits). 

What’s more, in recent years, a number of farmers have also lost seedlings to drought, cutting into the income they receive from the program. A 2013 study of communities enrolled in Trees for Global Benefits, meanwhile, found that in some places, the project widened inequality because it gave community members who already had access to significant land a way to earn more money from that land. (The program initially required its participants to have around three hectares of land in order to participate). Those with less or no land, meanwhile, could not enroll in the program and continued to struggle.

But for Ms. Fischer, of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, the issue is less about the success or failure of a single carbon offset project like Trees for Global Benefits. It’s more about how Westerners see the role of those projects in their own fight to lead environmental sustainability.

“We can’t think we’ll solve climate change just by outsourcing,” she says. “You can’t say, OK, I can plant trees in Uganda and then not do anything to change my lifestyle at home. There has to be action on both sides.” 

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.

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