By Wambi Michael*
Firewood or forest: A girl from the Benet community.
MOUNT ELGON, Uganda, Aug 31 (IPS) – With the world’s attention focused on climate change, one of the methods suggested to reduce global carbon emissions is causing the displacement of indigenous persons as western companies rush to invest in tree-planting projects in developing countries.
The term carbon trading refers to commercial approaches to promoting environmental responsibility. Under carbon trading programmes, companies that release greenhouse gases can either agree to reduce their emissions or buy the right to keep on polluting.
The United Nations considers carbon markets as an efficient system to guide investments toward cutting greenhouse emissions. The clean development mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol allows two types of forestry offsets: reforestation of previously forested areas and afforestation where trees are planted in areas where forests have not existed for over 50 years.
One such an investment in Uganda, by the Dutch organisation called Forests Absorbing Carbon-dioxide Emissions (FACE) Foundation, has generated controversy as indigenous people known as the Benet have been displaced to clear the way to tree-planting projects.
The FACE Foundation is working with the Uganda Wildlife Authority in the afforestation of Mount Elgon in Eastern Uganda. The Uganda Wildlife Authority-FACE Foundation project involves planting of trees inside the boundaries of Mount Elgon National Park.
The idea is that FACE Foundation assists with the planting of 25,000 ha of trees to absorb carbon dioxide and hereby offset emissions from a new 600 MW coal-fired power station in the Netherlands. FACE Foundation then sells the offsets to GreenSeat, a Dutch carbon- offset business with western clients, mainly airline companies.
Early last year GreenSeat calculated that a mere 28 dollars covers the costs of planting 66 trees which ‘’compensates’’ for the carbon-dioxide emissions of a return flight from Frankfurt to Kampala.
The project has a guaranteed lifespan of 99 years but indigenous communities in the mountain are bitterly opposed to it.
Moses Mwanga, chairperson of the Benet Lobby Group, an organisation pushing for the rights of the Benet, told IPS during a visit to the area that the evictions have caused indescribable suffering to the Benet who are now living as squatters, having lost their land and other belongings to armed park rangers.
“As we talk now, people are living in pathetic conditions. When the evictions took place many government officers came here but they have not helped us. It is one year later but we still have a lot of harassment by Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers.
“Whenever we want to access things like bamboo, which our people used to survive on, or land for grazing for our animals, or if we collect honey, people are arrested. People have even lost their lives,” he said.
Mwanga said they were uprooted from their homes on land that have now been turned into forest. “You know, when you say forest, the impression is that these Benets might have moved from somewhere else and entered the forest. The story is not like that. The story is that we are indigenous people who have lived in Mount Elgon since time immemorial.
“So it is home for us — it is not a forest. But the government gazetted in 1993 to become a national park without our knowledge. So when you say that we are in a forest that statement disturbs us because it is our home but always injustices have been done against us,” he insisted.
In 1993, a year before the Uganda Wildlife Authority-FACE Foundation tree-planting project started, the Ugandan government declared Mount Elgon a national park and, with that, the people living within its boundaries have been deprived of their rights.
Uganda Wildlife Authority warden in Mount Elgon, Richard Matanda, denied that the eviction of the Benet from Mount Elgon had to do with the FACE Foundation project.
“Those people had encroached on forest land and the area had to be conserved. So they were removed to replant the area with trees for wildlife conservation. And whatever we do in these areas — even evictions — have to comply with principles of responsible forest management and the laws of Uganda,” he claimed.
According to figures published by Oslo-based market analysis firm Point Carbon, the CDM provided for 32 billion dollars in certified emissions reductions trade in 2008 — more than double the previous year’s figure.
By Wambi Michael*
*This is the first article in a two-part series (END/2009)