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UGANDA: Carbon Trading Scheme Pushing People off Their Land

Wambi Michael

KAMPALA, Sep 25 2009 (IPS) - As the world's attention increasingly turns to the impact of climate change, at least one project intended to reduce global carbon emissions is accused of displacing indigenous persons from their home in Uganda.

Under carbon trading programmes, companies that release greenhouse gases can either reduce their emissions or buy the right to keep on polluting, by paying for emissions-reducing projects somewhere else.

The United Nations considers carbon markets an efficient system to guide investments toward cutting greenhouse emissions. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) established by the Kyoto Protocol allows two types of forestry offsets: reforestation of previously forested areas and afforestation, that is, planting new trees where forests have not existed for over 50 years.

Carbon trading is divided into two separate markets: the compliance market – as provided for under the CDM and the European Union's Emission Trading Scheme, mandatory programmes worth 32 billion dollars last year – and the much smaller voluntary carbon offset market.

Voluntary carbon offsets involve individuals, companies and even governments to pay for projects to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions. These projects range from wind farms and other renewable energy sources, to efforts to reduce methane released from landfills, to forestry.

The voluntary carbon offset market is growing rapidly, but in Uganda, the Forests Absorbing Carbon-dioxide Emissions Foundation (FACE), a Dutch organisation involved in the voluntary carbon market, has generated controversy as indigenous people in the Mount Elgon region have been displaced to clear the way for tree-planting projects.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority-FACE Foundation project involves planting of trees inside the boundaries of Mount Elgon National Park.

The project was initiated to offset emissions from a planned 600 MW coal- fired power station in the Netherlands by planting thousands of hectares of trees to absorb carbon dioxide. These credits were then to be sold to GreenSeat, a Dutch carbon-offset business with Western clients, mainly airline companies.

GreenSeat has since pulled out of the project but was advertising the credits as recently as 2006, according to Chris Lang, an environmental activist and co-author of a report on the project.

GreenSeat had calculated that it would cost a mere 28 dollars to plant 66 trees to "compensate" for the carbon-dioxide emissions of a return flight from Frankfurt to Kampala.

Although the project has a guaranteed lifespan of 99 years, the indigenous communities on 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 the armed park rangers of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).

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 but admitted that their removal is connected to the reforestation of the park.

"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.

Lang has criticised the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for certifying the project as well-managed. The FSC is an independent body that "provides internationally recognised standard-setting, trademark assurance and accreditation services to companies, organisations, and communities."

Furthermore, "the FSC label provides a credible link between responsible production and consumption of forest products, enabling consumers and businesses to make purchasing decisions that benefit people and the environment as well as providing ongoing business value," according to its website.

The FSC certification for the park indicates that while the "UWA and FACE Foundation from the Netherlands reached an agreement for the management of a 25,000 hectare restoration part" of the park, the "restoration area and the rest of the national park are managed as one management unit by UWA".

Lang told IPS that while it is true that "the tree planting project is in a strip around the boundary of the national park, under FSC rules it's not possible to do a partial certification covering just the tree planting area. So, for the purposes of the FSC, the UWA-FACE certificate covers the entire national park."

In response, Denis Slieker, managing director of the FACE Foundation, acknowledged that the FSC does not allow partial certification.

However, he argued that "since the park received the FSC certificate, it is assessed as meeting the principles of sustainable development. This does not deny that in some areas there is debate on land tenure, but the fact that the park is awarded the FSC certificate does show that the park management is dealing with land tenure or boundary issues in a proper manner.

Slieker added that the FSC audit team had "noted that UWA staff have followed the right channels (that is, approaching first local government structures and later on political structures) to amicably address the encroachment and resettlement of encroachers and the indigenous Benet.

"It further noted that resettlement of the Benet was a political matter that has to go through the (Ugandan) parliament for approval to de-gazette a portion of the park or secure an alternative piece of land and was thus out of UWA’s mandate."

Slieker also argued that "the fact that the UWA-FACE project is part of the FSC scheme and located within the park does not make the project or its partner responsible for what may or may not happen in complete different areas of the park. There would be no rational explanation for such a line of thinking."

A recent study found that the establishment of the national park in 1993 had "negative effects on local people's livelihood" as 72 percent of local households used to collect various resources from the area before it was declared a park, while only 30 percent collect similar resources now.

Moreover, previously 14 percent of the households generated incomes from the area incorporated into the park, with only two percent doing so now.

The research, which emanated from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, showed that agreements with local people improved access to forest resources but that such agreements did not exist in all cases, which had a negative effect on household income and, therefore, poverty levels.

In 2005, the high court in Uganda found that the Benet were indigenous to areas now included in the park and that they were entitled to return those areas. This decision is yet to be effected.

With an estimated 123 million tons of carbon credits traded in 2008, the voluntary carbon market across the world nearly doubled from 65 million tons of credit traded in 2007.

A report published jointly by carbon market analysts at Ecosystems Marketplace and New Carbon Finance – both U.S.-based observers of global trading in emissions credits – indicated that voluntary carbon trading credits were worth 705 million dollars, up from 331 million dollars in 2007.

(*The version of this story originally moved Sep 5 suggested that GreenSeat was still advertising credits from the project. It also did not contain responses from Chris Lang and the FACE Foundation.)

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