Carbon markets and the failed promise of new green gold: plantation forestry in Uganda

Kristen Lyons and Peter Westoby

School of Social Science, Queensland University

Chain Reaction #119, Nov 2013,

Private sector investment is now central to international development. But there are profound social and environmental costs associated with privatising development. Such costs demonstrate the limits of market-based private led development interventions.

In this article we draw from a year's research in Uganda, where private sector led plantation forestry and carbon trading initiatives are delivering 'development' but at the cost of significant local livelihoods. Our research indicates that the enclosure of land to establish forestry plantations is constraining local people's access and user rights to landscapes they have historically relied for food, expressions of culture, the collection of firewood, local medicines and much more. Yet carbon accounting, and the reductive logic on which carbon markets rely, fails to adequately consider the rights and interests of these marginalised communities, many who have long-term connections to land.

Contemporary neo-liberal (and market-based) approaches to development are enabling the largely unregulated 'investment' by finance capital, including from the private sector and philanthro-capitalists (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) in the global south. Such trends coincide with the decline in foreign aid spending in some countries, including Australia. This so-called privatisation of development is clear on the African continent, where the food, agriculture, timber, biofuels, oil and mining sectors have become significant targets for foreign investors.

Much private investment is now directed towards market-based responses to climate change. Many of these, including the carbon offset project that we examine here, rely upon mitigation strategies in the global south to offset industrial and polluting activities in the global north. There are loud calls of support for these market-based approaches, including by the Durban United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change Conference.

Green Resources and Green Gold

To increase understandings of the impacts of private-led green development interventions, we have focused on the activities of Green Resources, a private Norwegian company engaged in forestry plantations, carbon offset, forest products and renewable energy in Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan. Green Resources is now estimated to be the largest plantation forestry operation on the African continent. In Uganda, Green Resources has obtained licenses to establish forestry plantations in two degraded Central Forest Reserves; the Bukaleba Forest Reserve (4500 ha) in Muyuge District on the shores of Lake Victoria in eastern Uganda, and the Kachung Forest Reserve (2221 ha) in Dokolo District, northern Uganda.

In order to participate in international carbon markets, Green Resources complies with a number of international regulatory mechanisms (including the Forest Stewardship Council, the Climate Community and Biodiversity Standard and the Clean Development Mechanism). Amongst other things, these regulations enable the reduction of plantations into measurable carbon; through calculations related to the area under plantation forestry, the diameter and height of individual trees, alongside other metrics.

Despite the benefits associated with Green Resources' activities in Uganda – including some employment opportunities, provision of some important health services and infrastructure – benefits on which the company makes claims to corporate social responsibility, there is another story. Our fieldwork – including interviews and focus group discussions with around 150 women and men living in villages both within and directly adjacent to the forestry plantations – points to the social, ecological and political challenges associated with the arrival of this company in Uganda. We highlight just some of these issues here, before turning to consider what this means for the future of carbon trading initiatives for development in Uganda, and more broadly.

The human costs

From the beginning, Green Resources' activities have had profound impacts for local people. Establishing Green Resources' plantations, for example, required the re-location of many people. No compensation has been paid to those affected. Some village members describe being 'chased away' by the company, sometimes violently, and in the process losing crops and household items vital to their livelihoods. As a result of forced resettlement, many people describe now being distanced from important cultural sites – including a sacred Walumbe tree in Bukaleba Central Forest Reserve, as well as family burial grounds. Many people spoke of the desecration of sacred sites, including the plantation being located directly on top of burial grounds.

Food insecurity has also been intensified for many community members. The Central Forest Reserves (location of the plantations) have historically been important areas for crop cultivation and animal grazing (although there is contestation about whether this is a legal activity). Yet these are the very lands which communities have lost access to as an outcome of the license arrangement between the company and the Central Government. Some villagers also described the company encroaching onto designated community land, further reducing land availability and intensifying vulnerability to food shortages. In short, many people are describing a landscape that is literally being over-taken by trees, leaving little space to carve out viable livelihoods at the local level.

Many described taking employment with the company as a strategy to generate an income, thereby creating the means to purchase food (and other vital needs) for their household. Yet amongst those employed by the company (in the nursery and in the plantations), there are also concerns about workers' conditions and rates of pay. For example, some people reported being required to buy their own safety equipment and tools, while others spoke of low rates of pay and delays in payment, with little recourse to the company.

Limited employment opportunities also create divisions amongst community members; between those benefitting from the company, and those who do not (including older members of the community who are unfit for the physical work required). This division is intensified when local people are employed in the role of plantation security officers – and are therefore responsible for ensuring fellow community members do not 'trespass', and enforcing fines and/or jail sentences in cases where this occurs.

On the one hand, we heard stories from people who explained they were no longer able to enter the licensed plantation area to grow crops or collect firewood, and cases of trespass that were met with large fines and sometimes jail sentences. Yet we also heard stories from people who were employed to weed food gardens that were being cultivated within the license area. In these cases, it appears certain individuals – with special privileges, or those willing/able to pay the company – were able to rent this land directly (and informally) from the company.

Such scenarios only further fuel the confusion many community members have about access and user rights in the plantations. This relates not only to rights related to growing food within the plantation license area, but also rights related to grazing animals, the collection of firewood and medicinal crops. This confusion is fuelling anxiety and community mistrust of both the company and local leaders, and many people are worried about their long-term future, including their ability to access food growing land.

Fools Gold

Overall, it appears the privatised carbon market model of development is doing more to entrench the commercial interests of first world financial interests than altering structural dynamics in ways that might enable local people in Uganda to benefit from this development intervention. Instead of winning, as the company would like us to believe, the communities with whom we spoke who live in and adjacent to Green Resources' plantations are struggling to come to grips with the new modes of resource access and use that are a direct outcome of the enclosure of forest reserves into plantation forestry, and their subsequent reduction into carbon.

While Green Resources (and other companies like it) are set to profit from the climate crisis, development initiatives such as the one we have considered here arguably do little to address the fundamental challenges we face. And while Uganda is one of a number of countries that has historically made only minor contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions, the stories here – including violent evictions, increased food insecurity and disconnection from sites of cultural significance – demonstrate the burden local people are now being expected to carry in a climate change world. Given such blatant inequity – and despite the hype from its champions – north/south carbon markets are revealing themselves as fools gold, rather than a much hyped green gold.

Meanwhile, Uganda's mostly subsistence farming communities continue to adapt and transition to life in a climate change world. Surely international development – including investment from both national governments and the private sector – might achieve more positive outcomes, or at least do less harm, by focusing on investment that supports such local community initiatives?