When it comes to our global climate, few would argue that growing more trees is a bad thing. After all, forests naturally soak up greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles and other industrial functions, pulling harmful carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and recycling it to optimize Earth’s capacity to sustain life. Consistently, a decade ago, the Norway-based company Green Resources began planting forests on 2,670 hectares (6600 acres) of land in the government-owned Kachung Central Forest Reserve in northern Uganda under an international ‘carbon credit’ program where governments, industry or private individuals can compensate for the emissions they generate.
Here’s how it works. Companies like Green Resources acquire grassland and savanna in African nations and grow forests by selling carbon credits to entities like the Swedish Energy Agency looking to offset their own carbon pollution. In this fashion, the total emissions to our global atmosphere can be kept in check as countries like Sweden balance their own harmful industrial practices with proactive, healthier practices elsewhere.
Unfortunately, for struggling villagers who have long lived within the Kachung reserve, this ostensibly well-intentioned environmental effort has greatly damaged their own environment. Seventeen villages have been impacted as residents have been forced from their land, some violently, and their lack of access has restricted their ability to grow food, graze animals and engage in cultural practices. Local workers have been mistreated and underpaid. And the chemicals used by Green Resources in their forestry process has made the land more toxic and less able to sustain the small-scale subsistence farming and livestock herding these villagers depend on.
As a result of these inequitable practices — also referred to as “carbon violence” — and critical international attention from media and NGOs (non-governmental organizations), the Swedish Energy Agency halted payments to Green Resources in November 2015 and informed the company to recognize human rights and clean up its practices. “Villagers were deprived of vital resources and experienced threats and violence, and there is a lack of clarity regarding ownership in the reserve,” an agency spokesperson told Development Today at the time. The extraordinary suspension of payments on this $4.1 million carbon deal running from 2012 to 2032 would only be lifted in 2018, the Swedish agency said, if Green Resources addressed concerns raised by local communities. They included initiating an effective communications and complaints process, enabling cattle grazing, producing a socioeconomic analysis and development plan, repairing local wells, and respecting local land rights given the villagers, despite the land’s federal status, have a legal claim based on longevity and common law.
“When Swedish Energy Agency suspended payments two years ago, it only acted after being publicly exposed in the media and growing pressure from NGOs,” said Frédéric Mousseau, policy director for the Oakland Institute, an independent think tank on international policy. “Prior to this exposure, the agency had decided to ignore the situation and the impact of the project on the people.”
Mousseau, whose organization issued the recent report, “Carbon Colonialism,” and works with on-the-ground researchers, monitors and villagers in Kachung, has seen some change since the suspension, but not for the better. “Things are worsening year after year for the people of Kachung, who receive almost no benefits from the plantation despite Green Resources’ claims of job opportunities and water wells,” revealed Mousseau. “Green Resources has failed to address the main problems faced by the local villagers such as hunger and loss of livelihood, a result of the company’s plantation on the land that was used by them for farming, grazing, gathering of firewood, medicinal plants, and other uses.”
In an attempt to show improvement and compliance, Green Resources commissioned an audit which was released in March 2017. While the company was labeled “noncompliant” on issues of food security for local communities, it was deemed “fully compliant” in addressing land issues and the associated displacement of residents. Skeptical of an audit ordered by the company itself, the Oakland Institute relied upon its own investigation.
“Our report reveals the bias of the auditors who have chosen to overlook the many flaws of the project and the continued failure of Green Resources in addressing the grievances of the communities,” said Mousseau, noting how the company places the full onus of the land evictions on the Uganda government despite the ongoing and disputed nature of the land claims. “The auditors allow Green Resources to shirk its own responsibilities, with outcomes that violate people’s basic human rights, undermine their livelihoods, and threaten their very survival.”
While a number of international entities have interpreted Ugandan pre-constitutional law to acknowledge “bona fide” land rights for local villagers, Green Resources has a different interpretation. “The Land Act states that ‘A person who, before the coming into force of the Constitution had occupied and utilized or developed any land unchallenged by the registered owner or agent of the registered owner for twelve years or more is a lawful occupant categorized as bona fide occupant,” wrote the company in an October 2016 statement. “This statement would fit only those who had been in the Forest Reserve since 1983. However, the former Forest Department had been frequently issuing eviction notices to “encroachers” and “boundaries were being re-opened which showed that the encroachers were not lawful occupants. These actions constitute a ‘challenge’ to the occupants, and as such, under Ugandan law, they do not have the ‘Bona Fide’ land rights claimed.”
The resolution to the land dispute, like the legality itself, remains unclear. Nonetheless, in its report, the Oakland Institute clearly outlined what needs to happen next in Kachung. Among its numerous recommendations is the cancellation of the carbon credit deal with Green Resources by the Swedish Energy Agency, the suspension of funding to Green Resources by its international financiers, and the development of higher international standards for “the recognition of common and customary land rights than just the legality of contracts and land leases.”
“We are calling on the Swedish Energy Agency to face the reality and listen to the villagers impacted by the tree plantation,” stressed Mousseau, noting, “It should be obvious to the agency that it should assume its responsibility, suspend any further payments and immediately cancel the deal with Green Resources.”
That said, Mousseau clarified that what’s ultimately at stake is much larger than the inequitable developments in the Kachung region of northern Uganda.
“Our report is called ‘Carbon Colonialism’ because it highlights an issue much broader than just the malpractices of an individual Norwegian company in Africa,” clarified Mousseau. “It is about rich nations and their international financial institutions developing a system that exploit the natural resources of African countries and impoverish local people under the guise of sustainable development and the fight against climate change.”
Mousseau added, “This fraud must stop.”