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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tree Planting for Carbon Raises Questions

Air Date: Week of

Baby pine trees mark Uganda's first tree carbon project. (Photo: Beth Hoffman)

When some villagers in southwestern Uganda began planting trees to bring back cooler temperatures and rain to their region, they caught the attention of the nation's foresters. The officials signed them up for East Africa's first tree carbon project. With funding from the World Bank, they'll receive money for storing carbon in newly-planted trees. But as Beth Hoffman reports, the project could have unintended consequences.


YOUNG: Thirteen years ago the negotiators of the Kyoto Climate Accord decided there should be some way for rich countries to pay for clean, low-carbon development in poor countries. The CDM or Clean Development Mechanism was born. It helps polluters in wealthy countries purchase things like clean furnaces in Vietnam and pollution control equipment in Brazil. The CDM also pays people in poor countries to plant and protect forests. Reporter Beth Hoffman visited the first place in Africa to qualify for tree money – southwestern Uganda – and found mixed results.

HOFFMAN: Alanzio Gakibayo’s black socks droop in his worn leather shoes, and his teeth are few and far between. Dressed up for a visitor, in a sweater vest and black slacks, he and his colleagues laugh at the idea that he, an old man, just recently planted trees.


GAKIBAYO: I am 75 years of age. I planted them to get money.

HOFFMAN: But you won’t be able to cut them down?

GAKIBAYO: No, I won’t be able to [EVERYONE LAUGHS] because I am too old to do it. I am too old. I’m still hoping to get money from carbon.

HOFFMAN: Until now, these friends say, there was no reason for a 75-year-old man to a plant tree here. But now they will be paid just for planting trees and taking care of them.

GAKIBAYO: Even my children and even my grandchildren, will also get money. That is why I planted them.

HOFFMAN: Gakibayo is a member of the Rwoho Environmental Conservation and Protection Association – the first group in Africa to be promised money for storing carbon, in trees.


VOICEOVER: The Conservation and Protection Association really started around 2003.

Villagers in Rwoho, Uganda formed their own environmental association after they'd been planting trees on their own, and officials took note. The officials wrote the villagers into their World Bank carbon project plans. (Photo: Beth Hoffman)

HOFFMAN: Jerome Byesigwa chairs the group and explains how it started. In 2003, he says, the weather in the area suddenly changed when the government cut down much of the nearby Central Forest Reserve for timber. The rains stopped, and banana groves and corn stalks died.


VOICEOVER: As soon as it had been harvested we realized there was a change in the weather. Just even ordinary people would tell you that the problems we were experiencing were because our forests there had been harvested.

HOFFMAN: So members of this community decided to plant trees on their own land.


VOICEOVER: The driving force was people wishing to manage their own environment.

HOFFMAN: Soon Uganda’s National Forestry Authority took notice.


VOICEOVER: They were seeing people planting and said – these people are interested. If we really give them some technical knowledge and some guidelines, maybe they could do better.

HOFFMAN: So forest officials decided to include the community in their plans to get international money for planting trees. With funding from the World Bank, they’re now planting 5,000 acres. Of this, they gave the community 150 acres to use, free, along with seedlings to plant.


VOICEOVER: We were given land to plant.

Baby pine trees mark Uganda's first tree carbon project. (Photo: Beth Hoffman)

HOFFMAN: The community is responsible for costly weeding, thinning and fire protection. And now they wait, not so patiently, for the carbon credit money to someday come rolling in.


VOICEOVER: To this end we had an accountant from the World Bank, and he promised “as soon as possible” money will begin flowing in.


HOFFMAN: About a 20 minute drive from Rwoho on rutted, muddy roads brings you a small, crooked sign buried deep in weeds that says: RECPA Carbon Project Area, Funded by World Bank.


HOFFMAN: Beside it stand straight rows of young pine trees, like a Christmas tree farm. Below, in the low lands, is young eucalyptus, a tree native to Australia. Both trees require a lot of water. So much water in fact, that many eucalyptus were cut down in neighboring Kenya recently because of the drought.


HOFFMAN: But these trees were not selected for their environmental friendliness. They were chosen because they grow fast, and straight. They make good timber.


VOICEOVER: This crop on the left was planted March and April 2006.

HOFFMAN: That’s Lemme Kasimbaz, a Ugandan forest supervisor. He refers to the trees as a crop.


VOICEOVER: The rotation age here is 20 years. If you don’t harvest them, they can get spoiled.

HOFFMAN: It turns out this is a tree plantation. As long as the trees stand for 20 years before they're clear cut, the World Bank and United Nations allow the carbon they accumulate to be bought and sold by investors. World Bank officials would not speak on tape, but they explained that growing trees for timber will help improve degraded grasslands here. And people will also stop cutting down native trees elsewhere. At the Community Forestry Department at Makerere University, Mukadasi Buyinza says the project is short sighted.

BUYINZA: Finally, the forests will be harvested. And that carbon that has been stored will have to be released at one time. So clearly, it is a way we are postponing a problem.

HOFFMAN: In a village a few miles away, young Tiboruhame Johnson says he used to graze cows on government lands in these hills.


VOICEOVER: Before we grazed on this land and grew crops, it was open and free for us to use. And we could make money.

HOFFMAN: But there’s no place to grow bananas and corn among the trees in the new project, because the pine and eucalyptus are closely spaced, to maximize carbon absorption. The lands are now off limits to the community.


VOICEOVER: The carbon forest has changed our lives. Now we are forced to look for money elsewhere. We’ve even sold a lot of our cows and goats because there is nowhere to graze them. We’re not so happy about this forest project.

BUYINZA: That area. If you lock up such a big area in forestry that means you have deprived the community was using this area for arable farming, also for grazing. Therefore their food security is at stake and it is not secure.

HOFFMAN: While growing trees may be a step in the right direction, this first tree-carbon project in Africa appears to raise many questions. The neighboring community is deprived of cropland, which means less food. The tree species chosen require a lot of water in a region where rains are now unpredictable. And they'll be cut down and their carbon released in 20 years. But for now, back in Rwoho, Alanzio Gakibayo says the trees have made a positive difference.

GAKIBAYO: Now, I’m benefiting from the forest. I enjoy the rainfall that falls down. Formally, we did not get enough rainfall. But now we are getting it. We get plenty. So I am enjoying my planting of trees. I am enjoying it a lot.

HOFFMAN: For Living on Earth, I’m Beth Hoffman in Southwestern Uganda.



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