New Vision (Kampala)

Uganda: Fight for a Forest

Kampala — THE 1997 Kyoto Protocol set limits on greenhouse gas emissions, spawning a clean air industry with investors lining up to finance huge tree plantations around the world. But some accuse developing countries of clearing land better suited for crops, or driving indigenous peoples off their land. Gerald Tenywa and Salome Alweny look at two plantation projects in Uganda, where natives have been displaced from their ancestral homelands.

It was an act of defiance when Henry Tekei and his Ndorobo tribesmen over-ran a protected forest reserve in eastern Uganda last April and hacked down thousands of trees planted by a Netherlands-based firm.

"No one should say that we don't respect the forest," says Tekei, controlling his anger as he points up to the strikingly green Mount Elgon National Park, where tribesmen axed the trees in a four-month destruction spree.

They cut the trees not to disrespect the forest, but to reclaim land they had lived on for generations, he says.

The controversial 1,100 sqkm reserve, on the border with Kenya, is built on the ancestral homeland of the Ndorobo and other larger tribes like the Sabiny and Bagisu.

Their scattered communities inside the reserve were violently driven off the forest by park officials over a five-year period that began in 1989, tribesmen say.

"When park officials came to evict us, we resisted," remembers Tekei, who was forced out of the park in 1993.

"They returned one night and burned my house to ashes, forcing my family to flee," says Tekei, 60. "We lost everything," he adds, including his modest prize cattle, goats and chickens.

In 1994, after the land was cleared, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) signed a 25,000 hectare tree plantation agreement with the FACE Foundation, a Netherlands-based company dealing in a controversial carbon trade business that evolved from the Kyoto Protocol.

That 1997 agreement, aimed at mitigating climate change, assigns fixed greenhouse gas emission targets to industrialised nations who have signed the treaty, which in turn divide the targets among businesses involved in power generation, manufacturing or other processes that pollute the air.

Firms that exceed their targets have an option to 'buy' credits from others that are not using up all of their allowance, or by funding clean air projects in developing countries, such as tree plantations. Over-polluters can take exceedingly costly measures to cut emissions at home, or choose to offset the excess by 'buying' an equivalent amount of carbon trapped in trees from companies like FACE, an acronym for Forests Absorbing Carbon dioxide Emissions.

Countries from Ecuador to India have already jumped on the carbon trade bandwagon with large plantations they hope will earn profits through the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

The price of clean air

At a major United Nations climate change conference underway in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, African countries expressed interest in more carbon storage projects to profit from the CDM.

But environmentalists and international justice groups warned that developing countries eager to attract foreign investment are tempted to clear land better suited to grow food, or compromise on the rights of indigenous peoples, such as those displaced at Mount Elgon.

In Uganda, stories of violence from displacement are not limited to Mount Elgon. At the Kibaale National Park in western Uganda, natives tell other tales of displacement and violence to clear a 10,000 hectare plantation for FACE.

Henry Tumuramye, a Mukiga, says he bought a piece of land in the 1950s and built himself a home, in what is now the Kibaale National Park. Then one day his house was burnt down.

Some of those driven from Kibaale have received financial compensation or land elsewhere, Tumuramye says. But the landless from Mount Elgon say they have not been so fortunate.

"We do not believe in compensation, because living in the forest is part of our culture. We do not want land elsewhere," says a defiant Tekei, who now lives with relatives in one of the spontaneous shanty towns that has grown on the foothills of the extinct volcano.

Despite the evictions, park officials constantly have to play hide-and-seek with tribesmen who sneak into parts of the huge forests, build huts and begin growing crops until they are found and forced off again.

FACE does not deny that people were forced off their ancestral lands.

Igino Emmer, an Amsterdam-based consultant with FACE, says under UWA's agreement with FACE, indigenous peoples were given rights to forest resources, such as firewood. But he says that some of the problems with tribes appeared to be politically motivated.

Emmer says that politicians had promised to return lands to the tribesmen in return for political support. "This has incited people to re-invade the protected area," he says.

"There is confusion at the moment, and the way I understand it is that some of the trees that have been planted have been destroyed by the communities," he says.

FACE is already advertising its carbon credits and selling them to businesses in the Netherlands, according to Kibaale project manager, Wilfred Chemutai.

But do they work?

Environmentalists are sceptical that carbon storage projects such as those owned by FACE could mitigate climate change. They complain that the Kyoto Protocol gives rich nations a blank cheque to keep polluting, instead of forcing more costly measures to reduce emissions.

Miguel Lovera, an environmental campaigner with the Global Forest Coalition, says that Africa's interest in tree plantations is controversial.

"It is being undertaken without fair treatment of the local people. There are a lot of resources, but the interests of the local people are not being respected," he says.

"In order for plantations to work, you need sound governance procedures that hinge on justice and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples," says Lovera, who was warning top African officials at the Nairobi conference against jumping too quickly into the carbon plantations business.

"There are many international agencies that have strong interest in Africa and have given a lot of money for tree planting. But this is not going to benefit the local people, because it goes against the norms of the local people, especially those who own the land communally," Lovera says. He also warns that the tree plantations, known as 'carbon sinks', degrade the soil, making it unsuitable for food crops in the future.

Sam Mwandha, another UWA official, admits to problems with the tribes, but says these were limited to a few areas. He says the Ndorobo's claims are being looked at.

Mwandha denies that the parks were cleared to make way for FACE projects, saying the evictions were planned before negotiations with FACE had even begun.

Tekei says he lost his identity when he lost his land. "What we want is our right to own land and to be respected as human beings, even when there are no land titles," he says. "It is the forest that gives us our identity."

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