The carbon offset industry is booming. But how fair is the trade?


In Uganda, a debate rages over the benefits of tree-planting schemes


By Anna Sussman


Photo by Annie Marie Musselman

Early one morning in 1993, Wilson Turinawe woke up to the crack of gunfire in Uganda’s Kibale National Park. Paramilitary park rangers were attacking his village. His thatched hut was set on fire. His wife grabbed their infant child and ran. Turinawe was slashed with a machete. He still has the scars. “They came with guns,” he recalls, with a disbelief in his voice that suggests the episode might have taken place just yesterday instead of fifteen years ago. “Everything of my household was burned. A radio cassette, a bicycle, and even food that I had just got from my gardens was all burned down.”

Turinawe is one of 30,000 villagers who have been kicked out of their homes in Uganda’s Kibale National Park to make way for a massive, 86,000-acre tree-planting project. The trouble, Turinawe says, actually started 4,000 miles away in Europe, where businesses have been giving money to the Forest Absorbing Carbon Dioxide Emission (FACE) Foundation, a Dutch nonprofit that pays the Ugandan government to plant trees that will one day offset carbon emissions. Two more Dutch organzations are involved in offset-related tree-planting in Uganda: Tendris launched the GreenCard program, which calculates and offsets the carbon emissions created by consumer purchases; and GreenSeat plants and manages forests in Uganda to compensate for the carbon released during air travel.

With some 2.4 billion tons of carbon traded last year, carbon offsetting is a booming business. Carbon-neutral products allow consumers to help pay for projects that offset the emissions linked to their purchases. The money goes to efforts like tree planting or wind power investment. These programs are attractive because they allow consumers to reduce their carbon footprint without changing their lifestyles. Some environmentalists say offset programs such as GreenCard and GreenSeat are symbiotic, a way for consumers and companies to atone for their eco sins and boost the economies of poorer nations that most acutely feel the effects of climate change. But critics say offsetting is a guilt-assuaging quick fix for decadence and over-consumption. They say it comes at the expense of people in developing nations, who are once again being punished by Western business schemes.

Turinawe now lives in a small mud hut with his wife and eight children in a farming village just outside the park boundary. Like most of the families in this village, Turinawe’s children do not go to school. They spend their days helping to grow bananas and potatoes, running for buckets of water, and carrying sacks of cornmeal. At night, their bed is a plastic tarp on the floor of their mud hut. Turinawe says that after being kicked out of the park, his quality of life fell dramatically. “There is not enough land to farm here,” he says, because the villages are so overcrowded with evictees. “I don’t have enough food to feed my family.”

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