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CDM Carbon Sink Tree Plantations: A Case Study in Tanzania

Idete Tree Plantation Project

This study investigates a tree plantation project of the Norwegian company, Green Resources Ltd. (GRL), at Idete in the Mufindi district of Iringa province in southern Tanzania. It raises critical questions about the sustainability and viability of alien tree plantations that are intended for carbon sequestration in terms of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol (KP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). These plantations are incorrectly termed as ‘reforestation’.  The Kyoto Protocol commits industrialized nations that have ratified the Protocol to reduce their overall carbon emissions by at least five (5) percent of 1990 levels during the period 2008–2012, and permits a portion of those commitments to be offset through the purchase of Certified Emission Reductions (CERs) from CDM projects. The company expects to benefit from the sale of carbon credits by planting alien pine and eucalyptus trees in natural grasslands, which they describe incorrectly as ‘degraded’. To earn CERs, GRL must show that the project would not have been viable without income from CERs. 

Norway occupies an ambivalent position in relation to this project. On one hand, it is a major oil producer and exporter via the company known as Statoil, and contributes substantially to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It has entered into an agreement with GRL to purchase 400,000 carbon credits from the company, subject to the Idete plantations being registered as a CDM project. On the other hand, Norwegian public funds have been invested in or granted to GRL, effectively making it a project of the Norwegian government.  

It seems Norway would like to be seen to occupy high moral ground and, therefore, seeks to align itself with progressive policies in social, environmental, human rights and other development issues. As such, and in view of the need to address climate change, the Norwegian government has committed itself to various climate change mitigation projects around the world. In keeping with this, it is looking to buy more than 6,000,000 carbon reduction units (carbon credits) globally, for the purpose of offsetting greenhouse gas emissions and to stimulate carbon trading, as this comprises a substantial sector of the Norwegian economy.   

Consequently, Green Resources Ltd.’s projects in Tanzania represent an important investment for the Norwegian government. As such, an agreement that should have been negotiated directly between GRL as a private investor and the host country became an inter-governmental affair with the Prime Minister of Norway being in Tanzania for the signing of the agreement, as described in the article below. 

The authors have studied the social, cultural, political and economic impacts of industrial tree plantations in South Africa and Swaziland, and concluded that in an African context, the monoculture tree plantation model is non-sustainable from many points of view, even with market-based mechanisms such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certification in place. 

This research reveals significant problems at Idete, with the land being lost by displaced communities, poor working conditions, the destruction of biodiversity on which communities rely for food, fuel and medicines; reduced water availability, as well as many other direct and indirect effects that impact negatively on the livelihoods of the affected communities.  

The industrial plantation model is designed to support corporate financial accumulation through so-called ‘economy of scale’, but its negative effects including heavy water use, and damage to biodiversity and the land, are usually underestimated. Large-scale plantations often cause the economic and social marginalization of affected local communities. In this instance, the governments of Norway (via Green Resources Ltd.) and Tanzania appear not to have ensured an adequate level of meaningful participation in decision-making by affected communities, despite the requirements of institutional mechanisms designed to facilitate participation. A closer analysis of these processes in relation to capacity levels in local communities shows that while on the surface, they could indicate government and corporate involvement in facilitating such participation, in reality, they do little more than green wash projects. In the case of Idete, it appears there was inadequate adherence to the free prior informed consent (FPIC) principle.

It could be argued that the good intentions recorded in project founding and establishment documents are not always implementable on the ground. It would not be far-fetched, however, to imagine that this results in financial savings and, therefore, might not be of concern to the government and companies involved. It is also clear that the government of Tanzania does not have the capacity to protect communities from the potential abuse and marginalization during the course of the project. However there is also the possibility of simple economic expediency. A Green Resources Ltd. official simplified this to a choice between idealism and realism. He surmised: “Once you come to grips with the level of unemployment, and our failure to convert our economy into a massive production system that could absorb our people and meet aspirations, on one hand, and (on the other) see the vast land that has productive capacity but is lying idle… it would seem only plausible to share it with anyone who convinces you that they have use for it, which in the process would benefit your people in a manner you are not able to. Even if there could be some problems, you would think of them as challenges. Like in any investment, there is no such thing as problem-free land use and investment. It seems to me that a realistic move would be to let such investor use the land and trust that some benefits would accrue to the communities.” 

It is, therefore, possible to argue that the government of Tanzania may have disregarded the potential for long-term social and environmental damage by this type of project in consideration of there being some foreign direct investment and minimal opportunities for employment.  

Equitable distribution of income from foreign investment projects is not a strong point of developing country governments.  Affected communities rarely benefit from the taxes and other financial benefits accruing from a project sanctioned and coordinated at the national level. This is true of many African countries besides Tanzania and strengthens the case for local community self-determination and management of community-business relations.