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CDM Carbon Sink Tree Plantations: Insights into Sustainability Issues

Idete CDM Tree Plantation

Forests play a crucial role in mitigating global warming. Their inclusion as ‘carbon sinks’ in international frameworks, such as REDD, to reduce emissions, has evoked interest among corporate and governments alike, who look at plantation projects to raise carbon credits to ‘subsidize’ their emissions back at home, in addition to other forest by-products.

However, there are many ground-realities largely ignored by project proponents that pose a greater threat to the environment than the envisaged benefits. ThinktoSustain.com interacts with researchers – Dr. Blessing J. Karumbidza and Mr. Wally Menne – who recently conducted a study on a tree plantation by a Norwegian company in Tanzania. (Click here to read brief details of the study.)

Tree plantations in South Africa are grown to produce timber and paper products mainly for export, and to generate income that mainly benefits the multinational paper companies that own the plantations and pulp mills. However, they also cause substantial environmental damage, besides affecting local communities and rural economies negatively.

To ascertain the impact of such projects, The Timberwatch Coalition conducted a study of a tree plantation carbon sink project at Idete in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania. The Norwegian company that owns the project, Green Resources Ltd., aims to register the project under the CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) so as to be able to generate carbon credits to sell to the Norwegian government. 

ThinktoSustain.com: First of all, why do industrial plantations exist in Tanzania? Who (government, multinationals or local people) is interested in such projects and Why?

Dr. Blessing Karumbidza & Mr. Wally Menne: Industrial tree plantations have a long history in Tanzania, just as anywhere else in Africa where such plantations exist. We (at Timberwatch) focus specifically on industrial tree plantations for a number of reasons. Firstly, these industrial timber plantations are not forests, yet they are considered so in policy, as if they are real forests. Secondly, they are usually a monoculture tree crop that permanently destroys the bio-diversity of any area where they are planted, and impacts negatively on existing land-usage. 

Most of the established industrial tree plantations in Tanzania were planted during the second half of the 20th century, when the country was still under colonial rule, to help meet the timber, pulp & paper demands of growing industrial economies. They did support a crude form of economic growth, albeit an unsustainable one, requiring large areas of arable land and consuming more water than could be justified by their end value, whilst providing relatively few job opportunities for mainly temporary unskilled workers. 

Historically speaking, the legislation intended to regulate and control the timber production sector has been very weak in Africa in general, and this has been the case in Tanzania as well. Even in countries like South Africa, where more comprehensive legislation has been introduced, especially relating to water usage, its full implementation and effective enforcement still leaves a lot to be desired.

ThinktoSustain.com: What is the Idete plantation project? When was it started? What were the benefits envisaged at the beginning of this project? 

Dr. Blessing Karumbidza & Mr. Wally Menne: It appears that the Idete ‘forest’ project was conceived in the late 1990s, though the actual tree planting by Green Resources Ltd. at Idete started around 2005. The project was partially in response to a perceived opportunity to make money from earning plantation carbon credits under the CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) of the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted by the UNFCCC in 1997. However, the main motive for the new tree plantations was probably to take advantage of easy access to cheap community-owned agricultural land and grasslands, for timber production, because it is quite clear that the company would have established the tree plantations there regardless of their being eligible for CDM carbon credits or not. 

Idete CDM Tree Plantations

ThinktoSustain.com: In your study, you have cited local peoples’ experiences in South Africa and other countries. These experiences have not been good. According to you, why has this been so? 

Dr. Blessing Karumbidza & Mr. Wally Menne: The timber plantation sector is wasteful in many ways: using large areas of land, consuming much water and impacting negatively on the natural environment. Downstream processing of timber for pulp and paper production consumes and pollutes scarce water resources, and requires substantial amounts of cheap energy from non-renewable sources, mainly coal. In South Africa, this sector also developed in tandem with apartheid, and its story is linked to massive forced removals and displacement of poor black communities. Since 1994, when apartheid policies were officially ended, little has changed and the plantation timber industry is still guilty of exploiting poor communities and harming the environment.

ThinktoSustain.com: Your study highlights an important aspect that Industrial tree plantations in Tanzania would have a devastating impact on biodiversity and have negative consequences on the local people. Can you explain why and how this has happened or can happen?

Dr. Blessing Karumbidza & Mr. Wally Menne: Whether established on agricultural land or in natural habitat, such as the grassland areas at Idete, monoculture tree plantations wipe out other forms of life including important medicinal and food plants, and the wild animals hunted by the local community for food. The loss of grasslands used for grazing also impacts heavily on livestock-keeping, and usually means that grazing pressure will increase in the remaining grasslands, to the detriment of the ecosystem. The informal local economy is dependent on resources derived from Nature, and supplemented by small-scale agriculture. The destruction of this natural resource base through the establishment of tree plantations causes the local community to become dependent on an externally imposed financial economy, wherein inexperienced rural people with little formal education become the victims of their need to survive from the minimal wages paid for their labour by companies like Green Resources Ltd.