When Beatrice Ahimbisibwe--a widow, single mother, and school-teacher living in western Uganda--first signed the contract agreeing to sell carbon sequestration credits from her small parcel of land, her neighbors thought she was crazy. Ahimbisibwe's neighbors weren't sure what carbon dioxide was, how it was made or where it went, let alone who would want to pay for it.
"You are giving away your land for nothing," local residents told her. "One day they'll just come and take it."
Although she didn't believe them, Ahimbisibwe admits the reactions of those around her gave her a bit of pause. She decided, nonetheless, to go through with the deal because--as she had often instructed her students--she felt protecting the environment was the right thing to do.
And so, in June 2003, two years before the Kyoto Protocol was even ratified (let alone accepting forestry-based carbon credits from Africa), Ahimbisibwe entered into a contract with ECOTRUST, a Ugandan NGO, who, working with a variety of international organizations (including the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management, or ECCM), agreed to buy Ahimbisibwe's carbon. In return for carbon payments, Ahimbisibwe--along with 30 other landowners in Uganda--agreed to sell the rights to the carbon sequestration generated by planting native species of trees on their land.
Despite the many difficulties she has had to face, Ahimbisibwe believes she is fortunate to live near the village of Bushenye, in the Bitereko sub-county of southwestern Uganda. The country is marked by a stunning set of lush, plantain-covered mountains and dotted with incredibly deep jade-green crater lakes that rise from the rift valley at Africa's center. A few kilometers down the road from Ahimbisibwe's farm, lies Queen Elizabeth National Park: a land of elephants, lions, antelopes, hippos, and, improbably, chimpanzees. Not far away, the famous Rwenzori--"mountains of the moon"--provide some of Africa's last refuges for mountain gorilla.
For a land rich in natural beauty, Ahimbisibwe's home is also desperately poor. In this, again, she is luckier than most. The starting salary for a secondary school teacher in her part of Uganda is $150 per month, and Ahimbisibwe has been teaching for more than 16 years now, so she probably makes more than that. This compares to an average salary for that part of Uganda of $70 a month. Besides, Beatrice, because she is a Geography teacher, has read about (and taught about) pollution, the environment, the problems of global warming, and the Kyoto climate change treaty.
In addition to all this, Beatrice has for some years been a member –indeed the chosen leader—of a local women's collective called the Bitereko Women's Group, and is the Chairperson of a local micro-finance institution. So she has had experience working with loans and grants, filling out forms, and writing reports.
"In fact," says Byamukama Biryahwaho, the progam officer in charge of the carbon project at ECOTRUST, and one of the program's architects, "that is how we found Beatrice. At ECOTRUST we've had a number of projects in this part of Uganda. First, in 1999 we provided a grant to the Bitereko Women's group to set up woodlots, obtain energy-saving stoves, and get involved in sustainable agriculture. Then, in 2002, we helped provide goats to the local women. In both these cases, the Bitereko Women's group performed admirably: they were great at writing reports for the grants. In fact, they have been so good at getting resources for their members that now men are beginning to try and join the group. So, when we began working with ECCM on a project to pay local farmers to sequester carbon, we knew this group [of which Beatrice was a part] would be a good one to start with."
Jessica Orrego, Biryahwaho's counterpart at ECCM in Scotland, explains: "Generally speaking, the decision was made to work in Bushenyi because ECOTRUST (and CARE) already had a presence there. It was decided to approach organized community groups as a way to attract farmers with some level of organizational capacity. Also, access to these farmers was facilitated through the leaders of these groups."
That is how Ahimbisibwe got involved in the carbon markets. In 2002 and 2003, ECOTRUST, together with its technical partners, ICRAF, CARE, LTS International, and ECCM, began talking to farmers in Uganda about carbon, climate change, and the possibilities available to them through the sale of carbon sequestration credits. They told farmers that in exchange for agreeing to plant native species of trees on their land, they could receive payments for the carbon they would be sequestering, payments that would come from individuals and organizations in developed countries contributing to global warming.
"At first," remembers Ahimbisibwe, "we weren't sure what this was all about. We couldn't understand how or why anyone would want to pay us for the air our trees use. For us carbon was something to do with burning wood and with charcoal. But after it was explained to us in terms of pollution, and how our trees would help reduce pollution, it began to make more sense."
In any case, Ahimbisibwe says the deal that EcoTrust was offering looked pretty good. She had land she was not using and she was happy to plant native trees that would benefit the environment and provide her with extra income. The process, however, was daunting. Interested farmers had to prepare applications that included clear indications of the land they intended to put into the program--including some form of proof of ownership--as well as obtain the signatures of all family members undertaking to protect the trees for the requisite amount of time.
Ahimbisibwe says that once she got over the initial paperwork, her particular deal was relatively straightforward: She agreed to clear and plant a hectare of her land with native species of trees. In return, experts determined she would generate 57 tons of carbon sequestered over ten years (assuming the trees survived) and would be paid US$8 per ton, for a possible total of $456 over 25 years. Additionally, Ahimbisibwe would be able to recoup any other benefits from the land, as long as the trees themselves weren't harmed: she could let her goats graze the land, she could use any wood pruned from the trees and, after some 15 years, she could use/sell the wood. In order to protect against unforeseen eventualities, all of the program participants also agreed to set aside 10% of their carbon and not sell it. In other words, for the 52 or so tons of carbon she would be selling, Ahimbisibwe would be getting paid $416 in installments. The first installment of 30% (or around $120) would be paid up-front, once the land was planted. Thereafter, the plantings would be monitored and payments would be made as follows: 20% 1 year after planting the whole plot, 20% in year 3, 10% after year 5, and 20% after year 10.
Although the regular payments are nice, Ahimbisibwe says that what really sold her on the carbon sequestration project was the prospect of selling the timber 15-20 years down the line. "In 20 years I will be retiring from my job as a teacher," she explains, "and the money I get from selling the timber will be very useful for me and my children." In other words, given the limited social security system in Uganda, and considering she is a single mother with little available capital (and nowhere local to invest it if she had it), Beatrice is putting her retirement in the hands of her land and living trees; a sound--if not positively solid--investment decision. Not only is she using a piece of land that wasn't being used otherwise, but she is also getting some up-front capital (the carbon payments) to help subsidize her investment in retirement. And she is doing all of this at the same time that she helps address global warming. It is unlikely that even the best Wall Street pension fund advisors would be able to come up with such a financially prudent (not to mention socially responsible) pension investment plan given Beatrice's unique circumstances.
Ironically, Ahimbisibwe's major concerns about the carbon sequestration program are not about the rigorous contractual processes to date, but about what will happen if the program succeeds. She explains that she and her neighbors are worried about some of the unforeseen consequences of once again having native vegetation. "What happens," she asks, "if the old species of trees come back, and as a result, we see some of the wild plants and animals come back?"
The return of wildlife seems an obvious positive for Northern environmentalists, but for the people of Uganda, the issue is more immediate. Ahimbisibwe explains that, with native trees come native monkeys that steal food and damage crops. Native species of venomous snakes such as tree vipers and rhinoceros vipers also may reappear. "This," says Ahimbisibwe, "is what we worry about. In some ways we would be more comfortable planting eucalyptus."
Eucalyptus would have been the easy choice in others ways too: Eucalyptus seedlings, paradoxically, are easier to get in Uganda than seedlings of the native African cherry (Prunus africanus), Musizi (Maesopsis eminii), Funtumia, and Khaya that Ahimbisibwe and her colleagues are planting. "Many of us didn't even remember these trees," says Ahimbisibwe, "but some of our older neighbors recognized them right away as the trees of their childhood. This makes us proud."
The use of native species is also something of great interest to carbon buyers who, in this case, are mostly in Europe. Bill Sneyd, the Director of Operations for The Carbon Neutral Company (formerly known as Future Forests), represents one of these buyers. According to Sneyd, having forestry options can be "hugely valuable in terms of communication and raising awareness, particularly if there is also a community angle."
He explains that buyers of voluntary carbon, unlike buyers for the regulated carbon markets established by Kyoto and the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS), actually prefer forestry carbon. "There is something," he says, "about growing trees that serves as a simple and engaging way to communicate what we are doing [in terms of buying and selling carbon]...In many ways it is easier for buyers to get engaged with these projects than it is for them to get engaged with technology projects [wind turbines, etc.]." He notes that his company, for this reason, has decided to keep an important part of its portfolio in forestry projects such as the one in Uganda. He says that in the voluntary carbon markets, his company's specialty, having a certain amount of forestry operations can be "hugely valuable in terms of communication and raising awareness, particularly if there is also a community angle." "People like the connection to trees," he adds, "and they also like the feeling that they are contributing towards helping people's lives."
By way of example he notes that many of the celebrities in the music and entertainment industry, people like Coldplay, Leonardo di Caprio, Dido, Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd, some of which are customers of The Carbon Neutral Company, specifically request forestry projects. "The band Coldplay is a great example of this," says Sneyd, "In offsetting the carbon emissions of their two latest albums, they specifically requested forestry projects in developing countries. At first, they were involved in a project in India, but more recently they have been involved in a forestry/community project in Mexico. And they have gotten so excited and engaged that they are talking about visiting the project after one of their upcoming tours in Mexico… It all just makes for such a superb and multi-faceted story that it draws people."
"I guess," he continues, "there is a history of musicians getting into forestry-type projects." It should therefore come as no surprise that of the 10,000 tons of sequestered carbon that The Carbon Neutral Company bought from the project in Uganda, a portion has already been allocated to offset the carbon emissions of the massive "Live 8" benefit concert that took place this summer in Scotland.
Sneyd says part of the reason his company chose to invest in the Uganda credits is due to the fact that "they are part of the Plan Vivo system developed by ECCM." (for more on the Plan Vivo system, see www.planvivo.org) He explains that this system, which "has been developed, perfected, and refined over more than 8 years," gives TCNC the necessary assurances that the project has been adequately designed, measured, and monitored. "It would have been a lot more difficult to invest in the Uganda project if it hadn't been part of the Plan Vivo system. It just gives us confidence that the carbon we are paying for--and the community benefits we want--are truly there."
Although TCNC has recently bought 10,000 tons of carbon from the ECCM-ECOTRUST project in Uganda, they did not buy Ahimbisibwe's carbon. Her 57 tons of carbon were sold to Tetra Pak UK, the UK branch of the large multi-national food packaging company. Indeed, Tetra Pak UK is the largest single buyer of Ugandan carbon. Every year they buy around 8,000 tons from the Ugandan project to offset their emissions.
"In essence," explains Samantha Edgar, Environment Officer for Tetra Pak UK, "we like the idea of investing in growing trees because it links back to our everyday business of producing packaging which is largely tree-based...[W]e see our offsetting program as a way of pre-empting [compliance with] climate change regulations that will likely affect us more and more in the future. We also see this as a way of strengthening our ability to dialogue with our stakeholders, and to motivate and communicate with our staff… The carbon projects are very important and fit in quite nicely with our company's overall environmental policy."
Since Tetra Pak began working with ECCM to develop a carbon management program in 2003, the company has created a computer-based carbon monitoring system that allows them to better gauge their carbon footprint on a yearly basis. By 2004, TetraPak UK had managed to reduce their carbon emissions by 13% as compared to their 2001 levels, and their target for 2005 has been to raise the reduction to 15% below 2001 levels. These reductions, however, don't include offsets that, according to Edgar, are used to compensate for unavoidable emissions, thus making the company "carbon neutral". In 2004, for instance, TetraPak UK's carbon footprint was just over 11,780 tons, so this is the amount they are buying for that year. To date, 80% of TetraPak UK's offsets come from the Uganda projects--including Beatrice's carbon--while the remaining 20% comes from bio-mass and solar energy projects in India and Sri Lanka.
TetraPak UK (the only division of TetraPak currently offsetting at these levels), says Edgar, is very happy with their investment in the Uganda project. "Our carbon management program, including the offsets in Uganda, have been great stories and recently helped us win the overall Wales environmental award," she explains. "So yes, we are quite pleased with this program."
Thousands of miles away, back in Uganda, Ahimbisibwe, too, is happy with the program. Her trees are growing nicely, and she has already received two payments for her land's carbon. With these two payments, she has made some upgrades to her home, installed needed food storage spaces, bought furniture, and otherwise invested in her family's future. "Oh," she says, "you should have seen my children's faces when the new sofa came in! They were so happy with the trees and the carbon."
Ahimbisibwe neighbors were also impressed by the sizable influx of cash. "How did you do it?" they asked. "How come they didn't take the trees?" they wondered. "And you are going to receive more money and still be able to sell the timber in 20 years? What is the secret"
The determined and visionary Ahimbisibwe smiles deeply as she tells the story: "I am so proud," she says, "not only do I use my work as an example when I teach my school children, and not only do I get to talk to and meet people from all over the world, but now my neighbors come and ask me questions about my carbon and my trees. Can you believe, I have become a consultant!"
In a short period of time, Ahimbisibwe--with a little help from the world's carbon markets—has evolved in the eyes of her neighbors; transforming herself from the schoolteacher with strange and wacky ideas into the local--and at times international--carbon consultant. If Ahimbisibwe's story isn't the epitome of clean and sustainable development--something that is good for the climate, good for biodiversity, good for businesses, and good for communities--then nothing else is.
Ricardo Bayon is the Managing Editor of the Ecosystem Marketplace. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First posted: November 18, 2005