We have driven through a beautiful landscape with green plains and gentle hills. Then we enter the plantation and are suddenly surrounded by pine trees. Except for the fact that they are planted in straight rows, one might think one were in a Norwegian pine forest.
We are in the Bukaleba plantation near Lake Victoria in Uganda, in one of the many tree plantations belonging to the Norwegian company Green Resources. In the course of the past 17 years the company has invested more than NOK 600 million in tree planting in Africa. Altogether it has acquired more than 3000 km2 land in Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Southern Sudan.
The rapidly growing pine and eucalyptus trees planted by the company are used to produce bioenergy, charcoal and timber products. Another constantly increasing source of income is the sale of carbon credits. Green Resources is a “formidable forest planting success in Africa which generates handsome profits,” the Norwegian magazine Kapital wrote about the company in November 2011. On its website Green Resources assures its shareholders that there will be considerable returns of “at least 20-25%”.
Green Resources presents its activity as a “triple win” project. The company’s CEO has earlier described the projects as lucrative, efficient in fighting poverty and as the most reasonable method to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This same win-win rhetoric reappears in the mouths of Norwegian authorities, who claim that Norwegian climate projects in developing countries give both a large climate profit and sustainable development for the poor.
At the Bukaleba plantation in Uganda, however, there is little evidence of sustainable development.
Thousands of farmers and fishermen live inside Green Resources’ concession area in the Mayuge district, in eastern Uganda. The great majority of the population in the area supports itself by means of agriculture, but since Green Resources’ pine and eucalyptus plantation is increasing, the local communities have constantly smaller land areas for cultivation of their crops.
“Hunger is a problem. We have some vegetables, but we lack other foods. There is no land where we can cultivate our crops,” Sulaiti Maganda and Robert Nboga explain. They are the local leaders of the fishing village Walumbe, one of three villages located on the company’s land.
That approximately 50 of the inhabitants in Walumbe are employed with the company is positive but no salvation, they say:
“Some of us are employed there, but getting through a whole month without food is difficult.”
In Bukaleba, one of the other villages, a local leader told us about a difficult relationship with the company. “The company harasses us. They don’t want us to cultivate food. Some of us have a few animals, but they chase us and the animals away,” he said and continued, “Life has become difficult because there is no food here. In the place where we cultivated food they have removed the crops. We ask the company to let the remaining areas persist, so that we can cultivate food there.”
Forbidden to Cultivate Food
Green Resources has appropriated altogether 9165 hectares of land in the Mayuge district in Uganda. The area is located in a national forest reserve. According to Ugandan law, it is illegal to live and farm there, but when the authorities leased the land to Green Resources in 1996, approximately 8000 farmers and fishermen were living inside the reserve – and thus inside the company’s concession area.
The Future in Our Hands visited Uganda in 1999, and the unresolved land conflict was one of the main reasons that we at that time thought the project had dismal prospects. In the report “The Emperor’s New Clothes – On Norwegian Tree Plantations, CO2 Quotas and Neo-Colonialism in Uganda” (2000) we wrote that it was worrying that the local communities, even though many said they had lived in the area for several decades, did not have legal rights to the land.
The Future in Our Hands believed that it was highly unfortunate that the company did not assume responsibility for clearing up the land conflict but rather left it to the authorities to solve the problem, since the tree plantation would occupy the local community’s farming areas and in time threaten the local community’s basis of existence.
In addition, it was questioned whether the project would ever become an economic profit venture, since the farmers already at this point showed their opposition to the forest planting and “sabotaged the trees” by cutting off branches to get space and light to cultivate their crops.
In 2011 the extensive problems that the unresolved land rights have resulted in are obvious.
The local community that lives among Green Resources’ pine and eucalyptus trees are poor, and they fight a daily battle to make ends meet. The poverty in the area is striking. Their houses are dilapidated. The children are dressed in rags. The infant mortality in the area is high: 137 of 1000 children die before the age of 5 years.
“Previously we had the possibility of cultivating cassava, maize, and beans among the company’s trees. Now the company often comes and removes the crops. When they cut down our gardens, poverty strikes,” a local leader in Nakalanga village stated.
“That is why this local community lives in total poverty. That is why we suffer,” he said.
The land conflict has also led to losses for the company. An evaluation report compiled for the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) in 2010 states that the results for Green Resources’ tree plantation in 2009 were low because of “occupants” who “invaded the plantation and planted their own crops”.
Musa Lubanga works as Natural Resource Manager in the Mayuge district. He believes the conflict will continue:
“The local communities in the Bukaleba reserve are extremely poor. The authorities and the company make it seem as if they cultivate their crops in order to sabotage, but they to it to survive,” he said, and added,
“The population in the Bukaleba reserve want coexistence. The company must come up with a policy that includes the local communities in the reserve, so that they can coexist and won’t have to starve.” Lubanga fears that the conflict will continue as long as the local communities feel that the tree plantation is to blame for their hunger.
Instrumental Social Responsibility?
Green Resources presents itself as a company with high standards with regard to social responsibility. They believe the local community gets great satisfaction from the investments they make.
In Uganda the company has applied for and received NOK 752 000 from NORAD, to carry out social projects in the Mayuge district. The money has been used to construct a maternal health clinic and for a programme on consciousness-raising about HIV/AIDS.
In establishing the plantation they have also built roads. But despite its social projects the company has not managed to get the local communities to be in league with them, Musa Lubanga in the district authorities believes. “They have tried. They have given money for a health centre and they have built roads, especially into areas where they have plantations. But they have not succeeded in integrating the local communities,” he said.
Sulaiti Maganda and Robert Ouma Nboga from Walumbe also appreciate both the infrastructure and the clinic, but the need for food is greatest, they say. “The most important thing is for our inhabitants to be able to grow some crops, so that they won’t have to starve.”
Green Resources themselves say that they are interested in establishing good relations with the villages around the plantations. According to the company’s CEO, Mads Asprem, a resolution passed by the Board in 2009 prohibits them from doing anything that might contribute to changing the settlement pattern in or around Bukaleba. But in the villages around the plantations the inhabitants relate that representatives from the company constantly issue threats about people being removed:
“They have told us that they are going to remove this settlement, but we don’t know when,” a local leader in Bukaleba stated.
“Sometimes the company talks about gathering all the settlements in one area, but they can’t squeeze us all into one area. That would be very cramped,” Sulaiti Maganda from the fishing village Walumbe said.
Must Assume Responsibility
“The Future in Our Hands considers it a very serious matter that Green Resources’ tree plantation in Uganda threatens the food security of the local communities,” Arild Hermstad, the leader of The Future in Our Hands, stated.
The conflict between the company and the inhabitants of Mayuge has its point of departure in a land conflict that the Ugandan authorities have not solved. But Green Resources can not hide behind the authorities’ lack of follow-up, Hermstad says.
“Social responsibility is a matter of assuming responsibility beyond what is a minimum legally speaking. Green Resources themselves must assume responsibility so that the local communities do not suffer,” Hermstad stated, and added, “We experience it as if Green Resources is trying to smooth out and hush up the conflict with the local communities. When they are forced into a corner, they disclaim all responsibility. We believe it is high time that they try another strategy and make a thorough effort to find a solution for coexistence with the local communities in the area.”
Green Resources believes the situation in Uganda has been incorrectly presented. Isaac Kapalaga, Managing Director of the subsidiary Busoga Forestry Company, claims that the relationship to the company is OK. Both Kapalaga and Mads Asprem, who is a Director of Green Resources, maintain that the company has never threatened the local communities with removal of their homes.
Asprem wrote in a mail to The Future in Our Hands that the company has a resolution passed by the Board in 2009 to the effect that they will not do anything that might contribute to changing the settlement pattern in or around Bukaleba.
According to Asprem, their subsidiary BFC has taken the initiative for an agreement with the authorities and the villages by which 500 hectares will be earmarked for the villages to engage in community forestry. As far as The Future in Our Hands is aware, it is true that the area was marked in 2002. The 500 hectares have still not been transferred to the local communities. According to the company, the reason is that the authorities have not done their job. Since the area is a national forest reserve, its legal status must be changed at the highest political level before it can be given to the local communities. The company says they do not have a mandate or the possibility to do anything before the authorities change the area’s legal status.
The company denies that the plantations affect the local communities’ food security. Isaac Kapalaga, Managing Director of BFC, says that the local communities are not telling the truth when they say that they are not permitted to cultivate food. He claims the company has never removed the local communities’ crops.