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.”

Down a dirt lane from Turinawe lives the local elder, Mujafragense, who has resided in the village his whole life. He recalls the evictions of the early 1990s. “I saw the fire on the hillside and watched the people run from their homes,” he says. “Mothers were screaming and crying. You could see fear on their faces.” Mujafragense agrees that the evictions have also caused overcrowding and food shortages.

But the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) insists the displaced villagers were trespassers. According to the UWA, the villagers moved into the area during Idi Amin’s reign and were living on the land illegally, destroying its delicate ecosystem. The national parks have been established “for wildlife conservation, the conservation of natural resources,” says Sam Mwandha, director of field operations for the UWA. “But they had been encroached. Local people cleared the land and planted their crops. They have now been removed, and we are trying to have the forest come back.” He denies that the eviction of the encroachers had to do with the million-dollar tree-planting contract the UWA won in the mid-1990s from FACE. The foundation, for its part, refutes claims of mistreatment and maintains that its work in Uganda complies with principles of responsible forest management as well as local and international laws.

Because of stories like that of the Turinawe family—episodes involving eviction, brutality, and exclusion stretch back well over a decade now and include hundreds of complaints and several lawsuits—today, in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, a debate rages over the benefits of tree-planting schemes. Does the global eco business of carbon offsets actually sow rewards for the people here? Mwandha says if you looked at the villages around the park before and after the tree-planting project, a “big leap for the better” is apparent in the standard of living. He says local mothers and fathers are now gainfully employed as tree planters. And there’s more. “We are improving our climate, wildlife like elephants have returned to the park, and we are getting funds to replant areas that were encroached that would have remained grassland for a very long time.”

But Timothy Byakola, an activist with Kampala’s Climate and Development Initiatives, says otherwise. He has fought tree-planting schemes nationwide since their introduction in 1994. Byakola and his colleagues claim deals like those in Kibale National Park are preconditioned on the removal of those living in the park. He says the projects have resulted not only in brutal evictions but also in a decrease of important resources for local people, who can no longer access the firewood and herbs that grow in the forest. “It was promised to the local people that these trees were not going to take away their rights to access the forest,” he says. But they have. Villagers living nearby have told Byakola that they have been shot at when attempting to enter park ranger–protected forests.

There is a lot of hostility between the villagers and the tree-planting project, says Byakola. In some areas, he says, locals sneak over park boundaries in the night and uproot the freshly planted saplings, undoing any potential for carbon absorption. And the jobs promised to local people don’t pay enough. “From the testimonies of the communities, the money is not enough to send a primary child for one term in school. It’s not enough for milk for one person,” Byakola says.

Many villagers around Kibale National Park say the scarcity of land and lack of food caused by the evictions left them with few options other than to take a job with the tree-planting project. Still, they appreciate the opportunity for work, and employees are provided with food, a small wage, healthcare, and safety gear like covered shoes—benefits unheard of elsewhere in Uganda. Even village elder Mujafragense worked planting trees. He says that on the whole, despite the low wages (about a dollar a day), the brutal evictions, and the overcrowding, his village is better off thanks to the project.

Mwandha maintains that tree planting makes sense for Uganda and the world. “If I am a consumer in the West, I understand that I am polluting the environment, there is nothing in my own country that I can do to reduce the impact on the environment, and there is an opportunity to support a country like Uganda—then why shouldn’t I support it? Not only to offset, but also to improve the conditions in the countries where that happens to be.”

But Byakola believes it’s not that simple. “It is business,” he says. The UWA has already sunk more than a million dollars into tree planting—that’s major money in a country where the average person earns less than $300 a year. What makes it “into the pocket of the local people,” says Byakola, “is another question.”

Story by Anna Sussman. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008