Dubai carbon trader buys up African forests — saving the planet or environmental colonialism?

Trees preserved in a forest conservation project in Mbire, Zimbabwe, on 15 May 15 2021. (Photo: Cynthia R Matonhodze / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

This week at COP28 an obscure Emirati firm will move closer, at least on paper, to taking control of up to 50 million hectares of African forests, national parks and agricultural land across half a dozen countries.

The proposition by Blue Carbon LLC, headed by Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum, a member of the Dubai royal family, seems almost too good to be true.

Blue Carbon promises to invest billions of dollars to preserve Africa’s forests and wildlife estates by converting them to carbon credits. Everyone will share a tidy profit while helping save the planet. Global polluters will foot the bill.

A senior official at the environment ministry in Zimbabwe enthused to the Daily Maverick at the prospect, to be finalised at COP28, in which one-fifth of all the land in his country is at stake.

“They will implement nature-based projects over seven-and-a-half million hectares of land covering national parks, forest lands and selected communal lands,” the official said, starting with Kariba, Mbire and Binga in the northwest.

Blue Carbon would not be “buying” the land, he insisted, but “managing” it to generate carbon credits and then selling them. The income would go to the investor, the communities and the government.

While this looks great on paper, activists see it as a form of environmental colonialism undermining the land rights of local communities – for the benefit of rich nations so that they can go on polluting.

If implemented, the deal will risk the livelihoods of up to a million people, do away with communal land ownership in some areas, and violate people’s legal rights to provide consent for developments on their land.

The Blue Carbon deals are having a political impact in the countries where they are being negotiated – Liberia, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Angola.

A common objection is that people are completely in the dark about the schemes. They suspect that politicians are being offered “incentives” to sign deals that are not necessarily in the best interests of the country.

In 2009, Liberia nearly signed a carbon trade contract with a UK company that ended with many government officials being charged with bribery and corruption.

What little is known about Blue Carbon’s actual intentions comes from a leaked copy of the Liberian MoU, signed in March, in which the government agreed in principle to cede control of millions of hectares of Liberian forests – 10% of the country – to Blue Carbon for 30 years.

The Dutch environmental NGO Fern said that, if implemented, the deal would risk the livelihoods of up to a million people, do away with communal land ownership in some areas, and violate people’s legal rights to provide consent for developments on their land.

Silas Siakor, founder of the Liberian environmental NGO the Sustainable Development Institute, describes the deal as illegal.

Opposition to the deal was a factor in the defeat of Liberian President George Weah in this month’s presidential elections.

The connection with Liberia came through Sheikh Ahmed’s business associate, convicted Italian fraudster and fugitive from justice Samuele Landi, who Weah, for no obvious reason, appointed as Liberia’s consul general in the UAE.

Landi lives on a floating island off Dubai and remains on the Blue Carbon board in charge of “cybersecurity”.

Keeping it dark

The lack of transparency is complicating the scheme’s prospects in Tanzania where the opposition Chadema party has demanded, without success, that the government make public whatever it has agreed with Blue Carbon.

Chadema’s Tundu Lissu told Daily Maverick that in a law enacted under President John “Bulldozer” Magufuli, the government is obligated to table all natural resource agreements it enters with foreign entities in parliament.

“So, President Samia Suluhu Hassan, the successor to the Magufuli dictatorship, is rejecting the only positive legacy of the president she deputised for six years.”

Since signing the deal, the Kenyan government has been evicting members of the Ogiek community of hunter-gatherers from the Mau Forest.

Lissu says the president knows that if the deal was made public the opposition would make a meal out of it, like they did when the government handed a monopoly for running all the country’s ports to another Emirati company, DP Ports World, generating widespread public protests.

“Hiding it won’t help her much. We’re sure to get hold of it, our leaky bureaucracy will see to that,” said Lissu.

In Kenya, Blue Carbon signed an MoU with the department of environment and climate change that will concede millions of hectares for harvesting carbon credits.

Since signing the deal, the Kenyan government has been evicting members of the Ogiek community of hunter-gatherers from the Mau Forest, a move that the community claims is to cement full territorial control over the asset in order to profit from a carbon-offsetting scheme.

Zambia at least seems to be following a legal process and due diligence. The Blue Carbon MoU was distributed to the ministry of lands and agriculture, and the attorney-general’s chambers for reviews, and the environment ministry is conducting an environmental impact assessment.

Rules of the game

There remain several unanswered questions, some of which hopefully will be unveiled at COP28. The most pressing have to do with financing, what plans – if any – there are for forest restoration, what verification methods will be used, and what compensation is planned for the government and the communities.

COP28 is set to agree rules for government purchases of carbon credits to offset emissions as part of national pledges under the Paris Agreement.

It would also be enlightening if Blue Carbon could answer what exactly it brings to the table. The company was established only a year ago and has no track record in either carbon trading or forestry management.

And yet, looking at the Liberian contract, Blue Carbon will, for the next 30 years, have the right to decide when or whether the carbon credits will be sold, removing the Liberian government’s right to generate carbon credits for its own benefit or to meet its climate targets.

Blue Carbon will initially take 70% of the sale price of the credits, with 30% left for Liberia.

American environmental author Fred Pearce writes that the concerns are threefold: That forest communities will lose control of their forests; that not much revenue from carbon-credit sales will reach African governments or forest communities; and that the credits may provide bogus carbon offsets.

Environmentalists have grown sceptical of carbon trading markets which they increasingly see as rewarding polluters or being ripe for “greenwashing” scams by corporations.

A Guardian investigation recently found that more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by the world’s biggest certifier, Verra, have no value whatsoever.

This has not dissuaded several other companies from joining the race for carbon credits in Africa.

Back in 1969, after the first moon landing, there was a roaring trade in real estate plots on the moon. Let’s hope that the threat of global warming is not precipitating a similar scramble for fool’s gold in Africa. DM

  • Phillip van Niekerk is the editor of Africa Unscrambled, a newsletter covering the continent in a way you won’t read anywhere else. Get Unscrambled by signing up here. He is also the editorial director of Scrolla Africa.


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