Nelly Bassily | September 7, 2009
Ezra Wandeka holds a charred pink folder. The folder was burnt when forest rangers set fire to his home. Inside the folder is the title to a piece of land he called his own. It’s a reminder of the time when he was a parish chief. When he owned 26 cows. It’s also a reminder of the day the fires were set and all he could do was run away.
Ezra Wandeka is Benet, a group of indigenous Ugandans. The Benet people have long called the Mount Elgon region of southeastern Uganda home. But all that changed in 1993. The land where they lived and farmed was designated as a national park, and forest rangers began evicting the Benets. Soon, trees were being planted in the area. In time, the Benets would learn about the financial interests behind their eviction. A Dutch company called the Face Foundation was paying the Ugandan government to plant trees, so they, in turn, could sell carbon credits.
Carbon credits are a new commodity on the global market. Individuals or companies who create greenhouse gas emissions purchase carbon credits from initiatives that aim to store carbon – often by planting trees. The Face Foundation sells carbon credits to another Dutch business, for re-sale to predominantly Western clients.
The Ugandan Wildlife Authority defends the tree planting project in Mount Elgon. Richard Matanda is a warden in Mount Elgon. He says the Benets were encroaching on forest land that had to be conserved. “Whatever we do in these areas – even evictions – has to comply with principles of responsible forest management and the laws of Uganda,” Matanda says.
Moses Mwanga is chairperson of the Benet Lobby Group. His group sees it differently. Mr. Mwanga says the Benets have lived in Mount Elgon since time immemorial. “So it is home to us – not a forest,” he explains. Now, the evicted Benets survive in what Mr. Mwanga calls “pathetic conditions.” They live as squatters.
Some try to enter their former land, which is now Mount Elgon National Park, to graze animals or collect honey. Some Benets have even ripped out newly-planted trees. But this inevitably puts them in conflict with the park rangers. Violence erupts frequently.
The Benets continue to fight for their land rights in courts and the political arena. In the meantime, they are planting some of their own trees on Mount Elgon – passion fruit, avocado, and banana. These trees take years to bear fruit, a sign that the Benets hope to take back their land once again.