How Dutch greenhouse gases cause land grabbing in Ethiopia

Written by Jeltsje Kemerink - Seyoum, on 3 December 2019

One of the investments we in the Netherlands make to meet the climate goals is focused on reducing deforestation. This sounds great, but in practice it results in farmers and their families (unlawfully) losing their farmland. Over the next two weeks policy makers and delegates of 195 countries are gathering in the Spanish city of Madrid for the annual UNFCCC Climate Change Conference. It’s high time we closely examined the consequences of these investments.

Barring the US president, most of us are aware that we need to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases across the world. It’s our only chance to prevent the coming decades from becoming unpleasantly wet or dry. That’s why most countries have by now committed to the Paris Agreement, in which they strive to limit the emission of greenhouse gases.

Climate financing

To meet those climate goals, governments and companies invest in cleaner technology, renewable energy, and many other things. They can also (partially) attain their climate goals by investing in measures that reduce the emission of greenhouse gases in other countries. This can include, for example, introducing cleaner production processes, building hydropower plants, or reducing deforestation in developing countries.

Investing in reduction measures elsewhere is called climate financing. It means that a country can claim their greenhouse emissions are lower than they are if they fund concrete measures in other countries to reduce emissions. Currently, countries are still negotiating the total amount that one ton of reduced greenhouse gas emission is worth. In the future, this price will be established through market forces, becoming completely dependent on supply and demand.

This sounds great in theory, especially if climate financing is used to maintain forests and their rich flora and fauna. It’s even better when the climate financing trickles down to the local population, who will be paid to protect and even plant forests. Climate finance’s potential as an all-in-one solution for climate change, poverty reduction, and nature conservation is a very popular talking point at international meetings – including the UN Annual Conferences on Climate.

Land grabbing and social inequality

These results sound too good to be true. That’s why we, a team of researchers at IHE Delft, together with colleagues working with NGOs in different countries, wanted to find out the exact consequences of climate financing. And especially those for local populations, who mostly depend on small-scale self-sufficient farming. Thanks to funding provided by the NWO, we were able to investigate the consequences in various case studies in Ethiopia and Indonesia.

It did not take long for us to discover that reality is not quite so rosy. Projects paid for with climate financing can seriously limit access to natural resources such as land, water, and forests, and without providing adequate compensation.

The benefits are not for everybody

In Ethiopia, we investigated a participatory forest-protection project that will be continued on the basis of climate financing. We discovered that only a very small part of the local population is involved in the protection of the forest. These chosen few, generally connected to the local elite, reap personal benefits from this project. They are each appointed parts of the forest, which they can use for their own ends. The rest of the population can no longer access the forest, let alone collect firewood, herbs, or wild honey there.

Until recently, those products from the forest were an important part of the subsistence for the majority of the people living in the villages around the forest. Now they have to buy these forest products with the little funds they have. At the same time they are also no longer allowed to grow crops in the forest, or let their livestock graze there. For some families, this has had significant impact on their income. And finally, the local population now has to pay steep prices for the timber they need to maintain their houses, which in turn stimulates illegal deforestation: high wood prices entice unemployed youth to chop trees and sell the wood.

Such structural inequality has already led to several violent confrontations between different groups of the population. The prospect that the select group of participants in the forest management project will receive even more money through climate finance for forest protection will only fan the flames.

Climate finance for forestation in Indonesia

Our research in Indonesia uncovered a similar situation. There, climate financing is used in an attempt to restore a damaged swamp forest in a national park and to prevent further deforestation. Participating farmers – once again only a small part of the local population – receive reimbursement depending on the quantity and diversity of the trees they plant on the edge of the national park. Until recently, this land was used for farming, and in practice, the reimbursement covers as little as between 15% and 25% of the income they would normally gain from growing crops.

Now the contracts, under which those reimbursements were earned, have ended. There is no new buyer for the so-called ‘carbon credits’ that can be earned with the reduced greenhouse gas emission. Participating farmers have sacrificed their agricultural activities for an uncertain and financially unattractive future as forest manager. Farmers who did not participate in this project have suffered no direct negative consequences of the project, but have been accused of illegal logging, despite insufficient evidence. This has led to tensions between different groups, which makes it hard to find a concrete solution for the area.

Protests and violent confrontations

In another project in Ethiopia, climate financing was employed to transform a stretch of depleted land into a lush forest, with the help of the local population. For this project, however, all adults who lived in the area were allowed to participate. This way they are all able to claim some of the climate finance received by the community, in return for their help in reforesting and protecting the area.

On closer investigation, however, we discovered that this seemingly successful project is also very controversial. On paper, it was initiated with approval of the local authorities, but farmers have protested against the project several times. These protests were eventually shut down after violent confrontations with the authorities. Farmers protested because in the past, they used the communal land to let their livestock graze, and they used to collect firewood. Now they have to buy hay and charcoal, because they are no longer allowed to access the forest.

Illegal land grabbing

In this same case study it turns out that the money the farmers have received for planting and protecting the forest merely a token, receiving less than 6 Euros per year each in climate finance funds over the past ten years. This amount is nowhere near enough to cover the extra costs their businesses have incurred. Moreover, this money is not even transferred directly to the farmers and their families, but invested in facilities such as granaries and grain mills, or made available as microcredit.

However, the greatest controversy is the illegal land expropriation that has taken place to realize this project. Judgments from the local court reveal that the land used for forestation is the property of individual farming families. These families have won their appeals, but each of their attempts to claim their rights is met with intimidation by the Ethiopian government. To date these families have not got their land back, nor have they been compensated for the land grabbing they suffered.

Great promises

Our research shows that great promises don’t always yield great results. The real world is affected by inequality, and contradictory interests act on different levels. The biggest inequality in this debate is between those who have the right to pollute and those who are expected to protect our environment. Despite international agreements to protect the interests of local populations, our (and other) research shows that they pay the costs for our reluctance to adjust our standards of living.

Of course we can and should help developing countries to introduce cleaner technologies or sustainable forest management. But this research shows that we are inclined to look the other way when reality does not turn out as rosy as we had hoped.

Radical changes

As this – and other – research shows, the emission of greenhouse gases is simply too complex to solve with solely a market-oriented approach. That only has a chance to work when it’s absolutely clear who the polluter is, and who suffers for it, and when it is clear what the costs are of the direct and indirect consequences of pollution. Market forces are not a suitable instrument for complex collective dilemmas with immense social repercussions.

That is why, in my view, now is the right time for policy makers at the UNFCCC Climate Conference to take responsibility, rather than buy off cheap emissions. Right now, they’re passing the buck to poor farmers’ families. This needs to change. And like all changes, this needs to happen close to home. So let’s start the discussion on how we can change our daily lives to meet our own climate goals.

You can read Jeltsje’s original blog in Dutch here and its coverage in the Volkskrant here.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of IHE Delft. Any content provided by our story writers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.

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