IBI, 29 November 2010 (IRIN) – Olivier Mushiete sees himself as a pioneer: His ever-expanding acacia forest on the Bateké plateau, 120km east of Kinshasa, is central Africa’s first carbon sink plantation.
“Each hectare of acacia trees can capture 25-30 tons of CO2. They grow quickly and have no known predators, parasites or viruses. What’s more, they are leguminous so their leaves fertilize the soil. They’re great,” he enthused.
Every day the plantation traps several tons of CO2. Mushiete, an agricultural engineer, has sold some of this sequestered greenhouse gas, in the form of carbon credits, for US$4 million, with the first payments due in 2012, once the first trees reach maturity.
Such credits are a product of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, which is designed to allow industrialized countries to offset their emissions by supporting certain kinds of development projects in poorer countries.
The credits are equivalent to a certificate, denoting a specific reduction of atmospheric greenhouse gases. They can be sold to businesses, institutions and individuals. Each carbon credit refers to a saving of one ton of CO2.
As with more tangible commodities, the price of the credits fluctuates in line with supply and demand. But credits derived from forestry projects have a relatively low value – currently US$4 – compared with those from other types of carbon sinks, because of the risk of fire, disease and felling, as well as the need to wait up to five years from a project’s inception before the amount of sequestered carbon can be properly quantified.
On the other hand, projects like Mushiete’s are popular with certain image-conscious investors, especially in Europe, because they visibly contribute to rural community development, counter erosion and protect water sources.
Mushiete’s venture began in 2005 when he started transforming a vast inherited plot of savanna, which was once used for pasture. The land had suffered extensive damage by people cutting down trees for charcoal and burning the grass. Its soil had grown ever less fertile.
Together with his brother and sister, Mushiete resurrected his father’s company, NOVACEL, and embarked upon the bureaucratically labyrinthine and costly task of launching the carbon sink/credit project as part of the firm’s integrated rural development plans.
The red tape was daunting. “For example, I was asked to prove that there was no forest here before. But there have been no aerial photographs since 1950, so how can I demonstrate that since then people have not planted trees and pulled them down?” he asked.
But the Mushietes persevered, planting acacia trees, which are well-suited to the poor sandy soil of the Bateké savanna. After less than three years, 1,500 hectares were covered with trees five metres tall.
He has won significant support from the World Bank, through its Carbon Finance Unit’s BioCarbon Fund, which has bought 500,000 tons of CO2 emissions reductions from the project. Other partners include Orbeo, a French company owned by Rhodia, a producer of chemicals; and the Société Générale bank.
Orbeo has already sold on its 500,000 tons of credits to food giant Danone, which recently sent a team to talk directly to Mushiete about various environmental projects, including a 2,400 hectare plantation.
But there’s more to the project – called Ibi Village after one of the settlements on the plateau – than planting trees. For example, thousands of cassava plants now grow between the acacias, providing a natural firebreak and, via a processing plant, flour for the markets of Kinshasa.
“We produce 10-15 tons of dry cassava a week and employ almost 100 people,” said foreman François Miena.
“With the money I earn I can send my children to school and take care of my sick husband,” said one worker, Marie, who gets paid $2 a day for her work.
Although some environmentalists have criticized the whole idea of carbon offsetting on the grounds that it encourages companies to keep polluting rather than cutting their own emissions, in Bateké the scheme seems popular.
“The Ibi project has transformed the landscape of the Bateké plateau, both environmentally and socially,” said Dani Mulabu, who manages the cassava nursery.
“Now there is a primary school, a health centre, water points… Everything has changed, even people’s mentality.”
Ibi is home to around 1,000 people who used to make ends meet by making and selling charcoal. “We used to cut the trees by the river. But there are hardly any left now. There are no caterpillars, no mushrooms. We lost a lot by destroying the natural forest,” explained Franck Estève Mbumba Madiamba, president of a local village development committee.
On the outskirts of Kanisa, one of Ibi’s dozen hamlets, there is a small plot of young acacias interspersed with cassava. The trees are barely 10 months old but already stand two metres tall. The cassava will be ready for the Christmas holiday season.
“We can feed the whole village with the leaves and tubers, and even have some left over to sell,” said Mbumba Madiamba.
“Soon we will cut down the acacias for charcoal and replant,” he added, referring to a plantation separate from the carbon sink where a portion of trees are cut every year, with new saplings planted immediately. Since the source of charcoal is a managed, rather than natural forest, it is considered ecologically sound.
The development committee’s vice chairman, José Mguankoto, was visibly proud of the project. “We are making oxygen for us, but also for Europe, the whole world,” he said.
Each village in the plateau has its own plantation; this helps deter people from cutting down both the old forests and new sink trees to make charcoal. The project also provides essential technical support in the form of tractors to break up the soil, acacia seeds, and funding for training.
Mushiete, himself a customary chief, has created the post of “head of family and customary affairs”, a position designed to stop the plateau being inundated with outsiders keen for a slice of the relative riches on offer.
Only 3 percent of the world’s $500 billion-a-year carbon credit market originates from agro-forestry and the rules currently in force inhibit dramatic growth in this sector.
“There are a lot of questions about the sustainability of these carbon sinks, which can be destroyed, by man or by fire,” said Mushiete.
“They are worth less than forms of storing carbon and are certainly harder to trade. There are still lots of hurdles and we hope the Cancun summit [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, 29 November -10 December, Cancun, Mexico] will get rid of some of them,” he added.
“Here we have shown that a managed forest doesn’t burn. We are pioneers and hope that Ibi Village will become a model,” he said.
Source – IRIN