By Ian Bickis
Leigh Fox has been planting trees for eight years, in part to raise cash, in part to save the world.
Like many young Canadians, he planted his way through his undergraduate degree in political science. And like many Canadians, he has traveled abroad, having done development work in Asia and Africa.
When visiting a friend in Uganda, Fox saw the potential to combine the pursuits of planting, education and development work into one sustainable package.
He saw students who could not afford to go to school, but could not find work even with no school to attend. Fox also saw large tracts of undeveloped land.
Using his years of experience as a tree planter, he started work to set up a local tree planting company. He enlisted the help of his friend, Jake Solway of Impact Reforestation, who upon hearing the plan, canceled his trip to Brazil on two weeks notice to fly to Uganda to help start the project.
They established a system whereby local teenagers could plant trees after school and on holidays. The planters were given 25 per cent of their pay, and the other 75 per cent went to school fees. The kids got an education, a job, and a future.
Since the early days, Fox has been working hard to expand the planting industry in Uganda. He saw lots of inefficiencies and space for improvement. There was a serious need for expertise, equipment, and capital, according to Fox.
Making it work
Providing those needs, Fox secured land deals with individual land holders. He emphasized the importance of dealing directly with the people affected by the enterprise. The further removed you are from the process, the more that can go wrong. Corruption in Uganda, as in much of Africa, is rampant.
Just to get a license to plant on government land, Fox has been waiting three years, and there’s still no sign. He has instead opted to work with people he knows on the ground.
“I like neat relationships,” he said.
Fox’s first land deal was with the uncle of one of the students. He spoke with the man, Kabanda Nasser, directly and secured a long-term deal whereby he provided all the supplies, saplings, logistics, and planting knowledge, while Nasser provided the land. In about 30 years, they will harvest the wood and split the profits, with 60 per cent of revenue going to the landholder.
In all enterprises Fox has worked on, he has emphasized a sustainable model, where all parties involved benefit.
“If you want countries to develop, you’ve got to make money,” said Fox. He said that for the Evangelicals and health researchers who come into the country, the local approach is to “get what money from them you can because they’re going to leave.”
Fox says he’s not going anywhere, “we’re here to do business.”
He talked of the need for the locals to have a stake in the enterprise, as a necessary part of sustainable growth. Ensuring locals benefit is also part of his philosophy of a business model that will allow local sustainability growth.
“Just because you’re making money doesn’t mean you’re being exploitative.”
The project has so far been a success, though modest compared with Canadian planting standards. They have six plantations going, with about 100,000 trees in the ground. Fox said the biggest barriers are capital and resources; there is lots of local demand to plant more trees.
Taking the enterprise a logical, though daunting, step further, Fox wants to make Ugandan tree planting into a carbon offsetting business.
The market for carbon offsets is currently exploding. There are billions spent in a market that only a few years ago didn’t exist. But the popularity of tree planting-carbon offsets is quickly waning, and he will have a hard time reversing that trend.
Major carbon offset companies have shunned “biological” carbon offsets. The Gold Standard, one of the most highly regarded set of criteria for “high quality offsets,” specifically excludes tree planting from possible projects. Major environmental groups such as the Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace and the WWF have endorsed the Gold Standard.
The voluntary market, whereby individuals choose to offset their plane trip, wedding, or just daily life, is still largely unregulated. Much has been made of bogus offset projects, with swindlers making million of the good intentions of others.
Offsetters is a Canadian non-profit offset provider founded by Drs. Hadi Dowlatabadi and James Tansey, both professors at UBC. Offsetters used to indirectly invest in tree planting offset when they bought offsets from ClimateCare, but have since made the decision to withdraw completely from that aspect of the market.
Donovan Wollard, director of new business development at Offsetters, said the benefits of tree planting aren’t realized quickly enough.
“If you emit today, and plant a tree tomorrow, you’re waiting about 30 to 80 years in many respects for the emissions to actually be soaked up by those trees, a lot can happen in the meantime.” Between fire, disease, and human involvement, there is a lot that can disrupt the health of the trees.
The Face Foundation, a Dutch tree-planting initiative, encountered that problem when they lost over half-a-million trees when local Ugandans took back land
He said he’d rather invest in “next-generation energy systems, which are going to lead to a lower-carbon future, rather than just cleaning up the mess later on.”
Wollard said Offsetters is, like the Gold Standard, concentrating on reducing the dependency on fossil fuels, which tree planting doesn’t do. “Fundamental for us is that you’re not addressing the root problem, which is that we burn too much gas in the first place.”
Additionality is a core principle of the offset market, whereby one needs to demonstrate that the project would not have taken place already. Wollard explained that they are currently targeting North American projects, where tree planting is already well-established and well-funded.
He also said “temperate forests are very hard to model carbon uptake.” The complexities of how much carbon is actually absorbed and how much is later release is still unclear.
“There are good carbon offsets and there are bad carbon offsets. There are ways to do tree-planting based offsetting fairly well, and to address a lot of the critiques I’ve raised about it.”
But in closing he said “I think there are a lot of better ways to spend your carbon offset dollars.”
Fox is undaunted by the task. He wants to “redefine the way forest carbon is looked at.” Currently, he is busy working away at that task with the same drive and creativity that allowed him to start a sustainable -development company from scratch half-way around the world.