Rubber Tree Monoculture Plantations in Communal Territories in Mabu, Mozambique: Concession of Injustices
At the foot of Mount Mabu, in central Mozambique, the expansion of rubber tree monoculture plantations by the company Mozambique Holdings has restricted Manhaua communities’ access to their own territory. This process of expansion has occurred by means of systematic abuses, thus depicting the contrast between the different ways the local population and foreign capital relate to the environment where they find themselves.
The communities in Mabu (1)
Mabu is a locality of the Tacuane administrative outpost, in the Lugela district, Zambézia province, Mozambique. It has the same name as a local mountain, Mount Mabu, a place bearing spiritual importance for the surrounding communities. In recent years, the mount has become internationally known owing to the great biodiversity it harbors, since it is covered by the largest remaining tropical forest in southern Africa.
The population of Mabu is spread across the communities of Limbue, Namadoe, Nangaze and Nvava, and mostly belongs to the Manhaua people. According to the locality’s administrative head, the population of the four villages numbers more than 10,000 people, but the figure is an overestimation, according to local leaders. Such communities are vividly connected to the territory where they live, and their living conditions to a large extent directly reflect their relation with the physical environment where they find themselves.
Practically every house is made of wattle and daub or adobe blocks, with grass roofs and earthen floors. The main source of energy is gathered firewood or locally produced charcoal. Practically all the water is obtained manually from streams, wells or the river. There is no electricity or internet distribution. Only a minority of households have small solar panels with the capacity to charge the batteries of small devices (mobile phones, radios, torches). Some families own bicycles and only small minority have motorbikes for personal transport and for goods.
Communities’ basic foodstuffs come from agricultural production on machambas (small cultivated plots), whose area in general is under 1 hectare per household. Among the main crops one finds cassava, corn, beans, sweet potatoes, rice and peanuts, complemented by game, fish and wild fruits. The set of implements used is modest, normally limited to hoes, shovels and machetes, while production does not rely on fertilizers or other inputs from outside. As far as possible, families carry out crop rotation, so that by remaining fallow the soil may recover part of its natural fertility. It is worth mentioning that the Mozambican NGO Justiça Ambiental (JA!) is working to support the families’ organization into associations with a view to improving their land management and agricultural system.
Almost all local residents devote themselves to agriculture, working as families or individually. Given that most labor is employed in subsistence, there is a low level of trade and therefore a small flow of goods between the communities and the seat of the district in Lugela, which is more than 45km from the locality of Mabu in the small center of Limbue community – a challenge in itself. Only a very small part of what is produced constitutes a surplus that can be sold at market.
One aspect of life in Mabu similar to other communities, small or large, African or not, is the extra burden shouldered by women. As well as actively participating in the cultivation of the machambas, they are also in charge of all domestic work, which involves preparing food, caring for children and spending a long time fetching water and firewood, activities that they carry out with children, especially girls. However, the space occupied by women in communal decision-making spheres is practically nil. Similarly, girls are less likely to attend school, a fact reflected in their lower rates of literacy and knowledge of Portuguese, the country’s official language. Another challenge mentioned during the discussions was the relatively high incidence of early marriages, of girls aged 12 to 14, for example.
But there is also another problem that has been directly impacting the lives of Mabu’s communities, pointed out by the dwellers with whom WRM and JA! spoke. It is the scarcity of plots available for cultivation, hunting and gathering, and the consequent increase in the distances to the machambas, which implies more time and energy spent in transit. Among the factors that intensified this problem – as well as bringing new ones – is the arrival of Mozambique Holdings, a foreign company producing latex, and the resulting establishment of its rubber tree monoculture plantation.
Mozambique Holdings LTD: foreign capital with a Mozambican name
The Mozambique Holdings Ltd (MHL) group is an India-based conglomerate that set up in Mozambique in the early 1990s. It has become one of the country’s largest private groups. (2) In 2020, its business dealings surpassed US$100 million, with operations in Mozambique, India, USA, China and the United Arab Emirates. The group has activities in various sectors, with subsidiaries in the automotive, pharmaceutical, apparel, real estate, mining (coal and limestone), energy (concessions for hydroelectric power plants), water supply and irrigation industries, among others.
The group’s tentacles reached the locality of Mabu in 2013, when it acquired a 10,000-hectare land concession from the old tea company Madal SARL. Since then, through its subsidiary Agro-Industrial e Chá de Tacuane LDA, the group has been implementing a rubber production pilot project, having replaced the old tea-growing areas and cleared new ones to make way for rubber tree monoculture. Latex extraction actually began in 2021. Its main destination is nowhere to be found on the company’s website. One possibility is supplying rubber for the automotive industry, particularly for the Indian vehicle manufacturer Mahindra, of which MHL is the distributor in Mozambique.
Access to land, violence and fear
The arrival of the corporation strongly impacted the territory and the lives of Mabu’s residents. Problems of several kinds have gone hand in hand with the expansion of rubber tree plantation.
The first has to do with respect for the land. Back in colonial times, a large land concession in Mabu had been granted to foreign capital in the form of the old company Madal, in a process that certainly disregarded any opinion of the local population. However, profound crises rocked the country during the civil war (1977-1992) and several business ventures were abandoned. Since then, government plans to reactivate tea and cotton production in Mabu for the international market have not taken hold. Abandoned by these business initiatives, part of the lands under concession started being used by the surrounding communities to produce for self-consumption and to reside. This was entirely legitimate, since the control of these lands should never have left the hands of the local population, if one agrees with traditional peoples’ right to self-determination.
With the arrival of Mozambique Holdings in Mabu, once again the area of the old concession went over to the control of foreign capital despite the occupation and use of at least part of the lands by local communities. The local population is no longer permitted to use the lands located inside the concession. As if the sudden loss of access were not enough, the company has been employing truculent and abusive methods. According to local leaders heard by WRM and JA! (and already partly documented) (3), there are reports of: confiscation of hoes; persecution; destruction of machambas; burning of corn barns; expulsion from areas already prepared for cultivation; burning of leftover wood for the local population not to use it as firewood, among others. In one of the cases, a member of the Nvava community was beaten supposedly by Indian foremen linked to the company for using an internal path to return from a funeral in Namadoe community. (4)
Note that one is dealing here not only with preventing people from farming the land, but even from passing through the area granted to the company. For example, it was reported that a family – husband and wife plus a 16-year-old daughter – was followed and slapped in the face to prevent them from transiting! As if that were not enough, the security guards ripped the woman’s and the girl’s top, leaving them bare breasted, once again evincing the consequences of the structurally different oppression suffered by women.
In the case of Limbue community, blocking people’s passage is particularly serious, considering that the only road to access the community goes through the plantation. By restricting or constraining the free transit of members of the community, the company increases the isolation of the community vis-à-vis the rest of the district. All this goes on under a shroud of fear, threats and a common perception among the members of the community that they do not have rights or recourse in the face of the abuses in question.
It even sounds like irony, but far away from Mabu, in another language the (Indian) owner of Mozambique Holdings exalts the “Mozambican ethos and cultural psyche”, saying that out of gratitude to the country, his company gives back and evolves “in harmony with this ethnic and cultural diversity”. (5)
It is also worth highlighting the fact that so far the company states it has planted just 1,000 hectares with rubber trees and has not yet reached the target of its pilot project, which is disturbing, since the plantation has already reached the entrance to the seat of the locality.
Lack of transparency and environmental irregularities
The coercion and the restrictions regarding access to land imposed on local dwellers lead one to another question: the lack of transparency in relation to the land use concession to the corporation. Despite requests made by Justiça Ambiental to the Ministry of Land and Environment, the information about this process and the community consultation process has not been made available, raising doubts about the legitimacy of the concession. (6)
The same applies to information regarding the venture’s environmental conformity. When visiting the locality, one notices that the expansion of the plantation has taken place in the wake of the felling of the native vegetation. Furthermore, in many places the fields are planted right up to the edge of water courses, with no riparian forest remaining. Also, the absence of any kind of environmental impact assessment – a legal requirement in Mozambique – begs the question: how or even whether Mozambique Holdings obtained the environmental license to establish its monoculture plantations in Mabu.
Illusory expectations, sub-employment and precarious work
Another problematic dimension of the venture relates to labor relations. Residents report that the situation is a far cry from the expectations generated at the time when the transfer of the concession to Mozambique Holdings was announced, both in terms of the number of jobs and of their quality.
Anselmo Matusse, who investigated the company’s working conditions, paints a picture of abuse, involving 12-hour work days and unattainable daily tasks/targets, resulting in pay checks at the end of the month nowhere near the minimum wage. (7) He also reported that the company did not supply tools, as well as making workers compulsorily buy shoes and meat from it in order to dock the amount they cost from their pay.
Contrasts and contradictions
What one sees in Mabu is a contrast that reveals the power asymmetry between Mozambique Holdings and the communities, and the completely different logics of relating to the land. To Mozambique Holdings the land is a mere substrate for a plantation with one million rubber trees – many of which replaced the local biodiversity – treated with synthetic fertilizers and agro-chemicals brought from far away using fossil fuels to produce a commodity that will be exported, and resulting in profits that will go to foreigners who probably will never set foot there. Based on the facts, little does it matter for Mozambique Holdings if its business forces local dwellers to seek other places to pursue their subsistence activities under more precarious conditions.
For the Manhaua communities, the land is the source of practically all their food, water, shelter (houses) and energy (firewood), obtained through an autonomous management system for many generations. Beyond literally ensuring the communities’ physical existence, the land is also a place where their beliefs, customs and knowledge are perpetuated, transmitted and shared in their own language from generation to generation.
This article does not aim to romanticize the way of life of the communities of Limbue, Namadoe, Nvava and Nangaze, but rather to emphasize the impacts of industrial plantations on their territories. The arrival of Mozambique Holdings in Mabu is yet another example, among so many others, of how corporations that need land for their tree monoculture plantations simply ride roughshod over communities no matter how long they have been on their territory. Question: what has been the benefit for the dwellers of Mabu? Who decided to grant part of those lands as a concession without any consultation or participation of the communities?
From the communities’ point of view, the logic of prioritizing a company by restricting the population’s access to the land is absurd in and of itself. Additionally, Mozambique Holdings makes the situation even worse due to the abovementioned abuses and violent methods. If the objective of the concession in Mabu were to bring economic and social benefits for Mozambicans – and not to generate profits for a private company – then encouraging communities’ ongoing initiatives to improve living conditions would make much more sense. What is inconceivable is that communities such as those in Mabu be forced to accept that the fate of their lands – and, therefore, theirs too – gets determined by outsiders.
Justiça Ambiental (JA!), Mozambique, and the World Rainforest Movement (WRM)
(1) The information presented in this section was obtained by means of a visit paid by WRM and JA! in October 2022 during which many conversations with dwellers of Mabu were had. These were confirmed by the data of the latest census and of the most recent official information bulletin of the Lugela district to which it was possible to obtain access..
(2) Mozambique Holdings, O nosso legado; Mozambique Holdings, Visão partilhada, ambição unificada.
(3) Justiça Ambiental, 2021.
(4) Justiça Ambiental, 2020.
(5) The Business Year, interview with José Parayanken.
(6) Justiça Ambiental, 2021.
(7) Anselmo Matusse, published in Verdade Online.
Thailand: Valuing Forests as Carbon Credits
Forest areas in Thailand contain the rich diversity of tropical rainforests, including the relationships and interconnections with the Indigenous Peoples and local communities that coexist with these forests. Rooting on their own principles of traditional knowledge and practices, these communities have preserved their forests for generations, making these areas one of the most biodiverse in the world. In addition, they practice different ways of community-based ‘management’ of their land, forests and local economies. However, community systems are threatened due to problematic policies that pretend to turn all forests into state and private property, adding now a new type of asset: carbon credits.
Thai Forest Conservation Policies
Forest conservation policy in Thailand began in 1896 when the Royal Forest Department (RFD) was founded to administer forest concessions, followed by the Forest Act B.E. 2484 (or 1941) and the Forest Industry Organization (FIO) in 1974. These policies transformed the country’s forested areas into state assets for timber exports, criminalizing around 10 million people from forest-dependent communities who inhabited the forests long before these laws and policies appeared.
After widespread protests by forest communities across Thailand against timber extraction and the industry’s many impacts, the forest economic concessions’ management plan was changed in 1989, establishing a ban on logging. Instead, forest areas were declared National Reserve Forests to be solely managed by the Department of National Parks (DNP). The DNP still has the authority to approve any public or private project in these Reserve Forests while also controlling the livelihoods of more than 4 thousand forest communities that depend on forests.
The logging ban marked the emergence of an increasingly militarized approach to forest conservation, and the Royal Forestry Department adopted a hard line stance against those who lived inside protected areas, particularly against upland Indigenous communities in the north lacking Thai citizenship. Forests were seen as spaces where no agriculture was supposed to be practiced. All types of swidden agricultural systems were lumped together, stigmatized as irrational and destructive.
Besides, the relatively poor enforcement of the legislation and the confusion over land tenure claims in the Reserve Forests brought new layers of complexity. For instance, there were corruption scandals over tourism activities and the exploitation of resources in the Reserve Forests.
The attempt to categorize forests was clear in Thailand’s National Forest Policy Directives of 1985 and of 2019 (1), as they aim to have 40 percent of the country with forest areas. This aim was to be divided into 25 percent of state-controlled ‘Reserve Forests’ (national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, watershed areas); and 15 percent of ‘economic forests’ (forests reserved for multi-purposes), which include community forests and plantations by private actors on state-owned land. As of March 2023, according to the government, it has achieved 31.59 percent of this goal.
Community forests vary regionally. In general, they seek to maintain the ecological systems, ensure food sovereignty, preserve traditional medicines, support the local economies, and promote the spiritual well-being of the community. Therefore, every recognized forest community has the right to manage its own forests. But when the government issued the Community Forest Act in 2019, such laws and regulations severely limited communities’ rights within Reserve Forest areas. The Department of Forestry is the only authorized body to determine and classify forests, meaning that only those registered under its office can be considered as community forests.
On the other side, the purpose of ‘economic forests’, which was initially for exploiting timber (aka. plantations), shifted to also allow private companies to use the areas for ecotourism and corporate social responsibility activities (CSR).
However, the pressure over the climate crisis and the international negotiations has transformed the status, economic value and use of forests (and tree plantations) to add a new type of asset: Carbon credits.
The Carbon in the Forests
International climate negotiations have transformed forests into ‘carbon sinks’ which are meant to generate ‘carbon credits’ to be traded in international free markets. These ‘carbon sinks’ are referred to as offset projects, because the credits from these projects are supposed to compensate for the pollution of others. Credits can therefore be bought by governments, companies or individuals that want to offset an ‘equal’ amount of carbon emissions or claim carbon ‘neutrality’. (2) These ‘carbon sink’ projects can also be industrial monoculture plantations, as the importance is placed only on the capacity of trees to absorb carbon dioxide in order to generate the tradable credits. This logic of offsetting and of turning forests into ‘carbon sinks’ benefits the largest carbon-emitting industries, in particular the energy and agribusiness sectors, by enabling them to expand and operate under the guise of being ‘carbon neutral’.
Companies invest in low-cost large-scale reforestation projects (mainly of monoculture tree plantations) to be used as carbon offsets. They can also buy carbon credits from projects in Protected Areas that are claiming to be ‘storing’ and ‘conserving’ the carbon.
Consequently, the Thai government’s target to increase the number of tree-covered areas in the country as well as the private sector reforestation projects should not be regarded as benevolent initiatives, usually under CSR activities, but rather as a hidden agenda to profit from the carbon credits.
In 2007, Thailand began to integrate the concept of the carbon market into national policy. The Thailand Greenhouse Gas Management Organization (TGO) was established to implement mechanisms for the carbon market and administer the Thailand Voluntary Emission Reduction Program (TVER). Additionally, Thailand participates in the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program with support from the World Bank and the Royal Forest Department. All these policies and programs cause concerns among civil society organizations and forest community groups as they threaten to limit the rights of communities’ in the use, access and management of their forests. Still, the REDD+ program continues to be pushed forward despite these concerns.
The role of carbon markets is expected to increase rapidly in the country. The government has launched its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the United Nations, with targets to increase its forest-based ‘carbon capture capacity’. Forests and industrial tree plantations have become a key essential aspect for the government to be able to claim ‘carbon neutrality’ by 2050 and ‘net zero’ by 2065.
In this context and with these targets in mind, the Thai government launched a 20-Year National Strategic Plan (2018-2037) that aims to increase the tree cover areas to 50 percent of the national territory. This means that Thailand would need to have an additional 11.29 million Rai (3) (around 2 million hectares) of Reserve Forests and other conservation areas, and 15.99 million Rai (around 2.5 million hectares) of plantation areas by 2037.
To materialize these targets, several governmental agencies have issued laws and regulations specifically to support the carbon market, in particular REDD+ activities:
• The Royal Forest Department will expand Reserve Forests to an additional 4.5 million Rai (around 720 thousand hectares). This includes over 11,000 registered community forests with 300,000 Rai (around 50 thousand hectares);
• The Department of Marine and Coastal Resources will establish 3 million Rai of mangrove tree plantations (around 500 thousand hectares).
• The Department of National Parks will establish more Protected Areas, encompassing an area of 1.28 million Rai (around 205 thousand hectares).
Private companies are expected to earn 90 percent of the carbon credits (and profits) generated from this plan, with the remaining 10 percent for the government. There is no public information on how much community members who are hired as workers for doing the activities of forest management and the establishment of plantations will be paid. Certain activities, such as the traditional controlled fires for swidden agriculture practices, which are considered as disrupting the carbon absorption function of the area, are prohibited.
A “Bio-Circular-Green Model” for Evicting Forest Communities
To further assist carbon market policy, Thailand has recently launched an economic development plan called ‘The BCG Model’ (The Bio-Circular-Green Model), which aims to increase 32 million Rai of ‘carbon forests’ (around 5.1 million hectares). This area is included in the 20 years plan and is set to be accomplished with the investment of large private companies. Yet, the BCG model has been criticized for its limited participation of local communities, as the domination of large companies. On October 5th, 2022, the Thai government also passed a resolution that allows private companies to invest in reforestation activities (plantations) in state-owned lands.
Many companies in Thailand, including from the fossil fuels, petrochemicals and cement industries, are keen to engage in establishing plantations as carbon credits, as these can be used to lessen the pressure on their own pollution as well as to create business opportunities. For example, the PTT Group (Petroleum Authority of Thailand Public Company Limited), one of the biggest oil companies in the country, has recently announced a plantation project for 2.1 million Rai (around 336,000 hectares).
Meanwhile, the Mae Fah Luang Foundation and the Exchange Commission of Thailand have been promoting ‘community forest management’ projects in the northern, central, and southern regions of the country. This program aims to cover 300,000 Rai (around 48,000 hectares) with the aim of increasing income for communities via the selling of carbon credits and of offsetting companies’ pollution. Each community that participates has to meet the requirements for registration with the Thailand Voluntary Emission Reduction Program (T-VER). (4)
The problem of structural injustice and unsustainable forest management has shown that these types of projects will lead to environmental destruction, violation of forest community rights, and increased conflicts between the companies, the government agencies and the forest communities.
In 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order passed a forest reclamation policy in the name of conservation. The government claims that they were able to reclaim 435,731 Rai (around 69 thousand hectares) of forests, however, this process led to the forced eviction of many forest communities, with more than 46,600 legal cases being filed against them. On top of this, the government plans to expand these conservation areas by creating 20 new national reserved parks.
There is a hidden agenda in the name of forest protection. The ultimate goal of this ‘forest reclamation’ policy for conservation is to maximize the number of hectares of forests under state ownership. These are now turned into ‘carbon sinks’ with a focus on generating profits for the private sector.
The many pieces of legislation passed in the name of forest conservation and climate mitigation have not been designed to protect the rights of forest communities, but rather to limit them from using their forests and lands and to encroach them into smaller areas.
Structural Problems by Reassessing Forests as Carbon Credits
There are many structural problems with this strong push for giving forests these new layers of economic interests and power. These include:
1. There is not enough forested land to absorb all the fossil fuels’ pollution
The energy sector and other polluting companies do not aim to stop nor reduce the extraction and use of fossil fuels. Forests will never be able to absorb the carbon that is emitted from the fossil deposits underground.
2. There are no empty forests
Forest areas are inhabited by forest communities. When companies are authorized to establish plantations, this means community forests, mangroves and fertile land will be grabbed for producing carbon credits.
3. Risk to over-claim carbon credits
T-VER’s credit accounting method includes plantations and restored forests. The reclamation of existing forests contradicts this as those forests have already been counted for carbon mitigation. Without clear criteria, there is a risk that companies will use this to further profit from this scheme.
4. The carbon stored in trees is not permanent
Forests are not machines; they have a cycle of absorbing and releasing carbon in each changing condition. Besides, political decisions and economic interests can also lead to large-scale deforestation or disasters such as wildfires. Yet, some of the carbon credits generated from those trees might already been accounted for and sold.
5. Private companies have conflict of interests with public interests
Private companies will generate profits from the carbon credits generated in the communities or state-owned forests. Meanwhile, the communities will merely be hired as laborers in their own land.
6. Forests exist and are rooted in communities’ wisdom and knowledge
Forests are part of the human communities that have coexisted with them for generations, and these communities are part of the forests as well. These forests can regenerate themselves in a supportive environment. Thus, a monoculture plantation project, by definition, destroys the environment, the forests, and the interconnections with all living beings, including communities.
It is therefore imperative to ask ‘What is the ultimate goal of carbon credits?’
The hype that the government, NGOs and polluting companies in Thailand have created around forest carbon credits creates a misconception that these will generate a mutual benefit for everyone. They claim, for example, that the government or the community that owns the forest generating the credits would benefit from receiving private investment. This assumes that forest communities would not able to independently manage the forests without private investment and that such investment will make things easier and better. In reality, however, experience with these projects in tropical forests around the world shows that this largely results in internal conflicts, broken promises, food insecurity, among others. Carbon credits are only a tool for the private companies to continue releasing their polluting emissions and profit, without having to reduce any while claiming to be ‘green’ or ‘carbon neutral’.
The carbon market in the forests of Thailand continues to grow. There is an insatiable demand for carbon credits that threatens to create a massive scale of land grabbing for protected areas and industrial plantations on the one side, and industrial agriculture, mining and fossil fuel extractive activities on the other.
It is time to expose that carbon credits have nothing to do with reducing greenhouse gas emissions or mitigating climate change. They are just another push for capitalist actors to expand their destruction in the forests.
Thai Climate Justice for All, Thailand
(1) Thailand’s National Forest Policy B.E. 2528 (1982) and subsequently amendment B.E. 2562 (2019). See the 20-Year National Strategic Plan (2018-2037).
(2) Carbon neutrality (Thai: การหักลบระหว่างการปล่อยคาร์บอนกับการลดหรือดูดคาร์บอน) refers to a supposed balance between the carbon emissions and the removal of carbon emissions from the atmosphere; this is made largely via offsets.
(3) A rai (Thai: ไร่) is a unit used in measuring land area. It is commonly used in Thailand and one rai is equivalent to 0.16 hectares
(4) Mae Fah Luang Foundation and SEC Innovate Carbon Credit Offsetting Project to Combat Climate Change.