As with many other companies buying land rights in the developing world, the color green figures prominently in New Forests’ website, sign of the eco-friendly image it aims to project.
The company describes itself as a “sustainable and socially responsible forestry company with established, rapidly growing plantations and the prospect of a diversified product base for local and regional export markets which will deliver both attractive returns to investors and significant social and environmental benefits.”
Featuring a picture of fresh-faced children at a field school, it calls community participation “the cornerstone of our projects.”
Some 20,000 Ugandans, however, disagree.
In Uganda, New Forests purchased rights to some 49,400 acres, according to the company website, with plans to grow pine and eucalyptus for sawn timber and utility poles. Much of that property covers two districts, Mubende and Kiboga, where 20,000 people say they were turfed off the land when the government struck a deal with New Forests.
In Mubende, residents said their families were given the land by British colonists in the 1940s, as thanks for having served in Egypt and Burma during World War II. Kiboga’s farmers said they were invited to the region by Uganda’s former ruler, Idi Amin, in the 1970s, and had been tilling the soil since then.
Residents told Oxfam that a tribal chief with whom New Forests had negotiated over Mubende was neither elected nor legally empowered to represent them. They only learned that the government, using the chief as a proxy for the community, had negotiated away their land after the agreement was concluded.
The residents took their case to Uganda’s High Court, which issued restraining orders to halt the evictions while it considered the rights of residents. The government, however, disregarded the order and continued the evictions, Oxfam reported. Some residents of both Mubende and Kiboga told the court that casual laborers for New Forest took part in the evictions, “erasing their plantations, demolishing their houses, intimidating and mistreating” them, according to their case.
The Oxfam report, however, quotes Ugandan forestry officials as saying that all but 31 of the 20,000 residents on the land acquired by New Forests were “illegal encroachers,” with no right to compensation. New Forest company officials echoed that position.
They maintained that residents left voluntarily, and added that if Ugandan authorities forced farmers off the land, New Forest was not to blame. As a licensee, New Forest officials told Oxfam, the company has “very limited rights, and certainly no rights to evict anyone.”
In a press release, New Forests said that it was convening an independent panel to investigate the charges, and would not comment until the panel completed its work. It said that most of Oxfam’s claims were “inaccurate, misleading and uncorroborated,” adding that “the company has acted lawfully and maintained the highest standards of social responsibility.”
Likhachova said the Oxfam report had raised troubling questions for the International Finance Corporation. Along with the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank, the International Finance Corporation has invested in Agri-vie, the parent fund of the New Forests Company. “Clearly these are serious allegations and we take them very seriously,” she said.