We’ve discussed problems with carbon offsets from an economic viewpoint, and from their abuse as a misleading public relations tool. But perhaps we should focus on the awesome cruelty of their human costs.

A World Rainforest Movement report (book-length PDF) documents how villagers living along the boundary of the Dutch Elgon National Park in East Uganda have had land stolen, been beaten, and been shot at by rangers guarding carbon offset trees maintained since 1994. One comment on the economic deprivation: “No-one is starving, but it’s not enough anymore for luxuries such as milk.”

Throughout the tropics, similar cases occur. In Ecuador (book-length PDF), the same Dutch company has reinvented the company store; rural people who contracted to plant carbon fixing trees ended up forced to buy the trees and technical support at inflated prices which ensured they would end up owing FACE money.

Carbon tree plantations are a failure from the standpoint of simple human decency. And as exotic monocultures (exotic to the areas where they are planted), they don’t survive well. By the time you consider this, along with the need for pest control, fertilization, and energy inputs during planting, it is questionable whether they succeed in carbon sequestration.

If you want to do something about tropical trees, the single most important thing is to help reduce the tremendous pressure from debt, IMF conditions, and “free” trade that lead to tropical deforestation. Saving a tree that has decades or centuries worth of carbon stored withint it is worth a lot more than planting a new tree. But nothing says you can’t also support programs like the one founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai as well. When tree planting is integrated into people’s lives, and directly benefits them, they can plant local species they know are useful to them and ensure they survive until harvest. When you tap longstanding knowledge within a culture — when “technical support” respects and works with that local knowledge and answers to the people it springs from — both planting and cultivation tend to be low input.

This kind of investment won’t ever report back exact numbers you can use to claim you have offset your share of your nation’s carbon use. But you never really could honestly use offsets as modern indulgences to excuse greenhouse gases emissions. Ultimately, only political action and a physical transformation of society that eliminates most fossil fuels can solve the problem. In the meantime, it is admirable to do what lies in your power as an individual — just avoid false claims and “solutions” that make the problem worse.