When I first read about the acquisition of 500,000 hectares of high value forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo by an Islamic investment bank in Jordan, I thought one thing: land grab.
Over the last couple of years, countries across the MENA region have been buying tracts of land all over Africa. Worried about the rising cost of food as well as declining natural resources locally, they have been trying to make sure that their eggs (so to speak) aren’t all in one basket. Egypt has bought up land in Sudan, Saudi Arabia has staked a claim on land in Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates has farms in Sudan, Morocco and Algeria.
However, this latest land acquisition by Sanabel is a little more interesting as it claims to come with some green credentials. According to news reports, Sanabel which is Jordan’s first Islamic investment bank is considering a number of “Sharia’ compliant forestry activities” for the land it has purchased. These range from afforestation and reforestation projects, and protecting the land from deforestation and sustainable agro-forestry projects.
I have written about the ethical aspects of Islamic banking in the past and also the important role they could be playing in protecting the planet, so it’s great to see some action being taken. Indeed Al-Sanabel Chairman and CEO Khaldoun Malkawi explained that these activities are entirely compatible with Islamic banking principles since they simultaneously help to fight climate change by protecting biodiversity, reducing poverty and promoting corporate social responsibility.
Sanabel did however also add that this purchase is part of their plans to capitalise on the rapidly growing carbon trading market. This means that the company “will develop forest carbon credits projects that will protect the role of forests in mitigating climate change.”
As such Sanabel will be hoping to get companies to pay them to preserve the forestland in Congo and protect it from deforestation in return for carbon credits which help them meet their carbon reduction targets.
This is, however, where it gets a little messy.
Firstly, the carbon credit market has been widely criticised for allowing business to continue spewing lots of emissions. It turns out that buying carbon credits from schemes such as the one that Sanabel will be running is a lot cheaper and easier for businesses than actually cutting their own emissions.
So instead of protecting the environment and helping tackle global warming, these scheme just help companies continue their destructive practices.
The second issue that needs to be considered is the displacement of poor people living in these forests. For example, 70,000 indigenous people living in the western region of Gambella in Ethiopia were forced to relocate as the land had been living on was bought up by foreign investors. Saudi Star Agriculture Development was one of the companies implicated in this forced displacement.
Land ownership is a hugely contested issue and passing on ownership to a foreign government can only make the situation more complicated.
So while I’m happy to see Islamic banks consider green projects, I think they need to do better next time. They need to show that they aren’t out just to make a quick buck and also that they take their environmental responsibilities seriously.
Update March 2020: the website/Facebook page for Sanabel is down.
Images of Congo forest via bobulix/flickr.
For more on African land grab see:
Egypt to Grab Sudanese Land To Meet Its Wheat Needs
Africa Up For Sale, Is The Middle East Buying?
Arab States Buy Up Vast Tracts Of African Farmland