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Ambitious plans to grow 24 million trees to soak up carbon dioxide and restore the rainforest have got underway in Ghana. The first million seedlings are being planted in a pilot scheme in an area that has been heavily logged in recent years.

The trees are all tropical hardwoods, mostly indigenous, and it is believed this project could eventually become the largest of its kind. It comes amid mounting concern about the impact of deforestation on climate change - a major theme at this December's UN conference in Copenhagen.

Ghana has lost an estimated four-fifths of its rainforest in the past 50 years and tropical deforestation globally is estimated to contribute nearly one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon credits ArborCarb, a British firm, is behind the reforestation project. It hopes that by growing the trees, and locking up the carbon inside them, it will be able to sell carbon credits.

Director Mike Packer is optimistic that the scheme is being launched at the right time and could, over its lifetime, soak up more than nine million tonnes of carbon dioxide.  "There is a huge market of individuals and companies who will pay for this project to be implemented by buying the carbon credits. "They need those carbon credits to offset their carbon emissions." Forestry offset schemes have attracted criticism because the precise amount of carbon absorption is difficult to verify.

But Mr Packer said the plantations would be independently audited every year and that the plan would take account of the carbon cost of the plantation work and of trees dying naturally. Critics have also warned that forestry schemes can exclude local people or even deny them the chance to grow food. Mr Packer said that ArborCarb would not seek to own any land but would work with local landowners and farmers and offer them a share of the carbon credits.

However in the run-up to the Copenhagen conference, environmental groups are raising objections to the developed world using forestry to reduce emissions. ForestWatch Ghana, a coalition of more than 30 non-governmental organisations, criticises the basic principle of carbon offsetting.

According to the coalition's co-ordinator, Kingsley Bekoe Ansah, "it feels fundamentally wrong. "The developed world has had the benefits of industrialisation and now wants to shift the burden of responsibility onto the poor communities," he said.

Changing attitudes Mr Ansah also said that involving the markets in carbon-reduction projects could "lead to massive land grabs and further entrench poverty". "Since the markets are volatile and unstable, the prices of carbon would be affected by events in the larger business world and this is not good for developing countries and their rural communities," he added.

The ArborCarb plans involve plantations in several different areas of Ghana. The pilot scheme, near the border with Ivory Coast, was set up with one of the country's largest timber companies, John Bitar. The company's owner, Ghassan Bitar, said attitudes to forests - and their sustainability - were shifting. "During the days of my father they were not aware - there were lots of forests around. "Now that the population is encroaching and there is deforestation because of various reasons - agriculture, lumbering and whatever - people are aware and want to change."

Suddenly the fate of some of the remotest forests is moving up the international agenda.

 
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