Swedish fast food chain Max is offsetting its emissions - so we can eat burgers with a clear conscience

Photo: Niclas HammarströmAftonbladet  | 4 May 2024

Sweden: Fast food chain Max is offsetting its emissions - so we can eat burgers with a clear conscience

By Staffan Lindberg

(Note: This is a translation from the original in Swedish)

STOCKHOLM-HOIMA. Mother of four Rosset, aged 35, has never owned a car or sat in an airplane. A few years ago, she got a new job: taking care of the emissions from our hamburgers. But there was something they chose not to tell her.

The lunch rush has subsided inside the Max restaurant in western Stockholm and the lone eaters are spreading out.

We have clicked our way through the self-service screen. Passed by offers to buy dipping sauce, mozzarella sticks, apple pie and chocolate lava cakes. Followed the request to decline the receipt for environmental reasons and stood waiting for our food.

A TV screen alternates green messages: it's all about plant-based burgers and reusable cups, planet-hugging children's characters and surveys that have ranked Max as the most sustainable restaurant chain for the 14th year in a row.

The world is entering a climate crisis and a typical hamburger emits around three kilograms of carbon dioxide, as much as a two-mile drive.

At the same time, we as visitors can feel reassured. Max has paid for trees that absorb 110% of the greenhouse gases from our food - more than was emitted. The world is saved with every bite.

The numbers on the screen are getting blurry. We find our way to the website. Since 2008, the fast-food chain has planted more than three million trees in poor countries, which together are said to have sequestered over one million tons of carbon dioxide.

One picture shows a smiling farmer under his tree in the warm evening light. It looks good, almost too good.
This story begins when our attention was drawn to a study on tree planting. It was published in November 2022, ahead of the COP27 climate summit, but has since gone unnoticed in Sweden.

This is surprising, as this is the project in Uganda where Max planted most of his trees. And it's odd, given the name of the report: "A case study of how carbon offsetting fails".

The main author is anonymous, but there is a sender. An organization called Global Forest Coalition. Only after the third reminder email does the organization reply, with a link to a Zoom meeting. A policy advisor in India appears on the screen, but has few answers to give. "I haven't heard anything more since the report was written and don't know what the situation is today." He gives us the name of the author, who turns out to be one of Uganda's most established environmental scientists, David Kureeba.

Carbon offsetting is about paying other people to take care of our emissions. They can do this by reducing their own emissions, for example, by switching to more environmentally friendly stoves, or by sequestering emissions by planting trees. With our plus emissions and their minus emissions, the sum should be zero.

In recent years, criticism of carbon offsetting has increased. The UN panel IPCC points to the risk of the system getting in the way of real solutions and that it could lead to increased emissions. In addition, there have been many scandals.

There have been stories of projects selling 30 times more credits than they could cover, of worthless so-called 'phantom credits' and of threats of displacement as oil sheikhs bought up land in Africa on an extreme scale. The Max tree-planting project, called Trees for Global Benefits, which has been running since 2003, has been portrayed as the good exception.

Poor farmers plant trees on land they can spare and earn extra income. It's small-scale, local, and has even won a UN award.

"An example of a successful initiative that integrates environmental and social objectives to address climate change at the local level", is the AI tool Chat GPT's description.

Max remains the largest customer, but a significant proportion of the smaller buyers are also Swedish: a motley collection of trade unions, travel agencies, trade fair organizers, restaurants and private individuals.

David Kureeba returns almost immediately. Over a shaky Whatsapp conversation, which is constantly interrupted, he talks about what he faced a year and a half ago. Poverty has not been reduced at all in the project, he says. On the contrary, it has deepened. 

The pictures don't add up. We realize that there is only one way to find out more. To travel to the forest.

Three weeks later….

Greenery bursts out of the red earth, eleven hundred meters above sea level. The landscape of western Uganda resembles a garden. We glimpse women on water walks. We hear singing from distant churches. It is here, somewhere in the Rift Valley, that mankind originated.

Chlorophyll-heavy air drifts in through the open window panes. It is hard to believe that people would have to suffer here, hard to imagine any distress, if it had not been for the study in our hand. We approach the project area in a Toyota minivan. The tires are undersized for the bumpy roads, but a jeep would attract too much attention.

Our researcher got here before us and has already received calls from people claiming to represent Ecotrust. The message is clear.  You cannot talk to the farmers without our permission, they say. We do not plan to agree to their demands.

He moves stiffly and heavily, as if every movement is a struggle. The trees must go, every last one.
Samuel Byarugaba, 58, raises his machete and delivers a blow, with all his anger and frustration, while his son Jotham Asiimwe, 21, holds on to the trunk. Pressure waves propagate through the crisp afternoon air. Soon it will erupt.

The eight-meter-high tree, which absorbed the climate emissions from our hamburgers, falls. The farmer wipes the sweat from his forehead, exhausted by the effort. His forehead creases. He gazes at the fallen tree for a few seconds before moving on to the next one.
According to Max's website, the trees should have provided Samuel with additional income. They should also have reduced the risk of drought, erosion and flooding on his land, increased biodiversity and strengthened his land rights.

So why is he chopping them down? A bishop is moved diagonally across the board, a rook is knocked out. Grandchildren Vincent, 11, and Clever, 13, pass the time, but the minutes creep by. Their eyes are dull. Their stomachs are screaming for food. "I'm thinking of meat and gravy," says Vincent.

It's half past two in the afternoon. They have not yet eaten a bite today. A small clay pot is cooking cassava and sweet potatoes over an open fire. It will be all there is for Samuel and his wife and the fifteen children and grandchildren who live on the farm.

They used to eat breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper. Now it's just one or two meals a day, all vegetarian, and never enough to fill them up. All around us, vegetation is flourishing. What has happened?

It was eight years ago that Ecotrust came here. A man from the organization explained that they could offer the family a unique chance to earn money.

The US has a problem with too little oxygen in the air, he explained. So they need your help to grow trees. Why don't they plant trees themselves? asked a neighbor. There is no room in the US because there are factories everywhere. Africa has space…

There was no further time for questions. Samuel and the neighbors were asked to answer yes immediately, before the man moved on.

The fact that Samuel's farm is only two acres (a little less than two football fields) and that all the land was already being used to grow food didn't matter. Samuel signed, without receiving a copy.

Afterwards, the man showed him how to set the trees, with seven meter steps in between. This was the only training Samuel would receive.

The plants seemed vanishingly small in the field. What lay ahead impossible to visualize. We look into the darkness. The stems shoot up, light gray, spiky and almost smooth. They bear no fruit. Nothing edible.

The trees were of the terminalia variety - an indigenous species according to Ecotrust, but one that none of the farmers we met had seen in the area before.

They grew like crazy. After only three years, the tree crowns had formed a roof over the food crops.

They sucked up the light, water and nutrients. The sweet potatoes suffocated in the dark, the banana plants withered. Nothing could grow under the crowns. This is not something the farmers had been told. 

Samuel, his wife and their fifteen children and grandchildren were left without food.

"I used to be something called a model farmer," says Samuel. "People came to me to learn about farming and I was proud to show our farm. We had enough food to feed ourselves and could sell the surplus. Now it's all disappeared."
According to the contract, the first payment from Ecotrust should have come in the first year, but it took two years. It amounted to the equivalent of SEK 1 100 (US$100). This was enough to feed the extended family for a couple of weeks. In the years since, he has received two more payments of the same amount. And that's it.

On the neighboring farm, which has not joined the project, the crops are growing well. Samuel has had to beg from relatives to keep his family alive. Ecotrust has constantly urged him to persevere. There will be more money, soon.

He has waited, afraid to break the contract he signed. Now the situation is desperate. The trees must come down, every last one. Then he will plant bananas and sweet potatoes again.

If all goes well, and the rains fall as they should, he will be able to harvest in a year. And already there are those who are worse off, much worse off.

In the age of climate crisis, there are those who liken tree planting to an act of resistance, each seedling to a ray of hope.

The global market for voluntary carbon offsetting is a fast-growing business, estimated to be worth over €20 billion a year. And it is those at the bottom of the chain who are expected to do the heavy lifting. Poor farmers, with minimal culpability for the climate crisis. People like Samuel. And Rosset.

The eyes have sunk under the shiny forehead. The gaze is dull. Putting the family's misfortune into words hurts, but the story must come out.

The widow and mother of four, Rosset Kyampaire, 35, was also approached by Ecotrust. They persuaded her to sign up, even though the field is no bigger than an acre. "They talked about coal and Americans and how I could make extra money," she says. 

She planted two hundred trees all over her land. The shoots looked green and thin, the vigor of growth impossible to imagine. By the second year, the beans and cassava were shrivelling. By the third, she couldn't harvest at all. The children were starving, why wasn't the money coming?

The responses from Ecotrust, during their annual inspections, were inconclusive.

This is how white people work. Be patient. They will come later this year

The promises have proved worthless. In eight years, Rosset has not been paid once. To survive, she toils as a day laborer on other people's farms. She plows from early morning to late evening, but food in Uganda, like everywhere else in the world, has become expensive and the payment of 15 kroner (US$1.40) a day is nowhere near enough. "I am so stressed," says the widow. "My children have no food."

Baby Believe, 6, buries his head in his mother's stomach. Every night, hunger makes him cry himself to sleep.

You can go to the Ecotrust website and download any of the dozens of documents. The criteria for how farmers will be compensated are crystal clear: the money should come in years 0, 1, 3, 5, 7 and 10.
It is true that payment can be withheld if the trees do not meet certain specific requirements for stem thickness and survival rate. However, no such claims have been made, as the trees have rather grown too well.

Rosset is not unaware of her rights. She knows that she could go to court and hire a lawyer. But she also knows that she doesn't even have the bus fare to get to the nearest town.

Her strong hands tear a fallen leaf to pieces. "I've already started chopping them down," she says. It's my only chance.

We have lunch at a local restaurant, beans, rice, peanut sauce and chapati. A young man throws himself over what is left on the plates. He eats greedily, as if he has never seen food before.

The sun is burning. Sweaters stick in the heat. We continue forward, through rolling landscapes. The rains came down in February, when it should have been dry. And now, when they should have fallen, not a drop comes. Crops are crowded out as other vegetation takes over. A distress in abundance, as scientists put it: green starvation.

Jorum Basiina, 59, is a local leader in the village of Kigaaga. He joined the project himself and has acted as a spokesperson for other participants. "Ecotrust just wants to push up as many trees as possible. They urge us: plant more!"

The house is well built, with a red roof and pillars in front of the door, revealing that the family in one of the richer ones here. Now the fifty goats have been slaughtered. According to Jorum, there is no transparency. None of the farmers have been told how much money they are entitled to or the reasons for their detention. An eagle sails menacingly overhead. Jorum gets up quickly and takes a few steps to shoo the chickens into the henhouse.

In the meantime, we read through an agreement. The payment will be based on the estimated amount of carbon dioxide absorbed, which in turn will be multiplied by a market price in dollars. It's hard not to get lost in the decimals, percentages and units of measurement.

Many people here can barely write their own names, says Jorum, as he leads the chickens to safety. And almost no one speaks English. Why don't we get the contract in our own language? And why does it not say how much we will get?

Of the hundreds of farmers he is in contact with, he estimates that only six or seven are happy with the project. They were the first ones to join. They had unused land to plant on and were paid better. The rest of us are much poorer than before. Almost all of them have started cutting down the trees or are planning to do so.

He fixes me with his eyes. Where is the food? Look around you, where is it? A skinny cow, hardly fit to be hamburger meat, grazes in the grass. In Western countries, which buy the credits, the obesity epidemic is worsening. In Uganda, food is becoming increasingly insecure.

Pressure is mounting, even on farmers outside the project. Field plots are minimal and there are more and more mouths to feed. The wind rustles the climbing trees. We make our way between the farms, piling testimonies on top of each other.

Last fall, Herbert Rukundo, 58, cut down all his trees. Shortly afterwards, the Ecotrust coordinator came to the farm. Herbert was accused of breach of contract and threatened with police and prison if he did not immediately replant the trees. "I told them the truth, that we were starving. But they wouldn't listen," he says outside his mud hut. "Now I can't sleep at night."

On the other side of the hill waits Mauda Twinomngisha, 53. She once had a dream: to send her three daughters to university, so they could become nurses and teachers. "I wanted them to have a better life than my husband and I had. It was for their future that we signed up."

When the food disappeared, she was forced to take the girls out of school. A few years ago, they were married off as child brides, aged 14, 15 and 16. The trees have been cut down, but Catherine, Jacline and Marion are not coming back.

Every six years, the project goes through an inspection. The latest one, from 2019, was produced by a US consulting firm. It notes that farmers have complained about delayed payments and that documentation showing that most of the money actually reaches the farmers has been missing. There is not a word about the systematic hunger that seems to be at the heart of the project.

Elias Ayrey, an American ecologist who works on evaluating climate projects, points out that the inspectors are often in the hands of the representatives of the project they are inspecting.

They are driven around in the same car and only see a small part of everything. And coming only every six years is far too rare. It was industrial agriculture and the availability of cheap meat that once made the expansion of fast food chains possible. The impact on both the climate and animal health has been significant.

There is now talk of a "red alert" for food security in the wake of the climate crisis. Meanwhile, Max continues to place new orders worth millions in Uganda, which have enabled the project to expand into the Ruwenzori Mountains World Heritage Site, where new farmers will be attracted to join.

"Max's money has had a clear impact on the landscape and the people who live in it," writes the Swedish retailer of the credits, Zeromission - a fast-growing company with a turnover of SEK 73 million last year. In an interview, Max's head of sustainability Kaj Török talks about green hushing rather than green washing. "We talk too quietly about all the good things we do.

Five coal sacks are stacked against a gnarled jackfruit tree. They represent the end point of the tree planting project that would compensate for our hamburgers, the end of the hunger forest.

Black smoke seeps up into the cobalt blue sky. The climate trees are slowly turning into coal. Father of eight Robert Sunday, 44, moves around the coal mine. The dust billows up, he disappears into the cloud and reappears. His feet are bare, his clothes ragged. His cheekbones protrude, revealing the skull beneath. It is five o'clock in the afternoon, they have not eaten anything since the night before. Their daughter Rachel, a girl in a red dress who looks five, rather than nine, is, like her siblings, sweeping her hands through the earth in search of the last pieces of coal.

In ten years, the family has received only two payments, of around SEK 550 each (US$50).

At first, Robert didn't dare cut down the trees for fear of being accused of breach of contract. Then he was hit by the wave of felling that has swept across the landscape like wildfire in the last six months. 'Ecotrust can't go after all of us,' he says. With the money from the coal he will buy cassava plants. "We must pray to God that there will be no crop failure." 

Smoke rises to the sky. Emissions, which will never be recorded in any international register, from trees that foreigners wanted.

We have seen it before. In the child mines of Congo-Kinshasa and Madagascar, where the minerals for our electric cars are mined. Along the fishermen's beaches in West Africa, where the clothes we've grown tired of are dumped.

Africa's poor, who have done the least to cause the climate crisis, are paying the price as we transition.

Robert carries another sack of coal out to the road. Rachel remains at the site, by the remains of the trees that would allow us to eat hamburgers with a clear conscience.

We look out over the patch, a measly acre, which will feed ten mouths. Ecotrust must have realized that the family would never make it. Yet they pushed for them to plant. Where has the money gone?

There is a faint, rasping light as children's hands are passed around the burnt area. Otherwise it is quiet. Completely silent, in the vast landscape. But here and there we have heard whispers, about green money and black business.

Frank Muramuzi, director of the environmental organization Nape, is in contact with several sister organizations in Europe, which believe that this type of climate project is a way to solve the climate crisis and empower farmers.

I try to explain that what we see, on the ground, is that it does not work.

Why not? Money is coming in, but there is no transparency and corruption is growing. Elias Ayrey says that extreme transparency is needed if the money is not to disappear along the way.  Every payment, to every farmer, must be made public.

We help Robert load the coal bags into the minivan and drive to the market.

The time has come to summarize what we have encountered. We have visited nine farms in two districts, Hoima and Kikuube, and interviewed the families there in depth.

    • All nine have planted trees for Ecotrust on land that had previously been used to grow food crops, resulting in hunger.
    • One out of nine families has received no money at all. The other eight have received fewer payments than promised in the contract. In no case has an explanation been given as to why the money has not been paid.
    • In no case have the payments made been able to cover the loss of food.
    • None of the farmers were able to give a clear answer on how carbon offsetting works, who the end customers are or how much money they are entitled to. Most said they never received a copy of the contract they signed.
    • Two of the families report that, as a direct result of the project, they have been forced to marry off underage daughters.
    • On eight of the farms, the trees have now been fully or partially felled in order to replant crops. The timber has been burned for charcoal.

Our survey is not comprehensive. The project covers several thousand farmers spread over a large area. But environmental scientist David Kureeba believes the problem is widespread and systematic. - "There are 45 million people in Uganda and the vast majority are already living on the brink of hunger. They have no land to spare." He is critical of companies like Max, which buy carbon credits here. "They should plant trees in Sweden. This is climate colonialism." 

It was his previous report, based on interviews with over a hundred farmers, that drew us to the area. The information that something had gone seriously wrong with the project was already available a year and a half ago. Since then, the situation has deteriorated further. Why have those responsible not reacted?

The Toyota presses itself up on a hill. Small fields spread out below us like green mosaics.
We can see the international airport built for the oil industry, soon to open. Groundwork is underway for a 144-mile pipeline to Tanzania, which will blast through the valley. In just a few years, oil will be flowing here. The sun is setting bright yellow over Lake Albert.

The world at our feet seems unjust and divided. In Swedish hamburger restaurants, customers order climate-neutral menus. In the hunger forest, children wait in vain for food.

Aftonbladet  | 4 May 2024

by Staffan Lindberg

(Note: This is a translation from the original in Swedish)

The tracks lead to a one-story building on a dusty street in an African country town. In there are those responsible.

Our researcher has been called by Ecotrust on several occasions. The organization has claimed that we needed their permission to speak to the farmers. They have also requested us to come to their office and explain our case to the local manager, Proscovia Kisembo.

It is the same woman that the villagers have singled out as the person responsible here. And she is the one we are now going to meet.

The building is located on a hidden back street on the outskirts of the district capital Hoima. We park the car and enter through the metal gate to the yard. On the facade is a discreet metal sign: Ecotrust.

We do not yet want to reveal that we are journalists but pretend to come from a Swedish environmental organization. A young man who claims to be a new employee leads us inside. The walls are bare, as if on a giant check, of the type that is usually used when someone wins money on television, for the equivalent of SEK 590,000, issued to the organization.

Proscovia Kisembo urges us to settle down. She seems well prepared for our visit.

- If you want information from us, you need to contact us in writing. This also applies if you are going to interview our beneficiaries (ed. note. the farmers), she says.

Why would we need your permission to talk to the farmers?

- If it has to do with our organization, it is good for us to know about it.

She laughs.

- Not true?

We have been out in the field and talked to a large number of farmers. Many who participate in your project no longer have food to eat. Are you aware of that?

- I have understood that there are many problems in the villages that need to be discussed. But no party can solve them alone. Collaboration is needed.

But the problems are about your project. You have persuaded them to plant trees on their farmland and now they get no food.

- I don't know who you have spoken to. If you had let us mediate the contact with the beneficiaries, we would have .

The area is only one mile away. Surely you must be able to answer if you know that children in your project are not allowed to eat?

- We have guidelines that we follow. You must seek permission from headquarters to interview me, says Proscovia Kisembo.

They are cutting down the trees now and turning them into charcoal.

- I will not discuss anything unless you can show that you have permission from headquarters to speak to me.

We have met families who were forced to take their children out of school. Marry off minor daughters. A woman has not received any money at all for eight years.

– Seek permission. Then I will give you all the information you need.

But the farmers we met point to you. You are responsible for this area.

- I am quite sure that I have been clear. I will not talk, says Ecotrust's regional manager, Proscovia Kisembo.

An hour and a half after our visit, a policeman calls. He states that Proscovia Kisembo tried to report our researcher to the police for illegally photographing Ecotrust's office.

Four days after our visit, we learn that Ecotrust has called the farmers in the area to a big meeting. During the meeting, new promises are made that money will soon be paid out.

Before publication, Aftonbladet has applied to Ecotrust's head office for an interview. The environmental organization has responded by contacting our researcher again in the hope of getting the names of our sources. No answers to our questions have been received.

  • Who's involved?

    Whos Involved?


    Special content


    Latest posts