Our project in the Usambara Mountains: an update

Any organization we partner with must have a solid track record before they begin working with us. We don’t work with a third party unless a global charity, NGO or other donor is prepared to recommend them to us wholeheartedly.

This vetting process usually paves the way to productive partnerships that have a vital impact on nature and local communities. For the first time in Ecosia’s history, one of our partnerships hasn’t worked out.

Over the last nine months, we have developed a number of concerns about the work of one of our partners, the Friends of Usambara Society, and their ability to support our goals in Tanzania. As a result, we’ve decided to end the collaboration. The trees pledged by the Society in our latest contract with them have never appeared on Ecosia’s tree counter, and the figure of 73.2 million planted trees (as of November 5th 2019) is still accurate. In the spirit of transparency, I would like to give you an overview of what has happened, what we’ve learned, and how we move forward.

What we expect from our partners

When we first begin working with a third party, we only offer short-term, small scale probationary contracts at first. That is, until we’re comfortable with the planting, monitoring and nurturing processes of our tree planting partners.

They must be able to prove that they’ve planted the number of trees they’ve agreed to plant, as per their contract with us. We make use of satellite imagery to check-in on progress, as well as site visits by our team and by third parties for verification, and closely monitor cash flow and milestones, to ensure the initial vision for each project is fulfilled.

A central part of our principles is ensuring that the projects have a positive effect on the environment and local communities. This can be because our trees are strategically planted to avoid erosion and water run-off, or because they produce products that farmers can use or sell to support their families.

Once we’re certain that all of the above has been achieved, we look to go into a longer-term partnership with that third party. To date, this model has been successful, and has enabled us to plant over 70 million trees globally, across 22 remote, biodiversity hotspots and regions.

Our work in the Usambara mountains of Tanzania

In Tanzania, we’ve worked with the Friends of the Usambara Society since the beginning of 2017, as part of our goal to help restore the Usambara mountains region. This mountain area in the Savannah is unique - the region is home to a vast array of unique plant and animal species, including the endangered Usambara weaver, which have been threatened severely over the last century by deforestation and climate change.

Between 2017 and mid 2018, the project was making steady progress and we offered feedback on how to improve where appropriate. During a site visit by me in April of last year, we agreed to improve monitoring and tracking of the trees, and provided training for team members to rectify some concerns we had about the progress of the efforts made by the Friends of Usambara Society.

Between that site visit September 2019, we continued to work with and investigate them, primarily to audit the number of trees planted to date, and to ensure that the project met the expectations initially set by Ecosia. However, after more than six months of work on this, we lost our trust that the organization will ever be able to comply with Ecosia’s reporting standards and remain unconvinced that they have planted and nurtured the number of trees they pledged to.

Why we’re ending this partnership

We've developed a number of  concerns about the work of the Friends of Usambara Society, and have consequently decided to end our collaboration with them.

We have come to the belief that the Friends of Usambara Society’s tree planting, nurturing and reporting methods are not up to the standards expected by Ecosia. These standards are crucial to us in all projects, because they include measuring where and how many trees are planted. Without this data, Ecosia cannot credibly show a project's planting progress.

Ecosia offered an external audit at the end of 2018, to assist with reporting and to see if it could be improved. This offer was declined by the Friends of Usambara, and as tree planting reporting did not improve, we have not funded any additional tree planting.

In this case, we also decided to end our contract with the organization, when further information was brought to our attention.

Concerns brought to our attention

At the beginning of 2019, we received anonymous reports, alleging a number of issues. Among them, an allegation that the organization misreported tree planting figures not only to us, but to other organizations it partners with.

While we would like to provide additional detail, doing so might have an impact on our investigation of the Friends of the Usambara Society.

How Ecosia is handling these concerns

Ecosia’s mission is to plant trees and to fight climate change. To be as successful as possible, we cannot tolerate poor standards of tree planting, monitoring or nurturing, or anything else that goes against our principles. This is one of the reasons why we won’t be continuing to work with the Society.

We can also assure Ecosia users that the trees pledged by the Society in our latest contract have never appeared on Ecosia’s tree counter, and that the figure of 73.2 million (as of November 5th 2019) is still accurate. In fact, Ecosia’s counter is purposefully conservative - we track trees for three years to monitor for sapling losses and reflect lost trees in our tree counter. At the same time, we always make sure to have a few more surviving trees in the ground than the counter shows.

At Ecosia, we’d love to continue working in the Usambara region – we’re currently looking at ways of helping the nursery workers and people in the field, particularly those affected by the actions of the Friends of Usambara Society. At present, we’re looking at working with other local NGOs, and we're also exploring “Cooperative Society” models, which have been recommended to us by local legal experts. We’re hoping to organize and provide funds for a replacement project in the coming months, and we'll provide a follow-on blog post highlighting progress when we can.

Learnings for Ecosia

On this occasion, the Friends of Usambara Society has not delivered the results that we expect from our third party partners. Thankfully, this is the first occasion where we’ve had to terminate a partnership with a third party tree planting organization.

Working with third party tree planting organizations, who are almost always located in remote areas of the world, can be challenging, but rewarding when visions are aligned. We’ve been able to plant over 70 million trees (to-date) by making these relationships work, and we will continue to do all we can to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.

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