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B.C. farmland is being purchased by foreign companies who then plant trees to qualify for carbon credits.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government has acknowledged the amount of farmland being replanted with trees so companies can claim carbon credits is far greater than thought.

A few weeks ago, Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick dismissed concerns about the issue, which had been raised by farmers in the Cariboo, saying only about 1,500 hectares of agricultural land had been reforested for carbon sequestration.

But in a new fact sheet released this week, the government states that "an additional 7,000 hectares of land" have now been identified on which trees may have been planted for carbon credits.

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Mr. Letnick wasn't immediately available for comment, but the document states that the new information has been given to the Agricultural Land Commission, which is responsible for protecting B.C. farmland.

Farmers and ranchers in the Cariboo said last month they were seeing thousands of hectares of productive farmland being purchased by foreign companies, which then planted trees to qualify for carbon credits.

Lana Popham, the NDP agriculture critic, says it's alarming the government's figures could change so dramatically in just a few weeks.

"It shows that they actually don't know what's going on, on the ground," she said.

And Ms. Popham said the amount of farmland replanted with trees could be even larger than the government is now saying.

Martin Rossman, a hay and alfalfa farmer in the Quesnel area, said he was surprised when he heard the government thought only 1,500 hectares of land had been reforested because the practice is clearly more widespread than that.

"I've had phones calls from a number of people that are just irate over that [number]. They said, 'Where the hell are these people coming from?'" he said.

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Mr. Rossman said Britain-based multinational Reckitt Benckiser Inc. (RB) and some numbered companies are buying land, planting trees and putting it under covenants that say it can't be logged for 100 years.

RB did not respond to requests for comment.

In a presentation he made recently to Community, Sport and Cultural Development Minister Coralee Oakes, who is the Liberal MLA for Cariboo North, Mr. Rossman said nearly 10,000 hectares may have been reforested in the area by RB alone.

Ms. Oakes, whose family helped pioneer farming in the Cariboo, couldn't be reached for comment Thursday, but she e-mailed a statement.

"This is an issue that is very dear to me. It hits home as my family has a long history in the agricultural community," she wrote. "I am apprehensive about this land being used to plant trees for carbon offsets. I have raised the matter with Minister of Agriculture on behalf of my constituents and have let him know quite clearly their concerns."

Ms. Oakes said she wants the lands kept in agricultural production, but "this decision rests with the Agricultural Land Commission."

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Mr. Rossman, however, said the ALC doesn't have the power to stop reforestation, and farmers want tougher regulations brought in by government.

"I guess at least what we are hoping for is a moratorium on it until the whole thing can be researched," Mr. Rossman said.

The issue has also raised questions about foreign ownership of farmland in British Columbia. In a recent letter, the B.C. Agriculture Council (BCAC) asked government to work with the BCAC "to collaboratively develop a foreign ownership of farmland policy for our province."

British Columbia is the only western province that doesn't have restrictions on foreign ownership of agricultural land.

"It's becoming more of an issue. This issue in the Cariboo on carbon credits brought it to the front of the table," said Reg Ens, executive director of the BCAC.

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