In June 2008, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) released a report which showed that Uganda had more than five million hectares of forest cover in 1990. By 2005, only 3.5 million hectares (8.6 million acres) had remained.
The report warned that if deforestation continues at that rate, Uganda will have lost all its forested land by 2050.
As Uganda joins the rest of the world to mark World Forestry Day today, there is need to reflect on whether there has been any improvement to stop the trend of forest destruction or if the country is still on its way to clear all its forested area within the next 30 years.
Visits to selected central forest reserves show destruction of large covers of forest area. At Kitubulu central forest reserve in Entebbe, illegal sand miners are clearing the forest at an alarming rate. Worse still, unscrupulous people are busy getting titles in the forest.
The fight to stop some of these activities is not an easy one. On April 10, 2013, the National Forestry Authority lost 13.6 hectares of Kyewaga forest reserve after the Supreme Court threw out its appeal for wrongfully evicting businessman Sam Kiwanuka, the director of Seven Kings Estates Company.
The 13.6 hectares of this forest land had been excised from the forest reserve some years back without the then forest body updating its records on the development.
In other cases, although the forestry authority is willing to permit people to mine sand, the miners are doing so before getting the licences, a process that is harming the forests. For example, Mr Michael Mugisa, the National Forestry Authority boss, says NFA offered leases to three people in Kyewaga Central Forest Reserve to mine sand but before they could even give them the licences, the people started getting the sand.
The problem with this is that the miners do not follow the guidelines in the license that talk about how to mine sand and how to ensure recovery plans are made. As such, they destroy the lakeshore forest.
At Kajjansi and Namanve forest reserves, in Wakiso, the situation isn’t any better as people have obtained titles illegally and fenced off plots in these forest reserves for development.
The situation is not any better away from the urban forest reserves.
Matiri forest sector comprises six central forest reserves, namely Matiri, Ibambaro, Kitechura, Buhungiro, Rwensambya and Nkera in the districts of Kyegegwa and Kyenjonjo. When you take a walk through these forests, it is captivating to see the overhead canopy of knitted tree branches.
The air is fresh and the place serene.
The people who live near the forests do know that they are crucial. They have an idea that the trees make up 3.4 per cent of the GDP, and provide employment and ecosystem services.
Trading centres in forests
But despite that, it is estimated that the forest cover is being lost at an alarming rate of 92,000 hectares per annum. The 2010 Biomass Report, shows that forest cover loss was highest in Kyenjojo District.
Other than Nkera and Kitechura central forest reserves, the rest have been badly encroached on. Kilometres into the forest, you will find acres of plantations that eventually lead to semi-permanent homesteads and later trading centres. The centres have fully furnished shops, maize mills, salons, lodges and bars. You would be hard-pressed to believe you are in the belly of a forest reserve.
At Itwara Central Forest Reserve in Bugaaki Sub-county, Kyenjojo District, there is an actual road, well-marked by car treads, that leads into spots of massive encroachment. A forest walk of about half a kilometer via Kisangi village Nyamabuga parish in Bugaaki, shows how many trees have been cut, even though National Forest Authority teams say they always patrol the place to evict encroachers.
Logs laid to be cut into timber can be spotted at different points with encroachers camping with all their utensils and power saws ready to clear the tree cover.
At Kabego Central Forest Reserve, various encroachers are busy destroying the forest with protection from neighbouring homesteads who alert them whenever they see supervisors or any unknown people entering the forest.
Mr Phillip Kyomuhendo, the Mirambi village chairman in Kyenjonjo District, claims they see different forestry people entering the forests, sometimes with cars loaded with timber. His concern is that they, as leaders, are not told about what these people are doing.
“They are charged with looking after the forest, but bypass us when entering and yet encroachment has never been brought down,” he says.
His remarks are echoed by Bugaaki Sub-county Chairman William Bisanga Mugambwe who says that there is need for collaborative forest management as stipulated in the NFA Act.
“Tooro people need to take care of their own forests because they have them at heart, not people who connive with encroachers,” he says.
In other cases though, the problems are more complex, with locals being duped and conned into buying acres of the forest.
Duped into buying forest land
Ms Anna Mbabazi, a resident at Kyabanengo trading centre in Matiri forest reserve, says her family sold their land in Kanungu to buy two acres of land from people who said they had land in the reserve at Shs1m.
“As we are farmers, we cleared the area and engaged in agriculture which we were successful in,” she says. “But now, we are worried that NFA is going to evict us from the forest and we have nowhere to go.”
Ms Immaculate Kusye was also duped into buying an acre of forest land at Shs1m. “Isn’t there any way government can compensate us to relocate peacefully?” she asks.
As for Mr William Sande, he has a plantation on about three acres which he bought at Shs2m.
“We have nowhere to go. If they evict us, we shall camp at the district headquarters for the local leadership to seek ways of resettling us,” he says.
Tusasibwe Zaveriyo, on the other hand was picked by a man he only identifies as Enock from his home village in Kabale who had promised him a good job.
“On reaching here, we entered a forest reserve and we have been clearing trees for timber and successfully managed to elude patrol officers wanting to arrest us until I was caught,” he said after being arrested in Fort Portal recently. “I am willing to leave the forest if anyone can get me a job to get transport back to Kabale and resume digging to earn a living,” he says.
NFA says many factors fuel the problem of encroachment like unclear/conflicting forest boundaries, dubious sale of forest land by conmen to unsuspecting members of the public, influx of immigrants from other districts who end up settling in Central Forest Reserves (CFRs), weak law enforcement by government and some negative political interventions.
In all the forest reserves, most of the encroachment is spearheaded by the local communities people who have moved from Kamwenge, Rwanda, Kanungu, Mubende, Kisoro, Kampala, Kabale and Ibanda districts.
Cultivation has been the most notable cause of encroachment. Also, charcoal production from the trees felled during land opening is another cause.
Both Kyenjonjo District Forest Officer Badraa Onzima and National Forest Authority Surveillance and Intelligence Supervisor Amon Rutenta, admit there is connivance between encroachers and some NFA workers.
“We used to conduct operations and find no body but the destruction was going on, until we changed tactics to camouflage and conduct secret operations. Within a week, we were impounding over 30 vehicles ferrying timber,” Mr Rutenta states.
He says the NFA Executive Director Mugisa has since fired some NFA employees suspected of working with encroachers to clear forests, including Stuart Byarugaba, a forest patrol officer in Fort Portal and Peter Isingoma a forest patrol officer in Itwara central forest, and transferred many.
According to Rutenta, they still have weak laws that Parliament and cabinet should change. He also argues that NFA should be allowed to use directives like those of Uganda Wildlife Authority, so they can shoot encroachers found in the forests.
“Some encroachers scorn us that unless we use the bullets, nothing can stop them from going from into the forest where they have grown up earning a livelihood,” he says.
Challenges within NFA
A source at the National Forest Authority who refused to be quoted because he is not authorised to speak to press says supervisors around the country have no means of transport to patrol forest reserves and a few who have, have no fuel and their cars keep breaking down because they have outlived their usefulness.
“You cannot use your salary to patrol forest reserves. That, our bosses at the headquarters should look into urgently,” he says.
He also says that since the government doesn’t provide adequate funds to the authority, some bosses at headquarters get money obtained from auctioning of illegal timber and wouldn’t want the business to stop.
National Forest Authority however denies all the allegations saying if there are such cases, affected persons should complain formally because the authority has structures.
“It might happen once in a while. But like all institutions, we have some challenges however, they are being addressed,” Mr Gilbert Kadilo, the NFA Spokesman, says.
But the rate, however, at which the forests are being destroyed is worrying. The consequences such as flooding in some areas are already visible.
In order to solve the problem, it is clear that alternatives have to be found for people who want to settle there, and for another source of energy that is cheap and easy to acquire. There also needs to be tougher measures for encroachers.
THE EFFECTS OF DEFORESTATION
Prof. Oweyegha-Afunaduula, an environmentalist and former Dean of Environment School at Makerere University, says destroying forests can cause serious drought and make crops vulnerable to pests and diseases.
“Many of the pests attacking maize and other crops came from forests that are being cleared making government and farmers lose money as they have to buy pest control chemicals that also have their challenges,” he said.
The recent approval of the clearing of forests in Kalangala that were acting as wind breakers for strong winds from Tanzania, by government, he says, will lead to consequences in future.
The professor notes that although the government is encouraging people to plant trees like pine, eucalyptus and palm, they can never play the role of indigenous trees.
“Forests are homes to many primitive societies and have precious medicines like Prunus Africana (pictured) that will never be got anywhere when the forests are cleared,” he states.
“There is need for analogue forestry where people collect various indigenous tree species and plant them. We can also encourage leaders to restore seeds preserved in soil profiles to restore forests if Uganda is to avert the negative effects of forest degradation,” he says.
He adds that the recent floods in Kasese were a live example of the consequence of clearing natural forests, for plantation forests, as some of these trees, like pine, have fewer advantages for the environment.
Efforts made to protect the trees
Care International in Uganda in collaboration with Joint Effort to Save the Environment (Jese) are working on in an initiative to empower communities neighbouring forest reserves on monitoring and using forests sustainably. They are encouraging people to engage in other income activities. The team is running a campaign in western Uganda dubbed “Forest governance”.
Sam Nyakooja, an environmentalist and coordinator at Jese, says one of the reasons we are losing cover is that some encroachers get licenses to cut trees in private forests and end up in forest reserves.
Mr Patrick Baguma, the team leader at Jese says NFA needs to provide alternative livelihoods such as
bee keeping and coffee production. It is necessary, he says to do this and to teach the people about
sustainable harvesting rather than just tell them not to cut trees.
“Government needs to know that the population is increasing and the demand for timber is increasing; people leaving near the forest need to have a livelihood,” he says.