Last week, I attended a policy dialogue organised by the Environment for Development Initiative Makerere Centre. The dialogue was aimed at discussing challenges and opportunities around governance and natural resource utilisation in Uganda. Within this scope, topics discussed were many and varied. Underlying the narrative by the participants was the fact that environmental sustainability and conservation were key and urgent for Uganda, in the course of pursuing her development plan.
The country’s leading economic activities are heavily environment reliant. This will continue to be the case with the discovery of oil and the aggressive infrastructure development projects targeted at facilitating economic advancement. Agriculture, which currently employs the majority of Ugandans and which will get even more important as food production becomes more vital against the country’s escalating population, already presents a big environmental degradation challenge for the country. Without advanced mechanisation of agriculture to enable high productivity per unit area, large expanses of land continue being opened up for farming, to sustain rising food needs. This involves increasing deforestation rates and more destruction of biodiversity. Agriculture accounted for about 20 per cent of GDP in fiscal year 2017/2018, and 43 per cent of export earnings, and Uganda Bureau of Standards estimates that about 70 per cent of Uganda's working population is employed in agriculture. As such, the importance of agriculture and high reliance on environmental resources will remain significant for Uganda.
There are other important factors that feed into Uganda’s growing challenges regarding environmental conservation such as high reliance on wood fuel, which accounts for over 96 per cent of household cooking fuel needs in the country, and thus results in extensive destruction of forest cover. Nearly all households use charcoal and firewood for cooking, with 22.7 per cent using charcoal. Charcoal is the predominant source of energy used in urban settings, while firewood is more common in rural areas.
In order to safeguard the environment and preserve biodiversity, Uganda has put in place institutional structures that mandated to drive the relevant agenda in these different aspects. These include the National Environmental Management Authority, National Forestry Authority and Uganda Wildlife Authority.
Sometimes these government agencies have found themselves in confrontation with the population as they pursue their mandate. This confrontation is likely to intensify with time as the growing population exerts more pressure on the environmental resources to be able to sustain themselves. The more the rising population becomes increasingly desperate for land to farm and to settle in, the more they become inclined to violate government’s controls around environmental resources as they look to the same environment to supply basic requirements for their means of survival. In such a scenario, the population can get militant and frustrate environment sustainability and conservation initiatives, unless these initiatives also take care of their personal needs.
However, driving a compliance-based model of conserving the environment is possibly easier to pursue than for example, providing alternatives to the population to enable them to survive comfortably without encroaching on the environment. For this reason, and also because of the desire for quicker results, government agencies may be more inclined to aggressively pursue compliance with environment conservation demands within their mandate. Alternative means that consider motivating the population to adopt conservation measures on their own will are likely not be prioritised. But as a country, we need to prioritise and promote initiatives such as incentives for planting trees being availed to the grass root populations, offering benefits at individual level. Such initiatives could for example counter the lucrative appeal of charcoal production and reduce that activity, saving more trees. Affordable alternative energy especially for domestic cooking among urban populations could also be pursued to diminish the demand for charcoal. In the medium to long term, modern farming methods if promoted will maximise output per land unit, minimise encroachment on forest reserves, and open up more land for farming.
Otherwise, enforcement of environment conservation in a scenario such as ours will not get buy-in by the population, and is bound to meet ever increasing challenges. It is unlikely that an exploding population will welcome environment conservation compliance requirements since they are, foremost, driven to encroach on the environment for basic survival purposes.
Raymond is a Chartered Risk Analyst and risk management consultant