I am standing next to a police officer at a city branch of Stanbic Bank, big blue, the largest bank in the country. The police officer from Kajjansi has a major problem with his ATM card. The bank miraculously dropped his ATM card’s limit to Shs1,000 requiring him to enroll in a profitable service for banks, mobile to deposit banking.
The police officer in uniform – obviously it was working hours was looking around both cautiously in the banking hall and sheepishly probably due to the transaction details on his card needed this fixed quickly.
Several uniformed traffic police officers use this particular branch at Freedom City because of its prime location. Most traffic citations end with bribes or tips depending on which side of the law you reside.
However, a bigger problem looming is the charcoal trade that is going to deliver the final decisive blow to natural forests countrywide.
In 2018/2019, the shea butter tree came under attack from charcoal burning severely depleting its cover in Northern Uganda. Shea butter is favoured by charcoal users due to its long burning qualities.
It’s a pity because shea butter has other important commercial uses; the quality of Uganda’s shea butter is much higher than the one from West Africa.
Sunday is the preferred day for transporting illicit charcoal into the city. This is when the traffic police are most active.
On Sunday, and after dark on weekdays, traffic police accompanies this precious commodity into the city through the back roads to avoid detection. Dangerously overloaded trucks with charcoal make it into the city. The reasons are easy to see.
A mid-size cooking gas canister costs Shs120,000 to Shs130,000, while a sack of charcoal costs Shs50,000 to Shs65,000. One energy source is cleaner (not in terms of total pollution) but efficiency. The other condemns permanently a few acres of natural forest each time trees are felled for charcoal.
A YouTube (DW) documentary made in Nigeria last year revealed another piece of information.
Europeans are big purchasers of charcoal. Apparently the eco-diversity in their trees burns better on big barbeque stoves. Europe has planted thousands of acres of trees some of which are at harvesting stage but the quality of their charcoal is nowhere close to the Nigerian charcoal.
As such Nigeria is the biggest charcoal exporter in Africa. Everyone knows how Nigeria dominates environmental bad news. After decades of relying on crude oil, Nigeria is starting to return to agrarian roots but will be hampered by an absence of tree cover.
Natural forest cover in Uganda currently at 1.6 per cent is likely to fall to half that by end of decade. Energy costs are already subtly felt. Uganda has some of the best beef in the world. Our cows have been trotting the lands of our forefathers effortlessly. But the shades under which natural pastures thrive are shrinking.
Big pastoralists are moving their herd out to fill gaps in the cattle belt. Herdsmen from Western Uganda are traveling to as far as Pader where a central government official in 2018 lost his job for complaining that “strange” herdsmen were grazing cattle in rural Pader (Agago County).
In this movement, animals have started to compete with human beings for water. I have friends who have relocated from areas where environmental attributes are falling like greater Bushenyi to Ngoma (Nakaseke) to raise livestock.
Consumers are already paying for this in the cost of rising prices for beef. A kilogramme of beef that cost Shs4,000 10 years ago is now three times that much Shs13,000. Beef is readily more available than fish and chicken but at that price many people are locked. Who will save these natural forests being chopped down so fast?
Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law and an Advocate.