On a cold afternoon, a group of young men throw freshly cut logs onto a blue Toyota Dyna pickup truck. The truck is parked on the summit of one of the hills that dot Kabukwiri Village, Ndangara Parish in Rubirizi District.
The truck is parked at the entrance of a forested area of 615 hectares, on the fringes of Karinju (Kalinzu) Central Forest Reserve.
About 500 metres down the steep slope, loggers are busy at work felling trees. There are no secrets here. The sound of the chain saw can be heard from a distance.
In 2013, through a collaborative forestry management programme, the National Forestry Authority (NFA) allocated this area to Ndangara and Nyakiyanja Parishes Group. The group has since planted eucalyptus and indigenous trees in the area. While the group harvests the trees and uses the area for its economic empowerment, they also help in conserving Karinju Forest by reporting illegal loggers to NFA.
The group was started in 2008 by 45 known forest encroachers to get themselves out of jail whenever they were arrested by NFA officials. The men from Kabukwiri Village believed nature was at their disposal, so they carried out illegal lumbering, charcoal burning and hunting in the forest, always clashing with NFA officials. This was the point at which environmental conservation and economic benefit met and then took divergent paths.
Rubirizi is a highly populated district and the average number of children a woman has is six, which is higher than the national rate of five. According to district officials, the district has a population of about 140,000. The district is blessed with forests such as Karinju, Maramagambo and Kashoya-Kitomi, 32 crater lakes and about 50 per cent of Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Naturally, the population ekes a living from these natural resources.
When Ms Lillian Namirimu and her husband left Kampala 20 years ago to till the land in Kabukwiri, the prevailing belief was that a woman must give birth and fill the earth. Her husband is a logger.
“With the natural resources around us, there was no worry about how we would feed the children. I have six children, but we are now encountering serious problems because none of our children has advanced beyond Primary Five. There was no money to educate them,” she says.
Now, the older children are demanding that their father allocates them land to build their own houses and start farming. Naturally, if nothing drastic is done, the forest beacons.
If one walks down the lone village path, they will encounter more children and youth than adults. District authorities are waking up to the dangers that a high population poses to the environment although the district environmental department is grossly underfunded.
Of the Shs16 billion that the district receives from the government annually, the department is only allocated Shs6 million for operations.
These inadequate funds have rendered spot checks on natural resources impossible. Mr John Mubangizi, the district vice chairperson, says if the population is not checked, conservation efforts will be in vain.
“We are aware that people are encroaching on the wetlands that are 200 metres from the crater lakes. In the past, children were associated with wealth but now the demands of educating and feeding them have made them a burden. Many children are associated with people in the low income bracket, so to tackle population growth there must be economic empowerment as well. The more exposed one is, the more they will adapt to family planning practices,” he says.
Besides the high fertility rates, migrants from DR Congo and Rwanda have contributed to the population growth.
In a bid to harness the link between population and environmental conservation, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Uganda and Reproductive Health Uganda (RHU) have partnered on the five-year project that is integrating sexual reproductive health and conservation in Rwenzori and Bunyoro sub-regions.
Mr Raymond Ruyoka, an advocacy officer at RHU, says educating people on having manageable families will deter them from encroaching on the forests.
“Uganda’s population is growing at a rate of 3.2 per cent per annum. Every year, we are adding 1.2 million people to the population. This means that by 2050, the country will have a population of 150 million, yet the resources will remain the same. Whenever we hold health camps where, besides sensitising the population on the need to conserve the environment, we provide contraceptive commodities for the women and youth,” he says.
According to Mr Martin Asiimwe, the WWF coordinator for Fresh Water, Wildlife and Forests Programme, population pressure is the main factor accelerating degradation of natural resources.
“Per capita consumption of wood increases every time the population increases, and that is why managing the populations around water resources and forests is a good idea. Our climate is changing so the homes that have planned their families early are more resilient to the shocks than those that are having unplanned births,” he says.
The project mainly works with the women and youth. However, the need to involve men is more apparent. Ms Rosette Namara, a 26-year-old mother of two, lives in Namirembe Village, Rugashali Sub-county in Kagadi District. While she was educated up to Senior Four, her husband is a Primary Five dropout.
“I have been using the Injecta Plan but now, my husband is demanding for a child. I feel the two children we have are enough but I cannot fight him. I have no choice but to get pregnant,” she says.
“We are farmers and we own three acres of land near Bugoma (Forest). We cut down trees to clear the land but we are now planting eucalyptus in their place. But I know that as my family grows, we will go deeper into the forest for more land,” she adds.
Ms Namara and her neighbours are migrants from the south western part of the country who settled in Kagadi and with the collaboration of local council chairpersons, have settled around Bugoma and Kangombe central forest reserves.
Uganda loses 100,000 hectares of forest cover annually and Bunyoro Sub-region contributes 60 per cent to this number.
Mr Asiimwe says while the reception of the family planning programme among the population is growing, it has mainly been embraced by the youth who, “have a lot to fear because they are the ones who will cut down many trees in the future if the population growth is not checked. So, engaging them early is a plus.”
In Rubirizi, Mr Mubangizi says women are now yearning for family planning services.
“We have 100 village health workers (VHTs) who interface with women on a day-to-day basis. However, these are few because we have 300 villages. Our interest now is in training more VHTs and we have been in touch with the Ministry of Health to ensure that this happens,” he says.
Mr Mubangizi adds that the different departments in the districts have already been requested to include a component of population issues in their budgets for the next financial year. Also, a 10-year forestry development plan is in the final stages of development.
The now 415 members of Ndangara and Nyakiyanja Tutugukye Parishes Group have advanced way ahead of the district. Mr Zinori Bikorwomuhangi, a member of the group, says they realised that sensitising a poor population on environmental conservation was counterproductive.
“After we stopped encroaching on Karinju Forest, with the help of WWF, we requested NFA to give us permission to start some economic activities to sustain us. We have planted more than 615 hectares of trees which we cut and sell,” he says.
“The women and youth in the group also carry out beekeeping and we have 480 bee hives in the forest. We also grow coffee and have constructed 380 energy saving stoves that use less wood. I request the government to extend Operation Wealth Creation services to this village because since we stopped illegal lumbering, people are now waking up to how painful it is to pay school fees for their children,” he adds.
Over the last 10 years, Uganda has lost about one million hectares of forest cover. To stop the trend, forces such as population control and economic empowerment need to be harnessed and brought into play in the communities living around the natural resources. Both central and local governments need to prioritise and invest more in their citizen’s sexual reproductive health.