Mr Kavuma-Kaggwa, an elder from Kyaggwe, Mukono District, says he vividly recalls his area, like the rest of Uganda, being heavily forested 50 years ago.During the colonial days, he says, no one had a right to cut a tree in a private or government forest without authorisation from local leaders.
The local leaders, Mr Kaggwa says, had powers to enforce environmental laws at that level without having to appeal to any higher authorities in the colonial government.
“During the colonial era, there was the department of environment and it was working. Today we have Nema [National Environment Management Authority] but I do not know what it is doing,” Mr Kaggwa says.
Nema is one of the institutions mandated to protect the environment but the National Forestry Authority (NFA) is directly in charge of protecting the 506 central forest reserves from encroachment.
Large tracts of government forest reserves have been cleared over the recent years and President Museveni has on a number of occasions publicly expressed displeasure at the performance of NFA.
“Those people of the forests (NFA) are not doing a good job. They are not serious. The government has given them all powers to protect forests. But they just sit there, doing nothing,” Mr Museveni said on April 23, 2014 as he launched a tree planting campaign started by a youth group, “Go Green Campaign”, in Kampala. He said it would be useless to plant new trees when the existing ones were not being protected.
Towards the end of last year, it emerged that the President had ordered NFA, which he accuses of failing to protect forests, to transfer the challenge to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, which protects game parks and game reserves. This move, analysts opined, would present legal complications since NFA was deeply entrenched in law, set up by the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act, 2003.
Whichever way that is resolved, many would agree that a lot needs to improve about how Uganda’s forests are protected from encroachment.
Since the departure of the colonial government in 1962, Uganda, once described by the British imperialist Winston Churchill, in 1908, as the “Pearl of Africa” partly because of its rich flora and fauna, has seen massive depletion of forests.
Some forecasts gloomily predict that private land will not have forests in the next 10 years. This is backed by evidence from a 2016 Joint Water and Environment Sector Review Report that says forest cover has reduced from 24 per cent in 1990 to just 11 per cent in 2015.
Between 1990 and 2005, natural forest estate outside protected areas reduced by 35 per cent (from 3.46 million hectares in 1990 to 2.3 million hectares in 2005). People are converting hitherto forested land into agricultural land, timber and charcoal burning zones.
Despite decimal forest cover currently, government officials say they are ready to bring back the forest cover back to what it was in 1990, a task analysts doubt.
Mr Paul Mafabi, the director in charge of the environment at the Ministry of Water and Environment, says Uganda has already paid the effects of deforestation and the only solution is reafforestation instead of engaging in blame game. Different programmes in this regard, Mr Mafabi says, have been lined up.
“We have made our unwanted contribution of greenhouse gases realised from the unprecedented rate of forest loss. We accept our responsibility. The good news is that government is determined to reverse this trend and restore forest cover to its state as of 1990 covering 3.46 million hectare or 24 per cent of Uganda’s land covers,” Mafabi says.
This is an ambitious statement in a country where almost everyone uses charcoal or firewood for cooking and large tracts of land are being sought for agriculture and settlement.
But Mr Mafabi is not deterred, saying there are strategies to counter the challenges.
“The country is determined to increase incentives for forestry resources development, sustainable forest management and benefits sharing from Uganda’s forestry resources, both in public and privately owned land,” he says.
Scientists say there is a big linkage between vegetation cover, forests, livelihood and reducing emissions that result into climate change effects like long dry spell and extreme temperatures, which Uganda is currently experiencing.
“As trees in the forests grow, they capture carbon in their roots, leaves and stems,” the United Nations Food and Agriculture (FAO) Country representative, Dr Alhajji Jallow, reminds us of the basic science involved.
If the carbon is not trapped by vegetation, it escapes into the atmosphere, damaging the ozone layer which protects the earth from direct sun rays, leading to a warmer earth and other adverse effects.
Forests are also a source of food to humans and animals, influence rainfall formation, provide energy, promote employment and enhance incomes, and nourish soils with nutrients that in turn support the agriculture sector.
Mr Mafabi says the government has partnered with United Nations agencies like UNDP, UNEP and FAO, Forest Carbon Partnership facility of the World Bank and the Austrian Development Agency to drive environment conservation.
The United Nation’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) was launched in 2015 and aimed at reducing greenhouse gases through an environmentally viable national strategy, which the government says it is keen on.
But Dr Daniel Waiswa, a natural resource management specialist and Makerere University lecturer, doubts that there is any way the government can recover the lost forest cover.
“I do not think we can go back to the 1990 scenario,” Dr Waiswa says. “Demand for land and forest resource is ever increasing, the population has increased and even the 1990 scenario is not the best forest cover had dwindled,”Waiswa adds.
In 1990 Uganda had a population of 17.53m compared to the current 35m or more people.
Dr Waiswa says if Uganda is recover the lost forest cover, unpopular decisions like stopping further clearing of land for agriculture, settlement or other infrastructure development will have to be adopted, things he says will be hard for the government to push through.
Dr Waiswa says land fragmentation should be dealt with by bring people in concentrated small areas with better infrastructure and all the other land being amalgamated to create bigger farms or forests. This would, of course, require massive investment and planning.
Mr Mafabi, however, insists the government will, by 2030, have reforested 100 million hectares of currently deforested and degraded land.To demonstrate their commitment, Mr Mafabi cites the country’s target of planting 200 million trees by the year 2020 embodied in the 2012 National Tree Planting Strategy.
As the government dreams of recovering lost forest cover, however, much of last year was not good for the existing forests. Parts of Bugoma Central Forest Reserve in Hoima District, just like Zoka Forest Reserve in Adjumani District, were proposed to be degazetted for sugar cane growing.
Also, an investigation by this newspaper in December last year showed that much of Mabira forest in Buikwe District had been encroached on by charcoal burners, faremers and others people in search for timber.
Dr Waiswa cites political interference as the biggest challenge to conservationists to protect the current forests
“In the current setup where democracy is the issue, politicians need votes, and voters use it as bait. If you don’t allow them to use the forest, they shall not vote for you, which (pressure) normally politicians yield to,” Dr Waiswa.
President Museveni has of recent been forced to pay attention to or at least publicly issue anti-environment degradation messages especially since an estimated 9m people now go hungry due to prolonged drought.
Speaking at St Mathew’s Cathedral Kyamate in Ntungamo District on Christmas Day 2016, Mr Museveni called for mass sensitisation of people about the dangers of environmental degradation.
“Those invading wetlands need to move by themselves slowly without being pulled, without force. If we destroy the wetlands, where will we get water for irrigation?” Mr Museveni said, adding: “We shall come and negotiate slowly until they understand. Like my people of Rujumo (neighborhood of his wife’s upcountry home of Irenga), I stood on that hill and saw all the wetlands have been degraded, how can a person put a granary on fire, now we are destroying a water granary. We now want people to move away slowly and they vacate centre of wetlands to the land that are suitable for their crop growing.” But Ms Beatrice Anywar, the Kitgum Municipality MP who led a campaign in 2007 to block a move by Mr Museveni to degazette a part of Mabira forest for sugar growing by the Mehta group, is not convinced. She says Mr Museveni’s ‘change of heart now as an environment protector’ should be suspicious.
“What has government realised now that we need forests when we fought to protect the existing forests and were called terrorists?” Ms Anywar says. During the 2007 anti-Mabira give away, at least 5 people were killed, something that forced both the investor and the government to abandon the deal.
“It is government officials who have given out or cut down these forests and destroyed wetlands.
Mr Richard Mwesigwa, the project manager at World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), a conservationist organisation, says the government’s declared plan to restore forest cover is welcome but needs to be followed through.
“The reality will come on implementation and if government will be able to evict people who have already settled in protected areas,” Mr Mwesigwa says.
He says as government plans to re-green the country, a balance should be struck between planting indigenous trees for biodiversity purposes and exotic trees which have been taken up by individuals mainly for commercial purposes.
Latest findings by FAO indicate that Uganda loses over 200,000 hectares of forest cover annually and plants less than 7000 hectares annually. It is clear that just balancing out the forest cover that is lost with what is planted annually is itself a tall order. The jury is out.
Facts Records. Between 1990 and 2005, natural forest estate outside protected areas reduced by 35 per cent (from 3.46 million hectares in 1990 to 2.3 million hectares in 2005). People are converting hitherto forested land into agricultural land, timber and charcoal burning zones.
Ongoing. As the government dreams of recovering lost forest cover, however, much of last year was not good for the existing forests. Parts of Bugoma Central Forest Reserve in Hoima District, just like Zoka Forest Reserve in Adjumani District, were proposed to be degazetted for sugar cane growing.
Change of guard. Towards the end of last year, it emerged that the President had ordered NFA, which he accuses of failing to protect forests, to transfer the challenge to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, which protects game parks and game reserves.