Deforestation puts the north on the back foot

Environmental Police Unit officers conduct an operation against illegal logging and commercial charcoal dealers in Palaro Sub-county, Gulu District in 2019. PHOTO / TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY

What you need to know:

  • Agago and Pader districts alone have lost an estimated 93 hectares of relative tree cover in 2021—an equivalent to a 0.25 percent decrease in tree cover since 2000.
  • Whereas this loss of forest cover had been either to charcoal burning or fires, commercial logging has in recent years exacerbated the problem.

Widespread deforestation resulting from illegal logging and commercial charcoal production across northern Uganda has hit its highest level in two decades, environmental experts have warned.

Whereas this loss of forest cover had been either to charcoal burning or fires, commercial logging has in recent years exacerbated the problem.

In Acholi sub-region, the districts of Agago, Pader, Kitgum, Amuru, and Gulu have particularly been impacted. This is as experts continue to link the impact of such human activities to the increasingly volatile changes to the climate in the region that is home to an estimated 2,500 species of plants and animals, and at least 8.2 million people.

For example, Agago and Pader districts alone have lost an estimated 93 hectares of relative tree cover in 2021—an equivalent to a 0.25 percent decrease in tree cover since 2000 and 14,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, data by the Global Forest Watch states.

Pader District specifically lost 1,420 hectares (a 1.0 percent decrease in tree cover since 2000).

Elsewhere, Agago’s loss is equivalent to a 100 percent decrease since 2000 and 6.6 percent of the global total.

Across Gulu District, the situation is even more dire. Since 2000, the district has lost the vast majority of the 590,000 hectares of tree cover it boasted of in 2010 to illegal logging and charcoal burning.

In 2021 alone, the Global Forest Watch says the district lost 988 hectares to such activities and wildfires—an equivalent to 440,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

In Gulu, 290,000 hectares of land were burned in wildfires in 2021. This peaked—as it usually does—in the dry seasons (December to February).

Between 2001 and 2021, Gulu lost 38,700 hectares of tree cover. This represents an equivalent of a 6.2 percent decrease in tree cover since 2000, and 12,900 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

Whereas in 2021 alone the district lost 4.84 hectares of tree cover to deforestation (equivalent to 1,680 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions), Kitgum lost between 2001 and 2021 1,900 hectares of tree cover. This is equivalent to a 0.90 percent decrease in tree cover since 2000.

Although it had 233,000 hectares of tree cover by 2010, extending over 24 percent of its land area, 280,000 hectares of the district’s total land area was razed down by wildfires in 2021 alone.

Massive tree cutting

Sometimes referred to as old-growth forests, primary forests are those that exist in their original condition and are virtually untouched by humans. These areas can harbour trees that are hundreds, even thousands, of years old.

Besides being critical to sustaining biodiversity, these old forests matter as stores of carbon dioxide, which is why the loss of thousands of hectares of tree cover in the region is concerning.

Mr Christopher Ateker Opiyo, the Gulu District chairperson, identifies Paibona, Omel Palaro and Owalo sub-counties as the most denuded areas in the district. Most of the trees, he adds, are cut down for charcoal burning and timber. To him, the commercial charcoal trend—widespread in the district—is the handiwork of district technocrats as the reprimand of the district forestry officer and some forestry rangers early this year showed. They were sacked for sabotaging an eviction of indiscriminate tree cutters.

“We have resolved as a district that any private or government project coming to the district should have a component of tree planting to replace the destroyed trees,” he tells Saturday Monitor, adding, “We have also partnered with some non-governmental organisations that are supporting farmer groups in the community with tree seedlings.”

In Gulu District, under the Project for Restoration of Livelihoods in Northern Uganda (PRELNOR), Mr Opiyo says 17 groups from Bungatira, Palaro, Paicho, Omel, and Owor sub-counties have been supported with various species of tree seedlings. This is intended to reduce the cutting down of trees for fuel.

In the neighbouring Amuru District, indiscriminate and massive tree cutting has shifted to the contested Apaa area as per the district authorities.

Mr Michael Lakony, the district chairperson, explains that the influx on Apaa—a relatively virgin area with almost all its tree cover intact—follows the depletion of tree cover in most areas of the district due to logging and commercial charcoal production.

“Most of the commercial charcoal dealers who operated in Okidi, Pogo, and Labala in Pabbo and Lamogi sub-counties have depleted the forest cover in these areas,” Mr Lakony says.

To tackle the vice, he says they have since launched indiscriminate fining and arrest of commercial charcoal dealers and loggers in the district.

“In the past one week alone, the district realised Shs60 million in fines from at least 15 trucks that were impounded during the random operations,” he said, adding, “Amuru no longer has trees to qualify as a forest because most of the trees have been cut down. We noticed that the charcoal dealers have now shifted to the Apaa area, taking advantage of the ongoing conflict in the area.”

Extreme weather

Parts of Lamwo, Kitgum, Amuru, and Agago have in the past two years been experiencing heat waves, presumably, due to the absence of tree cover. As of April, the temperatures varied between 42 and 45 degrees Celsius, unlike 19 and 22 degrees Celsius previously.

A map of Gulu District showing the impact of forest depletion 1n 2020.

This comes at a time all districts across the sub-region are struggling, with limited success, to fight the persistent commercial charcoal production and illegal logging activities.

Mr William Komakech, the Kitgum Resident District Commissioner, says the indiscriminate tree cutting by commercial charcoal producers is rampant in Orom and Mucwini sub-counties.

“We realised that these [commercial charcoal producers] are the local people who start by making three to five bags, which later on accumulate to fill a lorry,” he said, adding, “We… have an ordinance in place that bars commercial production of charcoal and illegal logging.”

From 2015, district authorities of Gulu, Kitgum, Omoro, Amuru, Lamwo, Nwoya, Agago, and Pader began to get reports of settlers invading villages with untouched tree cover and targeting the trees for charcoal. Findings by separate taskforces set up by the joint forum of the district leaders would later unearth that the charcoal dealers were non-Acholi natives. They came from as far as the central, western, and eastern parts of the country.

“These dealers, even up to now, camp in villages with good tree cover where they hire such spots from the land owners and cut every tree in sight. They harvest the timber first and everything that remains, they burn into charcoal,” Mr William Openytho, a land rights expert, says.

Mr Openytho adds that by 2019, more than 4,000 commercial charcoal dealers were estimated to be spread across the Acholi sub-region.

“The impact of such a number is dangerous to the environment. Right now, parts of northern Uganda are turning into semi-desert due to deforestation,” he notes.

Efforts to force the dealers out of the region have not yielded fruits due to conflict of interest among the leaders, who are themselves alleged to be beneficiaries from the plunder.

Although the National Forestry Authority (NFA), through the local governments, has tried to institute ordinances and by-laws to conserve the forests, enforcement has remained a big challenge. This battle has pitted commercial charcoal and log dealers—who are lured into the business by the reportedly huge profits gained—against environmental activists and local government authorities.

The cultural, political, and civil leadership of the district are currently faced with difficulties in sustaining operations to rid the district of illegal commercial loggers and charcoal producers, who mainly target the protected shea nut trees in the district.

Mr Kasemiro Ongom, the Patongo Clan chief, says there is a lot of resistance among the dealers, who are reportedly being protected by individuals within the civil and political circles of the district.

“These dealers in some sub-counties will charge at you and will harm you when you try to stop them from cutting the trees because they are protected,” he says, adding, “If you confiscate their tools, they will even threaten you and call some big people in the district.”

According to him, many dealers are camping and destroying the environment in hard-to-reach sub-counties bordering the Karamoja Sub-region. He further reveals that each charcoal dealer hires more than 20 acres of land and clears all tree species. They also hire locals to cut all tree species, including removing the roots.

“We are already feeling the impact of these acts, the rainfall pattern has drastically changed, and the food harvests have also drastically reduced as a result because the rainfall patterns have become so unreliable and have interfered with our planting seasons,” Mr Ongom said.

But Mr Johnson Okidi, the district forest officer, says the district is raising its seedlings that are distributed to farmers for planting.

“We are in the process of planting trees to replace those that have been massively cut over the past years,” he reveals. “The district partnered with organisations such as NGO Forum Pader, GIZ, and NFA, who will avail seedlings of Pine, teak, among others.”

Trail of cartels

At the peak of the problem are the Environmental Police and NFA personnel, who are said to be reaping big from the dirty trade.

An investigation conducted by this newspaper during the lockdown revealed how police officers attached to Environmental Police and NFA were escorting illegal log dealers with the prized commodity out of the region.

Some of the officers are said have reported to NFA offices the day before about their presence and the intended operation.

The officers aboard a white pick-up truck were tracked from Pabbo Town Council in Amuru District up to Karuma Bridge as they escorted four trucks that carried logs.

In September 2021 alone, 12 trucks carrying logs—reportedly harvested from Lamwo, Kitgum, Moyo, and Adjumani—were escorted by an Environmental Police vehicle through Gulu Town to Karuma before proceeding to Kampala.

Despite a government ban on cutting and trading in Afzelia logs and strict measures against illegal logging, some corrupt State actors have continued to weave their way through the business that has persisted in northern Uganda.

During the investigations, it was also discovered that the dealers connived with NFA and Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) officials to clear the logs cut in Uganda as a consignment from South Sudan.

Upon securing clearance from unscrupulous URA officials at Madiopei Customs Office in Lamwo District, for example, the source said the dealers sneak the logs harvested into Kitgum Town in the night on their way to Kampala through Gulu City using the documents that are recorded to be from South Sudan.

In Patiko and Palaro sub-counties of Gulu District, the charcoal burners have pitched camp where they have continued to fell trees, including shea nut trees.

While some cut the trees using power saws, axes, and machetes, others bag charcoal to be loaded onto waiting trucks to be taken to Kampala or Busia border where they are sold at between Shs80,000 and Shs100,000 per bag.

The chain of beneficiaries in the illegal logging business includes locals, brokers who buy from the impoverished, local authorities, and some officers at institutions mandated to reinforce the law, including security personnel.

Refugee pressure

Mr David Drapari, an environmental biologist, is apprehensive about what the future portends. He reckons there is a need to collaborate with the different stakeholders such as the police, religious leaders, elders, and elected leaders to ensure the forests are managed sustainably.

“If that is not done,” he warns, “we should even brace for worse scenarios.”

Mr William Amanzuru is the team leader of Friends of Zoka—a community pressure group advocating for the conservation of Zoka Central Forest Reserve and other indigenous forests in West Nile.

He says Adjumani, Yumbe, and Moyo remain a hub for logging, charcoal, and timber dealings despite a government ban in 2017.

“The loggers and charcoal dealers who come to Adjumani, Yumbe, and Moyo are not only natives of the place, but people from all corners of the country,” he reveals, adding, “Currently, the forest areas along the belt of Zoka and River Nile have been converted to human settlement and cultivation of crops.”

Mr Amanzuru says the conversion undermines the critical role the forests formerly played in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem.

“The converted areas are highly degraded and experience floods as they have been tampered with. As the forests lose soil fertility, farmers move and cultivate in the buffer zone and wetlands. Such indiscriminate cutting of trees has also affected the critical role trees played in flood control,” he says.

Mr Alex Manson, the Yumbe District secretary for production and natural resources, says illegal logging and commercial charcoal trade in the district has become too difficult to control due to conflict of interest among leaders.

“Many times, when we attempt to stop such illegal activities in the district, we are threatened. We were once threatened by high-ranking military officers, who asked us to back off,” he says.

In the West Nile Sub-region, authorities have registered more pressure on tree cover destruction due to the whooping number of refugees and host communities, who try whatever they can to address their energy poverty.

The influx also puts refugees on a collision path with the host population over natural resources. These are hardly paltry in number.

By April 2019, more than 815,000 South Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers had migrated to Uganda. Adjumani District currently plays host to 210,000 of these refugees.

Intervention

In 2019, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) undertook a rapid assessment of natural resource degradation around the refugee settlements in northern Uganda.

FAO concluded that a refugee influx led to an increase in the rate of degradation. Tree loss—both inside the West Nile refugee settlements and around their boundaries—accelerated land cover changes in bushlands, as well as woodlands.

FAO is currently implementing the Forest Management and Sustainable Charcoal Value-chain project in Adjumani. The intervention, with the backing of the NFA, hopes to reforest at least 500 hectares of degraded natural forests on private land through practices such as enrichment planting and farmer-managed regeneration.

Government statistics show that Uganda needs nearly two million hectares of plantation forests to strike a balance with the rapidly depleting natural forests.

Whereas Uganda was harvesting and consuming approximately 30,000 cubic metres of timber 10 years ago, the demand has increased sixfold as per government statistics.

To revive and protect the water catchment of major water systems in the country, Mr Joseph Oriono Eyatu, the director of water development at the Water and Environment ministry, recently said the country hopes to plant 200 million trees in the next five years under the National Greening Campaign.

Mr James Walusimbi, the deputy country manager of VI Agroforestry Uganda, says deforestation persists in the north due to a lack of political will and energy poverty.

“We have not seen alternatives for people to run away from the forest because many of their livelihoods depend on the forest. We also don’t have a full political will to fight against this illegal logging,” Mr Walusimbi said. “We need to consider other livelihood alternatives. For example, if people are getting income from charcoal, what else can they be involved in that can be less destructive?”

In the Acholi area, together with the University of Copenhagen and the Aalborg University, Gulu University in February launched the Unlocking Potential of Green Charcoal Innovation in Northern Uganda (UPCHAIN) project to mitigate the climate crisis specifically in the north.

Dr Collins Okello, one of the investigators under the project, explained that the university has developed machines that can produce 300 kilogrammes of green charcoal from Agricultural waste materials. He believes the technology will save the rapidly disappearing forest in the regions since it uses agricultural by-products.

By Tobbias Jolly Owiny, Teddy Dokotho & Michael Ojok

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