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Thousands homeless as termites turn Nakasongola into a desert
Publish Date: Jun 25, 2008
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WHEN desert-like conditions started spreading to parts of Nakasongola, the pasture-rich grazing grounds became bare, making life miserable in the semi-arid areas. Gerald Tenywa visited the area and interacted with some of the people who have been displaced by the desert-like conditions.

EAGER to make money, Sedrack Lubega heeded his 60-year-old father’s call to take on cattle-rearing in the pasture-rich wilderness of Nakasongola District. His herd almost doubled each year, but he did not know that two decades later, nature would turn into a foe and make thousands homeless.

“I had given up the nomadic life which most pastoralists lead, but now I have no choice. To survive, I have to migrate to areas near lakes and rivers where I can find water and pasture for my cattle,” Lubega says.

During the recent dry season, Lubega lost about 50 heads of cattle.

“It was obvious that nature was telling me to move. We went to as far as Lake Kyoga where there was plenty of water, but the grass run out due to the large herds.”

Bare and barren land
Lubega’s tall, lean body is a testimony of his years of hardship. Although his land was the first to become barren, thousands of other pastoralists have also had their hopes buried each passing day as the bare ground becomes bigger.

In some of the ranches visited by this reporter, there were large patches of bare ground, commonly known as Biharamata.

“Some of the patches are very extensive, forcing the owners to migrate to other parts of the country in search of pasture,” says Lubega.

His uncle moved to Bulisa District three years ago, followed by three of Lubega’s brothers who migrated with their cattle to as far as Kabarole and Arua.

Desert creeps in
While Ugandans are embroiled in a heated debate over land ownership, there is another silent land grabber — desertification.

“The extensive bare grounds in Nakasongola are a sign of serious land degradation. Areas which are worst hit have become less productive,” says Stephen Muwaya of the Agriculture Ministry.

He says the cattle corridor, which comprises more than half of the districts countrywide, has been affected.

Environmental degradation
While residents of Nakasongola attribute the bare grounds to the termites that eat the vegetation in dry conditions, Makerere University researcher, Swidiq Mugerwa, has a different opinion.

“Termites are devastating Nakasongola because the organic matter, which they feed on has been destroyed,” he says.

This is similar to the observations by Makerere University experts who compiled a report entitled Land degradation in Nakasongola, the case of rangelands, woodlands and natural forests.

Dr. Dennis Mpairwe of the Faculty of Agriculture, who authored the report, says human activities have led to degradation of the environment to the extent that the termites have to forage on whatever lies in their way. The disappearance of the vegetation cover depicts an advanced degree of environmental degradation.

“This is caused by human activity in the form of poor land management or excessive harvesting.”

Overstocking and charcoal burning are part of the human-induced degradation of the environment, according to Mpairwe.

“The herdsmen burn grass to encourage the growth of good pasture. But this has led to environmental degradation because the fires are frequent. As a management tool, fire outbreaks are only good once in four years,” says Mpairwe.

Cow dung could help
To reverse the trend, researchers (Mugerwa and Mpairwe) from the Department of Animal Science, Makerere University, are working with the communities of Migyera and Wanzogi. The team is part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research Challenge Programme on Water and Food.

It is working in collaboration with the International Livestock Research Institute and the International Water Management Institute.

In 2006, Mugerwa, a student doing his Master’s degree, conducted an experiment under the supervision of Dr. Mpairwe. He fenced off part of Lubega’s degraded farm and planted pasture seeds (re-seeding).

“The seeds germinated, but the termites soon cleared all the seedlings” says Dr. Mpairwe.

“This led to another experiment involving the use of cow dung.”

The team then tried out the experiment on Pastor Rweizere’s farm because Lubega had moved his cattle to another area.

“We fenced off part of the bare ground again and kraaled cattle inside for two weeks. This helped us accumulate organic matter in the form of cow dung into the soil.”

After this, the team planted the pasture seeds, which germinated and were not eaten by termites even when drought hit the area.

“It seems the termites fed on the organic matter from the cow dung and this helped the grass to thrive,” says Dr Mpairwe.

“Application of the manure served as a biological control technique to deter termites from consuming the seedlings, giving the vegetation time to mature. It is also possible that re-establishment of vegetative cover may have caused a change in the termite species, hence reducing those that feed on pasture.”

Mpairwe says, the problem could also be solved by keeping less animals and practising proper grazing.

“Some farmers keep over 80 animals in an area meant for two or three mature cows. It is important to sensitise farmers about the advantages of keeping fewer animals and adopting technologies aimed at restoration of their degraded lands,” says Mpairwe.

“Restoration of the degraded areas will take time, but farmers like Lubega and Pastor Rweizire have faith that it will work.

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