By Amumpiire Anna
International law including instruments such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination recognise the rights of forest peoples to, ‘own, control, use and peacefully enjoy their lands, territories and other resources, and be secure in their means of subsistence’.
Uganda’s legal and policy frameworks in the forestry sector recognise forest dependent communities’ role and rights in the forest sector.
The goal of Uganda’s National Forest Plan is, ‘An integrated forest sector that achieves sustainable increases in economic, social and environmental benefits from forests and trees by all the people of Uganda especially the poor and vulnerable’. However the mechanisms are still inadequate to enable people who are affected by forestry sector decisions influence those decisions.
Forest dependent communities have a right to access and collect forest produce since forests are public property held in trust by the state for the people. Other forest rights include; community rights of entitlements, the right to protect, conserve or manage any forest reserves which the communities have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use, and other rights as recognised under our national laws.
These communities living along forest reserves like Mabira forest, and Budongo forest depend on forests for the goods and services they provide and have rights over these forest goods and services.
The State of Environment Report for Uganda 2010 observed that a survey around Budongo forest reserve indicated that local communities use over 63 species of plants for food, fodder or medicine.
A World Bank Environmental Analysis 2012 Report for Uganda observed that 2.7 million people in Uganda live in parishes adjacent to forest reserves and are particularly dependent on forests for energy and construction materials, food security, clean water and even for their livelihoods.
The Report further stated that forest products contribute about 20% to household incomes for these people, who are among the poorest groups of people in Uganda.
With the current high rates of deforestation and forest degradation in Uganda, strategies should be established to save our forests and ensure their sustainable utilisation.
The Uganda Bureau of Statistics 2012 Statistical Abstract observes that Uganda’s forest cover has reduced by 36% over a period of 15 years; the total deforestation rate per year is 1.8%! One of these strategies should be the emphasis of a human rights based approach in forestry whereby forest rights are recognised and respected.
During a conference on rural livelihoods, forests and biodiversity in Bonn, it was rightly noted that, ‘there is a terrible irony in that many of the world’s poorest people live in and around a natural resource which is often a critical contributor to ‘national development’ yet they may be denied access to this vital potential asset’.
Forestry issues should, therefore, be redefined with emphasis on poverty alleviation and improvement of livelihoods using a human rights approach. As such, forest dependent communities should be involved in forest use and protection as a strategy to promote sustainable forest management policies and programmes.
The human rights based approach, which considers issues associated with equity such as access rights, land and resource tenure and benefit sharing needs to be addressed by the Government and relevant forestry institutions. A rights based approach would only be effective if access to livelihood assets such as forests is enhanced.
Incentives should be created for these communities to pursue even more sustainable practices. The theory of social forestry whereby different sectors of society are involved in the planning, management and protection of our forests should be adopted.
Community based forest management programmes would ensure forest conservation in Uganda through mobilisation of these communities to engage in sustainable forestry management activities.
Besides, the right to access of forest resources and benefit sharing for forest dependent communities is a step towards sustainable forest management and poverty reduction.
The writer is a Researcher with Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment.