The bare hilly terrain stares blankly at 30-year-old Justine Matembo, a resident of Bubulo village, Butiru sub-county, Manafwa district. She stares back in despair. Previously, the hills were richly endowed with trees and for decades acted as a source of free wood fuel. Now, after years of being robbed of their green shelter the towering hills are no longer generous in availing residents with the firewood, without which they canâ€™t prepare their meals.
Matembo and thousands of her colleagues, therefore, have to look to elsewhere. This, according to Matembo, is driving people into eating fewer meals in a day. â€œCan you imagine most people go to Sunday Vision.
â€œIt quite humbling for the older people because something as basic as firewood is making it hard for people to cook their food,â€ she says.
Matembo added, â€œThings are changing too fast and it is difficult to tell our children that firewood used to be free for everybody.â€
As the scarcity of firewood takes its toll, local residents like Matembo in Butiru say they have to dig deeper into their pockets to buy wood for cooking.
â€œWe only used to buy only soap, salt and paraffin, but today firewood accounts for a much bigger part of the household expenditure.â€
For instance, a piece of firewood the size of a human hand goes for about sh1,000 (half a dollar), which is a lot of money given that about one third of Ugandaâ€™s population lives on less than a dollar and are regarded as poor people by the UN.
When Matembo finds herself in a situation where she has no firewood or money to buy it, she turns to dry banana leaves to cook her food. This is what goes in many households in Butiru and beyond given that the mountainous districts covering the slopes of Elgon are experiencing a shortage of firewood.
Furniture as firewood
Others, particularly in the rainy season when it is difficult to get dry firewood, are left with no choice. They painstakingly turn to household furniture like stools or chairs.
â€œIt is a big mistake to leave a wooden stool lying around,â€ says Matembo. â€œIf you do not keep a keen eye on the stools outside wood thirsty neighbours will pounce leaving you without seats.â€
Grass-thatched shelters that serve as places where one can rest, according to Matembo are not spared on days where the household has food but no firewood, especially during the rainy season.
The scarcity of firewood is pushing beans, a cheap source of protein, off the menu since their preparation requires lots of firewood. Ironically, according to Phillipo Wambi, the area LC1 chairman, although the farmers grow beans, they prefer to selling them off than having to spend they swallow mountainous heaps of firewood.
From the money obtained the farmers buy other â€œeasy-to-cook foodsâ€ like vegetables.
The pale hair on the heads of babies strapped to their mothersâ€™ backs and children with distended stomachs is an ominous sign â€” malnutrition has struck in some homes.
Wambi, who acts like an arbiter in local disputes, has also noted the rise in conflicts related to firewood. He says such cases eclipse the other disputes.
â€œI get many disputes; about three to four cases every week,â€ says Wambi.
â€œMost of them are among women complaining about the stealing of their trees or trespassing on their property.â€
According to James Kutesakwe, an expert in the Ministry of Energy, firewood scarcity is a countrywide problem. But the seriousness of the problem varies from one place to another depending on population density and the stock of available trees.
He cited Bushenyi, Ntungamo, Kasese, Rakai, Mbale, Manafwa and Tororo as some of the areas worst hit by the wood fuel scarcity. Other places like Wakiso are also sliding into trouble because Kampala City is eating deep into Wakiso. solutions
The area LC3 chairman, William Wephukhulu, says tree planting and setting aside certain hills such as Bukusu as reservoirs that can only be accessed on given days is one way out. He reckons that if access to the firewood on the hills was controlled the situation would not as bad as it is today.
â€œI still remember the days when that hill was heavily forested and people used to get firewood from it,â€ says Wephukhulu.
â€œThe local people abused it and now most of them go to bed on empty stomachs even when they have the food to cook.â€
Asked why the local authorities like those at the headquarters of Butiru sub-county have not intervened through the passing of a bye-law that can help mobilise the local residents to plant trees in order to replace the trees being cut down for firewood, he had this to say, â€œThis matter needs to be addressed from the district in order to work.
The creation of an ordinance at the district will provide support for the formulation of a by-law.â€
For instance, there was a time
when Butiru passed a by-law restraining traditional circumcision ceremonies as a way of limiting the disruption of school activities in the sub-county, but this did not stop such ceremonies initiated outside Butiru. â€œThey would walk across Butiru paralysing school activities. It was difficult to stop them and they rendered the bye-law useless.â€
The same, according to Wephukhulu could happen with fuel scarcity since environment does not respect boundaries.
â€œWe recognise the problem and have been planting trees with the support of the district authorities,â€ says the LC3 chairman.
But the problem, according to Wephukhulu is that most people are not planting the trees. The reason being that they have small land holdings and they have left tree planting to the wealthy people who command about three or four acres of land.
Other interventions that would reduce the demand of firewood are energy-saving stoves. Although they are aware of such technologies, the communities do not have the skills or expertise in making them.
Check population growth
While there is the thinking that an increased population means a bigger market, a huge population without skills to survive away from land, can also turn into a burden. According to Wephukhulu, part of the solution is to check the pace of population growth.
â€œThe land has become too fragmented,â€ says Wephukhulu.
â€œIt is getting to a situation where it is meaningless to inherit land. Imagine a man who owns less than acre of land and has five sons. How much can he pass to each one should he decide to do so?â€
He added, â€œPeople have been self-reliant in many ways, but the situation is changing.
The demands on the Government to intervene in addressing issues related to welfare are going to increase.â€
According to the state of environment report, there are 2,000 people living on every square kilometre of Manafwa district.
This is four times more the national average estimated at 246 for every square kilometre.
Two policy interventions, promoting fuel efficient methods and increasing standing trees are spelt out in the renewable energy policy of 2007, according to Kutesakwe. The shortcoming, however is that wood energy is still cheap and the population does not appreciate such interventions.
Whereas the interventions were rolled out, the reaction from the population has been lukewarm.
â€œThe beneficiaries expect free wood stoves and once they break down they do not replace them on their own. This gives rise to the problem of sustainability,â€ said Kutesakwe.
â€œWhen we realised that the giving out of free stoves was not working we resorted to training local artisans who can then use local materials, but the beneficiaries do not want to pay for the stoves.
He also proposes that charcoal production should be regulated with incentives provided to the local people who produce the charcoal.
â€œCurrently charcoal production lies between something that is legal and not legal,â€ he says.
Primitive laws, he says, outlaw charcoal production, but the districts earn revenue from it. This is accelerating destruction of the forest cover, according to Kutesakwe because the law does not compel districts to plough back the money into regenerating the trees. The charcoal burners too, need bigger rewards since they are exploited by middlemen and transporters who take the lionâ€™s share of the proceeds of the business.
â€œThe increased scarcity is yet another wake-up call to think about sustainable charcoal production,â€ said Kutesakwe.
â€œThe cheap wood fuel is good, but this is a short-term gain, which is luring people into a hidden trap.â€
People like Matembo would have avoided a full-blown crisis if they had listened to experts like Kutesakwe. It is not too late for Government to re-think policies and work with the local government for Matembo and her colleagues to become better stewards of their environment.
Manafwa turns to dry banana leaves as firewood runs out