Speaking about forest conservation is easy, but putting this in practice is not easy. Chain saws and axes are still eating away forest reserves. Gerald Tenywa accompanied the trustees of the National Forestry Authority (NFA) around the reserves sheltering Lake Victoria and explains why the ch
THE look on Twinomuhangiâ€™s face left no doubt about his determination to nurture forests and fight encroachment until his last breath.
The youthful foresterâ€™s undisputed resolve has earned him not only respect from his superiors, but also the hearts of the local people.
â€œWe were put as stewards and the work we are doing is not ours,â€ he says. â€œIt is important to protect the forest so that the children who are not yet born can benefit from them.â€
He was in a mournful mood last week as he took NFAâ€™s trustees around forests that had more tree stumps than trees, a testimony to the many years of wanton destruction. â€œThis,â€ Twinomuhangi says, â€œhad been left by mindless encroachers and illegal loggers.â€
The bare patches staring at the sky have now become a recipe for the erosive rains that drag away soil and deposit it in the nearby Lake Victoria. â€œIt is difficult to imagine that the people who have cut down this forest like this expect to get rain,â€ says Twinomuhangi.
Twinomuhangi says this set-back has come as a result of shortage of manpower. â€œWhere five patrol officers are needed to watch over illegal activities, you find only one.â€
He was speaking to Baguma Isoke, the chairperson of NFA and other trustees that were on a mission to find out the challenges facing the conservation body. Their three-day tour started in Mukono and later covered parts of Mpigi, Wakiso, Masaka, Rakai, Sembabule and Lyantonde districts.
In agreement with Twinomuhangi was Jane Niwaninda, the sector manager in Rakai, who has also been engaged in running battles since the creation of NFA four years ago. â€œWe lack manpower, but the community in some areas is on our side,â€ she says. â€œWe patrol the forest together and plant trees to help the forest recover.â€
She cited Nkalwe village in Rakai where the villagers have been courted to protect Sango Bay Forest and plant trees in exchange for some incentives.
NFA directors encounter â€˜paper forest reservesâ€™
Baguma says foresters like Niwaninda have done their best, but need a lot of support to reserve some of the forests for Uganda to retain the pride of being the country that is â€œgifted by nature.â€
â€œWhere we have been (central Buganda), people have depleted the forest,â€ he says. â€œThe once natural beautiful forests are full of cripplers or climbing plants (embowabowa).â€
For instance, in Mukono only scanty patches of forest reserves remain intact. While the forests appear on the maps of the managers as forest reserves on ground, it is common to encounter cattle grazing and illegal activities like brick making, sand mining, firewood and charcoal making in the forests.
One of the directors during the tour was overheard saying: â€œWhat we have are â€˜paper forest reservesâ€™ because in some places there is totally nothing on the ground.â€
Although some of the forests have been replanted, Baguma is still a disappointed man. â€œThere is a lot we are losing because we are replacing indigenous trees with exotic ones,â€ he says. â€œIt is important to recognise that forests are not only about trees.â€
He says the shrubs and herbs have medicinal value, but have been lost forever.
â€œGrassland forests should be planted with pine trees but natural forests should have native trees.â€
He also points out that most forest have unclear boundaries and have encroachment problems that were inherited from the defunct Forestry Department.
Forest cover declines countrywide
Consequently, Ugandaâ€™s total forest cover has halved in the last two decades. In 1988, 26% of the country was covered by forests. This has reduced to 13% in 2008, says John Diisi, NFAâ€™s coordinator for Global Information Systems and Mapping. The country loses an average of 86,000 hectares of trees per year. Most of the destruction is taking place on private land, outside government-protected areas, according to NFA.
Environmental groups blame the failure to protect forests on weak internal capacity of NFA, districts that have remained aloof towards conservation of forests and political interference.
Major David Matovu, the RDC of Mukono and a trustee of NFA says forests have â€˜democratically and religiouslyâ€™ been cut down. â€œThe districts are hungry for revenue from trees and charcoal burning,â€ he says. â€œThis is one of the main sources of income for the local people and the districts.â€
Much of the work for protecting should be done by the district forestry services since most of the forests are located outside the mandate of NFA. But the district forestry services are the least facilitated.
â€œThere are districts without a single forest officer,â€ says William Kasolo, a trustee member of the forestry body. â€œThis has created a vacuum â€” politicians are enjoying it and by the time we wake up, it will be a crisis,â€ he says.
In the colonial era, the Forestry Department had enough funding for the forest reserves, which is not the case today. The department was in 2004 replaced by NFA and district forestry services.
The abolition of graduated tax has left local government to forage for revenue from destructive activities like charcoal burning.
Politics affecting forest reserves
During campaigns, politicians coin slogans like â€˜trees do not voteâ€™. Politicians who cooperate with environmental bodies have ended up with a bitter taste in their mouth. â€œI wanted to reclaim my seat in Rakai, but it became impossible because people thought I had not done enough to silence conservation bodies seeking to evict them from areas they are encroaching,â€ says Matovu.
Over half of the 240,000 encroachers countrywide are found in Rakai, Masaka and Sembabule.
Unlike Matovu, many politicians identify with the local population. Fiery politicians like former environment minister, Kahinda Otafiire who once reminded encroachers that they are â€˜not monkeys and should vacate the forestsâ€™ have become mute. This has been replaced by populist stance â€œto leave the voters alone.â€
This is because of President Yoweri Museveniâ€™s order during presidential campaigns three years ago that encroachers should not be evicted.
What the Government needs to do now is to write off parts of forests reserves it cannot secure from encroachers. At the same time, hilly and mountainous areas should be gazetted and accorded protection status of forest reserves.
The Government should also empower district forestry services and institutions like the National Agricultural Advisory Services to protect forests on private land and enterprises related to tree planting, extraction of medicinal plants and eco-tourism.
Dr. Mukadasi Buyinza, a trustee member of NFA, says there is need to clarify the borders of the forest reserves. â€œThere is competition for land around the shores of Lake Victoria,â€ he says. â€œIt is not easy to implement the management plans.â€
He also recommended that the forestry body works with the communities in a partnership to reduce pressure on the protected areas.
However, NFA staff like Twinomuhangi and Niwaninda are working round the clock to ensure that people like Buyinza are not disappointed. â€œMy approach is not to wait for the executive order to be lifted. I have also set aside areas for the communities to plant and also work with elite planters who have the money to invest in tree planting,â€ says Niwaninda.
Ugandaâ€™s forest cover dwindling