WHILE planting trees offers bright economic prospects for the commercial planters, the environmental costs could be much higher.
A huge cloud of dust that had followed us from Mukono, 50km away, settled as we slowed down and stopped where Faridah Kayiira, a prominent herbalist, resides.
It was disturbing to cover our heads with veils since speeding cars and boda-bodas raised dust as we penetrated into the heart of Mukono.
For Kayiira, the dust is the least of her worries.
Her concern is the massive cutting down of native trees, which she says have been used, over the years, to treat many ailments.
â€œIt is hurting to see natural forests, which should be treated as stores of herbal medicine indiscriminately being cut down and replaced by exotic trees,â€ says Kayiira.
Over the years, this village has been stripped of its wealth and the natural vegetation is being replaced with exotic trees like eucalyptus and pines, she says.
This has caused the land to dry up. Kayiira has to move extensively to get medicinal herbs.
Kayiira is not the only one who is angry over planting of exotic trees.
Lilly Ajarova, the head of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust, declared that the replacement of natural forests with exotic trees like eucalyptus and pines â€œwas not well thought out.â€
Ajarova points to a natural forest near Hoima town, which was a migratory corridor for chimps. She says the forest was razed and pines have been planted.
â€œChimpanzees, which are endangered species, do not benefit much from pines and eucalyptus,â€ she says. â€œEucalyptus trees do not bear fruit, which chimpanzees and monkeys feed on.â€
In Mpigi, the local people complain that the scarcity of firewood is becoming acute because the natural forests that once dropped dead branches are disappearing.
â€œWe used to have free access to forests where we would pick firewood, but the private tree planters restrict access to their trees,â€ says Irene Walusimbi. â€œThis is making life harder because we now have to buy firewood.â€
Forest plantations supported
However, Dr. Festus Bagora, an official in-charge of environmental monitoring at the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) struck a completely different note.
â€œThis country is fast running out of timber and there is need to offer a solution that will provide tree products sooner than later,â€ he says.
â€œThe exotic trees, which mature faster than the native trees, have become attractive to most people.â€
He says the exotic trees, while supplying timber and firewood, will provide a shield to the precious natural forests in the protected areas.
But Bagora cautions: â€œWhere should they be planted? It makes little sense to replace a natural forest, which is rich in biological wealth with a new forest, which is a monoculture.â€
The history of tree plantations in Uganda
After years of promoting soft wood trees like pines, the local population has finally responded with a bang.
The colonial government and post-colonial governments realised that it would be hard to meet the needs of timber and energy from the natural forests, so they encouraged the establishment of plantations.
In the 1970s and 1980s, plantation development was halted because of the political turmoil and civil unrest in the country.
The lull in tree planting has created a deficit and the available trees in the plantations will be cut down in two or three years.
At the same time, natural forests have increased in conservation value as they are not seen as sources of timber only.
In the 1990s, forests were at the centre of debate as they were recognised as hosts to biological wealth.
The climate change debate has also, in the recent past, elevated the importance of forests since trees store enormous amounts of carbon dioxide.
In addition to this, a global deal that was brokered a decade ago to benefit those who plant trees has motivated people to plant trees.
Their affinity to plant the exotic trees has, however, opened a new wave of criticism.
Foresters speak out
â€œWe have faced a barrage of queries regarding the planting of exotic tree species,â€ says Moses Watasa, the public relations manager at the National Forestry Authority (NFA).
But the people complaining are the ones who have been cutting down the natural trees, according to Watasa.
â€œAt the same time, the private tree planters are the ones who have bought most of the pines and eucalyptus for planting mostly on private land,â€ says Watasa.
With eucalyptus, which matures in about four years, Watasa points out that it is easy to invest and harvest poles for building or firewood.
In the case of timber it is possible to plant pines that take between one and two decades to mature.
â€œThis largely explains why commercial farmers are planting exotic trees rather than native trees like muvule and mahogany that mature in 50 years or more,â€ he says.
â€œInvestments come with expectations of returns and it makes sense if people are going to realise profits in the fastest possible time.â€
As the private investors look at money, NFA, which plays the stewardship role, is supposed to secure the most valuable forests in terms of biological diversity because they have a higher conservation value.
â€œThere are some trees like mahogany that are becoming endangered because of excessive harvesting,â€ says Watasa.
â€œWe have a duty to conserve such trees and so far restrictions have been imposed on harvesting mahogany and the forests where they grow are protected.â€
However, planting of exotic trees seems to have become â€œa necessary evil,â€ which every Ugandan should be prepared to live with.
â€œAs much as we are concerned about the environment, nobody is willing to plant trees for the sake of keeping the environment green,â€ says Paul Dritch, a director at NFA. â€œThe drive to plant trees is about economic gain.â€
Besides this, Dritch says population growth is increasing the demand for fuel.
â€œIf you look at the population, it is increasing rapidly and this means more demand for energy such as charcoal and firewood and construction materials,â€ he says.
The demand is growing and there is need to plant trees which are fast-growing and produce high quality products.
â€œFast growing trees can be converted into money and also help to protect the environment,â€ Dritch says.
Dritch agrees with Kayiira that the invasion of the landscape by eucalyptus and pines is a concern, but tree-planting is one of the ways of shielding the few protected forests from the mounting pressure brought about by the swelling population.
Cry the beloved native forest