By Arthur Baguma
PAST a stretch of grass-thatched huts and barefoot children, trees towering above iron-roofed buildings welcome you.
For a long time, the geographical terrain in this remote area was characterised by wetlands and potato gardens. But a few years down the road, namagabi Umea Primary School, a stone-throw away from Kayunga town is fast becoming a model school in environmental conservation.
A spacious compound with lush greenery, leafy trees, neat flowerbeds, iron roofed classrooms and a forest of eucalyptus trees stand out.
The new face of Namagabi comes in the wake of a tree planting campaign started by Tree-Talk, an eco-news paper produced by Straight Talk foundation. The paper started in 2002 with a disbursement of tree-seeds in all schools across Uganda. The project aims at poverty alleviation.
â€œThrough the project, children have mastered tree planting right from the nursery bed to harvesting. We can get firewood, timber and charcoal from the wood lots, which have matured since we got the first seeds two years back. We donâ€™t employ anybody to plant the trees. Pupils and teachers do the work,â€ Frederick Maisukire the deputy headmaster says as he takes us round the one acre of eucalyptus and fruit trees.
â€œMature trees from the first harvest were sold and the proceeds used to expand the project. A mature eucalyptus tree can go for as high as sh10,000 depending on its size,â€ Maisukire says.
Tree-Talk has offered service above self. For this the paper has been rewarded.
The paper is among three final entries for the 2005 St Andrewâ€™s Prize for the environment. It beat 247 entries from 40 countries . The prize is an international initiative of the energy company Conoco Phillips and the university of St Andrews, Scotland.
At 12, Zam Naluryo, of Primary Six articulates environment issues with ease. After giving us a lecture on environment conservation, she leans against a huge eucalyptus tree and says, â€œI planted this tree in 2002 when Tree-Talk gave us seeds. I planted others in the compound at home.â€
â€œUsing Tree-Talk, I sensitise people in my village on the dangers of cutting trees for firewood without planting more. From Tree-Talk I have learned the benefits of protecting the environment,â€ 14-year-old Muhammad Muwanga, in Primary Seven says.
The St Andrews Prize for the environment award was started six years ago to support ordinary people in finding solutions to environmental problems. Although Tree-Talk has already bagged $5,000 by being among the best three entries, it stands a chance to take the top slot, which comes with $30,000 prize. The final judgment will be made in May in Scotland. The best group will walk away with $30,000 while the first and second runner up will each get $5,000.
We shall use the award money to sponsor students in forestry-related diploma courses at Nyabyeya Forestry College in Masindi district. Getting the biggest prize of $30,000 will mean sponsoring more students. In May we shall travel to Scotland and present a paper, which will determine whether we get the highest prize,â€ said Catherine Watson of Straight Talk foundation, who entered the newspaper together with foresters Simon Amunau, Gaster Kiyinji and Sebastian Walaita.
Environment awareness among pupils at namagabi is just an example of what is happening in schools where Tree-talk is operating. At Bishop East Primary School, Mukono, the project has helped both the school and the community.
The paper appears twice a year and sends tree seed to schools, churches and other institutions.
The paper wants every school to grow a wood lot, a call supported by President Yoweri Museveni in 2002.
According to Simon Amunau project officer Agriculture and Natural Resources, Tree-Talk was a result of research findings by the Uganda Forestry Sector coordination secretariat.
The research established that tree planting was lacking and yet the levels of deforestation were alarming.
Following this, the secretariat, National Tree Seed Centre and straight Talk Foundation established Tree-Talk in 2002.