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Desert in the making: how massive tree cutting is endangering Acholi sub-region

Alfred Odoch, speaker for Amuru town council, says some local leaders connive with businesspeople to cut trees and endanger the environment

Alfred Odoch, speaker for Amuru town council, says some local leaders connive with businesspeople to cut trees and endanger the environment

As human activities continue to pile pressure on natural resources, the abysmal effects of climate change continue to bite harder. In fact, traders in forestry products are ceaselessly sacrificing the environment at the altar of business opportunities.

A case in point is the Acholi sub-region, northern Uganda, where non-selective felling of trees is exposing people and animals to disparaging environmental conditions. But a joint effort involving the area leadership and non-governmental organisations is ensuring the situation is arrested before it gets worse, writes ARTHUR MATSIKO.

For six hours, Jenifer Awori has been stacking pieces of wood that would later be burnt into charcoal. With lines of dry sweat drawn on her face and semi-covered chest, she is palpably bushed.

Up on noticing strange people approaching her, startled Awori tries to dash towards the adjacent bush, only to be betrayed by her feeble legs following episodes of walking and standing under the scorching sun.

“Nze mundeke sinze neeleta wano (please leave me alone; I did not bring myself here),” she screams. She then gets hold of a dirty small water jerrycan to quench her thirst. “Do not be afraid,” I try to engage her. “We are not bad people.”

I am in a team of journalists and activists from ActionAid Uganda touring Amuru district, in northern Uganda, where indiscriminate tree cutting for charcoal and timber is changing the region’s climate for the worst.

Desperate Awori

Awori, a senior two dropout, was brought here in January 2019 by a one Vincent. She came with Tonny Mbaziira, a friend with whom she stays in a makeshift hut. Having lost her parents while she was aged two, Awori was left under the care of her aunt, Susan Namatovu, in Busagazi village, Buikwe district. While in senior two at Light Future School, Awori’s aunt died, leaving her on her own until a friend took her to another village in Kangulumira, Kayunga district, to work as housemaid.

When her friend was fired, Awori found solace in Mbaziira, then a neighbor, whom she says has since remained a friend. When Vincent came to Kangulumira looking for workers, Mbaziira and Awori accepted the offer.

“He promised us jobs, and we accepted. He said he would take us to Gulu, although we didn’t know what he was bringing us to do,” says Awori.

While Mbaziira floors the trees, Awori removes branches, carries the logs and piles them. Mbaziira, who does not want his photograph captured, says the person who brought them here had never returned, neither does he communicate.

Charcoal burning business

In 2013, local authorities started receiving information about strangers invading and cutting trees from villages in Gulu, Omoro and Amuru districts. According to Gulu district chairperson, Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, an investigation revealed individuals from the central and eastern parts of Uganda had camped in villages with big natural forests. They would agree with owners, cut and burn the trees into charcoal.

With the help of police, local leaders went to the field and realized Omoro district alone had lost at least 50 acres of forest cover. This meant the unidentified people were already contributing to the global deforestation, estimated at 13 million hectares annually.

Upon realizing this appalling damage to local climate, the suspects were forced out of the region, and others arrested. But because the business was becoming lucrative, the enemies of nature would relocated to other villages.

Jennifer Awori ekes out a living through charcoal burning. In the photo are piles of logs for burning charcoal

Although Gulu district council gave a temporary ban to charcoal burning, it couldn’t do much because tree cutting kept on escalating. In fact, villagers would be paid Shs 500,000 for over 15 acres of mostly indigenous and endangered tree species. “These guys come with people who have no jobs from around and inside Kampala,” says Mapenduzi, confirming Awori and Mbaziira’s state.

Most of the tree species that might become extinct in the region include shea nut and Afzelia africana. Besides cutting trees, they also grow bangi, pound it and send it to Kampala for sale. Although local leaders view the tree cutting dilemma through environmental protection lenses, locals consider it a money-making opportunity from the trees they consider less important.

“There are factories in this country that rely on charcoal. We tried to investigate several of the trucks heading to Kampala and ended up in steel-making factories in Jinja,” he says. “These are factories that were supposed to use coal; I am told they use a very small quantity of coal and so much charcoal.”

Attempts to regulate charcoal burning

In 2016, Gulu district executive committee presented to council a request to have a temporary ban on commercial charcoal burning. This was after a 2015 meeting with charcoal dealers, ActionAid Uganda and other stakeholders.

Initially, charcoal dealers were cutting trees indiscriminately without the notice of the respective district forestry officers who issue respective guidelines. One of the procedures is that the forestry officer inspects the trees, makes an assessment, provides a form for the dealer to fill, and the amount of money to be paid before getting the permit.

Subsequently, the district executive committee gave a three-month ban because by law, it is the mandate of the ministry of Water and Environment to give a permanent ban where necessary.

The district would invite environmental experts to educate dealers on how to conduct their business while protecting the environment. For example, although the law requires one to plant more trees while cutting others, this has not been observed in the north.

Indeed, I asked Awori and Mbaziira about the legality of ther activity. As expected, Mbaziira said he is only interested in getting payment for his work as promised by his boss. Awori’s aim is to get capital, return to Kangulumira and start up a hairdresser salon because she has lost hope of ever returning to school.

Government officials faulted

Meanwhile, some senior government officials are reportedly behind this disastrous trade. For example in 2016, police impounded trucks on their way to Gulu at Layibi junction.

“But do you know what happened; I spoke to one of the owners of those trucks, [Assistant Commissioner of Police] Sam Omara, and told him that however powerful you are, your trucks are not going anywhere,” Mapenduzi said.

According to Alfred Odoch, speaker for Amuru town council, even local leaders connive to carry out charcoal business. “For example, last year during our anti-charcoal campaign, we received a letter where an LC3 chairman had stamped recommending these people to work in some place,” says Odoch. “This means there is a connection between leaders and these commercial charcoal burners.”

Illicit trade in logs

Whereas the authorities were playing hide-and-seek with charcoal burning groups, another quandary was silently venting. This was around July 2017 when several trucks carrying logs from South Sudan were seen. They were carrying mainly Afzelia africana (Beyo) and shea nut (Yaa) tree species. Although preliminary investigations revealed logs were from South Sudan, local authorities later learnt of people carrying logs from Amuru, Gulu, Zooka forest in Adjumani and Yumbe districts.

Such logs have market mostly in Asian countries due to their fine wood. Mapenduzi says he wrote to the minister of Water and Environment in October 2017 about the matter. In his response, the minister sent a team to ascertain the magnitude of the matter.

Later, he issued a letter banning the cutting, trading and transportation of Afzelia africana and shea nut trees. This gave district officials leverage on impounding trucks carrying charcoal and logs. Later, the minister issued another letter saying products from South Sudan should not be impounded for as long as there was proof of origin.

But this resulted into forgery of documents. For example, there are allegations that businessmen would cut trees from northern Uganda and get Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) seals from Elegu border to camouflage the logs were from South Sudan.

The Observer, however, could not independently authenticate this accusation.

This move eventually defeated the fight. But the hanging question is: if at all this trade is illegal, why does the ministry still allow URA to clear exportation of such tree products?

“Enforcement became dangerous for our team because those trucks move with armed men in the co-driver’s seat. Such armed men are always dressed in casual wear, but with military jackets,” says Mapenduzi, adding that he has ever received phone calls from Capt Mike Mukula, minister Sam Engola and Justice Minister Gen Kahinda Otafiire.

“All these phone calls come when the local government impounds trucks carrying illegal products and then the people involved end up calling powerful people in government and those powerful people end up calling, trying to persuade us to be lenient.”

However, Mukula denies ever talking to any official to plead on behalf on any log or charcoal dealer.

“First of all, that is not my area of business; mine is basically security. I also have an aviation school, a radio station and I am into oil,” said Mukula. “You will never see even a single company of mine involved in such.”

Mukula, who calls himself an environmental activist, says tree cutting will change the ecosystem and cause environmental degradation.

Way forward, alternative energy sources

As of 2018, Uganda’s population was estimated at 42,862,958 people, 26.7 per cent of whom have access to electricity. This implies that unless alternative sources of power such as solar and biogas are embraced, dependency on forestry products will not cease. If people like Awori and Mbaziira keep in forests cutting trees for charcoal and other products, the country will continue losing its forest cover at the hands of business opportunists.

Meanwhile, the country’s forest cover has reduced from 24 per cent of the total land area in 1990 to nine per cent in 2015, according to the 2016 State of Uganda’s Forestry report.

The implication is that in 25 years, 3.05 million hectares of forests were lost. According to Eng Junior Nuwahereza, an environmental and social safeguards consultant at JBN Consults and Planners, saving trees requires major and logical alternative sources of energy.

“These would be renewable energy sources such as hydro power, solar and liquefied petroleum gas,” says Nuwahereza. “[However], the limitation in majority of developing countries is access to these energy sources.”

Mukula says there must be political will to fight people reclaiming wetlands and forests for other development activities. “It needs institutional framework. For example, NEMA must come with an iron fist and see that it is able to bite,” he said. “I think the laws are not sufficient… we need to come up with harsher punishment for people who cause deforestation.”

While I left Amuru, Awori and Mbaziira were yet to process charcoal. Although Mbaziira seemed undecided about the future he dreams of, Awori wishes to return to school and become a teacher if only she can get funded.

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© 2016 Observer Media Ltd