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Race on to restore Uganda’s forests

A man splits a tree trunk into pieces of timber inside a community forest reserve in Onang village in the northern Uganda district of Omoro. PHOTO/GLORIA LALAM

Why experts are focusing on new forests to save the old forests

Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Zoka Central Forest Reserve, a small 1,259 hectare tropical forest found in Adjumani District in northwest Uganda, was first gazetted as a central forest reserve in the 1940s.

Part of the bigger 10,000 hectare East Moyo Wildlife Reserve famous for being home to rare and critically endangered flying squirrels, Zoka had remained untouched for about 100 years; until powerful illegal loggers invaded it recently to burn charcoal and steal its luxuriant Mahogany hardwood.

William Amanzuru, the leader of environmental activists under a community pressure group called Friends of Zoka, witnesses the illegal logging every day.

“It breaks my heart to see foreign companies and people come here, destroy the forest and then just walk away. You fail to understand what kind of human heart they have for the people who really love this forest and for the people whose life is intertwined with this forest,” he said recently.

“The people who deal with this forest are not poor people; these are people who can hire crane loaders, tractors, caterpillars, cranes and trailers. All this equipment is hired in millions of shillings. The players are millionaires.”

Amanzuru’s observations confirm findings by the Ministry of Water and Environment. In a 2015 report, it found that illegal logging in forest reserves, mostly for timber, involves local and national political leaders and powerful individuals in security agencies, among others.

Uganda has about 506 central forest reserves; that is forested areas or woodland under the management and protection of the National Forest Authority (NFA). They cover about 1,256,000 hectares which is about 6.3% of the land area of Uganda.

Zoka is one of the smaller central forests but it has attracted attention recently because of public spats about it between ministers and high ranking government and security officials. There has even been an attempt to give a portion of it to the powerful sugar plantation growing moguls; the Asian Madhvani family.

But Uganda’s bigger central forests like Budongo and Bugoma in the Albertine region, Kashoha-Kitomi in Mbarara/Bushenyi area in western Uganda, and Mabira in central-southern Uganda are all under threat from illegal loggers.

The NFA has battled and removed encroachers from them and from Kagombe in Kagadi and Kanaaga and Ruzaire in Kibaale District, Kasongoire in Masindi District and Lwamunda in Mukono District.

“At one point, 90% of these forests were occupied by encroachers but they were evicted,” says Tom Obong Okello, the executive director of NFA.

Okello, who boasts over 25 years in natural resources management, was appointed to head the NFA in July 2018 with a precise brief: to manage Uganda’s remaining forests and restore the degraded ones.

A section of Busoga Forestry Company plantation in the southeastern district of Mayuge. The government thinks plantation forests can relieve pressure on the country’s tropical forests. PHOTO/FAO

By this time, extreme weather events like flooding and drought, coupled with international climate change commitments, were pushing the government to grow back the country’s forests to the 1990s level as part of Vision 2040; Uganda’s grand development blueprint. Okello says his greatest challenge is how to stop illegal titling of chunks of land in the central forest reserves.

“This is giving me a lot of headache because these land grabbers create titles in central forest reserves, sell the pieces of land to unsuspecting buyers and go away. The buyer then transfers the land titles in their names.”

Okello appears determined to reverse this trend. On a chilly drizzly morning when we spoke on March 31, he made it clear the danger Uganda’s forests face if he fails. He said Uganda could lose all of its forested land by 2050.

But he was also optimistic.

“The future seems good,” Okello told The Independent.

“We are doing enrichment planting to bring back the indigenous species in some forest reserves and we are also retracing the forest boundaries and putting in permanent pillars.”

But he added: “This is an expensive venture because we have almost 10,000km of forest boundaries in length. We have done about 4000km.”

Positive trend

In his office at the NFA headquarters in Bugolobi, a Kampala suburb, he searched among a pile of voluminous reports on his coffee-brown mahogany wood desk. Not finding what he wanted, he quickly powered his desktop computer and printer. Seconds later, a paper popped out of the printer.

It was a factsheet of the last land use mapping dataset for Uganda published in 2016 by the government. It put the forest cover in the country in 2016 at about2.5 million hectares or 12.4% of Uganda’s land surface.

“Ugandans are partly right when they talk about the rampaging deforestation,” he says, “but the country’s forest cover is actually getting better.”

Okello says NFA started noticing this positive trend around 2016. But he appears aware that most Ugandans would be surprised by his claim. So he explains.

“Most Ugandans forget that the country’s forests are not just the big tropical high forests.

“Uganda’s forest cover is actually constituted by tropical high forest, plantation forest and woodlands; in fact, the tropical high forest constitutes a small percentage of the country’s entire forest cover,” he says.

He says, according to the statistics, most of the forest land being converted into agricultural land is outside the country’s forest reserves which comprise 60% of forests. About 40% of forests are outside the protected areas.

“The proportion of forests outside protected areas is being lost very fast,” he says.  According to him, that is the big problem. He blames population growth and the search for farmland to support it.

According to him, about 30 years ago, subsistence farmland around the country was about 8.4 million hectares but by 2019 it had risen to 10 million hectares or about half of the country’s land area. He says that over the same period, two million hectares of forest had been lost while agriculture gained about two million hectares.

“My statistics show me that by 1990, the woodland was 3.9 million hectares but by 2019, the woodland had shrunk to about 1.2 million hectares,” he says.

Dr. Clement Okia, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at Muni University in the northwestern city of Arua, also sees similar trends. He told The Independent that, in the past, population growth was not worrisome because wood demand for firewood and charcoal was still limited and the trees outside forest reserves contributed to about 70% of tree cover.

“But we now know that massive tree cover loss is occurring outside these protected areas,” he told The Independent recently.

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