Kampala — Marino Abule and his fellow timber dealers in Hanga-Kidwera village in Masindi can now freely access timber from Budongo Forest Reserve. After giving up illegal logging, the forest authorities have rewarded them with part of the forest from which to fell trees.
This new move is destined to preserve some part of the forest. So in allowing communities access timber and charcoal from part of the forest reserve, in return they (communities) have turned into 'eagle-eyed watchers' over the forest reserve.
The communities have also been provided with tree seedlings to plant outside the forest reserve to reduce pressure on the forest. They have also been availed with an income generating activity -- bee-rearing, to improve their welfare.
The move has changed the legacy left by colonialists, where the poor communities in the vicinity of the protected areas were expected "not to touch" the hardwood trees in Budongo.
Conservationists are now organising illegal loggers and encroachers into committees that can manage part of the forest together with the authorities.
"We do not sneak into the forest at night anymore and this has helped us to avoid the being harassed which used to be the case in the event of arrest," says Abule, who heads the reformers under North Budongo Forest Community Association.
Under this new arrangement, some of the most notorious illegal loggers like Epraim Kyoma, who had mastered all the routes and markets in Masindi and Kampala for the illegal timber, have confessed and reformed.
"It is now difficult to deal in illegal timber because we can trace it even when it is hidden under someone's bed as we did recently," says Abule.
North Budongo Forest Association recently entered into a 10-year agreement in which they agreed to manage the northern part of Budongo Forest Reserve that comprises Kaniyo and Wabira areas.
According to a forestry report, the concept of collaborative forest management under which communities are watching over the forest to curb the illegal activities, could relieve government authorities of the burden of monitoring alone.
"We have given them 10 hardwood trees to fell and sell timber as start up capital," says Michael Ojja of the National Forestry Authority (NFA).
While confiscating chain power saws was the order of the day in Budongo, Abule and his group got help from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations who donated a sawmill that resembles a modified chain power saw. This is part of their start up capital. They are expected to pay for the trees they fell once their quota of 10 trees is exhausted.
According to Ojja, it took them so long to get into agreement with the locals partly because there was bad-blood and mutual suspicion.
Another reason was that there were changes in policy and legal framework that has embraced new concepts of forest management. This saw the colonial set-up forest department replaced by three bodies. These include the NFA, the Forestry Inspection Division in the environment ministry and the District Forestry Services that is not yet in place.
Though felling of hardwood trees without a licence was illegal, the illegal loggers and charcoal burners got ways of escaping arrest. This prompted the conservationists to go back to the drawing board.
Instead of engaging in "fire fighting," they 'dug up' the root causes of the problem. They discovered that exclusion of the communities from using and "owning" the forest was part of the problem.
Given that the communities living near the forest also suffer food insecurity as a result of crop raiding by animals like baboons, monkeys and chimpanzees the forestry authorities thought it important to work with them.
"It is hard to protect something from which you do not benefit," says Doreen Kabasindi who heads EMPAFORM in Uganda.
EMPAFORM (Strengthening and Empowering Civil Society for Participatory Forest Management in East Africa), is a four-year programme funded by the European Union and Care Denmark.
However, communities need to understand the implications of the agreements of the partnership with government. The power relations should be changed so that government and communities become "equal partners."
On one hand, government has the stock of experts and on the other are the poor communities.
Robert Nabanyumya, the care coordinator overseeing the four-year programme in the region, says their aim is promoting a pro-poor approach to management and conservation of natural resources in East Africa.
Their team will examine the existing agreements where communities are watching over the borders of the forests around Mabira, Sango Bay in Rakai, Kashyoha-Kitomi in Bushenyi, Bugoma in Hoima.
Hassan Muloolopa, an advocacy officer while explaining the relevance of their intervention, says "10 percent of the 36 percent of the population of the poor in Uganda occupy areas that are on fringes on the forest reserve."
With the communities working with authorities to protect and use forests to improve livelihoods, it would make sense to villagers to protect habitats of chimpanzees and Nahan's Francholin, a rare bird residing in Budongo.