19 September 2006

Uganda: Yes, Let People Die to Save the Forests Today


Museveni's decision to dole out Mabira Forest as farmland to the Methas has caused outrage.

The environmentalists are angry. The folks who believe in the rule of law, and think the President is going around handing out public property the way Field Marshall Idi Amin distributed Asians' shops after he chased them away in 1972, are equally upset.

In Kenya, similar fury has met the recent announcement that the Ministry of Lands is to degazette part of the Ngong and Karura forests for settlement.

When I was a young man many years ago, I took the liberal view that those who are alive today should cut down forests for their use. That our children and grandchildren would plant their own trees and cut them down when they mature.

Now I am wiser. To me the problem with destroying forests is not primarily an environmental issue. It is a moral and historical matter. When I became wiser, I realised that we hadn't grown the forests and trees that our generation were moving down.

Some of these forests were there before even our great grandfathers were born.

Therefore a forest isn't like a potato garden, that you plant today and harvest a few months later. If I felled a tree in some forest today, I would almost certainly be cutting down something that none of my relatives, and indeed no one from my clan or tribe, had planted. In other words, cutting down an old forest is theft.

One of the strongest arguments people like President Museveni make is that opening up forests for commercial activity is more economically productive. That for any responsible government, the priority is to feed the people, not to keep forests for tourists and bird watchers.

However, I think we should give priority to the trees, because there are other ways of feeding the hungry, the jobs can be created elsewhere for the unemployed. But even more important, Uganda - with one of the highest birth rates in the world - has demonstrated that it can produce people. However, going by the amount of forest cover we are losing, we are unable to plant trees.

According to the State of East Africa Report 2006, Uganda's population is projected to reach almost 64 million people by 2030, which would make it the most populous East African country, ahead of Tanzania's 57 million, Kenya's 41m. Our own Population Secretariat projects our numbers would have swollen to 150m by 2050.

However, while we continue to "breed like rabbits", as the good minister Amama Mbabazi once said, beside a few souls, we seem incapable of growing trees. Over the last ten years, forested land area in Uganda has declined by 4 percentage points (788,000 hectares).

If you randomly collected 100 child-bearing couples in any of the main towns and asked which one of them had planted a tree outside their compound in the last five years, you could find that not a single one would have done so.

But if you asked them, how many of them had had children in the last five years, very easily all the 100 will say yes. And half of them will have had two or more. People are people, they have family and relatives who will miss them, and we want to live a long and good life.

However, if you forgot that for a number and took out a calculator and added your numbers coldly, the inevitable conclusion is that Uganda can live comfortably with people dying for whatever reasons because we are replacing them faster than they are perishing, but it can't afford to lose its trees.

The other question then is; why are contemporary Ugandans - and Africans generally - so incompetent when it comes to preserving the environment? Modern Africans contrast very sharply with their forefathers and mothers who, studies show, managed their environment much better.

Settlement patterns, the structure of poverty, and so on offer part of the explanation. Corruption and inept government too play a part. Since crooked government officials steal taxpayers' money, it follows that they would abuse other public property like forests.

Ordinary wananchi too are guilty, because they tend to view public goods as "government property" and, therefore, they have no particular owner.

However, one suspects the main reason for our appalling treatment of forests is that modern Africans generally have serious problems with coming to terms with their past. They define being "modern" primarily as being different from their recent ancestors who were hunters and gatherers, and "lived in trees".

It seems that in a twisted way, because of the view we have formed of ourselves from reading a bigoted western anthropology we hate trees and forests because they remind us of how "only the other day" we were still living in their branches.

However, at the rate we are reproducing and destroying forests, I can bet that by 2050 the environment will be so hostile there will be very many people wishing that we were back in those old, old days when we were living up in the trees.

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