The Monitor (Kampala)

Uganda: The Forgotten 'Victim' of the Northern War

In times of war, what concerns people most are the effects of the insurgency on the people, not its effects on the environment among others things.

The war however, in northern Uganda has had severe effects on the environment, says a new report.

Due to the conflict, there has been a change in the land cover over the last 18 years. The remote sensing analysis report shows that small-scale woodland covers have increased in the area in the past years.

According to the 2005 report, the woodland vegetation cover increase occurred in the districts of Kitgum, Gulu, Pader, Adjumani and Moyo while a significant decline in the woodland cover was registered in the districts of Apac, Kotido, Lira and Moroto.

Mr Samuel Okello the environment officer in Gulu District noted that the increase in the woodland vegetation occurred in places where the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) activities took place since the villagers feared to venture to such places, while the places people were able access saw a decline in the woodland.

"Because people feared the LRA, you find that there was an increase in woodland in areas that the rebels tended to hide while in places where the people had access lost its woodland", Okello said.

A report written in 2003 shows that 82 percet of Lira's local forest reserves were degraded or deforested in their assessment of fuel wood availability while Gulu Pader, Kitgum and Apac lost almost 100 percent of their local forest reserves. Most conversion was of swamps and grassland land covers in to cropland and pasture.

Encroachment on forest reserves and wetlands

According to the National Forest Authority's (NFA) range manager of Achwa River range, Dennis Oyiro, the level of encroachment on the forest reserves by the IDP was high.

He says 70 percent of forest reserves, were tampered with during the insurgency, with vegetation within reach of the community greatly destroyed during the conflict as people turned forest reserves into agricultural areas.

"Some of the camps that are now being occupied by the internally displaced persons in Gulu and Amuru districts are actually on forest reserves" he said, observing that because of the displacement of the people in northern Uganda, several internally displaced camps came into existence on central forest reserves in the districts of Gulu and Amuru.

The IDP camps that are on forest reserves include Bobi, Opit and Lukodi camps while some army detaches were also created in the reserves.

A report by IFPRI in 2003 noted that a significant expansion of cultivated land is taking place at the expense of natural vegetation and particularly wooded savanna and forest all over the country.

Okello explains that the land surrounding camps were turned into farmland although these were on forest reserves and that not only were the forest reserves encroached upon but also wetlands have been destroyed as some people built houses in the swamps to meet the high demand for accommodation, in addition to the IDPs turning the swamps into sugarcane and yams gardens.

Deforestation

During the conflict, deforestation took place as trees were cut down by people living within the camps to provide fuel.

The NFA supervisor in Gulu Lamton Omoya said the uncontrolled cutting down of trees by local and business community and deliberate neglect of the natural woodland forests by the managing authorities is a big problem the district is facing.

The trees are used for making charcoal and sold to people in the urban area while others use it for firewood especially those living within the camps and the majority cut the trees for construction.

He commented that because of the lumbering in the region, the forests that used to exist and were near the camps no longer exist these days.

"Due to the high level of deforestation, in a radius of between 5km and 8km from any given camp, there are no trees. The trees are completely cleared and you can see what is taking place from a distance," Okello said.

Due to the uncontrolled deforestation, northern Uganda has run out of trees for timber and instead people are resort to cutting Borisus palm trees for timber.

He said some people have resorted to cutting down trees like shea nut tress for timber yet it is a source of medicine, oil and vaseline.

Bush burning

Okello also says the bush burning practice that was aimed at destroying possible hide out of the rebels during the dry season led to loss of soil fertility as soil nutrients and soil organism like the worms were burnt during the process.

Land mines

AVSI landmine educator Ocan Ongom also noted that though land mine explosions do not have any effect on the soil but that they create craters once an explosion has taken place.

He says landmine acts indiscriminately, so wild animal also are blown once they are exposed to land mines and this has led to death of some rare animal species in the region.

Unexploded ordinances and landmines have hindered agriculture in the region since there is fear of it exploding.

"The presence of unexploded ordinances and landmine in the region made farming difficult for the peasants in the north as there was general fear of the explosive and it's devastating effects."

Effects of encroachment

As a result of the deforestation by the people living in the camps, the rain pattern in the region as been affected as well.

"It is now very difficult to predict the rain patterns in the district," says Lamton Omoya.

Omoya says not only has the rain pattern been affected but that uncontrolled cutting down of trees has destroyed the available water sources with in the affected area.

He added that a number of wells and springs have dried up because of the deforestation hence exposure of water bodies, which leads to evaporation.

Okello said that the wetlands turned in small yams and sugarcane farms, have dried up.

This is because people have created channels within the swamps to allow water flow hence its loss and some who were living within the camps that are on forest reserves are now claiming that that they are the rightful owners of land reserves.

Okello said the IDPs claim that since they have lived there for long, the land is now their property

What is being done?

Okello explained that there are plans to reopen the forest reserves as well as begin replanting trees in affected area and there was need for community participation in the reclaiming of wetland and forest reserves in the district.

NFA's says they are currently opening some of the forest reserves while at the same time sensitising the community on the importance of preserving the forests.

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