Dire poverty has pushed Northern Uganda communities that are recovering from war to massive cutting down of trees for charcoal. This is rapidly depleting native forests and posing environmental threats to the rural communities and the greater Uganda
Travelling the bumpy, rough roads of Gulu and Nwoya districts in Northern Uganda, one sees large swaths of bare lands with only scattered trees. These lands were once covered in thick forests of both hard and soft wood. Forests in the area flourished during the two-decade LRA conflict, when many locals were displaced from their villages. But today, communities have returned to their land, and the forest cover has steadily diminished.
Gulu, for example, had 371km² of forest in 1990, but environmentalists now estimate the cover to be only 200km², a reduction they attribute to the chopping down of trees for charcoal, and the quest to open up land for cultivation. For instance, Langele village, adjacent to Murchison Falls National Park in Nwoya district, was once known for its beautiful scenery and thick forests. This is no longer the case as locals have depleted the forest that used to be a prime hunting area. Watering places for animals have also dried up without trees to hold the moisture and prevent erosion.
For rural people, the charcoal trade is one of the few opportunities to earn desperately needed income. But even people who earn their livelihood from charcoal worry about the destruction of their native land. 'It's true people indeed need charcoal for cooking, but the situation seems (to be) getting out of hand,' says Ominy Daniel, a charcoal dealer in Gulu. 'Each time I go to collect charcoal for sale, I find no trees being replanted across northern Uganda. Instead, I notice more land left open which exposes people's crops to extreme sunshine and tough winds which destroy them.'
Jennifer Anyap, a farmer, says the greenery that used to characterise Koch Ongako village in Gulu has largely disappeared. Ms Anyap confesses that she cuts trees for charcoal three times a year to raise her daughter's school fees. 'I see more and more trees being cut,' she says. 'It is dangerous, but if I do not cut my daughter won't have school fees because I do not have any other source of income.'
Geoffrey Oryema, the Nwoya district chairman, says poverty and lack of a meaningful livelihood are the driving factors behind environmental destruction in Nwoya district. Although aware of the environmental impact of indiscriminate cutting of trees, Abonga Alex, a resident of Nwoya, agrees that many people are forced to cut because of poverty. 'I am trying to survive, I can't sit hungry in that forest,' Abonga says. He notes that charcoal buyers not only provide cash when they purchase wood, they also help villagers clear forested land for cultivation.
Previously, Kampala charcoal traders got wood from areas in central Uganda. But private and community forests near the city are now depleted, and traders
have to look for newer sources of supply in northern Uganda. Lillian Obonyo, a charcoal trader, regularly travels from Kampala to northern Uganda to pick up truckloads of charcoal destined for the popular Owino Market in the heart of the capital city. 'I have been in this trade for over five years' she says. 'We get our supply from northern Uganda because the charcoal produced there is of good quality and in high demand.'
According to Richard Kisakye of Nyabyeya Forestry College, northern Uganda has many of the trees most in demand, including Yaa (Shea-butter tree), Ogali (Camel's foot leaf tree), Okechu (Velvet-leafed combretum), Beyo (Lucky bean tree), Awok (Large-leafed albizia) and Cwaa (Tamarind). But he says the charcoal business faces an uncertain future, and the environment faces disaster if the current rate of cutting continues without more planting. 'As long as they cut down more trees than they can grow per year, it is not sustainable and will lead to deforestation,' Kisakye says.
An estimated 89 per cent of Ugandans depend on charcoal and wood for cooking. Moreover, Uganda's rapid population growth, coupled with increasing urbanisation, has increased the demand for energy, especially cooking fuel.
Uganda will suffer dire environmental effects if no immediate remedial measures are put in place, says Aryamanya Mugisha the executive director of Uganda's National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).
Uganda had more than five million hectares of forest in 1990, but only 3.5 million hectares remained by 2005. 'If deforestation continues at the present rate, Uganda will have lost all its forested land by 2050,' the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) warns in its State of the Environment for Uganda 2008 report. Making matters worse, charcoal burning is notoriously inefficient. Trees are chopped to pieces and then fired in traditional kilns. This process converts only 10 per cent of the trees into charcoal, according to Kisakye. This means that for every bag of charcoal produced, nine bags of wood are wasted. If the efficiency could be doubled, half as many trees would have to be cut to produce the same amount of charcoal. Consumers are not helping. Only 8.5 per cent of people who use charcoal have efficient stoves. This means that most run out of charcoal faster than should be the case.
Additional inefficiencies are introduced during transport and storage at market places. Kisakye argues that charcoal producers should be informed of ways to improve efficiency. He says private investment in charcoal production can lead to purposeful growing of trees for charcoal production and use of alternative technology like char kiln to make briquettes out of biomass waste - this uses a simple mechanical process that gives a cleaner burning, more environmentally friendly fuel for personal consumption or sale rather than earth kilns.
The government can also play an important role. Although the many people who are employed to produce, transport and sell charcoal will be hurt if their business collapses, charcoal is only mentioned casually in government policy documents. Experts say the government needs to help communities understand the dangers of indiscriminate forest-cutting, and devise alternative, sustainable livelihoods for people. This includes finding a viable new source of energy.
The trade-off between short-term and long-term considerations is illustrated by honey-production. At the moment, it is actually helped by the rapid spread of charcoal production in the north. As Mzee Odinga a bee farmer in Koch Lii in Nwoya district explains, deforestation has forced bees to migrate because their traditional habitats are being destroyed. That, in turn, has meant Odinga's beehives are being populated more rapidly. In addition, increased crop cultivation has produced more food for his bees. But Odinga isn't celebrating. Charcoal production has also reduced some of the thick vegetation where bees used to find food. And, more ominously, tree-cutting has led to a drop in the water table, forcing his bees to fly longer distances during times of drought to support themselves. In the long run, the falling water table is a warning sign of trouble, not only for bees but for humans as well. 'To me the total blame gets back to the government authorities and the local leaders who should write down sets of laws and policies to control forest use. If not then it will affect the future of our children.' concludes Odinga.
Good policy-making, of course, will not be easy. It will require officials to help people think more about the long-term, rather than dwelling on their immediate needs, which at the moment are best served by rapid deforestation.
The major concern however is that charcoal burning has led to deforestation which in turn has resulted in environmental degradation with unfavourable consequences like climatic change which is currently being experienced in northern Uganda - this affects the general biodiversity and causes more problems such as soil erosion, destruction of road networks, air pollution and depletion of the ozone layer. The ozone layer is particularly important since its absence exposes the earth to dangerous rays from the sun that have serious effects on human life.
More so, as forests are being depleted, wild life is disappearing and areas that were formerly tourist attractions have now been affected negatively and lost their appeal.
Gloria Laker Aciro is a former war reporter, having covered the Lords Resistance Army conflicts in Northern Uganda. Today she heads the Peace Journalism Foundation of East Africa. She is a writer and a radio mentor.
THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM