analysisBy Isaiah Esipisu
A forest monitoring system that uses text messaging on mobile phones has helped the Ugandan government to intercept six cartels involved in forest crimes, within just four months of its launch.
The community-based forest monitoring tool allows anyone who witnesses a suspected illegal activity in a Ugandan forest to send an SMS message describing what they have seen and where to a common code: 6006.
Uganda's Observer weekly newspaper, for example, published an article in March about an incident in which a community member spotted and reported a green truck with the registration number UAN 591A being loaded with logs in Kiyuni sub-county, in the central district of Mubende.
Though he didn't know whether the activity was criminal, he sent a message to the common code to alert the authorities about what was happening. This prompted forest officers to rush to the location, where they found loggers with a false permit bearing a fake District Education Officer signature. In Uganda, such permits must be issued by District Forest Officers.
The culprits were immediately arrested and charged in court.
"The technique is our new undercover lens that allows communities to participate in forest governance," said Annet Kandole of CARE International in Uganda. The aid group developed the system in partnership with the Anticorruption Coalition of Uganda and Kampala-based NGO Joint Effort to Save the Environment.
Messages are received by a central server that identifies where they originate from. They are then directed to the nearest concerned authorities to enable swift action.
Those receiving the messages include officers with the police and the National Forestry Authority, as well as selected politicians and civil society groups.
"This is a perfect tool that we all need to embrace for integrated landscape management," Chris Planicka, programme associate at EcoAgriculture Partners, told Thomson Reuters Foundation at a recent conference in Nairobi.
LINKS TO POLITICIANS
By the end of June, four months after the tool's launch, six cartels had been netted, two of them linked to powerful Ugandan politicians, CARE's Kandole said.
"Involvement of politicians and related forces is one of the biggest challenges we are facing for forest governance in this country," she said.
CARE is now including selected journalists as recipients of the alerts so that culprits can be exposed in the media before 'powerful' contacts come to their rescue.
The tool is still new and little known to many Ugandans. CARE is in the process of popularising it through community radio, newspaper adverts and whenever an opportunity to talk about it arises, Kandole said.
Use of mobile phones for forest governance is one of the many innovative uses that have sprung up in East Africa following the region's cell phone boom. Studies have shown that nearly 100 percent of households have direct access to a mobile phone owned by an adult family member, or can access one through a close neighbour.
Mobile telephones are a blessing, particularly for poor countries, said Gaster Kiyingi, a communications expert at the Straight Talk Foundation, which promotes conversations about the environment and forestry among schoolchildren in Uganda.
"We've witnessed forest destruction in many protected areas, but reaching the authorities has always been a challenge," said Kiyingi, who previously worked for the National Forestry Authority. "With the use of mobile phones, I believe many more cartels will be intercepted," he added.
Across East Africa, cell phones are also used by farmers to receive information about the weather, markets and agricultural prices, and to transfer money, among other innovations.
"By using this tool, we will be able to reduce forest crimes substantially for the sake of the environment and future generations," CARE's Kandole said.
FORESTS UNDER PRESSURE
In the last 100 years, Uganda's forests have faced severe pressures, mainly from agricultural conversion due to population growth, urban demand for charcoal, over-grazing and uncontrolled timber harvesting, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
The FAO reports that Uganda's forest cover has shrunk from 45 percent in 1890 to just over 20 percent of the country's total land area today.
The current rate of deforestation is estimated to be around 1 percent per year, and the annual cost of deforestation has been conservatively estimated at $ 3.8 million-$5.7 million, according to the FAO.
"The government is working with us, and I believe they will continue supporting this community-based forest governing system because the forests form a greater part of livelihoods, particularly for poor communities," said Kandole.
If funds are available, CARE hopes to introduce the tool soon in Kenya, another East African country where forest-related crime is rife.
Isaiah Esipisu is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist specialising in climate change and agricultural reporting. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org