Christopher Jjuuko is a forest grower in Kalagi, Mukono district, something that has kept him busy in retirement.
A former teacher, 58-year-old Jjuuko says he sought to boost his family's income by venturing into forestry, on the advice from people familiar with the business.
"Two of my friends in Nakasongola grow pine trees.When I retired, they advised me to start growing trees too. I opted for eucalyptus because I have a relatively small piece of land and this type grows very fast," he says as we walk around his forest.
The forest sits on two hectares of land that he inherited from his late father. Jjuuko has five children, all still in school. Two years from now, two of his daughters will join university. He believes that by that time, he will have sold part of his forest products to take care of their tuition fees. Howewer, he doesn't know that he needs certification in order to sell his products legally and at a higher price.
"These trees take around six years to mature. I will be able to pay fees for my daughters but now you are telling me about certification. I don't think I can do that. It really means I have to invest too much in certification more than what I have invested in my forest."
He says he only plans on getting timber cutting and trading licenses but can never go for certification. "That is for big companies; not me," Jjuuko says.
In a bid to reduce the amount of illegal timber on the market, get economic value out of the timber sector, and because of the need to manage forest resources, authorities introduced a standard certification process for all tree growers.
They adopted standards set by the international Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) in Uganda, with the drafting of the national standards ongoing. Certification is a market tool that encourages forest owners to manage their plantations responsibly and help them access premium markets, with buyers who are sensitive to environmental protection, according to Levi Etwodu, the natural forests management director at the National Forestry Authority (NFA).
The process looks majorly at the social aspect (communities and workers), economic value and environmental management. However, even with a big number of active forest growers in the country, only three companies are certified. This is mainly because of the market preference, the time required for certification and the amounts of money involved.
"The market is not yet aware that there is certified timber. People still want to buy cheap timber and, therefore, opt for the uncertified timber," Etwodu says, "The process of certification is also very expensive and, therefore, those that are certified tend to put their prices slightly higher."
When one forest is certified, there is a series of documents acquired through a chain of custody which include licenses to cut, transport and sell timber and timber products. After ascertaining this, the district forestry officer, using a special hammer, stamps on all the market-bound timber. These stamps are all paid for.
The certification process requires a forest grower to hire international auditors accredited by FSC to evaluate his/here ligibility for a certificate, basing on the three aspects mentioned above.
"Every year you have to renew the certificate. The auditors come back and review whether your operations are still compliant with the international standards but these are very expensive and many can't afford them," Etwodu says.
The payment for the auditors takes between Shs 30 million and Shs 40 million. This fee has sidelined the small-scale companies and individual growers, as it is only easier for multinationals.
With the cost of certification very high, small-scale growers unable to pay are involved in endless skirmishes with forestry officials who impound their products branding them illegal. Denis Kavuma, the general manager of Uganda Timber Growers Association, admits that this is a hindrance but says they are working on the idea of group certification.
"We are an institution of growers which includes small, large and medium. What we have done to small and medium growers (anything less than 1,000 hectares) is that we have started a pilot scheme where different growers come together and they are certified as a single block," Kavuma said
The move is currently undergoing a pilot study with six farmers being taken through the FSC standards and their plantations inspected.
"Currently, certified timber is the best. It is of good quality, cut properly, dried properly, and from properly-managed forests but people don't buy it. Its measurements are exact unlike these illegal dealers who tell you they are selling 14-inch timber yet when you measure it, it is actually 12." Etwodu said.
However, John Kasirye, a timber dealer in Kireka, says even if some dealers sell timber with wrong measurements, many abide by the correct ones to avoid more problems with district and NFA officials since they are already selling uncertified timber. He adds that certified timber is simply too costly.
"We are poor dealers, but they want us to buy that expensive timber and sell to people who won't allow buying it at that price. Our customers want cheap things and, therefore, according to the market forces of demand, we are forced to look for cheap timber wherever it is so we can feed our market constantly and make profit off it too," Kasirye said at his Kireka workshop.
He condemns forestry officials who extort money from them and says this has also increased the amount of illegal timber on the market, which makes certification difficult.
"So, you stop my truck and ask me for a license which I do not have. Instead of impounding the timber, you ask me for money and let me pass. When then will you ever stop illegal timber?" he wondered. "I will not be encouraged to buy timber from certified companies because I know I will get a free pass from wherever I buy it."
Simon Kizza, the certification manager of Busoga Forest Company, one of the only three certified companies in the country, says that even after certification, they have not yet started enjoying the premium price because the current market doesn't call for it. They have been forced to slightly bring down their prices to remain competitive on a market with mostly uncertified dealers.
"As big companies, we don't immediately look at monetary gain. Because of the nature of our stakeholders, we need to undertake this (certification), but we are not necessarily getting the premium price," Kizza said in an interview at the company offices in Jinja.
"Currently we are still doing the local market because the government policy doesn't allow export of timber. In [Europe], for example, their market is ready to pay the premium price; but not here."
He, however, notes that they have received enormous non-monetary advantages from certification, including increased publicity both local and international, exposure and legal discipline.
"We cannot be caught off guard a far as any legal issues are concerned because of the standards we are subjected to before certification. You cannot be in position to reflect on that if you do not compare to where you were pre-certification," Kizza said.
NFA says it has drafted national guidelines similar to those of FSC, and they wait admission to the international body, according to Etwodu. This is one of the ways the authority is trying to ensure that the issue of certification is taken seriously.
"We are looking at getting local people to audit the forests for private growers because the international ones are very expensive. We shall also look at market education, where we let people know of the availability of these certified products," Etwodu says.
He advises government procurement officers who intend to use timber products to acquire such material from certified companies.
As the process of certification proves expensive and rather time-consuming, there is rampant cutting of trees in the country and more illegal timber is flooding the market, and Uganda's once dense forest cover is slowly disappearing.
This Observer feature was produced with support from Panos Eastern Africa.