Otuke — Susan (not her real name) leans on a bag of charcoal at her home in Gotojwang Forest, Olilim Sub-county in Otuke District.
Dressed in a faded pink T-shirt, the mother of three narrates how desperate families have resorted to cutting down trees and burning charcoal as an alternative means of livelihood amid economic challenges.
Just like hundreds of residents of Olilim Sub-county, Susan is now chopping down trees and burning them for charcoal. She sells each bag at around Shs15,000.
In Kampala City, however, a bag goes for about Shs100,000, while in Busia and Kenya, a bag goes for Kshs4,000 (about Shs150,000).
"I started cutting down trees from my garden to make charcoal so that I could raise money for food and my children's school fees," Susan says.
A resident of Ogor Sub-county in Otuke, Sophia Amucu, says: "Our children have resorted to charcoal burning to make ends meet because of the prolonged dry spell that struck the area, leading to poor harvests."
Nonetheless, the charcoal burning business, compounded by other factors such as wetland encroachment, has disrupted the earth's ecological systems, causing serious negative consequences on agricultural production in Otuke District.
Although it is a cheaper source of fuel compared to other alternatives such as electricity and gas, the business has had an adverse impact on the forest cover.
Traders who often go to Otuke target protected indigenous Shea trees for purposes of charcoal production.
Patrick Onyanga, the district environment officer, says 10 per cent of the district's natural vegetation on private land has been depleted as a result of charcoal burning.
"Some traders often go to remote villages, rent a piece of land with so many trees under the guise of growing crops yet the intention is to cut down trees for charcoal," Mr Onyanga says.
"If the trend continues for another three years, the place will be like Karamoja, without any tree," he adds.
However, this lucrative business is not only benefiting the natives of Otuke but also the key persons in influential positions, according to a Facilitation for Peace and Development (FAPAD) Baseline Survey of 2017. FAPAD is a non-governmental organisation operating in the area.
This has hindered the fight on the illegal trade.
Mr John Wafula, the outgoing Otuke Resident District Commissioner, says: "I am disappointed that the people who would be helping us to stop this massive tree cutting are the very people involved - our police, the Local Council 1 leaders and departmental heads from the natural resource department are involved," the RDC says.
Community-based monitors say the main key actors in the illegal charcoal trade are the law enforcers, residents and local leaders.
"When vehicles loaded with charcoal are impounded and taken to police, the traders bribe the police, who later release those vehicles," Mr Peter Oola, a community-based monitor, says.
However, Mr Boniface Okori, a forestry guard, dismisses the claims as unfounded.
"It is not true. Sometimes we impound the charcoal, auction them and bank the money onto the district accounts," he says.
The North Kyoga regional police commander, Mr John Peter Ematu, also dismisses corruption allegations against the police.
"... what I know is that the enforcement is spearheaded by the forestry department and police just comes in to reinforce," he says.
Mr Onyanga acknowledges that Otuke is losing the battle to illegal charcoal trade because of the irregularities in the enforcement.
He, however, says they are doing their best to curb the illegal trade and save the environment.
But Wafula insists it is the technical people benefiting more in the trade.
"These few individuals; the environmental officers, the police, have now found a way of generating money. Actually, they are the ones getting rich out of this thing," he says.
Mr Wafula says his office has brought the matter to government's attention but the response has been minimal.
"So my call is that government should definitely step in, otherwise these beautiful Shea trees will soon totally be gone and in the nearby future - within a period of five to 10 years - the negative climate change effects will start to be felt here," he adds.
But members of the community say unless government provides alternative sources of livelihood and energy, charcoal burning in the area will not end.
Intervention. Law enforcement agencies often impound the charcoal, arrest the traders and take them to court. The vehicle's owner is often fined not less than Shs1m. At least seven people have between June 2017 and July 2018 been jailed for dealing in illicit charcoal trade in Otuke District.
Also, 10 community-based monitors have been set up in Olilim Sub-county to monitor and report any illegalities to the authorities.
Challenges. Some members of the community hide charcoal traders in their houses during day time. At night, the traders load the charcoal and transport it outside the district.
Effects. Charcoal burning has for long been contributing to the ever changing climatic conditions in Otuke due to the high rate at which forests and trees are being depleted.
The rising global temperatures and changing weather patterns have become a threatening part of life in Otuke. By 9am in the morning, the temperatures are already at 27oC and by midday, it is already at 30oC (Uganda National Meteorological Authority, quarterly updates).
Less than 5 per cent of the charcoal produced is consumed internally, according to Otuke's natural resource department report of 2018 and the rest is sold to other parts of the country.
Currently, Otuke receives charcoal dealers from as far as Busia, Mbale, Soroti, Lira, Kampala and some from Nairobi - Kenya.