23 March 2019

Uganda: Conservationists Walk 470 Kilometres to Save Zoka Forest

Most people find walking a tiresome exercise and avoid it as much as possible. However, for 12 people belonging to a conservation group known as Friends of Zoka, the group chose to walk a journey of 470 kilometres from Kampala to Zoka Forest in Adjumani District in a drive aimed at creating awareness of the plight of the forest. Zoka is the only natural forest found along the swath of the Albertine region. It is home to 75 per cent of the world's insect and bird species. Zoka Forest that covers 1,259 hectares lies in the southern part of Adjumani, Itirikwa and Ukusijoni sub-counties. Much of the area is situated in East Madi Wildlife Reserve and part of it in Amuru District.

In October, the Uganda People Defence Forces instituted a Commission of Inquiry into the plunder of timber in Zoka Forest after some of its officers were cited in the indiscriminate tree cutting.

William Amanzuru, the team leader, Friends of Zoka, said the walk was inspired by the urgent need to take action to save Zoka Forest whose 6,145 hectares which is under threat of extinction from encroachment, timber cutting and illegal logging.

Ready, set, go

"We started the walk on March 4, from the headquarters of the Ministry of Water and Environment in Kampala. Along the way, we got facilitation from Care International Uganda and community members from the Madi and Acholi communities in Adjumani," Amanzuru said.

He explains that it is this kind of moral and financial support that helped the dozen nature conservationists to walk on to Adjumani.

"To be honest it was not an easy decision to make.When I reached Wobulenzi (in Luweero District) I almost gave up looking at how hectic it was, but, because of that heart for the environment I talked myself into continuing. That is how I managed to walk this far and finally we made it," he said.

Amanzuru narrates that technical officers from Care International kept on guiding Friends of Zoka from Kampala until they arrived in Adjumani 15 days later.

Friends of Zoka is a group of environmentalists and we named it so because we derive our love for the environment from Zoka Forest reserve when it was under attack by illegal loggers, timber dealers and charcoal dealers.

"The first point we walked for about 50kms up to Wobulenzi. We thought it wise to create awareness to make an advocacy level to save the forest, but we realised we could not stop at the forest because there is massive environmental abuse in Adjumani," Amanzuru said.

He added: "We are mindful of climate change and other massive effects of environmental abuse. In Adjumani, temperatures rise up to 40 °C late in the night. Ten years from now we might not have life."

The team leader said there is a specific place called Okawa on the way where huge logs that are taken to Kampala are harvested from. This is a short distance from Zoka so they could not just stop at Zoka but had to go out to other areas too.

"We walked because we want to see this environment better than we found it and pass it on to the next generation in a fair condition," he said.

Geofrey Ayeni, the chief walker of Walkers Association of Uganda, said they heard a lot of illegal activities taking place in Zoka forest so they decided to walk as an initiative to appeal to people destroying the environment to stop the illegal activities.

"We have done several walks before creating awareness about climate change, we have walked from Kampala to Kapchorwa, Kampala to Kasese and we went back to Kapchorwa last year so when the Ministry of Water informed us about the water and environment week, we decided to look at Zoka Forest, which is under threat," Ayeni said.

Walkers with a purpose

"Walkers association is a group of talented professional walkers. We decided to go into environment after getting information and seeing climate change is real and we thought using our walk, we can create awareness on the reality of climate change effects and that's why we started the movement," Ayeni said.

He said their next walk will be to Mbarara after getting information of a need to create awareness to save River Rwizi.

Why save Zoka forest?

Christopher Tusiime, a youth empowerment and entrepreneurship specialist at Care International Uganda, said they picked interest in Zoka Forest because it is one of the few remaining natural forests in the country and it is also tropical.

"We are trying to create awareness and it was a message for our partners including local government, National Forestry Authority (NFA), Environment ministry calling on all of us to put our hands together because deforestation is the biggest contributor to climate change," he said.

"We need to inform the world why we need to save Zoka Forest and advocacy to a level of action for conservation of Zoka Forest. NFA should have more collaborative management activities to work with the community to make them feel and enjoy the benefits from our forests," Tumusiime said.

Tom Rukundo, the NFA director- natural forests management, said the affected part of the forests is mainly where the Apaa conflict is taking place in east Madi where people settled and encroached on the southern part of Zoka Forest.

"The level of encroachment on national forestry reserves in the country is at about 17 per cent. Then, in reserves bordering urban areas you find the reserves have been 100 per cent encroached on," Rukundo said.

His Royal Highness the Lopirigo of Madi, Stephen Drani said the situation of Zoka Forest is alarming since trees are felled without concern or consent.

"Recently, I wrote to my cultural chiefs to protect the trees at all lawful costs because Madi has become a gold rush place for illegal loggers yet people of the land are not allowed to harvest the trees and those who come to harvest the trees have no licenses," he said.

He said there are elements that have chosen to look at Uganda as a victim and choose to deliver more hurt on the victim.

"You are big shots, yes, when traditional leaders speak to you say those are traditional leaders what are they? I appeal to such people whoever they are, to discontinue whatever they are doing," he said.


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