Country is curbing encroachment by paying farmers to grow trees for firewood and timber, but conservationists say outside of plantations the forest continues to shrink
* Uganda’s tree cover increased from 9% in 2015 to 12% in 2017
* Farmers are paid to grow tree plantations and help manage forests
* Critics say more effort is needed to stop the loss of natural forests
From tree planting campaigns to tougher illegal logging laws, countries around the world are looking for a silver bullet to stop the loss of forests vital to nature and climate protection.
After decades of losing thousands of hectares each year, Uganda has found a way not only to slow deforestation, but also to reverse it – mainly by helping people grow their own trees to be felled instead of clear the tropical rainforest.
New data released by the state-run National Forestry Authority (NFA) in May showed that the proportion of the country covered with trees increased from 9% in 2015 to 12.4% in 2017.
In a tweet about the numbers, the NFA said its 2019 National Biomass Study, due out in December, will likely show tree cover to have increased further.
NFA Plantation Development Director Stuart Maniraguha said the data – collected using remote sensing equipment and researchers in the field – suggests that things could get better for Ugandan farmers struggling to mainly grow rainfed crops in increasingly extreme weather conditions.
“As an agricultural country, (more forests) means more reliable rainfall,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “This indicates that we are on a positive path towards economic and ecological restoration.”
Protecting the world’s forests is considered vital to curb global warming, as they store the carbon that heats the planet and help regulate the climate through precipitation and temperature.
Those who live in and around Uganda’s central forest reserves, more than 500 protected areas that cover about 15% of the country, say the loss of trees has exacerbated the often disastrous effects of erratic weather on communities.
Last year, more than 700,000 Ugandans living near lakes and rivers were displaced from their homes after a year of unusually heavy rains that caused the worst flooding since records began.
The NFA said before the reversal of tree loss in Uganda, the amount of land covered by forests had plunged from nearly a quarter in 1990 to 9% in 2015.
In its State of the Environment report 2016/2017, the National Environmental Management Authority attributed the sharp decline mainly to land-hungry farmers, noting that of the 1.9 million hectares of forest and of wetlands lost between 1990 and 2015, about 80% had been converted. grow crops.
To restore the forests, Maniraguha said the NFA has used a range of methods, including promoting agroforestry – growing trees and crops together on the same land – and managing tree planting programs. .
And to prevent people from cutting down trees in protected areas, the authority is providing technical assistance to farmers who cultivate tree plantations, with the support of partners such as the Food Organization of the United Nations and agriculture (FAO) and the local charity NatureUganda.
The biggest gains in tree cover in recent years have been in the southwest, where farmers are growing trees for use as construction timber, firewood and electricity poles, Maniraguha said.
The NFA aims to have 24% of Uganda’s territory covered with trees by 2040, he added.
Peter Kasenene, who owns a 200-hectare (500-acre) plantation in Mawojo, central Uganda – where he has planted 70 hectares as part of the FAO program – said farmers like him are helping development sustainable at the local level.
“You only work the first year after planting. Then the trees grow on their own,” said the 75-year-old former university professor who was finance minister from 2001 to 2006.
“The one you see there is the third generation – I cut, I replant,” he explained, pointing to a patch of eucalyptus which, along with pine, makes up most of his plantation.
Kasenene said the FAO pays him 800,000 Ugandan shillings ($ 225) for every hectare he plants and that he also earns a healthy income by selling wood from mature trees.
“You get the buyers, they cut the trees and put the money in my account – I’m comfortable,” he said.
“FORESTS ARE OUR JEWELERY”
Achilles Byaruhanga, executive director of NatureOuganda, welcomed the increase in tree cover, but said he was concerned that reforestation would only occur on forest farms, even though they offer an alternative source of timber. heater.
“We have to stabilize the (natural) forest cover and then increase it. We cannot afford to lose more. Natural resources – especially forests – are our jewels,” he said.
For NFA chief Tom Okello, growing more trees is not enough if Uganda is to maintain its success – more needs to be done to stop the root causes of encroachment and deforestation.
“You cannot prevent a desperate person looking for firewood from entering a forest. We must provide an energy alternative, improve agricultural productivity and fight poverty,” he said.
Almost 95% of Ugandans depend on firewood or charcoal for cooking, according to the Department of Energy.
In Buikwe district, which includes the central Mabira forest reserve, tree grower John Tabula urged the government to give communities more power to manage the rainforest in their areas.
Tabula belongs to a group of farmers who had an agreement with the NFA to manage a 3 km (2 mile) stretch of forest inside the reserve where they grew eucalyptus to sell for utility poles and terminalia, also known as Indian almond, for Charpente.
In return, they were patrolling the forest in search of illegal loggers, he said.
But the deal expired in 2016 and the government did not renew it, despite several requests, said Tabula, who also runs a private plantation with support from FAO.
Okello said the NFA is grappling with a long-term budget crisis, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and has affected some conservation activities on the reserve, including the agreement renewal in Buikwe.
“We need to assess their performance before renewing their licenses,” he said.
But Tabula said every day the government stalls on renewing the deal is another day the forest is made vulnerable to illegal loggers and encroachment.
“We, the community, would protect the forest,” he said. “But we don’t have legal support.”
($ 1 = 3,555,0000 Ugandan shillings)