Will Uganda be able to fulfill its pledge to protect its forests?

In October, Uganda committed to reduce carbon emissions 22 percent by 2030 by significantly increasing its forest cover. But a booming local charcoal trade and allegedly underfunded forestry departments may make this a challenging goal.

Will Uganda be able to fulfill its pledge to protect its forests?
  • Many Ugandans rely on charcoal as a cooking fuel, and the Uganda's National Forest Authority estimates 80,000 hectares of forest are cleared every year to meet this demand.
  • The country's protected areas have also been affected, with several losing significant amounts of forest cover over the past decade.
  • Enforcement of anti-encroachment regulations is proving a tricky issue, as forestry officials say their departments are underfunded and rural residents assert their rights to the land.

Protected forests in northern Uganda are under strain as people clear trees for farmland and to make charcoal. But combatting deforestation in the region is a challenging issue, with forestry officials saying their hands are tied because of funding restrictions while local farmers and charcoal-producers maintain they are being unfairly evicted from land they view as their own.

In the district of Gulu, forest reserves have seen significant degradation over the past decade. Byron Anguzu, the forestry manager of a sector within Gulu District, identified many reserves that are in trouble. Among those showing the most recent degradation are Abera, Wiceri, and Amuka Forest Reserves, which the online monitoring platform Global Forest Watch shows lost around 9 percent, 13 percent, and 25 percent of their tree cover, respectively, from 2001 through 2014.

Gulu District in northern Uganda lost more than 4 percent of its tree cover from 2001 through 2014, according to Global Forest Watch. Protected areas have not been immune, with Wiceri and Abera Forest Reserves losing significant proportions of their tree cover in the past decade.
Gulu District in northern Uganda lost more than 4 percent of its tree cover from 2001 through 2014, according to Global Forest Watch. Protected areas have not been immune, with Wiceri and Abera Forest Reserves experiencing significant deforestation in the past decade.

Anguzu says current encroachment issues are largely driven by agricultural expansion and logging for charcoal production and construction.

Charcoal and firewood are used by an estimated 90 percent of Ugandans as cooking fuel. Made by heating wood until it is transformed into a lightweight, high-carbon material that resembles coal, charcoal production can have a damaging impact on the environment. Uganda’s National Forest Authority (NFA) estimates 80,000 hectares of the country’s forests are cleared to make charcoal every year.

But charcoal production has long been a way of life for many in Uganda’s rural communities, one that is not easy to forego.

Clement Opio, 63, from Nwoya District, has been dependent on charcoal burning for the last six years. Opio, a farmer who owns about 600 acres, said he has turned to charcoal because unpredictable weather patterns make farming unreliable.

“I either burn the charcoal myself or sell the trees to other people from Kampala who pay me at least $350 for [the wood from] five acres of land,” he said in an interview with Mongabay.

Jackline Anena, 52, who lives near Wiceri central forest reserve in Amuru district harvests trees and produces charcoal from a forested plot of land adjacent to her three-acre farm. Anena maintains that she has a right to use forest resources.

“I don’t think we encroached on the forest. We used to live here. It’s because of the war that displaced us and upon our return, [and now] NFA accuses us of encroachment,” Anena said.

Lucy Akello, a Member of Parliament in Amuru district, explained that politicians only intervene in land-use issues at a community’s request if they cite violation of their rights.

“We do not bump into issues, but if there’s a community outcry, that’s when we intervene, in line with provisions of the law,” she told Mongabay.

However, forestry officers in Gulu District’s Kilak sector said this government intervention makes things difficult whenever they try to carry out evictions of people who they say are encroaching into protected land.

Byron Anguzu said efforts to combat degradation are being bogged down by the limited means to regularly carry out patrols in the most affected forests. Samuel Abwola, a Gulu forestry officer added that the problem is exacerbated by the limited funding the forest office receives from the annual district budget.

“Our offices are not well facilitated and any delay in eviction exercise may drag on since it’s not easy to arrange for such operation,” Abwola told Mongabay.

Abwola added that from a total district operating budget of over $12,500,000, his office is granted only $2,571 for the entire financial year. Even this, he said, is not always fully remitted.

“Since the beginning of 2015/2016 financial year in June, my office has only received $200 for two quarters,” Abwola noted. “With two more quarters remaining, we are likely to just receive [another] $200.”

Member of the Nwoya District Parliament Lilly Adong visits a pile of timber destined for charcoal production in Purongo sub-county. Photo by Arnest Tumwesige.
Member of the Nwoya District Parliament Lilly Adong visits a pile of timber destined for charcoal production in Purongo sub-county. Photo by Arnest Tumwesige.
A truck loaded with charcoal heads to Uganda's capital city of Kampala from Lalogi sub-county. Photo by Arnest Tumwesige.
A truck loaded with charcoal heads to Uganda’s capital city of Kampala from Lalogi sub-county. Photo by Arnest Tumwesige.

International pressure to cut carbon emissions is mounting, as countries band together to slow global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius. For its part, Uganda committed to a target emissions reduction of 22 percent by 2030, accomplished largely through a combination of energy and land-use measures. The country’s plan calls for increasing forest cover to 21 percent by 2030 (for context, Uganda had 14 percent forest cover in 2013) through land protection, tree-planting, and biomass production such as eucalyptus tree plantations.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNEP) is heading up an initiative aimed at reforming Uganda’s charcoal industry through combatting poverty. In doing so, UNEP says that emissions can be reduced while increasing the quality of life for rural Ugandans.

According to Abwola, Gulu District has been encouraging farmers to plant trees, with around 6,000 hectares planted so far. Meanwhile, Uganda’s NFA has also embarked on a community awareness campaign highlighting the importance of trees.

A cautiously optimistic WWF report released last month found Uganda has the potential to reach almost complete energy sustainability by 2050 – if strict measures are taken.

“High, inefficient and unregulated use of solid biomass energy is a key limitation to attaining sustainability in the sector,” the report states. “Even if existing biomass sources and end-use technologies are nominally renewable, they are not sustainable.

“Without a massive push for reforestation and sustainable biomass production, Uganda will not be able to provide its citizens with sufficient biomass to meet their energy needs.”

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