This blog post is a little overdue – sorry to all those people who are still wondering what I’m actually doing in Uganda (apart from enjoying the sights and sounds of Kampala and its surroundings!)
For me, volunteering in East Africa is also important for gaining experience within the environment and international development sector; discovering what the challenges and solutions are for a country like Uganda, which is blessed with an abundance of natural resources but still suffers from chronic poverty.
One of the biggest issues for Uganda’s Government and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) alike is the question of how to protect the country’s vast equatorial ecosystems (forests, lakes, grasslands, wetlands) and incredible biodiversity, whilst at the same time contributing to economic growth and supporting a rapidly expanding population in the capital (currently estimated at around 5 million but growing all the time).
This is where Environmental Alert comes in, the NGO I’m volunteering with for the next six months. For over 15 years, EA has undertaken research and piloted field projects to ensure that Government policy decisions reflect the priorities of the poor and promote the sustainable use of Uganda’s natural resources. EA builds partnerships with like-minded institutions to scale up best practices, and strengthens smaller civil society organisations and local networks to engage in policy processes and hold duty-bearers accountable.
Currently, EA is focussing on halting the degradation of forests and wetlands by working at both Government and community-level to promote sustainable agriculture and livelihoods which help to improve the health of soils, increase food security and combat the onset of climatic changes such as low rainfall in the dry seasons.
So where do I fit into this? My task during my six months with EA is to research and draw up an ecotourism development plan for a wetland area called Mabamba Bay, about 50km from Kampala on the banks of Lake Victoria. Part of the site was recognised as a Ramsar site in 2006 to offer protection to the 190,000 birds found there, the most notable of which is the globally endangered Shoebill, which I was lucky enough to see on my first visit there last week!
There are also important cultural sites in the catchment including 600 year old tombs, ancient forests and a cultural hill where people go to offer gifts so that they may give birth to twins (which are highly renowned in Uganda and considered a spiritual blessing).
But despite the numerous opportunities for tourism at Mabamba, so far the tourist numbers have been very small, with most visitors staying for just a couple of hours. The community living at Mabamba hopes that with investment in ecotourism, they can afford to protect the wetland from destructive activities such as agricultural encroachment, sand mining, poaching and clearing of papyrus for firewood, which are already occurring on various scales.
I’ll be working directly with the community through an association of community members and bird guides committed to promoting ecotourism at Mabamba, who are all wonderful characters (more on these guys in a future post!) For now though it’s back to work!