Winston Churchill famously called Uganda “the Pearl of Africa” during a tour of the country in 1907. Over 100 years later, it’s still easy to see why. Located directly on the equator, Uganda receives large amounts of sun and rain almost in equal measure, so the soil is incredibly fertile and can support a huge abundance of plants and crops all year round. This is good news for both the agriculture and tourism sectors, which thrive on Uganda’s unique environment of forests, wetlands and savannah.
During the rule of Idi Amin, degradation of Uganda’s environment was rampant and between 1971 and 1987, Uganda lost 50% of its forest cover, including virtually all of its indigenous forests. Today, around 30% of forests are protected and owned by the Government’s National Forest Authority (NFA) but big challenges still remain, the major one being that the NFA receives no Government budget; it is expected to finance itself through the economic opportunities forests present.
Not only is this hypocritical, but it also sends a contradictory message to the communities living within and adjacent to forest reserves. More than 1.6 million people depend on Uganda’s forests for their livelihoods, to varying degrees, through forest foods, medicines, fuel wood and other materials. So at the same time as the laws against community encroachment are becoming stronger, vast swathes of natural forests are being sold off to private investors for conversion to agriculture or other uses.
Other challenges include an increase in the demand for forest products (both domestic and commercial), especially for the construction industry, fuelled by a high population growth rate (3.4% per year) and expanding urban settlements.
Last week I was fortunate to attend Uganda’s 3rd Conservation Conference, organised by one of Uganda’s most influential NGOs, Nature Uganda. A significant amount of time was given to discussing the state of Uganda’s forests, yet no clear solutions were found without a strong Government commitment to protection and conservation.
One thing is for certain, if the current degazetting and degradation of the forests continues, Uganda will stand to lose a huge amount: environmentally, culturally and even economically, as resources are exhausted, land stops being fertile and tourists no longer come to visit the beautiful “Pearl of Africa”.