By Emmanuel Kei Duku
An unpaved muddy road, full of holes, leads from Adjumani town to Zoka Natural Forest located in Itirikwa Sub County. The road, which crosses the forest, also leads up to Apaa Land; a disputed area between Adjumani and Amuru District.
From this road; you can see the giant trees like the aeschynomene, titanophylla and combretum (bush willow) trees, umbrella shaped shrubs of Zoka Forest. In the forest, many people live off agricultural production of, for example, maize, beans, cowpea, simsim, groundnuts, millet, potatoes, cassava, and sunflowers. But farming and settlement in the forest is illegal, says the Uganda National Forest Authority.
As one keep traveling deep inside Zoka Forest, on the road, traders or middlemen muscle it out on the muddy road, carrying charcoals, sugar cane and other grains to Adjumani Town and the wider region. Charcoal burning and encroachment for agriculture have destroyed 52% of the forest cover.
According to National Forestry Authority (NFA), between 1990 and 2015, 1.33 million Hectares of forest cover was lost. From 2000 to 2015, the annual deforestation rate is 1.8%. Between 2005 and 2010, the forest loss was 1.28 million hectares implying that the area of forest lost is almost as the same between 1990 and 2005. From 2010 to 2015, the forest lost was 487,472 hectares making an annual deforestation rate of around 4% or 95,694 hectares per year.
Most of the remaining forests in Uganda are in protected areas or national reserves. Protection is hard needed: over the entire period of 25 years from 1990 to 2015, Uganda has lost 63% of its forests at an annual rate of 2.51. Currently 55% Uganda’s forests grow on protected land and 45% private land contrasting the situation in 1990 where 70% grew on private land and 30% in protected areas.
In 2010, Adjumani had 159kha of tree cover but by 2021, it had already lost 838 hectares of 1,259 hectares tree cover, this according to Global Forest Watch. Encroachment, logging, urbanization, and establishment of illegal trading centers inside the forest reserves and sugar cane plantation threaten Zoka’s biodiversity.
Since the inception of the National Forest and the Tree planting Act of 2003, every citizen in Uganda must at least plant two trees before cutting one. This act has never conserved forests like Zoka.
It is not the fault of the local citizens says Apema Charles. A farmer who lives in Itirikwa Sub County, Adjumani District and he says that most of the loggers comes all the way from Kampala and other regions. He is calling on the National Forest Authority (NFA) and other actors to fence the forest or hand its management to traditional chiefs like during the colonial period.
“If this forest can’t be fenced, its management should be given to us but for now we have less control over the forest because we don’t have powers. Previously, our grandpa used to protect or guard this forest through use of rituals and other traditional practice and there was nothing like this alarming rate of deforestation today”, says Charles.
Influx of Refugees and Demand for Wood fuel and what other partners are doing.
Adjumani District has an estimated forest cover of about 20,000-30,000 km2 but since the outbreak of the civil war in South Sudan, many people flew to Uganda and settled in Adjumani District, destroying over 10% of about 27,000 km2 forest land.
By January 2022, Adjumani District has a population of over 200,000 South Sudanese refugees, according to data from the Office of Prime Minister. Large swatches of forest cover are depleted, because of a high demand for wood fuel, shelter, and a sugar cane project in Amuru District. It have a negative impact on biodiversity.
Uganda’s forests are an important and treasured natural asset that provide multiple environmental, social, and economic benefits, meeting the country’s needs for wood fuel, timber, and poles, providing habitats for flora and fauna, and helping mitigate climate change. Forest ecosystems are Uganda’s principal source of energy since woody biomass accounts for 78 percent of energy production. Many rural communities are highly dependent on forest ecosystem services.
Currently, the United Nation’s Food Agricultural Organization (FAO) is implementing a four year’s project (2021–2024) in fourteen districts across the country. The Forest management and sustainable Charcoal Value Chain Addition (FMSVCA) project is funded by European Union, aimed at recovering more 500 hectares of land by encouraging refugees and host communities to grow fast maturing trees to meet the ever-increasing demand of wood fuel.
Nelly Grace, Program Associate at UNFAO, attributed the high rate of deforestation to absences of alternative sources of fuel, influx of refugees, increased in population and high demand from neighboring countries. Out of every 10 households, at least 6 depend on woodland fuel, henceforth, threatening natural forest across the country and under the project, more than 500 hectares of forest land will be recovered through framer led forest regeneration both on commercial and private land.
“Our situation in Uganda is very wasteful. For example, the ways and methods we used for harvesting charcoals are immensely damaging. It contributes to forest degradation and the ash particles also contributes to an increase in greenhouse gas emission. So, we hope to support the government as they transition to clean energy both in the long and short run”, says Grace.
Natural Forest is an asset and contributes about 8.7% to the national economy based on conservative estimates. Forests provide multiple benefits and if sustainably managed forests give environmental benefits, sustainable economic development and improve the quality of life of people across the country. Forests provide habitats for many native flora and fauna species, renewable products and energy and contribute to the development of a green economy. Forests also provide a wide range of wood and non-wood products, clean water resources, and play a vital role in the mitigation of climate change.
Under the Forestry and Tree Planting of Act-2003, National Forestry Authority is mandated to manage all central forestry reserves in the country and Juliet Mubi, Public Relation, and Spokespersons for NFA, says in 1990 Uganda had a total forest cover of about three million on private land however, by 2019 it has reduced to 500, hectares and 2.5 million hectors had been lost in space of about 25-30 years.
NFA is currently implementing forest restoration programs like the “community tree planting initiatives supported by government of Uganda” through giving free indigenous trees seedlings and Re-forest Program. The program is implemented in partnership with UNHCR. It supports farmers and refugees to established woodlots and do reforestation of forest that has been degraded.
“We have established nursery tree beds and seedlings across the country, and we have one in Adjumani, Moyo, however also we have new plan supporting farmers under the Parish Development Module which we are still in discussion with government how we can use the money restore nature since the money is going direct to the beneficiaries at grassroots” stated Mubi.
Mubi encouraged framers and private partners to access tree seedlings in the 35 tree centers established country wide by NFA at no cost. Currently, NFA has built a standard Tree Seed Centre infrastructure aimed at collecting, processing, testing, storing, and distributing over 100 indigenous and exotic species of trees before they are planted by farmers.
Zoka’s Biodiversity and its Conservation
Zoka rainforest covers more than 1,000 hectares. It borders the East Madi Wildlife reserves, an important elephant corridor established in 1950, in the North. The area is home to around 50 mammalian species, over 150 bird species and more than 300 plant varieties.
Among these plant species targeted by illegal loggers threatening its biodiversity are Afzelia Africana (African oak), which has been dangerously plundered. The shea nut is also under pressure from charcoal burners and farmers indiscriminately felling trees.
To Anyama Stephen, a resident of Zoka Central, continuous logging of the forest by non-community members has greatly affected the rainfall pattern of the area. He says for the wildlife spices to survive, the government should fence the forest. Stephen also said that the government should make it compulsory to grow fast maturing trees on at least one and half hectares of land, to be used as wood fuel.
“These trees we should not cut them unnecessarily, also the government should make planting of trees mandatory for citizen. This will minimize locals from encroaching into the forest and regain wildlife habitat and once these trees are planted government, through NFA, should regularly monitor the progress of the trees. This way, we can make this forest and animals rest at little bit”, said Stephen.
Zoka Forest is the northernmost tropical high forest in Uganda. While relatively small, it contains several primate species and an endemic flying squirrel only found in Zoka. It also contains several large mahogany trees and offers a cool breathing space from the heat of the rest of the East Madi Wildlife Reserve.
Northern Uganda is rich in bird- and wildlife, offering visitors an enticing alternative to the common safari circuits. The variety of bird species in Uganda is one of the greatest in the world and there is an impressive array of wildlife. The relative newness of the safari industry in the region means that visitors enjoy a more peaceful and personal experience with nature, according to a 2014 publication co-authored by Director of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Chairperson of the Uganda Tourism Association (UTA) Jan F Broekhuis. Tourism increases the importance of protecting this area.
But apart from the rich and diversity in natural resources both Amuru and Adjumani including the entire Northern Uganda has historical sites such as Indriani Catholic Missionary Site, in Pakele-Adjumani District, Guru Gulu Caves Lamgoi rebellion sites. Each year on 15 January a cultural coronation anniversary of Lawii Rwodi (Paramount Chief of Acholi) is held. Because of the potential tourist attractions, Amanzuru William, an activist working for Friends of Zoka, calls for support from traditional leaders in conserving nature.
“I think the religious institutions around these conserved areas should come out clearly and reconnect us to nature, […] we need that voice from the Christian, clergy, bishop’s to be added on conversation if the religious fraternity adds that missing voice it’s going to be quite powerful.”, says Williams.
“We also need the cultural voices because Zoka Forest lies in cultural land in Adjumani where we have “Oyuwi culture” of the Ali People, they are the people around this forest, so we equally need the cultural leaders” adds Williams.
The Tree Funds & Act of Parliament and what other agencies says on Re/Afforestation.
Currently, Uganda has three important policies in the forestry sector, The Uganda Forestry Policy (MWLE, 2001), The National Forest Plan (MWLE, 2002) and The National Forestry and Tree Planting Act (MWLE, 2003) but even before enacting those policies, by 1929 there were no official forest policy in Uganda however forest was sustainably managed.
Amazingly, after the first national policy on forestry was formulated in 1929 and was instituted by the British colonial government with the idea of conserving large areas of forests like Zoka forest reserves, the policy was quite successful because local chiefs would command and control the measures of the colonial government.
However, since then, the policies have changed drastically and are focused on stricter conservations of natural resources and not reviving lost forest cover in the country.
Article, 39 of Uganda’s constitution of 1995 under objective 13 of the national government mandates actors in the national and State level in the environment sector to protect land, wetland, Fauna, flora and water while objective 27/ (i) of the National objective and the direct State Policy objective implores the State to promote sustainable development and public awareness of the need to manage land, air, water resource in a balanced and sustainable manner for the present and future generation.
Avur Jane Pacuto, Woman Member of Parliament representing Pakwach, urged that trees helps in combating climate change, absorbing toxic waste and act as sources of habitat for wild animals. It’s on this bases that Pacuto is calling on adequate funding for planting more trees both for private and commercial purposes.
“Uganda is one of the countries that is losing forest cover at an alarming rate. Within a period of 15 years, Uganda’s forest cover had been depleted by 12%. […] the Ministry of Finance should operatized tree planting funds to the support the growing of trees”, says Pacuto.
Local solutions to reverse deforestation
To reverse this trend, Anyama Vini, a resident of Olwi village in Adjumani district, says the best way to conserve the forest is to use conscious farming methods like intercropping.
“While farming we shall plant trees alongside our crops, also we should replace the already cut down trees by planting new trees. Similarly, trees that are big, should only be pruned but not cut. Deep in the forest we should place beehives on them so that when the loggers come they will fear cutting down these trees when their see them having the beehives”, says Vini.
In Uganda the Management of forest is categorized into two, Central Forest Reserves like Zoka Forest Reserves (CFRs) are forest reserves managed by the Ugandan National Forestry Authority (NFA) this is because of the size of the land been higher than that of the local forest reserves managed by the local Government.
In 2007, leaders from Achoil disagreed over government’s proposal to allocate over 40,000 hectares of land to the Madhvani Group of Companies for sugarcane growing which sparked series of conflict among different stakeholders, including senior government officials.
To resolve the infighting and conserve the forest, Dulu Lawrence, a resident of Adjumani District says there is need for multi-sectorial approach. He suggests signing tripartite agreement between local communities, the national forestry Authority, government, and private sector stakeholders.
According to him, bringing in the private sector would encourage people to plant more trees and conserve the forest, particularly when “select harvest” would be promoted. Selected harvest is the process when trees that have no more life span either they are burnt, old and are dried up can be turn or felt into timbers and wood fuel.
“We should involve the private sector, people who are willing to replant the forest so that the forest is managed in a sustainable way, if there is a private sector who are in control of the forest, they will do reforestation then they can partner with other sectors to bring in other sectors like tourism”.
Lawrence further added that logging and charcoal burning contributes to the massive disappearance of animal species. He called upon government to stop illegal logging.
In 1911, the colonial British government had drawn boundaries between Moyo, Adjumani and then Gulu district from which Amuru District was carved in 2006. The area around Apaa at that time was infested with Tsetse flies and the land was owned communally by communities. It has traditionally been a hunting ground.
But, in 1963, Uganda Game Department amended the statutory instrument Number 17 and gazetted Kilak Controlled Hunting ground for licensed gun holders.
During Idi Amin’s government on March 30, 1972, Legal Order No. 54 was issued revoking the decision on the Kilak Controlled Hunting Area in what came to be known as Kilak Hunting Area Revocation Order of 1972. This later led to the passing of a resolution in 1973 allowing residents of Apaa to return and occupy their ancestral land.
However, residents of Apaa are now blaming the government for the constant conflict between Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWLA) and Madi from Adjumani clashing with the Acholi from Amuru District because of 2002 Act of Parliament that gazetted the area without consulting the locals. This has led to clashes between the community and Uganda Wildlife Authority and leaders from Adjumani.
In the past years, government institutions such as Uganda Environmental Police and Uganda Police Force, National Forestry Authority, Uganda Wildlife Authority have constantly been accused of conniving with loggers and fiercely evicting citizens who have settled in the areas.
Amuru District Local Government Five Chairperson, Michael Lakony, says their efforts to conserved Zoka and other natural resources have been handicapped due to underfunding from the central government and centralization of Police Force.
“Our powers have been incapacitated because the powers to supervise the police lies in the hands of the Inspector General of Police but if we want to protect Zoka we need to centralize the police this will faster response to cases of illegal logging, and it has been made worse with the little or no funding from central government. So, what do you expect when IGP withdraws Police away from any Local Government?” Asked Michael.
He further accused government of housing market for forest products in Kampala and Uganda Revenue authority tax regulators in the country for clearing its products to be shipped aboard yet the vice is illegal. To him for any forest like Zoka and others in the country to thrive government should endeavor to demarcate the boarders.
“If at all they (red: NFA) are serious and intend to end depletion of Zoka, NFA and other institutions should call the two Districts for a meeting to draw a road map on how to protect Zoka, but have they done this, the answer is “no”, therefore we need a joint “participatory Approach” from Adjumani, Amuru and other stakeholders. Secondly, residents of either district till today have failed to know the exact boundaries of the forest including Coordinates’ of either Adjumani or Amuru over contested Apaa land are not clear. If you ask me as the LC.5 I don’t know neither do I have coordinates of my district and the same thing applies to Adjumani, so we need instruments of Power to sensitize the Public to reduce illegal encroachment” expressed Michael.
Fighting over contested Apaa, a land measuring about 872 Square kilometers, started in 2006 after creation of Amuru as a District. Acholi Community from Amuru claim ownership of the land similarly to its Madi counter parts from Adjumani. This conflict has resulted in massive deforestation of Zoka Natural Forest and displacement of the population in retaliation fights. While evictions were carried out by government agencies such as Uganda Wildlife Authority who says the land has been gazetted as East Madi Game Reserves under Zoka Central Forest but also according to residents from Amuru they claim it’s their ancestral home which they vacated after Tsetse flies’ infestation of late 1990’s to earl 2000 Kony insurgence.
“They started this forest when people were in the camps and when citizens are trying to return to their ancestral land they are now conflicting, so the government should not just say Zoka Central Forest or Apaa Land is of such an area or the Forest and Apaa belongs to East Madi Wildlife Game Reserves in Adjumani District when the boundaries are not clear to the communities” according to Lebale Piny John Alfred, a young resident of Pabo Sub County, Amuru District.
In 2012 when more than 20 citizens were killed in retaliation fight over ownership of the land, the government started demarcating the area in 2015/17 in attempt to bring sanity between the two communities. The exercise was met with fierce resistance from either side. According to John Alfred takes political will from either leaders if Zoka Central Forest, Apaa Land and loss of lives is to be minimized.
“The constitution of Uganda permits any citizen to stays where he/she wants so later when Apaa and Zoka is found to be in Adjumani you will not be chased away from Adjumani if you are an Acholi from Amuru same applies to Madi from Adjumani so really to me our leaders should come together and speak one language of peace for the good of Zoka, Apaa and its natives” added Alfred.
Currently there is also a contestation over Juka Bridge which residents of Amuru says extends 8KM into Apaa Parish, but Akuku AP Richard, an independent researcher specialized in conflict and peace negotiation, says the deforestation of Zoka was politicized. When it is time for elections, the Zoka and Apaa land conflict is used as a scapegoat by the elite politicians but none the less Akuku is calling on the citizens to embrace local solutions then relaying from the government.
“The Acholi and Madi conflict over Zoka and Apaa land requires local […] we should get sober minded and influential traditional chiefs, clergy, church leaders like John Baptist Odama and other neutral people from either sides after that we mapped out families that have intermarried if we do this, these people will speak with sense of humanity not political urgency, simply because they know the history of the two communities, and in this way, they will not betray us”, says Akuku AP.
Akuku AP explains some communities – for example, Greater Palaro and Endre clan – lived peacefully since 1912 (before they were infested by Tse-Tse flies).
This story is produced with Support of Funds from Northern Uganda Media Club (NUMC) through the Support of America Jewish World Service.