A run for trees, a Mukono man hurled in an Acholi forest and what it means

The writer, Moses Odokonyero

A fortnight ago, I participated in the ‘‘Gulu Go Green Marathon’’, an initiative by the nonprofit, CEED. Now in its second year, the run is meant to encourage tree planting and conservation of the environment. The Minister of state for northern Uganda, Grace Freedom Kwiyucwiny was the ‘‘chief runner.’’

The night before the run, I had a chat in a noisy Gulu bar with Kwezi Tabaro of the LéO Africa Institute, a Kampala-based leadership training organisation. Mr Tabaro who was in Gulu for the run told me about a book by a climate change skeptic that he had read. Yes, there are climate change skeptics. But climate change, exotic as it may sound to the Ugandan ear, is real.

On Wednesday last week, President Museveni tweeted: ‘‘Wetlands other local water resources contributes 40% of our rainfall yet people are invading them. This partly explains the long dry spell.’’

The president’s message is important. Many Ugandans have felt or are still feeling the long dry spell, the resultant heat and its threat to livelihoods.

In Gulu where the run for trees took place, the reservoir from where the town’s water is pumped has been consecutively drying up for the last two years. Those old enough say this was virtually unheard of in the past. So why is the reservoir drying up?  The major cause appears to be the long dry spells, erratic rain, increased demand for water and an invasion by humans of water catchment areas like swamps.

It is not only the swamps that have been invaded, forests too are taking a beating from humans.  Late last year, I visited a jungle camp in Nwoya district, an epicenter of the booming charcoal trade that feeds the near-insatiable and rising appetite for energy to drive homes, restaurants and event steel plants.

The camp was littered with tree-stamps and scattered tents made of worn out tarpaulins, sacks and sticks. Years gone by, the place looked like where one would have only heard the chipping of birds. Instead when I visited, it was the irritating whizzing and grunting of a powersaw as its blade dug through a tree trunk—assaulting the ear with a piercing force. The indiscriminate destruction of trees was unimaginable

‘‘It is in this forest where the world has hurled me with my two children,’’ a half-dressed man who did not want to be identified because ‘‘this is not what life is meant to be’’ told me as he tenderly stroked the head of his youngest son, aged just four. ‘‘I am from Mukono. But I am stuck in an Acholi forest. What else can I do?’’ he asked and answered ‘‘One day Allah will show me a way.’’

For much of 2016, an environmental conflict that threatened to take on an ethnic undertone raged on in northern Uganda, only briefly getting national attention when the Gulu Chairman Ojara Martin Mapenduzi, smoldering with rage, was shown ‘‘live’’ on national TV, brandishing a whip, canning loggers and setting their forest camp ablaze.

Conflict in northern Uganda meant that for two decades tree cover rejuvenated relatively undisturbed due a restriction on freedom of movement until 2006 when it was lifted.  These trees have become a magnet for the charcoal business.

The rising demand for charcoal in Uganda is ironically an outcome of ‘‘development.’’  Peasants are becoming ‘‘middle class’’ and graduating from using firewood to charcoal, sending folks like our Mukono man into the forests. Demand for charcoal will continue rising.  Long term, Ugandans —both at an individual, collective and institutional level need more runs for trees to preserve water sources,  forest cover, swamps to guarantee livelihoods and a cleaner future.