This story was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
In Rwenzori sub-region, the districts of Kasese, Ntoroko, Bundibugyo and Kyegegwa have all predominantly been wedged. And most of the charcoal dealers who operate in these districts have targeted different natural forests, forest reserves and National Parks.
Semuliki National Park in Bundibugyo and Ntoroko, Queen Elizabeth, Rwenzori National Park in Kasese and Kibale National Park have all been targeted by the enemies of nature. Among the forest reserves include Nyabirongo, Ihandiro in Kasese District and Sempaya Forest Reserve in Bundibugyo District.
2017 records from the Uganda National Forestry Authority indicate that the people of the Rwenzori Sub-region cut down 23% of the region’s trees and green cover on a monthly basis, mainly through collecting firewood, Charcoal burning and clearing land for farming.
In the late 1980s, about 75,000 square kilometers(31.7 percent) out of 236,040 square kilometers of total land in the country consisted of forest and woodland. But, today (2022), forests and woodlands cover only makes up about 15.2 percent of Uganda’s land surface.
According to Research conducted in 2017 by African Natural Resources Institute, forest cover lose has now increased to an estimated 200,000 hectaresannually. And on average, Uganda has been losing 122,000 hectares (301,469 acres) of forests per year since 1990, according to a 2016 report by the National Forestry authority, a government agency responsible for managing and protecting forests in the country.
Nearly 20 years since the establishment of the National Forestry and Tree planting Act of 2003 that focuses on ensuring that the public plant at least two trees before cutting one as a measure of conserving the forests, its implementation has remained at stake resulting in harsh climatic conditions experienced by the natives in the Rwenzori region.
And in spite of NFA’s collaboration with the local administrative has worked towards instituting ordinances and by-laws to conserve the forests; enforcement has remained a big challenge and a new threat to conservation around the sub region.
Augustine Koli, the Kasese District Environment Officer says people are cutting down trees for commercial charcoal burning adding that the activity was on increase due to high levels of poverty among the people.
Mr. Koli says that the number of people using firewood and charcoal in Uganda has increased denting the battle against climate change. “In fact traders in forestry products are ceaselessly sacrificing the environment at the altar of business opportunities” Koli added.
Illegal Charcoal burning business
From 1990 to date, local authorities from the Rwenzori districts of Bundibugyo, Ntoroko, Kyegegwa, Kamwenge and Kasese respectively started receiving warnings and information in regard to strangers invading and cutting trees from some villages both the protected areas, government forest reserves and community forest reserves.
According to Godwin Kibati, one of the Patrol Men attached to National Forestry Authority-Itojo Block, Itojo Beat in Karugutu Town Council of Ntoroko District, an investigation revealed that individuals from the different big cities including Kampala, Masaka and Mbarara come and camp in the district with aim to deplete the big forests, forests reserves and community forests reserves.
“They agree with a section of people, go into the forests, cut and burn the trees into charcoal, and this charcoal is ferried on big trucks to Kampala, Mbarara, Masaka and other big towns” Kibati revealed.
Charcoal sellers don’t know the connection between rainfall and degraded environment
During an extensive tour in Ntoroko District, about 15kms after Karugutu Town heading to Bundibugyo District, this reporter encountered a group of young women who told him they used to do farming selling bags of charcoal and bundles of firewood by the roadside.
The women revealed that they lack awareness about the connection between rainfall and a healthy or degraded environment.
Magret Mbindule said she had begun supplementing her income by selling charcoal. Mbindule said that she has become a full-time charcoal burner because of the less rains received around the region. “That is why I resorted to selling charcoal. No one is going to help; we need money more than anyone”. She adds.
In Bundibugyo District; Ivan Isenzumwa (64) a father of 9 Children a resident of Karangistyo Village in Bukonzo Sub County, says most Men in the area were now involved in charcoal burning (Cutting down trees from Semuliki National Park and from the Community Forest reserves) to provide income to meet one-off purchases of expensive items, respond to an income shock, or to meet recurrent seasonal needs.
In Ntoroko District; Betty Akugizibwe, a mother of Kakindo in Karugutu Sub County, says many people need firewood to cook food for their family every day so she collects firewood from both the community forests and Semuliki National Park four times a week as the demand is high.
Geofrey Magole, also a resident of Kakindo, says hunger has forced him to get involved into charcoal burning that he could get what to feed his family of 15 people.
Magole says he started the business in January 2017 because of the prolonged dry spell in rwenzori region that has resulted in his family being unable to grow maize and beans for food.
Magole burns trees from Semuliki Nation Park and some from the community forest reserve, and then sells a sack of the resulting charcoal for 20,000 Ugandan shillings ($6). He says the buyers tell him that they resell his charcoal in Kampala, Masaka and Mbarara.
In Kampala a sack of charcoal sells for 120,000 shillings ($33), says Hossana Babirye, a housewife living in the capital city. In Masaka and Mbarara City, a sack of charcoal sells for 90,000 shillings while in Kasese Municipality, Brenda Kyakimwa, a house wife dealing in charcoal business, she sells a sack of charcoal at 75,000 shillings.
However, Kyakimwa says some times the price is determined depending on the quality of charcoal.
The 2016-17 Uganda National Household Survey indicates that over 90% of Ugandan households use solid fuel for cooking, including charcoal.
Moreover, UBOX shows that the use of wood for cooking has increased from 38,982,000 in 2010 to 55,947,000 tonnes of wood in 2020.
The report also says that the number of Ugandans using charcoal in the 2019/20 survey also increased to 57% from 30% in 2016/17. Also, baffling is the number of people in urban areas using firewood to cook where the figure increases from 22% in the 2016/17 survey to 29% in the 2019/20 survey.
According to Global Forest Watch, an international online forest monitoring and alert system, the destruction of forest cover from 2001 to 2020, Uganda lost 918,000 hectares of tree cover equivalent to a 12% decrease in tree cover since 2000 and 413 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
The impact of the human activities is partly blamed on the Uganda’s booming population which is growing at a rate of about 3.6 percent per annum.
Over the last three decades, this growth in human population and corresponding increase in demand for forest products for domestic and industrial use, expansion of agricultural land, illegal settlements and weak forest management capacity have led to rampant deforestation in the country.
Trail of cartels
At the peak of the problem some of the Environmental Police officers and NFA personnel in the districts of Bundibugyo, Ntoroko, Kyegegwa and Kasese are reaping big from the archaic and dirty trade.
An investigation conducted by rwenzoridaily.com between July and August, revealed how police officers attached to Environmental Police and NFA were allowing Charcoal and firewood dealers to enter the National Parks and forest reserves.
Members of the community say NFA and Police personnel connive with some middlemen and businessmen and women most of them from Kampala to get them permits to cut trees from the forests. They added that some of the officers have been witnessed ferrying heavy trucks loaded with charcoal and firewood from some of the government forest reserves including Kibale National Park, Semuliki and Queen Elizabeth National Parks.
Sources from NFA in Karugutu town (Ntoroko District), revealed that they have been soliciting between 300,000 and 500,000 to allow the enemies of nature to continue depleting the forests around the region.
While some cut the trees using power saws, axes, and machetes, others bag charcoal to be loaded onto waiting trucks to be taken to Kampala or Busia border where they are sold at between Shs100,000 and Shs120,000 per bag.
The chain of beneficiaries in the illegal commercial charcoal includes locals, brokers who buy from the impoverished, local authorities and some officers at institutions mandated to reinforce the law, including security personnel.
Now, Mr. Edwin Mumbere, an environmental biologist and Coordinator for Center For Citizens Conserving Environment and Management-CECIC, is apprehensive about what the future portends. He reckons there is a need to collaborate with the different stakeholders such as the police, elders, religious, elected and cultural leaders, to ensure the forests are managed sustainably.
“If that is not done,” he warns, “we should even brace for worse scenarios.”
He says that the region has severally been ravaged by the climate change and warned that in a few years to come the glaciers on the top of Rwenzori Mountain would be no more due to higher air temperatures and less snow accumulation. He also warned that some animal species on the mountain might face extinction because they had adapted to the cool climate but now the climate is changing due to deforestation.
“The frequency of hot days in the region for the last 20 years has increased significantly while that of cold days has decreased, that is a clear and strong evidence indicating that Rwenzori is experiencing effects of climate change as a result of environmental depilation.” added Mumbere.
Over the last two decades, temperatures on the Mountains increased by 1.5 degrees centigrade causing a decrease in the glaciers from 15 square kilometers in 1900 to 1.5 square kilometers in 2021.
Mr. Stanley Mugisa, the Bundibugyo district environment officer, said that the converted areas are highly degraded and experience floods as they have been tampered with. He adds that as the forests lose soil fertility, farmers move and cultivate in the buffer zone and wetlands. Such indiscriminate cutting of trees has also affected the critical role trees played in flood control,” he says.
He also adds that commercial charcoal trade in the district has become too difficult to control due to conflict of interest among leaders.
“Many times, when we attempt to stop such illegal activities in the district, we are threatened. We were once threatened by high-ranking military officers, who asked us to back off,” he says.
President Yoweri Museveni while in Kasese district in June 2021 cautioned the people living around Mount Rwenzori of the dangers of degrading the water catchments which he said would cause disaster for the country.
“That forest on Mount Rwenzori is very crucial, all these rivers in Kasese and Kabarole are from that forest, so you should understand this and know that that forest is our mother not only for Rwenzori region but for other parts of the country, so tempering with the forest cover, people would perish of floods” he warned.
Over 90 percent of the communities living on the mountain slopes depend on firewood for fuel, leading to extensive destruction of forests letting floods in the low lands and global warming as the glaciers on Mount Rwenzori have been greatly affected and are disappearing steadily.
He said that the ecosystem and the living standards of people around the region would be disrupted since they depend on the natural resources like the Rwenzori Mountain.
Agriculture is largely dependent on rainfall. When the rains are expected like this Augusts and September (start of the second annual wet season), people start preparing their gardens for planting crops. If the rains don’t come, then a disaster like the one experienced today looms large on the horizon for most families and if they come early, a crisis ensues.
WWF in partnership with Hempel Foundation and with donations from other Danish companies are currently implementing an ambitious plan to restore forest in the buffer zone of the Rwenzori Mountains National Park.
The work commenced in the middle of 2020, and 18 months later the first trees planted are visible in the buffer zone landscape. As of today, they have planted 1.400 hectare of new trees and provided support to 1.712 families and farmers.
Sam Syahaba Muhindo, one of the farmers, who have taken part in the restoration of the buffer zone, shares his story:
” I have now planted 17 acres (approx. 7 hectare) of forest on my farm land adjacent to the Rwenzori Mountains National Park. By planting here, I hope to secure and improve the land, whilst I will increase my income in the future.”
Carolyne Zawede, Co-founder for Climate Change Institute Uganda, says it was necessary to devise alternatives for sustainable livelihoods and to empower communities with information on the dangers of indiscriminate forest-cutting.
“Without a viable alternative source of energy, it is clear that charcoal and wood fuel will remain the dominant sources of energy,” Zawede said.
Zawede explained that Climate Change Institute Uganda has developed machines that can produce green charcoal from Agricultural waste materials and she believes this technology will save the rapidly disappearing forest in the regions since it uses agricultural by-products.
Government has embarked on a campaign to reduce the use of charcoal and firewood starting with large consumers like education institutions, hospitals and prisons among others.
The Electricity Regulatory Authority recently this year signed a memorandum of understanding with the Uganda Prisons Services aiming at transiting from the use of biomass to clean energy in a project codenamed charcoal to power.
Zira Tibalwa Waako, the Chief Executive Officer ERA, says that their target is that all the eight million households in the country should all enjoy using electricity, and the only effort they are putting in supported by government is to ensure that this electricity reaches all parts of the country.
Waako said although many people complain of high power tariffs this arrangement is so price friendly and a unit will cost not more than Shs 500.
More than 200 prisons across the country will benefit from the pilot project. Prisons is one of the institutions that use a lot of firewood for cooking.
Commissioner of Prisons, Samuel Akena said prisons use over 30,000 tonnes of firewood a year which translates to around Shs1.6 billion. ERA is targeting over 500 institutions and 50,000 households before they roll out the campaign in the whole country.
The high prices of charcoal and the soaring prices of gas have left many Ugandan households stuck for options on how to cheaply prepare their meals.
A sack of charcoal at Nakawa market currently ranges from Shs 80,000 to Shs 120,000, while a 6kg gas cylinder, which previously cost Shs 49,000 at some gas dealerships, has now almost doubled to Shs 70,000. With the prices not coming down anytime soon, electricity could become an alternative.
According to Waako, while ERA views “charcoal to power” as one of the initiatives that will conserve the environment by pushing for the use of clean energy, it is also an opportunity for the regulator to grow demand for electricity.
To win over converts, Waako says, they have designed special tariffs tailored to increase reliance on electricity for cooking in households and at institutions such as schools, hospitals and the like.
“As ERA, we have designed special tariffs of Shs 451.4 per kilowatt hour for institutional cooking and Shs 412 per kilowatt hour for domestic cooking for this initiative.”
Waako believes these relatively low tariffs could help encourage many Ugandans and institutions to start using power to prepare their meals on a day-to-day basis with more offers on the way.
“We are looking at further lowering these tariffs as the consumption grows as a result of these initiatives,” she emphasized.
Although lowering of tariffs is a good incentive, most of the people and institutions who subscribe to using gas or charcoal for cooking claim that they are put off from using electricity because it is unreliable. To this, Waako said ERA has put in place a system to motivate the licensees to improve their performance.
“The authority on an annual basis identifies poor-performing feeders and approves investments for restoration of the network to improve service delivery.
“ERA will engage with the various licensed distribution companies to ensure that electricity supply to the facilities and projects covered by the memorandum of understanding is safe, reliable and affordable,” she summarized.
The authority with the support of UNDP is currently implementing a similar pilot project at Mulago hospital at the Mwana Mugimu children’s clinic.
A cultural institution in the region (Rwenzori) has for the last seven years been encouraging her subjects to plant bamboo trees along river banks and bare hills as a mitigation measure to control the effects of floods in the entire kingdom and save the buffer zones.
What the cultural institution is doing
The cultural institution known as Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu derives the unique name from Nzururu, which means “place of snow” in the Bakonzo language. This unique feature is found on the Rwenzori Mountains.
There has been deforestation and indiscriminate tree cutting in the river catchments.
The campaign of growing bamboo trees is being spearheaded through ridge leaders, chieftains, clan leaders, everybody and households are practicing.
The targeted districts in this survey have since 2013 witnessed disasters including floods, storm winds, landslides and droughts causing great loss of property built at a great cost and loss of human lives, a challenge the kingdom wisely thought could address.
Most of the rivers originate from the Rwenzori Mountains and empty their waters into the two drainage basins of Lakes George and Edward.
So it is upon this background that the kingdom immediately stepped in to encourage the subjects to impress bamboo trees so that when it again floods, the damage should be minimal.
The Kingdom’s Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Joseph Kule Muranga says that after witnessing the receding of snow and effects of climate change, the kingdom launched the Rwenzori Mountain Green Revolution and water catchment project.
The project is being piloted on several river banks, valleys, along the roads and empty parches so that a green carpet is realized on Rwenzori Mountain.
The ongoing project is yet to be extended to other kingdoms and neighboring districts of Bunyangabu, Kabarole, Ntoroko and Bundibugyo, especially on the mountain areas where rivers are in the youthful stages and erosion is taking place.
The kingdom is now ready to supply over 13 million bamboo tree seedlings at a free cost.
The subjects who have already been sensitized about the campaign of salvaging the mountain are only charged with the supervisory and looking after the bamboo trees given to them.
On their website, the National Environment Management Authority-NEMA announced that the government of Uganda received funds from the African Development Bank.
The funds are intended to supply, planting and maintenance of tree seedlings and Bamboo on River and Stream Banks and other fragile landscape in five catchment areas including Mubuku valley in Kasese district.
Other areas are Wadelai, Tochi, Doho and Ngenge Irrigation schemes.
Muranga explains that the kingdom is cordially working with the ministry of water and environment to ensure that the bamboo tree project trickles down to the locals.
Currently, the United Nations is implementing Trees for Global Benefit-Uganda. The Trees for Benefits scheme pays farmers for tree-planting and pools carbon for sale on the voluntary market.
This story was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.