By: Javier Silas Omagor
Five years ago when Musa Mandu told his wife and relatives that he was going to quit his local government job to fight against climate change in Manafwa district, they were extremely upset.
“They didn’t understand what that meant. They never thought this would sustain me and my family financially,” Mandu said. “It wasn’t and still isn’t something people think can bring daily bread. No one, especially among us the ordinary folks, understand benefits of environmental conservation.”
But the former mechanic ignored his wife’s and relatives’ concerns and opened a village Savings and Credit Cooperative Organization dubbed Bubulo Environmental Conservation Management Association Project (BECOMAP). The project was formed with a common objective of conserving the environment within Manafwa district and its neighboring areas. Group members self-manage the group and make regular savings that they can then loan out to each other with low interest rates.
“In our area (Namutembi village), I wanted to ensure that people understood that prioritizing the environment in whatever we do as locals all the way to policymaking is not only about protecting nature, but also ensuring that we lead better lives yet with financial stability,” Mandu said.
A community solution against landslides
Started in 2013, the project aimed at saving money amongst residents to be used for tree planting, restoration of river banks and community sensitization programs with the intent to mitigate flooding, soil erosion, water logging and landslides. Mandu and most of his group members are survivors of recent landslides and floods that have devastated the Mt. Elgon sub-region in the past several years, especially the districts of Bududa, Manafwa, Sironkho and Bulambuli.
The region has a long history of landslides: Eleven million cubic meters of debris tumbled down the slopes of Mt. Elgon in 1950s and early 60s, depositing into rivers and streams. Thirty of these landslides dammed rivers, destroying bridges and roads when the dams broke.
But in recent years, landslides have increased in numbers and severity. Between 1997 and 2004, heavy rains left 48 people dead and ten thousand displaced and landless in the greater Manafwa area. In March 2010, a landslide in Nametsi village, Bududa District, the most severe ever recorded in Uganda, led to 100 people believed dead, more than 300 people missing and 85 homes destroyed in Nametsi.
Further landslides in 2018 killed at least 60 people, while 400 people went missing and property worth billions of shillings was swept away by the debris. Uganda Red Cross Society put the number of those affected in 2018 to 12,000 people in Bukalasi and Buwali sub-counties in Bududa.
Abnormal rainfall in recent years is a major cause of most of these landslides, according to the Uganda National Meteorological Authority. Most landslides occur on steep, concave slopes where water concentrates. Slopes facing northeast are most prone to landslides, which coincide with the dominant rainfall direction.
Poor agricultural practices, including the destruction of riverbanks and streams, have also increased the worsening disasters.
In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, rivers in Manafwa district such as Paasa, Nametsi and Manafwa river itself carried pure, clean and safe water that communities relied on for their livelihoods. The mountain hills and slopes were always covered by the green vegetation of elephant grass and trees. But today, irresponsible human activities have exposed the slopes and destroyed riverbanks and streams, loosening soil texture, which contributes to landslides.
Worried about the rising threats, Mandu and 10 other residents of Namutembi cell-Bubwaya ward and Manafwa town council in Manafwa district founded BECOMAP in 2013 to save the environment – and the lives of the people in the region.
Each member made an initial contribution of either UGX 20,000 or 50,000 (about USD $5 – $13). Each of the 10 founding members was also required to provide an acre of land where the group would plant 100 trees.
Over the past 6 years, the organization has gradually grown to 72 registered members, with 20 percent youth and 30 percent women. The group has planted more than 30,000 trees. This project currently lies on a property of over 50 acres of land, which is communally owned by the members under a memorandum of understanding.
The group mostly plants indigenous trees that were grown in the times of the African traditional society, such as the Mvule tree, alongside pine and eucalyptus trees, because the indigenous tree roots had proven to possess better soil and water-holding capacity and are better integrated within crops.
The man-made forests have become a lucrative source of income generation activities for the community members. Along with planting trees, the group practices inter–cropping in their forests, growing cereal crops, vegetables such as cabbage, tomatoes and avocado, and fruits such as passion fruits and mangoes for both commercial and home consumption purposes. The group also sells some trees for timber and has beehives encompassed in the forests from which they earn money through honey sales, Mandu said.
On average, they are able to earn UGX 1M – 1.5M (about USD $270 – $405) every week with honey being the most selling product of their agroforestry scheme.
John Wabuna, a youth in his early 20s, said most young people like him in the community are now able to pay for school fees thanks to these sales of honey, fruits, vegetables or timber itself.
There are more than 15 individual youth who have since officially registered for membership at BECOMAP, while 50 other youth are participating in the campaign.
The group also said that frequent natural disasters used to be a challenge in the area, but these have drastically reduced because of the forests. This is unlike the neighboring Bududa, Namisindwa and Butaleja districts where heavy rains frequently trigger deadly disasters.
Mandu urged every community in Uganda to embrace their approach without any excuse to comprehensively combat climate change.
In the near future, BECOMAP aspires to turn its savings group into an integrated cooperative society to fight climate change in Mt. Elgon sub region and beyond, according to Michael Mirisio, the group’s head of operations and strategy.
According to a report by ReliefWeb’s department for international development, human-induced climate change is likely to increase average temperatures in Uganda by up to 1.5 ºC in the next 20 years and by up to 4.3 ºC by the 2080s. Such rates of increase are unprecedented.
Changes in rainfall patterns and total annual rainfall amounts are also expected, which will impact agriculture, the backbone to Uganda’s economy.
The report further reveals that Uganda is highly vulnerable to climate change and variability – its economy and the wellbeing of its people are tightly bound to climate.
Human-driven climate change in the coming century has the potential to halt or reverse the country’s development trajectory.
“Politicians and top businessmen must join this fight; you can’t salvage a whole planet and its people, enslave them to mine it, drill and till it and hope to build a lasting global economy on that. Your wealthy planet will die, wither, erode and collapse,” cautioned Rhoda Nyariibi, the Environmental Officer for Mbale Municipality.
In particular, climate change in the Mt. Elgon region is likely to mean loss of more lives and properties, increased food insecurity, shifts in the spread of diseases like malaria, soil erosion and land degradation, flood damage to infrastructure and settlements, and shifts in the productivity of agricultural and natural resources.
How do trees fight climate change?
“Climate change and global warming are a big threat to the world today because of how irresponsible our interaction with the environment has become. Nonetheless, we as humans can make the difference in a positive way by learning from our experiences,” Mandu said.
“I think now everyone has seen how seasons are changing, with the heat levels skyrocketing and water levels drastically reducing. It means we need to act now. We do not necessarily need to wait for government intervention,” he said.
Most of BECOMAP’s trees are planted along the hills, slopes, streams and riverbanks so as to control mudslides, flooding and waterlogging, which are common occurrences on the slopes of Mount Elgon. Along with reducing disasters, the trees naturally take in carbon and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, which slows the impact of climate change.
Fredrick Jordan Oluka, a climate change expert and a geologist, praised the BECOMAP initiative, explaining that trees are extremely significant in fighting climate change.
“Communities with well-shaded neighborhoods can be up to 6–10° F cooler than communities without trees, reducing the heat-island effect and reducing energy needs,” Oluka said. “Tree planting is a simple thing everyone can do to reduce carbon dioxide, a principal greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.”
Oluka is particularly thankful to BECOMAP for focusing their tree planting intervention in the riverbanks, slopes and hills since most of the trees used are strong enough to tightly hold soil and rocks together, making it difficult for calamities such as landslides to occur.
The climate change expert said that when they eventually mature in the next 10 years or so, these planted trees and elephant grass will help in holding together the soil texture, breaking wind and playing other critical roles to maintain the ecosystem.
“Therefore, this means that Mt. Elgon zone will soon see a reduction in landslides, floodings and soil erosion in general,” Oluka said. Dr. Arthur Bainomugisha, chairperson of the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), commended the village group for championing environmental conservation on the Mt. Elgon slopes.
Bainomugisha said he wants every community in Uganda to emulate BECOMAP to help ensure Uganda’s future in these environmentally unpredictable times.
“In developed countries, even in towns and cities, tree planting is highly practiced unlike us in third world countries. This is because shaded towns’ parking lots keep automobiles cooler, reducing emissions from fuel tanks, refilling stations and engines, and helping reduce the heat-island effect in communities,” Bainomugisha said.
Bainomugisha urged every community in Uganda to embrace the BECOMAP approach. “It would also help save Uganda’s reputation globally because, during the 2016 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, Morocco, it was revealed that Uganda is one of the countries that have not done much to curb climate change,” he said.
Sam Mauso Sirali, one of BECOMAP’s founding members and a retired senior economist, said “no matter where one lives, you can plant trees and by so doing, take a proactive, positive step toward keeping our country and planet healthy.”
“Our environment has been brutalized by the few rich people involved in large-scale commercial tree cutting, mining, picking and tilling nature and its resources and we the poor majority have to pay the price with our lives when disasters strike,” Mauso said.
Nonetheless, ordinary people should not stop doing whatever they can to combat climate change, especially by planting trees since it’s the cheapest mitigation method, according to Mauso.
Bringing environmental action to the local level
Mauso, who worked with the Ministry of Finance as a senior economist, said he wants governments across the world to stop talking vaguely about climate change issues and instead make them easy for local communities to understand.
“Initially during our community interface meetings, we would use words such as climate change and global warming, and most villagers would walk out reasoning that we were discussing issues of the elites,” Mauso said. “We only got the attention when we localized it and told them that planting trees was meant for their own good.”
John Baptist Nambeshe, a Member of Parliament from Elgon representing the people of Manjiya County in Bududa district, also praised BECOMAP’s tree planting model of fighting climate change.
“With inspirations from this group, I am thinking of introducing a policy that supports the mass planting of trees across the country, but we need to be careful on which species of trees; it must be quality trees, because some trees cannot withstand the difficult conditions of growing up in mountainous areas,” he said.
If Nambeshe’s move registers success, then Uganda may join the neighboring Rwanda and Kenya that have passed laws requiring every citizen who owns a house to at least plant a given number of trees. Nambeshe, a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Climate Change, is however demanding improved political will in the climate change fight from the government of Uganda.
He is also advocating for community-driven initiatives such as BECOMAP to receive incentives from government and development partners so as to enable consistent progress. According to the State Minister for Environment, Dr. Mary Gorreti Kitutu, the permanent solution to landslides and other disasters in Bugisu is restoration of the degraded environment.
“The problem of landslides will only continue if people have destroyed the environment due to poor farming practices. We need to protect the river banks,” she said, adding that groups indulging in the climate change fight like BECOMAP must encourage women and youth to participate in this cause.
2017 research conducted by Africa Natural Resources Institute indicates that forest cover loss has now increased to an estimated 200,000 hectares annually in Uganda. Most of this forest loss is human driven, while the other smaller fraction is caused by natural factors, according to the report.
Partly to blame is Uganda’s booming population, which is growing at a rate of about 3.6 percent per annum. Uganda’s current population is 45,883,274 as of August 20, 2019, based on the latest United Nations estimates. At its current growth rate, by 2025, Uganda will be home to approximately 63 million people.
Sarah Netalisire, the former Manafwa woman Member of Parliament, is one of the leaders who helped mentor the founders of the BECOMAP initiative. She wants the group’s idea to quickly be emulated by other communities across Uganda including in urban areas.
The former legislator wants the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that includes Ugandan bodies such as the Parliamentary committee, environmental protection agencies led by the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) and the environmental police to do more.
“They should make it a functional policy that right from household level, people must plant trees in their yards, around their homes, work places and at public installations such as markets and places of worship,” Netalisire said.
This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile and supported by the CIVICUS Goalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator. It was originally published here.