By Davis Buyondo
Reformed members of a large and sophisticated syndicate, which was mastering illegal charcoal burning, logging, and forest product smuggling in Kyotera and Rakai districts, SouthWestern Uganda are developing different strategies to reconcile with their communities and correct their past mistakes.
The group of 15 (so far) believes it is not too late for them to realise the value of forest and wildlife conservation and advocate for different environmental reforms despite their unforgettable deeds.
While their courageous decision to quit could trigger bitter reactions from their former ‘cartel’ bosses and increase enemies, the reformed members say there is no cause for concern if they are acting on the most important cause.
Led by Sadick Katende, a reformed charcoal burner, the group is committed to making a difference through Mpawu Briquettes Ltd., a Community-Based Organisation (CBO) established in Mpawu village, Kasaali town council, Kyotera District.
In addition to manufacturing briquettes, the group is involved in tree planting every two months, cross-border engagements with their Tanzanian counterparts, and various community outreach programs.
Insight Post-Uganda has heard from the union members that their insidious operations were primarily within communities around the Uganda-Tanzania border. They include Namalala, Minziro, Kyebe, Kakuuto, and Katuuma villages in Kyotera district, plus Kamuli and Ntantamuchi villages in Rakai district.
Their decision comes at a time when deforestation, one of Uganda’s worst anthropogenic practices and daily realities, has exacerbated the climate crisis with apparent effects such as drought, severe water shortages, and warmer temperatures in the two districts.
According to the authority, the forest cover dropped from 54% in 1900 to 12.4% in 2017, and if nothing is done to save the remaining woods and restore the depleted forests, the situation could get worse.
Environmental experts blame the issue on the growing population in rural areas, where the majority of households heavily rely on forest products like timber, fruits, wild meat, logs, local herbs, and firewood and charcoal as their primary source of cooking energy.
The Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) has provided data on household projections for 2040, and it projects that there will be 10,871,000 households this year, up from 9,576,000 in 2020. However, in 2030 and 2040, respectively, the nation is anticipated to have 14,353,000 and 21,347,000 households.
The forests and grasslands in the affected areas were intact twenty years ago before the great demand for charcoal in East Africa led to its growth as a valuable source of revenue.
“Even though trees and forests are the biggest climate regulators, we kept cutting them to further our selfish interests, yet the number of charcoal burners grew, leading to a rise in animal trafficking that made the situation worse,” Katende says.
The group was moved by the most trying moment in the history of their community, during which it experienced a severe drought for more than two years in a row.
According to Katende, “Crops withered as the shallow wells dried up and livestock perished, and later, the floods became obvious with repeated lightning bolts that would strike and kill or severely injure people and animals.”
The group members are producing charcoal briquettes out of organic waste as a substitute for cutting down trees for wood and charcoal.
As a result, Katende says, “the present forest cover is reduced, and people’s attitudes toward the preservation of forests and the availability of alternative energy sources have changed.”
As per his account, they cleared untold hectares of forests for more than five years. As a result of the destruction of their habitat, he recalls, homeless wild creatures, particularly monkeys, birds, and reptiles, started straying into human settlements where they would be killed.
Besides, he noted, “not all tree cutting, charcoal burning, and logging were unlawful,” as they occasionally approached and bargained with the owners of private forest lands or obtained permits to burn charcoal in government forest reserves.
The formal process for obtaining a permit for commercial charcoal burning is to apply with the NFA or the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development. The applicant must go and see the District Natural Resources Officer or District Forestry Officer to have the authorization officially stamped and approved after it has been granted.
However, according to our preliminary research, the bulk of charcoal burners would either purchase titles in forest reserves or collude with dishonest NFA and district officials to obtain fictitious licenses, enabling and shielding them while engaging in illegal activity.
Ivan Mwesigwa, a group member, recollects that the charcoal burners would indiscriminately cut down the trees and even dig up the roots to manufacture charcoal, regardless of the species, size, or value associated with them.
Because no replacement trees were planted, he explains, none of the forest lands have produced any new trees for more than five years. The areas are covered in overgrown bushes, though some have been farmed.
Mwesigwa emphasized that deforestation increased due to excessive idleness and a stagnant economy during the two-year COVID-19 lockdown (2020–2021). To support their families, some had no choice but to turn to bricklaying, farming, and charcoal burning.
He says, “Even the concerned district departments at that time had little or no facilitation to carry out routine field operations, which left us room to utilize the forests for economic survival.”
“When we cut down trees, we would uncover animals like newborn monkeys, birds, and pythons that we were unable to spare. We saw it as an additional benefit to logging and charcoal burning,” he adds.
Mwesigwa maintains they were unaware of the law despite the National Forestry and Tree Planting Regulations being in force.
They didn’t realize the scientific effects of illegal charcoal burning and deforestation on their community and the district as a whole or the risk that lay ahead of them until they were invited to various joint community engagements organized by district officials and local environmental conservationists.
“We risked being arrested or shot and killed by the police during crackdown operations.”
Several charcoal makers and wood sellers refused to heed the environmentalists’ requests, claiming it was their main source of livelihood.
The highest-ranking district and government officials as well as some people within the security circles are their clients/bosses, according to a member of a different “charcoal cartel” who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“Having a backup makes our job simple. Influential district residents, notably those in security, general fund or own charcoal manufacturing businesses, whether it is permitted or not,” he says.
He reveals how some of the charcoal is illegally transported from Kyotera to Kampala and Tanzania through various porous borders, making it difficult for border security to seize it or arrest them.
“Truthfully, I was just employed to do my job (charcoal burning). I don’t know of anything else that feeds my family and gets the kids to school,” he claims.
The Africa Natural Resources Institute (ANRI) estimates that Uganda, known as the Pearl of Africa, loses about 200,000 hectares (or 494,000 acres) of its forest cover every year; nevertheless, further measures are required to stop the loss. The restoration of 24% of the forest cover, up from 15%, is the goal of Uganda’s Vision 2040.
The Briquettes Project
The use of briquettes as an alternative source of cooking energy is slowly becoming popular in Kyotera district. They are made of different combustible biomass materials, such as coffee husks, sawdust, food peelings, plant and tree leaves, and other materials.
However, Katende came up with the idea seven years ago, and he operationalised it in the last five years when he gradually convinced other charcoal burners to join him.
“People had a negative mindset about briquettes because they have been depending on firewood over the years. But they are slowly adopting the idea since we get new clients every month,” he confirms.
When compared to charcoal made from trees and firewood, Mike Lumala, one of the consumers of green briquettes, claims they are less expensive, more reliable, and more cost-effective.
He has found that a dozen briquettes can prepare several meals over two days, especially for a small family.
However, Esther Kawala, a different client, claims that the briquettes might not be as effective when it comes to cooking meals for huge events like weddings and funerals.
For domestic or family cooking, she explains, “I like utilizing briquettes, and for major functions, firewood.”
According to Katende, the group was unable to afford the Ugx60,000,000 (about USD 16326.22) price range for the imported briquette-making machine.
“We had to work within our financial limitation to design and build our machine which we have been enhancing for the past five years to make the greatest briquettes in the entire district,” he narrates.
Currently, he clarifies, the machine can manufacture at least 3000 briquettes per day and more depending on demand.
The project spends money on labour, raw materials, electricity, and transportation, all of which are expensive to maintain due to a lack of financial resources and suitable operating space.
While their manufacturing is hampered by the erratic electricity supply, they are still having trouble growing their market.
For assistance in achieving the briquette ambition, the group has consistently asked district leaders and representatives from the district forestry department for help.
Yes, they expressed support, but Katende pointed out that their departments’ limited funding prevented them from taking action.
Global Forest Watch estimates that in 2010, Kyotera district had 28.3 kha of tree cover or 36% of its land area. But in 2021, the district lost 336 hectares of its tree cover, which is the same as 305 kt of CO2 emissions.
The district is actively working to preserve the current forests and replenish the severely depleted forest cover. According to Gadafi Ssekajjugo, the Kyotera District Environment Officer, the effects of deforestation are visible in the altered rainfall patterns and rising droughts in the past ten years.
Minziro and Marabigambo forests that stretch from Uganda to Tanzania are particularly affected. Due to laxity and infrequent operations, Ssekajjugo says the charcoal, log, and lumber smugglers can easily cross to either side of the border undetected.
The officer claims that encroachment on central forest reserves in Kyebe, Kakuuto, and Minziro has caused so much damage to the forests and damaged the species that inhabit them.
“It is getting worse because even the private forests established for commercial purposes such as eucalyptus trees have been widely chopped,” he affirms, adding that global warming has been worse at least every year since temperatures have been rising consistently for more than a decade.
In joint efforts with the NFA, the district has carried out several evictions and made several arrests of people who have invaded forest reserves. However, Ssekajjugo clarifies, they don’t have enough money, nevertheless, to intensify the crackdown operations.
“The delays frequently give the forest encroachers enough time to chop the trees, take logs and timber and other forest items, in addition to growing crops and harvest them without interruption,” he states.
The environment department, however, is educating locals about the value of forests and stepping up their surveillance by working with the community to exchange information about questionable forest practices.
“We give away free indigenous tree species from our nursery beds during the awareness campaigns and continue to keep an eye on them. Nevertheless, we work with local leaders to empower them to protect local forests, manage them responsibly, and stop deforestation.” Ssekajjugo clarifies.
The district has extended contracts with various Collaborative Forest Management units (CFM), allowing them to access and utilize the government forest reserves in a way that doesn’t harm the forests and surrounding environment, according to the environment officer.
Through the CFM strategy, the communities take part in significant talks and decision-making over the routine management of forest resources for their benefit.
However, locals in the impacted areas blame the practice on ineffective operations, corruption, and the existence of concealed border entry points.
For instance, Wilberforce Ssemukasa, a concerned resident of Mutegombwa village, Kanabulemu parish, Kyebe sub-county, says that despite regular awareness programs and some deployments near the forest reserves, deforestation and huge log and timber smuggling have remained rampant.
In Kyebe sub-county, Namalala, and Marabigambo are the most devastated natural forests. Still, local sources in Minziro village reveal that illegal lumberjacks and loggers operate deep in Minziiro forest where they use chainsaws to cut down enormous trees.
They further disclose that “Some crackdown operations are dangerous without skilled and courageous security personnel because the offenders usually wield axes and machetes to protect themselves against law enforcement personnel who confront them.”
Over 25% of Rakai’s land area was covered by trees in 2010, accounting for 108kha. However, according to Global Forest Watch (GFW), the district lost 876 hectares of tree cover by 2021, which is equivalent to 630 kt of CO2 emissions.
Over the years, the forests around Lake Kijjanebalora catchment area in Rakai have been destroyed for charcoal burning, settlement, and agriculture, and now more than 20,000 people live there, according to the NFA.
Reports from the authority indicate that locals in Kacheera, Kyalulangira, Kiziba, and Kagamba sub-counties began encroaching on forest property in the 1970s and cutting down all the trees in an area that was likely 8,000 hectares in size.
Since March 2021, all initiatives to recapture and restore the forest land have encountered resolute opposition from the residents and local leaders, who have vowed to remain there.
The impacted residents assert that the aforementioned land was devoid of forests, but NFA spokesperson Aisha Alibhai argues that the lack of forests does not necessarily imply the land is free and up for grabs, as it is NFA’s responsibility to plant trees in any open spaces within its reserved areas.
NFA defines a Forest Reserve as an area of land designated, reserved/gazetted by Act of Parliament for the development of forests or tree-growing activities. It can be open land without forests on it or with forests.
Local leaders in the affected sub-counties and the Woman Member Of Parliament- Juliet Ssuubi Kinyamatama intervened and requested that the government de-gazette the occupied forest reserves in order to prevent violent land disputes.
Across-borders Environmental Conservation Initiative
In order to combat the widespread cross-border environmental crimes, boost environmental conservation, and enhance people’s standards of living in Uganda and Tanzania, a joint campaign was launched in December 2021.
The Masaka Diocesan Development Organization, Caritas MADDO, is in charge of the three-year project known as ‘Cross-border Cooperation and Conservation (Triple C Project)’. However, Italy and Australia are providing funding through the European Region (EUREGIO).
Fr. Raphael Ssemaanda, Caritas MADDO Director, claims that the project is active in Tanzania’s Kyotera and Misenyi Districts.
However, the reformed group has been chosen to be among the project implementers in Kyotera.
Francis Ssekalegga, the General Project Coordinator, stated that the joint conservation of Marabigambo and Minziro (Nature) forest reserve (24,841 ha), which have been severely depleted by illegal timber and log smuggling, charcoal burning, and other harmful economic activities, will receive priority attention.
The main goal of the initiative is to plant a lot of trees, especially in the district’s huge open spaces. Ssekalegga emphasizes, “We are cooperating with the district environment department in that endeavour”.
Kyotera LC5 Vice-Chairperson- Agnes Namusiitwa believes, through close cooperation between Kyotera and Misenyi district authorities, it will be a bit simple to battle cross-border environmental crimes such as deforestation, wetland encroachment, illicit logging, and timber smuggling.
Dr. Steven Makula, the Misenyi District Livestock and Fisheries Officer in Tanzania, observed that “without stepping up collaboration with Uganda, it is challenging to combat cross-border environmental crimes.
What surprises lie ahead?
Environmentalists assert that damaging ecosystems affect ecotourism and herbal medicine research in the country.
The reformed members have advised Rakai and Kyotera district authorities to identify, close, and step up patrols in porous border points.
Mahogani, Barkcloth Fig (Mutuba), Milicia Excelsa (Muvule), Umbrella Tree (Musizi), Mopane, and other tree species that take between 15 and 30 years to develop are typically the targets of charcoal burners, loggers, and timber smugglers.
People will be less likely to cut down trees and use charcoal made from them if the government gives briquette makers more support, markets their products, and educates the public about the advantages of adopting briquettes as an alternative fuel source.
However, Katende advises, “the sure way to save forests and protect the environment is to empower briquette makers and encourage more charcoal burners to join the briquette projects.”