Saving the “Yaa”: How Communities are Using Traditional Knowledge and Modern Forestry Management to combat Deforestation in Acholi Land

By Alex Pithua

According to the traditions of the Acholi people of Northern Uganda, when you cut down the “Yaa” trees, the rain will disappear. The “Yaa” more commonly called the Shea tree is well-known for its oil-rich seed from which Shea butter is extracted. It grows naturally in the wilds of the dry African savannah belt. Trees like it and other species such as the Mahogany tree grew abundantly once in the region but years of conflict during the LRA insurgency and later the resettlement of the land have caused changes in the landscape where these indigenous trees once flourished.  According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, more than 1 400 tree species are assessed as critically endangered and in urgent need of conservation action. Since 1990, it is estimated that 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses.

Research has shown that during times of war, forests are used as cover for fighting, they become danger zones where few are likely to venture if they’re not involved in the fighting. That also often means these forests are less likely to be logged or hunted in. When the fighting ends the forests are no longer seen as danger zones and an influx of people coming back to the forested areas after the conflict results in unplanned development and settlement. Forest sector manager Aswa range Jimmy Ouna says the trend of deforestation is shocking in Northern Uganda starting from the time people left IDPs camps in 2008. As people rebuild their communities the trees become a valuable resource for reconstruction as well as an income source. The once protected trees started being traded as timbers and charcoal and along with it came the uncontrolled exploitation of these natural species.

Globally, illegal logging is the leading cause of forest degradation resulting in higher levels of soil erosion, flooding, landslides and other natural disasters due to increased deforestation. Similarly, in Uganda, loggers and charcoal dealers account for a large percentage of the deforestation happening. In addition to the unsustainable practices being used to maximize profits such as removing the roots of the trees and burning all the branches, the availability of electric saws has also led to larger numbers of trees being cut down compared to when traditional hand saws are used. The effects of the deforestation are already being felt in the communities of Northern Uganda where unprecedented floods have been a frequent occurrence. Harriet Oroma, a resident of Patwol village Lavor Omor prish  Palaro Subcounty explains some of the problems being experienced in the sub-county saying that “this years floods are due to mass tree cutting which has contributed to the displacement of people from their home.” She further added that community members in Palaro are now fighting environmental injustices. “The ground is bare and exposed to rain water and the trees that use to absorb rain water and act as umbrellas have been destroyed. Water streams have been destroyed by cutting the trees and therefore water is not flowing well the way it used to be.”

Shea Nut cut for logging By Choowo Willy

(Several “Yaa” or Shea Nut trees cut for logging, photo by Willy Choowo: Studies conducted by Africa Natural Resources Institute indicate that in Uganda between 2005 and 2015 areas in Northern, South-west rangeland and Western mid-altitude zones saw the most deforestation. While the South East Lake Kyoga flood plain, and Afro-montane and Karamoja were the least affected. https://www.mwe.go.ug/sites/default/files/State%20of%20Uganda%27s%20Forestry-2015.pdf )

Today environmental activists, local authorities and traditional leaders are working together to combat the continued destruction of indigenous tree species. With the support of the National Forests Authority (NFA), 4000 mahogany seedlings have been distributed in the areas of Patiko, Pawel, Angany Pawel, Ayiga, Pukony, Paibona and Awach. Jimmy Ouna, the Regional forest sector manager Aswa range, has been pleased by some of the progress being made to replace and preserve these rare species. “The community have planted them and they are protecting them well and if you come to areas of Awach, Paibona, Pukony and others you will see these trees we have planted which are distributed by the NFA.” Christopher Opio Atekere explained that over the past year in Palaro, clan members have come together to reach common ground and find solutions to what activists have termed “environmental violence”. Leaders from different clans in the sub-county were elected to help control the tree cutting in their communities. Together with the resident district commissioner of Gulu, along with officials from the chief administrative office (CAO), sub-county and the army who also joined the effort, they came up with by-laws to protect the trees.  Environmental activist Rubangakene Kenneth explains how this coalition came to be. “Our cardinal role and the reasons why we decided to form this group is because we wanted to combat massive environmental violence which was being perpetuated by people who are coming from different parts of the country and neighboring Kenya.” Realizing that there were big gaps, that needed to be bridged between the actors, technocrats, the political sphere and NGOs, they started by engaging political leaders.

In discussions with the district chairman of Gulu, Honorable Martin Ojara Mapenduzi they talked about how they could work together with the district to achieve conservation goals. Another important aspect of the discussions was engaging army leaders. Several army generals and commanders were known to be charcoal dealers and facilitators of some of the destructions. Environmentalists met with Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Kanyesigye, the 4th division commander and resident district commissioner of Gulu, Major Santos Okot Lapolo to chart a way forward on how best to handle the army officers involved in the deforestation. Following these initial meetings, little had changed which led activists to begin a new course of community meetings and to conduct site visits at several of the hotspots where the environmental crimes were being committed.

community out reach in Omeda trading center By Choowo Willy

(Communities outreach in Omeda trading center, photo by Willy Choowo: In both low- and high-income countries and in all climatic zones, communities that live within forests rely the most directly on forest biodiversity for their lives and livelihoods, using products derived from forest resources for food, fodder, shelter, energy, medicine and income generation. http://www.fao.org/state-of-forests/en/ )

Opinions in these meetings have been mixed with community members being divided recalls Rubangakene. “I remember the first meeting in Palaro we also had the committers or perpetuators. They were also part of the meeting I remember during that meeting, one of the women from central Uganda said Our Trees We need Answers (OTWNA) is against massive trees cutting but argued that what they are doing is not even meeting half of the demand for charcoal in Kampala, people are looking for demand and demand comes with money. At the same time, another woman also said our people are very lazy and they are just clearing the land and they are helping us and question why we are advocating for environmental protection.” Despite facing some opposition, some progress is being made. Three days after a similar meeting in Awach, the community impounded a truck full of charcoal and disarmed police officer who tried to recover the impounded truck. Rubangakene. Community elder Christopher Opio Atekere of Awach sub-county spoke about some of the measures and penalties being taken to deter the illegal logging and charcoal dealing. “People are positive about conserving the indigenous tree species. If you cut Yaa you are taken to traditional chief and you are charged 400,000 shillings, a Goat and other charges are put on you by the traditional chief.” He urged that this joint approach to conserving tree species be encouraged. “We have to combine the government laws and the traditional customs to protect the remaining natural tree species.”

Charcoal burning by David Okema

(Mounds of trees being burnt to produce charcoal, photo by David Okema: Rural people often participate in the value chains of forest biodiversity, for example by collecting wood and non-wood products from nearby forests for personal use or sale, or engaging in forest-product industries or value addition. http://www.fao.org/state-of-forests/en/

Long before the development of modern forest management indigenous communities managed forests that sustained their livelihoods and cultures, without jeopardizing the capacity of these ecosystems. Over centuries, locals have used Shea trees to help identify where there was water and the Shea nuts were harvested to provide cooking oil, used medicinally and in royal ceremonies. Activists like Jimmy Ouna are passionate about advocating for the use of indigenous knowledge to help manage the disturbing trends in deforestation and while many of the leaders recognize the failure to address the issue earlier, they do agree that it’s not too late and are optimistic that the community will be able to conserve the forests and use them sustainably. The hope is that through the combined efforts of community activism and education, political leadership and indigenous knowledge the species of trees will gradually be replenished and managed sustainably, preserving them for future generations.

Edited by Naseeba Bagalaaliwo

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