A truck full of charcoal yesterday afternoon swerved off the road as its driver reportedly attempted to avoid a police checkpoint. The truck, registration number UAS 393F, lost control at a small bridge on Awach-Paicho road, about one kilometre from Awach sub county headquarters in Gulu district.
According to Awach sub county chairman, Shanon Akena, the truck owners were escaping district revenue checkpoints, adding that tree cutting for charcoal burning remains a big challenge in the Acholi sub region.
Akena, whom we interviewed at the scene of accident, said such trucks which usually avoid checkpoints, do not have documents authorising them to trade in charcoal. He added that local authorities are usually notified by local activists attached to ActionAid Uganda about illegal trade in tree products.
“We normally impound such trucks, and the district can auction the charcoal and also find the truck owner because if you want to go to the bush to carry charcoal, you must have all the relevant documents,” said Akena.
“It is very fortunate that today they have travelled during day because such trucks usually travel at night and sometimes knock the revenue checkpoints on roads.”
Hussein Kato, who was among the people in the truck, told The Observer they were transporting the charcoal to Busia, eastern Uganda. While a sack of charcoal costs Shs 18,000 in rural Acholi, it is sold at between Shs 60,000 and Shs 80,000 in Busia and Kampala. Kato said the charcoal in question belongs to a one Herman Masaba, for whom he has worked for three months now.
Asked as to why they used a shortcut instead of the usual highway, he said he simply followed Masaba’s directives. By the time our reporter reached the accident scene, Masaba and the driver had left, but Kato said he had gone to look for a crane to remove the truck and the merchandise.
“We had seen a pothole at the bridge and asked the driver to stop, but the boss [Masaba] insisted the truck would pass,” said Kato, adding that the truck tipped over after the rear tyres hit a ditch.
Aswa regional police spokesperson, Jimmy Patrick Okema, told us in a telephone interview that he was not aware of the incident, but promised to follow it up.
“[Tree cutting] is very common in this region and the problem is our locals because they give [out] their trees cheaply to the charcoal burners,” said Okema.
“At the end of the day, they start complaining to the local leaders and security, yet they are the ones who invite them.”
Since 2013, local leaders in the Acholi sub region have been fighting illegal trade of charcoal and timber. One of the efforts was a 2016 temporary ban on this trade. This has worked, but still faces defiance especially from businesspeople who come from districts outside the region.
Upon realizing the rate at which forest cover is disappearing, cultural leaders resolved to punish those found guilty of cutting trees without planting more. Ojok Owidi, the prime minister for the Paibona cultural chief, told us the 64 chiefs, under the Acholi paramount chief, convened and agreed to raise their effort towards environmental protection.
One of the working measures is that whoever is caught cutting a tree is fined a cow and a sheep. Owidi said the cultural institution is much concerned with the Shea nut tree because of its vast uses.
“First of all, the Shea nut tree is used to make drums which the chief uses to mobilise the community in case there is some problem,” he said, adding that the Shea nut oil is also used to perform rituals in traditional marriages.
For now, Okema says police supports the local government in apprehending the suspects. “But sometimes we get problems because you apprehend, and you want to take somebody to court, but the local government wants money,” he said.
“But we are happy to have the police environment team from the police headquarters. They were in this region two weeks ago where we arrested 45 [suspects] in Nwoya [district] and 25 [suspects] in Gulu [district].” Okema promised to find out about this case and act accordingly.
In a related development, Gulu district reported that they have so far collected over Shs 600m as revenue and fines from illegal charcoal trade this year.