On February 11, 2018, NTV aired a riveting tale of the degradation of Mabira forest by illegal loggers.
The loggers, who reportedly connive with National Forestry Authority rangers, have cut down most trees in the forest for charcoal and other purposes. When the story aired, both the ministry of Water and Environment and the natural resources committee of parliament swung into ‘reaction’.
The ministry held a crisis meeting on February 13, 2018 and the chairperson of the natural resources committee of parliament promised a parliamentary investigation. Both actions are aimed at addressing the illegal logging and charcoal making in Mabira forest.
While the actions of both the ministry and parliament are commendable, they stand to deliver little. Why?
We have to look at the reasons why the forest is being degraded to understand that unless we improve access to clean and affordable energy sources, Mabira and other forests will always be under pressure.
One of the biggest drivers for the degradation of Mabira is the energy poverty in Uganda. Only a small fraction of Ugandans – about 20 percent – have access to electricity.
We all know that because electricity is too expensive for the average Ugandan, even this section of Ugandans cannot meet all its energy needs using electricity. This is why most of us use charcoal to cook, cannot afford to leave lightbulbs on in rooms we are not using, turn off our refrigerators for some hours and generally engage in self-imposed power rationing.
With electricity being inaccessible to the bigger percentage of Uganda’s population and with it being so expensive that it does not meet majority of consumers’ energy needs, alternatives such as charcoal and firewood become attractive.
This pushes the demand for charcoal up. What does this translate into? Degradation of forests such as Mabira to meet the high demand for charcoal and firewood.
This is evidenced by the fact that information from the ministry of Water and Environment shows that the main economic activities of 3, 506 families living in 27 villages in Mabira forest as of August 2017 included: charcoal making, pit sawing and tree logging for construction poles.
An earlier study, Challenges facing the conservation of natural forests in Uganda: A case study of Mabira forest in Mukono district done in 2011, also showed that the local people living outside the forest “solely depend on forest resources for … survival”.
Charcoal making – at 40.3 percent – and timber logging – at 31.7 percent – were the major economic activities of the local people. A Uganda Bureau of Statistics’ National Household Survey of 2016/2017 showed that 94.2 per cent of the sampled households used biomass (charcoal and firewood) for cooking.
Energy poverty is, indeed, a big driver for forest degradation and it must be addressed by making electricity cheaper and increasing energy access for poorer communities through off-grid and less-expensive energy sources such as solar.
Certainly, drivers such as unemployment and poverty, limited awareness of the importance of the forest and corrupt and weak institutions including NFA, have to be addressed as well to save what is left of Mabira and other forests.
Besides serving other socio-economic purposes, Mabira forest is the most important catchment for lakes Victoria and Kyoga. Lake Victoria covers 45 per cent of the entire lake area in Uganda and is Africa’s largest lake.
It supports over 30 million people in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania to meet their water, food, transport, livelihood (fishing, tourism, transport and canoe making, etc) and recreational needs.
The electricity dams, Owen Falls, Bujagali, Karuma and Isimba are also supported by Lake Victoria. On the other hand, Lake Kyoga meets the water, food, transport, livelihood and recreational needs of communities in central, eastern and northern Uganda.
This is why Mabira must be protected. And in doing so, government must do more to address energy poverty in Uganda. If access to clean and affordable energy remains a dream for the majority of Ugandans, forests such as Mabira will continue to be degraded. This will not serve any Ugandan any good.
The author is the senior communications officer of Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO).