A Forest for the Trees – Uganda

For most who know it, shea butter evokes exuberant health, youthful skin, and perhaps a faint trace of connection to the African continent. At home in many a bazar in Europe, Asia, and America, shea (Vitellaria paradoxa, family Sapotaceae) is also widely consumed in its homeland for a variety of uses. Yes, for skin care, and also as a surprisingly delicious cooking oil added to flavor beans.

For the Acholi-Luo of Northern Uganda, shea—or moo yaa, which in their unique tonal language means “oil tree”—is also a sacred resource. Simple handmade extractions of the fruits’ fatty kernels have been used ceremonially, for example to anoint warriors before battle.

Now, this sacred resource is being devastated—an upheaval of an old order—for the high-quality cooking charcoal the trees provide.  

In the midst of great social and environmental transformations, the Acholi people are the carriers of a rich lineage in plant lore and practical ecological knowledge. Despite a full generation of conflict that pulled a people from their landscape, plants are fundamental to continue to feed, heal, build, and cook in homes across this resilient region. Knowledge of plants, like so much traditional cultural knowledge, is threatened now more than ever. Sadly, in this the Acholi are not alone.

“The Pearl of Africa”

Zooming out a frame, we encounter a nation that can be traversed by road in a matter of hours. Small as it is, Uganda is home to disproportionate biodiversity. It is a country that includes Africa’s greatest lake, the source of the Nile, mountain gorillas and chimpanzees. It is home to equatorial glaciers and over a thousand species of birds— over half of all the bird species found on the African continent. And it is a country blessed by the presence of many amazing trees.

 

2 Shea trees

Some you may well have heard of, like shea and tamarind, moringa and African mahogany. Others, no less ecologically and culturally noteworthy, sound unfamiliar to outsider ears. They are givers of medicine, of the air we breathe. The providers of fruit and shade, their discarded limbs are a source of vital fuelwood for cooking fires. And in the opening scenes of the new world wrought by climate change, the importance of trees hits closer to home than ever before.

Not only a land of many trees, Uganda is also the second most populous landlocked country in the world, a fact made more remarkable by the nation’s diminutive size. Growing population pressures, as well as a demographic shift toward cities and away from traditional lifestyles underscore the growing divide between a population and its natural resources. Around the world there are many root causes for deforestation. For the Acholi, like others in Uganda, a fundamental driving pressure on forests is the increased demand for fuelwood.

The trees that make fire well, whether as burnt sticks or processed to charcoal, are being lost at an astonishing rate. It is estimated that over a quarter of Uganda’s trees disappeared between 1990 and 2005. Since then, deforestation rates have continued at over 2% a year. Some estimates claim 80% destruction in the last five decades. Practically all studies agree that climate change will only exacerbate the effects of deforestation, with the worst consequences being felt by people with the least access to resources, financial and otherwise.

 

3 Pines

There are also reasons to be hopeful. And some of these reasons, curiously, are built on the very drivers of forest destruction.

What makes trees desirable to harvest also makes trees desirable to plant. Perhaps counter-intuitively, understanding the value that cut trees have to people is one of the first steps in incentivizing the trees’ replacement. Because we know we will need charcoal tomorrow, we plant trees today. The problem is the solution. The economic motors underlying destructive activities can be repurposed as a pragmatic impetus for reforestation.  

But reforestation is a risky business. Like agriculture and all economic activities that depend directly on natural phenomena and processes, results can vary greatly due to climate inconsistencies. Would-be reforesters seek known quantities and well-established models for return on investment. For post-colonial Africa and most of the world this has meant that reforestation efforts are overwhelmingly focused on those few familiar (but in this context, non-native) tree species for which a dependable body of data from past experiences exists. In Northern Uganda this has meant pine, teak, and eucalyptus. Little else.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in which we proliferate known models because they are well known.

In many cases, what’s missing to encourage the planting of native trees is more experience. It’s a global issue: we need more documentation of viable agroforestry and reforestation systems to convincingly demonstrate that native species restoration is economical.

 

4 Juliet

 

Native Seeds

Lest we forget, the academic literature isn’t our only source of knowledge about how native trees grow.  Indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge is a vital resource being lost at a gut-wrenching rate. As Wade Davis points out, even the worst ecological indicators for mass extinction and species loss don’t compare to the current rate of cultural loss. In the case of the Acholi, traditional herbalists represent one of the last lines of defense against eroding cultural knowledge.

 

5 WW

One group of such traditional healers, Mon Ma Ryek or Wise Women of Uganda, is opting to take great strides to demonstrate the value of native trees. Call it a forest for the trees—a reforestation effort that pursues biodiversity preservation as a practical approach to resource management.

For the women of Mon Ma Ryek, planting native trees means ensuring a source of valuable medicinal products only found in forests.  And it means enjoying all the secondary benefits that come from planting multi-purpose trees—fruits, shade, moisture, and yes, firewood.

To help document and share the impact of the simple, powerful act of planting native trees, the Wise Women partnered with Wild Forests and Fauna, an organization dedicated to forest restoration. The first phase in this collaboration involved the identification of key species to emphasize.  What follows is a brief description of a couple of these all-star trees. Even a summary glimpse can serve as a celebration of species vibrant with cultural resonance and ecological significance. Here’s to the trees of life. Here’s to their many gifts.

 

Native Trees

 

6 TuguTugu (Borassus aethiopum)

“Is there a problem with translation, or did that man just say that these trees were planted by elephants?”  In all likelihood, yes. The towering Borassus palm can be seen dotting and dominating great stretches of African savannah, and in fact the presence of the palms were taken traditionally as an indicator of elephant migrations. Magnificent examples of Borassus can be seen in Murchison Falls National Park and throughout the northern Ugandan countryside.

To eat their sweet-smelling fruits, one pounds the fibery exterior analogous to a coconut’s coir. The comparison is a fair one— Borassus fruits are as big as some coconuts. Tugu (or tuku) as the fruit is called in Acholi is perhaps something of an acquired taste.  One Ugandan friend mentioned that while he doesn’t enjoy eating tugu, he and others prize it for its scent and use the head-sized fruit as a natural potpourri in the kitchen. Slats of the palm’s trunk are used as a durable black timber, and long intact “pipes” of trunk with the pulpy heartwood removed are a preferred material for beehives.

 

7 To'o

To’o (Balanites aegyptiaca)

“It is even so much better than the moo yaa, the shea butter.” That’s how Wise Women president Adoch Juliet described the oil from the nut kernels of to’o, known in English as desert date. A thorny tree that embodies the hardiness required for survival in the semi-arid north of Uganda, to’o (rhymes with the letter O) is also native to much of sub-Saharan Africa and has a list of local names as long as its list of uses.

Probably the most colorful of these is as fish poison (saponin in the roots and bark), and other uses include timber, tool handles, dyes, and excellent, almost smokeless firewood (are you noticing a theme?). The fruits indeed are vaguely reminiscent of dates, though more fibery and with a distinctive aftertaste, and curiously take a full year or more to mature. Leaves and shoots are fed to livestock, as is the seed meal leftover after oil extraction. Fruits are eaten by myriad birds and animals. Early botanists thought the fruits looked like acorns, and used the latter’s Greek name (Balanites) for the tree.


About the Author

Robin Van Loon

Robin Van Loon

Robin is the founder and Executive Director of Camino Verde, and has been based in the Tambopata region of the Peruvian Amazon since 2004. A long-time student of traditional and indigenous agricultural and medicinal practices, Robin's work has focused on developing community-based reforestation strategies to preserve important endangered plants of the Amazon. He is a writer, regenerative designer, and consultant in agroforestry, reforestation, and sustainable development.

21 comments

  1. wonderful post pal ,but mass sensitization of the local community needs to done in order to raise their awareness on the significance of native trees conservation and its optimal utilisation sustainably.

  2. Thanks for the great work, as a youth power global leader am excited with the information here since my campaign is also on tree planting and use of energy saving practices directly linked to global goal 13 ( climate action)

  3. Please need a contact email – Name for obtaining further information.
    I am Dr. Diamond Lakhani – Agronomist – Interest in medicinal plants/trees
    and helping in preservation of spices of plants – in Uganda East Africa.
    Please contact me: Globalagrosystem@gmail.com

  4. Awesome! I am luck to stumble on this article while browsing on how poor marginalized women in North Eastern Uganda can be supported/empowered through market access for the Sheanut butter/Oil. My Name is James Oromait Founder and executive Director of the Livelihoods Empowerment Foundation(LIFE-UGANDA) . we have particularly created a project to conserve rare but fast disappearing plant species that have medicinal properties. I’d like to connect with Mr Robin Van Loon to share knowledge and or/resources on conservation efforts .

  5. Robin,

    Moo yaa in Acholi or Luo does not mean “oil tree.” Moo is a generic word for oil or fuel in Acholi. For instance moo tara is paraffin. Tara is a lamp. Yaa is the Shea butter tree so moo yaa is simply the oil from the Shea butter tree.

    1. Thank you, Dr. Latigo! I really appreciate this correction and feedback – this is great information. “Moo yaa: the oil from the Shea butter tree” –

  6. Hi Robin I Like Your Article. I Happen To Have Planted Some Palm Tree Native To Uganda In My Village. It Is A Suckering Species. Could You Tell Me Its Scientific Name?? Could It Be A Phoenix Reclinat? Thanks!

  7. Hi robbin we need more of these articles about fauna and flora native to uganda,thanks for educating the masses with yo knowledge we appreciate yo efforts.robbin school me on ugandan palms.

  8. Hi robbin we need more of these articles about fauna and flora native to uganda,thanks for educating the masses with yo knowledge we appreciate yo efforts.

  9. It’s very important for us to know such but add more wild fruit with their names so that researcher’s get to know it.
    Thanks

  10. Thanks a lot for this piece, I only have a confusion over the name of tugu because as if some people in many publications call it Bismarck palm instead, some clarification please.
    I’ll appreciate

    1. Thanks for your comment Charles. In Northern Uganda the common name Tugu usually refers to Borassus aethiopum. Bismarckia is similar looking but is native to Madagascar.

  11. I am on a mission to plan a wild fruit orchard.All the wild fruit trees i can plant in one location if scientifically possible.Can we get in touch

  12. Great Piece !
    Do you know of a good source of data for planting in the Gulu Area along and nearby a river bed (Wasu River). I would like to make a tree planting plan for a 3km stretch of the river. As we are planning eco housing scheme (housing is currently being designed marrying the old English COB style with Regional materials coupled with stand alone power and waste water treatment etc.) to support Murcheson national park including housing for the park rangers.
    Any information would be greatly appreciated.
    Best regards

  13. This is great, I like the descriptions about “tugu” the writer left other edgible part call “Acica” in luo. As well as korokot

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