Greetings! Or, as they say in Acholiland, Apwoyo! To start, we want to thank you for your gracious support. You may think that a small donation is just a drop in a bucket, but without these drops, our work wouldn’t be possible. Your support is integral to the success of this project, and as such, you are integral to the success of this project.
On another note, you may have noticed a new report highlighting the work that Camino Verde is doing in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon to restore and rejuvenate deforested areas and ensure biodiversity in this important region. We’re new to Global Giving, and we are definitely humans, and that report was sent to you in error! It should have been posted to Camino Verde’s project page instead of ours. But, it does provide us with a great segway to introduce ourselves before diving into our project report and getting into what really matters: our progress in northern Uganda in restoring local ecology in a meaningful way.
At WildFF, we partner with place-based organizations to become allies, supporters, and co-implementers of the vision that local communities hold for the future of their environment. This strategy is born out of the recognition that conservation efforts require locally-rooted solutions. In Uganda, our primary partner is Mon Ma Ryek (Wise Women-Uganda), a women’s cooperative of a 150 traditional healers. Mon Ma Ryek works with a small team of three individuals that represent WildFF, acting as facilitators and co-implementers of the project, and helping to connect the women to the resources they need. That team of three–that’s us!
A little bit about us: We are Georgia Beasley, Robin Van Loon, and Julian Moll-Rocek.
Georgia has an academic background in Global Studies and Anthropology, and conducted her research in northern Uganda with traditional healers back in 2012. Since then, she has worked for international non-profits that focus on socio-cultural issues. She has a background in Western herbalism and women’s health, working with underserved women and survivors of sexual violence as a birth doula and advocate. For the Native Seeds Project in Uganda, she is the Community Outreach and Medical Coordinator.
Julian received his BA in Evolutionary Biology from Harvard, and has worked on community-based environmental restoration projects in Colombia, Guatemala, and Uganda. He has written for Mongabay, and has contributed his video expertise in capturing video footage of our work in Uganda to tell the story of these communities. His knowledge of academic research is informing the research component of the Uganda Native Seeds Project, allowing us to document important data on little known native tree species in the region. For the Native Seeds Project in Uganda, he is the Communications and Research Coordinator.
Robin Van Loon is the founder and Executive Director of Camino Verde, a small reforestation organization operating in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon. (This is where our blip in project reports come in–wrong organization!) 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. In the Native Seeds Project in Uganda, he is the Reforestation Specialist and Project Director.
Together, the three of us work collaboratively with the Mon Ma Ryek leadership, and other stakeholders, to bring their vision of a healthy people and a healthy landscape into reality in the northern Uganda region.
Now that you know a little about us, let’s move onto the more exciting topic of conversation: reforesting native trees and empowering women healers through the Native Seeds Project in Uganda.
A year and a half ago, this project was just a small seed with a big vision. The harsh reality was omnipresent: two-thirds of Uganda’s forests have been lost. The rest are projected to disappear in entirety by 2050. The north, particularly Acholiland, has been both historically and contemporarily marginalized: politically, economically, socially. Poverty rates are higher in the north than anywhere else in the country. So are infant mortality rates. And maternal mortality rates. Every day, more people die in the north to preventable and treatable illnesses than any other region in Uganda. Economic opportunities are few and far between. But, as always, there is hope amidst the struggle.
The women that we work with are fierce, yet overwhelmingly gentle. They are healers, yes. But they are, just as importantly, daughters, sisters, mothers and wives. They not only carry water fetched from a nearby well on their heads, but they carry the future of their people, their culture, and their forests on their shoulders. This weight both burdens them and greatly inspires them, and has served as the primary driver of their firm assertion that restoring Uganda’s forests is possible, despite popular belief suggesting otherwise. And it is them, and us, and you, that are making it possible.
The stark realities that these women face on a daily basis provide the fuel for transformation. The way we see it, the solution always lies within the problem. Forests are disappearing because the trees are more valuable cut down–for timber and for fuel needs–providing local families with the quick cash they need to send their kids to school, or treat their toddlers for malaria, or buy that goat for a family feast. Loss of forest means a lot of things, but one of those is the loss of habitat for the growth of medicinal plants, which results in the inability for these women to provide important medicine to their communities. Lack of traditional medicine for local communities means more unnecessary deaths at the hands of treatable illnesses. These overlapping, interrelated issues has informed our strategy of creating a holistic reforestation model.
Imagine that small farmers planted native tree species in agroforestry systems that provided nutrient-rich food for their families and medicinal plants for their communities. Imagine that those same agroforestry systems restored the soil and mitigated the effects of climate change (which are already being felt by the East African region). Imagine that the medicinal plants planted in those agroforestry systems were then sustainably harvested by traditional healers to produce medicinal products that have been tested and verified by the Ministry of Health and distributed in local pharmacies, providing an affordable, accessible, and sustainable alternative to pharmaceuticals for local families. Imagine that these traditional healers spearheaded a medical integration program with local hospitals, combining best practices of both traditional medicine and modern medicine, to provide local communities with the best care possible, given local circumstances and access to resources. Imagine that, through this program, we could provide a sustainable livelihood that aligns with cultural values and embodies ecological integrity for the 150 women that make up the traditional healers women’s cooperative.
This is the basic premise of what we are doing, together. It is the idea that we can mimic forests of the past to create forests for the future, and that people can heal landscapes while those same landscapes heal people.
Since last December, the project has taken many strides. Construction of one of two native tree species nurseries is finished, and the first round of seedlings that were seeded last November have grown with vigor, and are now being distributed to Mon Ma Ryek’s plot of land. From there, the women will begin planting out the some 5,000 seedlings, effectively representing the first active, planned planting of native trees for reforestation within the project. Construction of the second tree nursery, the largest native tree species nursery in all of northern Uganda, is underway at the Mon Ma Ryek Garden. Upon its completion, it will have the capacity to produce 100,000 tree seedlings per cycle, totalling 200,000 a year.
One key step in all of this is seed collecting. Because many of the trees we are reforesting are native trees that are at risk of being lost, the only way to procure the seeds are through the active search for seeds in nearby, intact forests. These are ongoing seed-collecting missions, which are carried out by our tree nursery specialist staff and many of the women themselves. Little by little and seed by seed, we collect the tree species we need.
Progress has also been made in the realm of the creation of non-timber forest products, through the development of herbal medicines that can be, in the future, sold in local pharmacies. Two herbal medicine preparation workshops have been held by and for the cooperative of women. Techniques of salve-making, to treat common rashes and minor burns, tinctures, for the preparation of potent medicines with a long shelf-life, and syrups, for coughs and other ailments, have been our main points of focus. These capacity-building, medicine-making workshops have expanded the women’s ‘traditional healer toolkit,’ increasing the efficacy of the way in which they prepare medicines, so that they can begin working side by side with physicians in local hospitals. Further down the road, these particular medicine making techniques will be employed to scale up the quantity of medicine being made by the women, which will be distributed to local pharmacies for prescription uses.
Recently, the women participated in an extensive, 5-day long introduction to beekeeping workshop, giving them a strong foundation in beekeeping techniques and apiary care. A small set of beehives have been installed at the Mon Ma Ryek land, which the women manage and care for in rotating shifts. Beekeeping is an important component of the project, tying many different elements of significance into a cohesive makeup. The bees themselves promote biodiversity, attracting birds and insects and contribute to the pollination of nearby plants. Additionally, all of the byproducts of beekeeping–honey, wax, and bee pollen–are important raw materials for the production of herbal medicines. These harvests will be crucial for the preparation of topical salves and medicinal syrups. For now, the women are starting with a small back of hives to learn, tactically, all that is involved in the care, management, and harvesting from beekeeping. In the future, we plan to scale the beekeeping component significantly, so that all medicine prepared by the women is coming directly from their own harvests, from their own land.
A lot has happened over the past few months, and the project is beginning to take a firm form. It’s a journey, one that we are proud to be a part of, excited to see where it leads, and honored to share with you. We hope you continue to support this important work (if you want to become a monthly donor, you can do so here), and share this project with a friend or loved one.
As they say in Acholiland, wawoto kacel, or, we move together. And in this world of increasing interconnectedness, we couldn’t think of anything that is closer to the truth.
From the heart of Acholiland to wherever you call home, Apwoyo matek.