A quick glance at Northern Uganda and you might think that it’s another Serengeti. It is a home to rolling savannah, to vast horizons seen blurred through the dust-heavy air. Sunrises and sunsets are red giants rippling mirage-like, and indeed in the region’s protected areas and natural parks the iconic big game of sub-Saharan Africa does roam.
But the image is a recent and artificial one. Yes, giraffes and elephants wander these plains. But until very recently savannah was just one ecotype in a varied mosaic landscape whose microclimatic idiosyncrasies bore out many full-fleshed experiments in forest. Trees were not the exception but the norm. Only in the past 50 years has forest cover been lost to an extent that allows for the Serengeti analogy to seem plausible.
A product of the chaos of armed conflict and the tumultuous collision of capitalism and corruption, Northern Uganda’s deforestation history has been stunningly rapid and continues today. On any given week, dozens, even hundreds of trucks speed down the recently improved Gulu-Kampala highway, the North’s central artery, filled to overflowing with sacks and sacks of pyrolized trees’ bodies— in other words, charcoal.
Traveling along this road recently, for over two hours the smell and even the taste of charcoal production scratched in my throat uninterruptedly. It’s a known public health hazard to live near production of this fuel, and respiratory infections are Uganda’s second leading cause of morbidity (i.e., preventable death by treatable illness). Citing the UN Sustainable Development Goal number 7, to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all,” some Ugandans have realized that charcoal is far from an ideal fuel source.
So why torch the trees? For many of Uganda’s 30 million citizens, charcoal is one of the few available options for greater participation in the cash economy. Whether for a family medical emergency, school fees, or the marriage of one’s son or daughter, the choice to liquidate one’s resources more often than not doesn’t feel like a choice. And so when we talk about the conservation of Uganda’s forests, we speak in the language of poverty and war, the language of human need.
Seeking to bridge the needs of human and other living communities, Wild Forests and Fauna’s Native Seeds project was forged in collaboration with the Wise Women of Uganda, a remarkable group of traditional healers who have opted to plant many of the native trees now being devastated. The trees of Acholiland will depend on human wellbeing for their survival—a powerful reminder that on our single planet, we are all in it together.