Communities not the true threat to Mabira Forest: Q&A with Ugandan conservationist Achilles Byaruhanga

  • Mabira is a surviving fragment of lowland forest that’s now an important refuge for a diverse range of animals and plants in central Uganda.
  • The NGO Nature Uganda, led by Achilles Byaruhanga, is working with communities and government agencies to preserve and restore degraded sections of the forest reserve.
  • Having seen off a government plan to clear a third of the forest to grow sugarcane, Byaruhanga says community use of Mabira is not necessarily a threat.
  • By supporting alternative income activities that replace commercial harvesting of firewood and other forest products for sale in nearby Kampala, and helping local communities reduce their own demand for wood, Byaruhanga says the forest can be preserved.

Conservation groups in Uganda are working to protect Mabira Central Forest Reserve, a 30,000-hectare (74,000-acre) forest in the center of the country, close to Lake Victoria.

Mabira is a surviving fragment of a semideciduous lowland forest, part of a belt of forest habitat that experts say once stretched from western Kenya across the whole of what is now Uganda. The forest reserve is now a refuge for a diverse range of animals and plants.

For the past 20 years, Nature Uganda, a conservation group, has been working to preserve and restore the forest, in which community groups cooperate with agencies like the National Forestry Authority (NFA) to manage the forest via collaborative forest management (CFM) associations.

Recently, the conservation group launched a project to restore degraded patches of Mabira in collaboration with the NFA and a number of international partners working under the Trillion Trees ReForest Fund.

Mongabay spoke to Achilles Byaruhanga, the executive director of Nature Uganda, about the forest and the ongoing work to protect it.

Mongabay: What animals live in Mabira Forest that might be seen as umbrella species, to inspire protection of the whole ecosystem?

Achilles Byaruhanga: Let me start with the birds, because that’s my area of specialization. We have got over 300 species of birds in that forest. You can judge from that — a forest of 300 square kilometers with over 300 species of bird — this is a very high density and richness of species.

We have the Nahan’s partridge [Ptilopachus nahani] which is an endemic species. They live in intact, undisturbed forest and they are very few in number. In wetland areas we also have species like the papyrus gonolek [Laniarius mufumbiri], whose numbers are going down very quickly because of loss of wetlands. When you get inside the forest, you find raptors like brown snake-eagles [Circaetus cinereus] and crowned eagles [Stephanoaetus coronatus], which are iconic species.

When we come to plants, the richness is equally high. We know that Mabira Forest has over 360 different species of plants. There are around 50 large and small mammal species, but we know from history that there used to be buffalos and other big animals, but because of hunting, those species no longer exist in the forest. We have around 200 different species of butterflies, over 23 reptiles.

One of the forest’s iconic species is the Nahan’s partridge (Ptilopachus nahani)
Nahan’s partridge (Ptilopachus nahani), one of Mabira Central Forest Reserve’s iconic species.. Image by Tommy Andriollo via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

Mongabay: In terms of forest restoration, what is the main strategy?

Achilles Byaruhanga: We are using three strategies. One: areas that have been degraded by harvesting for timber or poles; we allow those areas to regenerate naturally.

Then there are some areas which have been degraded but still have the capacity to regenerate naturally but need a bit of boosting. In those areas we do what we call enrichment planting. We get some areas with big gaps — we plant indigenous trees there.

But there are also areas where communities have gone in and actually planted crops, so there was complete degradation and the areas were turned into gardens. In those cases we actually go and plant trees. But I have to emphasize that we plant using indigenous trees that are known to have existed in that part of the forest.

Mongabay: What species are you growing?

Achilles Byaruhanga: We are working with the NFA, which is managing the forest. They raise seedlings for the restoration of forest areas. The seedlings range from mahoganies to Albizia and Acacia. The Albizia are used a lot because they are fast-growing trees that provide shade for hardwoods like mahogany trees to grow under. Restoration is difficult.

You never put the habitat back as it was before. You are really doing a replacement. Eventually you’re looking at the provision of ecosystem services that were provided by the original forest.

Mongabay: Surrounding communities have been putting a lot of pressure on the forest. How are you going to stop them from undermining the gains you’re making as conservationists?

Achilles Byaruhanga: The biggest threat to Mabira Forest is not actually from communities. They collect firewood, they collect medicine. That’s important, because around 50-60% of Ugandans still depend on traditional medicine.

Of course they do cause degradation, but I wouldn’t say they’re the main problem.

In 2005-2006 the government came up with a proposal to degazette part of the forest to expand a sugarcane plantation that is on the edge of this forest. The government wanted 7,100 hectares [or 17,500 acres, out of the 30,000 hectares] to be converted. That’s what brought Mabira to fame, because we conducted a campaign and resisted that pressure to make sure that the forest was not taken. It still has its boundaries.

Selling charcoal by the road, Kampala. Image by Trust For Africa's Orphans via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Roadside charcoal vendors in Kampala. Byaruhanga says that while communities have lived in and around the forest for a long time, commercial exploitation of wood from Mabira for sale in Kampala, just 50 kilometers away, is driving unsustainable exploitation of the forest.. Image by Trust For Africa’s Orphans via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Agnes Chandiru one of the community members in Buvunya village bordering Mabira Forest with firewood from the forest. Community members are given two days in a week to collect firewood from the forest. Image by Benjamin Jumbe
Self-regulation set up under a collaborative forest management program means that residents of communities near the forest, like Agnes Chandiru from Buvunya village, are permitted to collect firewood from inside the reserve on two days each week. Image by Benjamin Jumbe.

The forest has been used by the communities for a very long time. What we need is to manage and regulate how communities are using the forest.

Mongabay: And how do you intend to achieve that?

Achilles Byaruhanga: The community needs to look at the forest and see the forest as their own, not a forest that is protected by the government. We need to show them that it is important for them; not just because some other people outside appreciate it.

But also you don’t want to overexpose the forest. Local communities will go to the forest and collect firewood for their own domestic use, for heating and cooking food at home. But others commercialize these products. They go in and collect firewood for sale.

The moment you start commercializing these products then you are likely to cause overexploitation. They want to go to get materials to sell so that they can get money, which means you need to give them alternative income-generating activities.

Mongabay: What are some of the alternatives you’ve been promoting?

Achilles Byaruhanga: What we’ve done is to promote beekeeping. One beehive can provide the community member with around 80 kilograms [176 pounds] of honey a year. A kilogram of raw honey is worth around 10,000 Ugandan shillings [$2.70 per kilo, or $1.20 per pound]. So you’re talking of earnings of around 800,000 shillings per year, which is between $200 and $250. If you’ve got four beehives, and they’re looked after well, you’ve got about $1,000 for the community member. That is more than he gets from selling firewood.

We’ve also established piggery and poultry projects. Their proximity to urban areas means they have easy access to markets.
In terms of firewood, we’ve provided them with energy-saving cookstoves. You’re not going to stop them from using firewood because in Uganda over 80% of the people don’t have access to electricity. What you can do is help them to use less firewood.

We’ve had two strategies: the first is to give them energy-saving stoves to reduce on biomass consumption, and the second one is to give them trees that they can plant on their own farms or around their homes where they can get firewood so that they don’t have to go to the forest all the time.

In addition to that, the NFA has also enhanced enforcement to stop people from outside the community coming to access materials from the forest.

Conservationists work to restore last remnant of a once-great Ugandan forest

Banner image: Crowned eagles (Stephanoaetus coronatus), Uganda. Image by Rafael Vila via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.