Nakkazi, E. May 16, 2015. Uganda’s forests dwindle as illegal settlers hollow them out. NewScientist.
Uganda’s forest cover fell from 24 per cent in 1990 to 10 per cent in 2009, and it is still falling. Every year the country loses around 88,000 hectares of forest. At this rate none will be left in a few decades. Much of it is due to illegal logging by people setting in the forests. Migrants from other parts of the country as well as neighbouring countries started encroaching on Kibaale central forest reserves over 20 years ago. They create extensive farms and build permanent settlements; some take possession of land using fake documents.
From the outside, forest reserves looks intact. This is because the “encroachers”, as they are called locally, start clearing from the centre. “Inside, the forests have all been cleared and permanent structures – churches, schools, brick houses – are all in sight,” says Arian.
The destruction goes as far as the eye can see. In some areas freshly sown beans are sprouting. As we walk through Ruzaire forest reserve, some 12 square kilometres of protected land in Uganda, it is as though the perpetrators have just left. An axe and a coat hang on a tree trunk, near freshly cut firewood tied in bundles. It’s indicative of a larger struggle: the dwindling forests here are being hollowed out despite efforts to preserve them. Roughly a third of the 16 forest reserves in Kibaale district have been seriously damaged and occupied by squatters. About half of those are 50 per cent occupied, says Charles Arian, a manager for Kibaale district at the National Forestry Authority (NFA).
Protecting the forest reserves isn’t easy – or safe. “Most illegal loggers work at night and rest during the day. Even then they are usually armed with traditional tools [like] spears, machetes, hoes, ready to fight back,” says Frederick Kugonza, a district forest supervisor at NFA. “Illegal loggers are armed with traditional tools like spears or machetes and ready to fight back.”
Most of the native hardwood species like African teak have been cut down. The forest animals have moved on as the illegal loggers have moved in. There used to be elephants, wild pigs, apes, baboons, antelopes and duikers here. But little trace of them remains.