Missing the Forest for the Trees

Uganda believes tree plantations are a perfect solution to the nation's deforestation crisis. Critics say planting non-native trees causes more harm than good.

As far back as people can remember, Kasozi has always been hemmed in by forests. The small town, located about 20 miles north of the Ugandan capital of Kampala, lies at the end of a dusty dirt road that snakes its way through the lush, broad-leafed foliage of the equatorial bush. For generations, Kasozi’s subsistence farmers hunted game and collected wild honey from the forests around them. But in 2005 most of the bush was cleared to make way for commercial forests. Many of the old native trees disappeared. The “forest” around Kasozi now comprises disciplined rows of young pine, teak, and eucalyptus trees, carefully tended by dozens of workers who clear, plant, and thin the stands. These days the village has the feel of an industry town bustling with workers.

artwork depicting leavesistockphoto / Alejandro Raymond

Kasozi’s largest plantation is owned by Elvis Mulimba. The landowner has covered 75 of his 120 hectares with pine and a scattering of teak. Mulimba’s staff also teaches local people how to plant pine and eucalyptus on their own land. “As commercial plantation owners, it’s our duty to sensitize the community. We are training them on tree-growing – how you prepare the land, how to plant in a line,” says plantation assistant manager Charles Erisa Kasango as we stroll through stands of four-year-old pine, their bristly stalks poking up like pipe cleaners. Mulimba is convinced his plantations are good for the environment. “The natural forests are shrinking by the day,” he says, “and we need trees.”

This is just the kind of thinking Uganda’s National Forestry Authority is working hard to encourage. Though known as the “Pearl of Africa” for its majestic natural beauty, appealing climate, and fertile land, Uganda has lost two-thirds of its forests in the last 20 years. The country’s five million hectares of forest in 1990 dwindled to 3.5 million hectares by 2005, according to Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority. The agency attributes deforestation to expanding farmland, a population boom, and lack of economic options. It warns that if the current rate of deforestation continues, the country will have no natural forests left by 2050. The long-term effect of this will be catastrophic, the agency says, contributing to declining food security, disease, and conflict.

The Ugandan government believes tree plantations are a perfect solution to these problems. They feed citizens’ hunger for timber, generate income, scrub carbon from the atmosphere, and preserve what’s left of Uganda’s natural forests. Since 2004 the government – with funding from the World Bank, the United Nations, and the European Union – has been encouraging landowners to set up plantations by offering them subsidies, free seedlings, and technical advice. By 2013 the program will have helped plant trees on about 40,000 hectares of land in Uganda.

“We are telling [the people] it’s an investment, it’s an insurance. It’s where they can get income and be able to sustain themselves, and also pay school fees for their children,” says Gonza Araali of the Forest Authority. “I think in the near future we shall have very many people planting in this country.”

In villages like Kasozi, tree plantations are providing the kind of steady employment that is in short supply in Uganda. Kasango says his plantation employs between 60 and 80 people at any given time and also attracts workers from urban areas. Most of the villagers in Kasozi now derive at least some of their income from plantations. “We can come and make money on this plantation, and we meet our needs,” says plantation worker Jesse Acholi, who moved to Kasozi from the northern town of Lira.

Workers earn around $28 per hectare of land cleared, weeded, or thinned, a job that four people can finish in a single day. It’s good money in Uganda, where the average income is a little more than $100 a month. Such jobs also draw young men away from urban slums and revitalize villages that offer few other opportunities. “Nowadays it is easy for me to come and ask for a job here,” explains Kasango, sizing up a tall stand of conifers. “When it was just bush, no one was paying for it. But these trees have demands – there is lining, thinning, clearing. So I think we are better off.”

For investors, the appeal is obvious. With Uganda’s population growing at more than 3 percent a year, demand for timber is on the rise. Many Ugandans think of the plantations as trust funds, or “tree banks,” and for anyone who can afford to tie up capital for 10 years, trees deliver impressive returns.

“You could invest $50,000 and in about 10 years you’re harvesting trees worth five million dollars,” says businessman Peter Nyeko, who put his money into a stand of eucalyptus outside of Kampala. Although there is still no mechanism in place for individual planters to benefit from the carbon market, Nyeko assumes it’s just a matter of time. “That would open up another revenue stream as well, making it sometimes even more profitable to keep the trees,” he says.

Sounds like a win-win-win situation. But critics of such plantations – which are spreading fast throughout the developing world – say what seems like an elegant solution to an environmental dilemma can cause more harm than good.

Most plantations in East Africa, including Uganda, are made up of non-native species, such as the fast-growing Eucalyptus grandis whose trunk is used for power transmission poles and scaffolding. Since the nineteenth century, the Australian eucalyptus has been a popular quick fix for timber shortages. The tree, however, sucks up water and has a tendency to leach nutrients from the soil, making it difficult for other native plants to compete. Eucalyptus trees have already disrupted the local ecology in Ethiopia and are accused by environmentalists of contributing to spreading desertification in the country. Once widely planted for timber in South Africa, the tree is now officially recognized as an invasive species that destroys wetlands. In Uganda, too, the impact of the eucalyptus on native plants is beginning to be felt.

“There are many places where swamps have dried up, such as in Western Uganda, where eucalyptus have sucked up all the water,” says F.C. Oweyegha Afunaduula of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists.

Afunaduula knows that given the financial incentives involved, tree plantations are probably here to stay. So he has made it his mission to push for indigenous tree plantations. He writes articles, speaks in front of government committees, and travels the country convincing communities to choose native trees over pine and eucalyptus.

“I am basically a village person. I used to live among forests, which have now disappeared,” Afunaduula says. “I have also tried to introduce local species of plants in my own village. I have an agro-forestry farm there, which contains only local species.”

Afunaduula insists some indigenous trees can be profitably harvested for timber. “We have some tree species that grow fast, like musizi. Even mvule can grow fast if planted among other trees. It is very good for wood, for protection of the environment, for binding the soil. But it is not being emphasized. Institutionally and politically, our indigenous tree species are being worked against in favor of pine and eucalyptus.”

Densely planted stands of pine and eucalyptus leave the soil barren, and they create monocultures devoid of any other life, Afunaduula argues. To conflate such plantations with reforestation is a mistake. “Those plantations are not forests. They are biological deserts – formations which do not allow other beings to exist among them,” he says. “You won’t even find things like butterflies, snakes, and birds.”

Kasango, the plantation manager at Kasozi, admits this is largely the case. “Insects, birds, and wild animals were lost” when they cleared the land, he tells me. Practically nothing lives in the plantation now, he says, though he occasionally spots the forest’s former residents – antelopes, monkeys, and rabbits – lurking in the firebelts, the bare strips of land around homes that protect them from bushfires.

But plantation owners like Mulimba insist that indigenous trees aren’t financially viable. “If you look at it in terms of business, an indigenous tree is going to take 40 years,” he says. Mulimba told me he has tried planting natives, but found them too tricky to grow. “My initial planting was musizi. But in the first three weeks I lost 70 percent,” he says. “That’s my pension. That’s my insurance. I have to go for something that makes me money.”

The race to develop tree banks has had another side effect that its advocates fail to mention – land grabs. Lured by Uganda’s inexpensive land and copious rainfall, international forestry companies and investors are buying up huge tracts of land. The move is part of a wave of commercial land investments that is sweeping the continent, a rush that some are calling “the second scramble for Africa.”

According to an October 2012 Oxfam report, between 2000 and 2010 thousands of ancestral farming plots across Africa were handed over to corporate interests, usually for forestry, mining, or agribusiness, threatening the livelihoods of 80 million small landholders. People living on these lands are often pushed out because they lack formal titles to property, which is usually held communally. In Uganda, tens of thousands of villagers have been evicted from their land because of such deals. A 2011 Oxfam report states: “Today, the people evicted from the land are desperate, having been driven into poverty and landlessness. In some instances they say they were subjected to violence and their property, crops, and livestock destroyed. They say they were not properly consulted, have been offered no adequate compensation, and have received no alternative land.”

Uganda’s Minister for the Environment Flavia Munaaba admits that allocating large tracts of land to tree plantations can create problems. “We are losing forest cover very rapidly,” Munaaba told Voice of America earlier this year. “However, when it comes to guidance on reforestation, the tendency is to allocate land to big investors, at the exclusion of the common people. That is the problem, in the sense that there is resentment.”

“The tendency is to allocate land to investors at the exclusion of the common people.”

There are other environmental concerns, some of which have regional implications. Since Lake Victoria, one of the sources of the Nile River, lies partly in Uganda, the nation should be especially wary of planting non-native trees, says Abby Onencan of the Entebbe-based Nile Basin Discourse. “There are some breeds [of trees] which are really bad; they really cause a lot of destruction and should not be planted near the water,” Onencan says. “If we plant trees around the Nile that take up the water, then the water might never reach Egypt.”

For investors like Nyeko and plantation owners like Mulimba, the economic benefits of these plantations far outweigh the environmental concerns. Nyeko is convinced his eucalyptus trees will be useful to a growing population hungry for timber. “There is a benefit in it for the whole country at large,” he says. Mulimba insists plantations are the future: “We just need to know that things have changed, and we must move forward.”

Back in Kasozi, 75-year-old John Keweke wistfully remembers a time when villagers collected medicinal bark and roots from native plants in the bush around the village. Keweke, a landowner himself, is one of the few men in the village whose livelihood isn’t somehow linked to the new plantations. The village elder proudly shows off his beautifully patterned stools and mats made from local wood and fiber. When he was younger, the men in the village would go into the forests to hunt rabbits and antelope to feed their families, he recalls. But now such expeditions are a thing of the past. “The animals have all moved far away – they can’t hide in the pine trees,” Keweke says. “We used to look for herbal medicines in the forest, but now we can’t. There is something that was lost along with those trees. We have lost a big thing.”

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.