James Acidri, a resident of Arua town, is a bitter man.
Mr Acidri does not like what he sees every time he is travelling between his hometown and the capital Kampala.
He is disturbed by the bare patches he sees in place of the lush greenery that used to cover the West Nile area.
“I feel bad and angry every time I step in Pakwach,” Acidri says. “I see vast empty land without greenery and this goes on up to Arua. And it is not long ago that all the trees were destroyed.”
According to Acidri, not only has west Nile turned into a sanctuary for charcoal burners, but also a haven for illegal loggers, who are destroying the vegetation cover indiscriminately.
A few kilometers from Anyirirbu trading center along the Nebbi – Arua road lives Samuel Awudu, one of the renowned charcoal burners in the area.
Awudu, 69, who is also a farmer at Anyiribu village in Okollo sub-county, told Wild Kanda that most of the charcoal burners are in the business for quick returns.
Awudu, however, is quick to admit the sharp changes in the weather patterns in the recent past due to deforestation in this area.
“We are finding it extremely hard to get rain these days and if it comes, it is not regular,” Awudu said. “This is costing us a lot in agriculture, but we can’t resist the charcoal business because it pays quickly.”
Call it greed. Call it ignorance. Call it lawlessness.
Whatever you want to call it, there seems to be a serious need for continuous sensitization in the communities about the importance of forests.
Awudu controversially admits having an “idea” of how important forestation is to the earth but he says most people don’t have a clue.
He suggests that residents of rural areas like Arua and Nebbi should be widely and massively sensitized to enable them to appreciate the importance of environmental conservation.
As it stands, thou – with zero sensitization to the local folks – the argument winning the debate is that charcoal is better than a forest.
A drive on the Nebbi – Arua and Arua – Koboko highways will give you a glimpse of just how bad the charcoal problem in this area is. Almost every village has a charcoal market with huge sacks of charcoal lining up the roadside for sale.
These charcoal burners have found a new lucrative market in Kenya where authorities have put in place tough laws to curb environmental degradation.
If you are caught burning charcoal in Kenya, you’re likely to end up in prison and or pay a hefty fine. It is rather safer to import the charcoal from Uganda where a sack goes for around Shs90,000 ($25).
The same sack goes for around Shs80,000 in South Sudan and around Shs75,000 in Kampala.
There is money in this business. But the consequences could be devastating.
Over the years, environmentalists have warned people about forest destruction in the West Nile region.
In the past five years, a total of 3,398 hectares of trees – an area bigger than Paidha and Nebbi towns combined – has been degraded.
Moses Okwanga, a former Alur kingdom director for youth, said the trees are cut due to the increasing demand for timber, charcoal and firewood.
The destruction has mostly hit hard the once thick versatile Lendu, Wang, Ossi, and Okavurero forest reserves, which were planted over 40 years ago.
According to the National Forestry Authority (NFA), more than 73 hectares of private forest are destroyed every year across the country.
On the other hand, over 7,000 hectares of protected forest reserves are destroyed annually for timber and charcoal.
Ordinance rusting on the shelves
But little, if any, has been done, to bring to book the culprits, especially illegal loggers and charcoal burners.
Nearly all the districts in the West Nile region have enacted ordinances or passed a resolution banning commercial burning of charcoal or cutting down of trees, especially valuable species like Afrezella and shear butter trees, but these resolutions have remained on paper and toothless.
For instance, five years ago, Arua district banned the illegal cutting of trees and charcoal burning following the enactment of the food security and nutrition ordinance.
However, the district has failed to enforce the ordinance and trucks loaded with charcoal are seen leaving the district destined for Kampala, Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan daily.
Local politicians and civil servants continue to bicker on how to implement the ordinance.
Like Arua, in 2013, Nebbi district council also passed the Production and Environment Ordinance which was meant to increase production and conserve the environment.
But six years down the road the ordinance is yet to be implemented.
“More effort is needed in safeguarding the environment as a part of their [West Nile leaders] core duties,” Mr Jerry Kasamba, an environment activist said. “The alarm bells over the depletion of forest cover must start to find resonance more widely otherwise we are doomed.”
Kasamba said the fight to conserve the environment should not only be left to environmentalists.
Christopher Awachango, a resident of Nebbi Town, says, what is surprising is that the mayhem and wanton destruction of the forest cover go on under the very noses of those charged to preserve them.
According to Awachango, some government officials are active participants in the abetting of illegal activities.
The high cost of electricity
Emilio Odongo, the environmentalist officer Nebbi Municipality, attributes the massive destruction of forest cover in West Nile to the high cost of electricity among several other things.
He says with less than 10% of Ugandans having access to power, charcoal and firewood remain their main and only sources of energy.
“Even people who have electricity in their houses won’t use it for cooking because it is very expensive so they turn to nature and destroy it in the process,”he said.
Rev. Phillip Cekecan, of Namthin Parish, said if the problem is not urgently checked, West Nile may end up a semi – arid wasteland incapable of supporting its people.
He said the region is increasingly facing water shortage.
Already, Cekecan observed, loss of forest cover is threatening rainfall patterns.
According to Cekecan, there is a need for the country to strike a balance between economic development and environmental protection and sustainability.
“Perhaps it is time we took another look at the tree planting exercise to evaluate its overall efficacy in increasing forest cover,”Cekecan said.
Brenda Akao, the communications officer in the ministry of water, and environment, said the massive deforestation and degradation of wetlands in the region has interfered with the country’s water cycle.
She said the worst form of environment degradation in the region is bush burning, encroachment on wetlands and forests, with some converted into farmland and lumbering timber for business.
She, however, notes the need for all stakeholders to sensitize the community to adopt environmentally- friendly alternatives of making money, adding that the local leaders should be able to enforce existing laws to avert the vice.