Ugandan Tribe Struggles to Maintain Forests and Access Benefits

Tommie Herbert

Indigenous people like Uganda’s Bunyoro-Kitara tend to take good care of their land – and to lose big when someone else finds natural resources on it.  Payments for ecosystem services (PES) offer a way to profit from good stewardship, but only if governments keep things clean.  Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Indigenous people like Uganda’s Bunyoro-Kitara tend to take good care of their land – and to lose big when someone else finds natural resources on it.   Payments for ecosystem services (PES) offer a way to profit from good stewardship, but only if governments keep things clean.   Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

5 September 2011 | Yolamu Nsamba knows firsthand the pitfalls of working with local governments and government-sanctioned groups to preserve the forested jungles his tribe has treasured and lived in for centuries.

“The areas which were previously very well-conserved by the traditional authorities are now totally cut down under the very noses of the (non-indigenous) development council leaders,” he says. “And nobody is doing anything about it.”

Nsamba is Secretary to the King of the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom, an ancient tribal group in Western Uganda whose presence and influence dates back to the Bronze Age.   He was speaking after attending a training course on payments for ecosystem services for local leaders in Hoima, Uganda in early April sponsored by environmental non-profit Forest Trends (publisher of Ecosystem Marketplace).

Nsamba and his fellow tribesmen aren’t the only ones worried about poor governance.   It is also a concern for international investors and proponents of Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), which rely on good governance to make sure the right people are being rewarded.

In some cases, however, the local and national government leaders with whom PES investors negotiate are more willing to take investor dollars than demonstrate real commitment to conservation. Many local council leaders have been accused of receiving conservation cash while simultaneously allowing loggers to deplete forest reserves.

“People are elected into office in local government; they see it as a power source,” Nsamba says.   “And they are out in the forest – logging.”

The Global Battle for Indigenous Rights

The concern over how to preserve forests and who to pay comes up often in nations where forest credits are generated.   From Uganda to Peru and Brazil, land-tenure rights for indigenous groups are a central issue in the establishment of environmental markets and schemes. Indigenous groups mindful of both the potential and risks of PES are beginning to take a stand.

In Peru, for example, a group of indigenous tribes published a collective statement saying they would reject REDD and carbon markets without defined territory, property rights, and autonomy on indigenous lands.   Other indigenous groups in neighboring Brazil, however, embraced PES projects after a landmark study by international law firm Baker and Mackenzie found that indigenous tribes do own carbon rights in Brazil.   Recent regional legislation in Acre, Brazil, even provides incentives for “traditional knowledge” as an ecosystem service. These are three positive indicators that international policy makers, legal experts, and communities alike agree on the importance of local land tenure to the success of PES.

The Legacy of Idi Amin

In Uganda, indigenous groups have limited land-tenure rights.   Idi Amin, exacerbating a century-long scraping away of tribal powers, seized these rights from the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom and other indigenous tribes during his dictatorship in the 1970s.   He left tribes with only symbolic and cultural ownership.  

“We had governments, civil society institutions, decision making structures,” Nsamba said, shaking his head. The Bunyoro were previously charged with managing the forest reserves they occupied. “Now the law says we are cultural leaders,” while governments have been given the power to oversee native forests.

Although this particular experience is unique to the Bunyoro, Nsamba’s testimony offers a lucid illustration of an increasingly recognized global truth about forest governance.   Traditional inhabitants, not governments, are often the most effective stewards to ensure conservation of future forest resources. But recognizing this is only half the battle.   Without legal property rights, historical conservationists such as the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom are limited in their ability to engage in or benefit from conservation activities – including PES.

The Bunyoro-Kitara: a History of Conservation

The Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom has a rich yet painful history.   Considered one of the most powerful indigenous Kingdoms in Africa from the sixteenth to the 19th centuries, it has a land mass of 3241 square miles, roughly one and a half times the size of the U.S. state of Delaware.  

For hundreds of years, the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom conserved forest reserves in the Budongo and Bugoma areas of Western Uganda. But when legislative changes put the reserves in full possession of local governments, the Bunyoro watched an unfortunate pattern of neglect and exploitation degrade the very forests they once protected. Instead of standing idle, representatives of the tribe have begun exploring opportunities such as PES to restore their ancestral home.

When colonists occupied Bunyoro land in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom’s capacity to protect its forests began to erode. Historical records document that foreign influence was resisted with steadfast resolve. But unfamiliar European disease such as syphilis and sleeping sickness left the Bunyoro unable to thwart military and political takeover. Infant mortality rates soared so high that children were even given names to express it. The Father of King Solomon Iguru the 1st himself was called Gafabusa, or “we are waiting for death.”

The tribe was displaced, moving from their longtime home in the Budongo forest reserves to the Northern Nile Valley. When the epidemic ended, the colonial governor denied the Bunyoro readmission to their lands.

In 1914, a new law converted the Budongo forest reserves in the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom into “conservation areas.” The tribe worked to cooperate with the colonial administration and local government to develop the nature reserves on Bunyoro land.

Legislative changes, however, put the reserves in full possession of local governments in the 1960s, where they remained throughout the duration of the Idi Amin dictatorship.   The Kingdom was removed from the Budongo and Bugoma forests in 1967, signaling a simultaneous abandonment and deterioration of the reserves.

Forests, once teaming with life, have been hacked away by loggers. Elephants and chimpanzees that once had plenty of room to roam now pillage crops and compete with humans for land and food.  

Local governments “were not effective in doing conservation work,” Nsamba said, adding that they do not see the value of the forests for their ecosystem services.

And despite over 15 years of consensus on the crucial conservation role played by indigenous people, the issue of tribal property rights remains a source of confusion and conflict. As a result, in rural forested areas like those occupied by the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom, communities often have little to no access to payments for ecosystem services (PES) schemes such as reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD).

2011: Year of Opportunity?

Today, indigenous peoples and local communities hold defined land tenure rights in only about 2% of forests throughout Africa. Nsamba’s historical account has resonance with indigenous communities there and across the globe. It brings home recent worldwide discussions about forest governance and the effectiveness of communities rather than governments in conserving forest resources.

In Uganda, for example, the conservation community noted for decades the influence of land tenure on forest health.   As early as 1992, Abwoli Y. Banana and William Gombya-Ssembajjwe pointed out in People and Forests, Communities, Institutions and Governance that “the recognition of indigenous rights to forest-resources management leads to successful management practices.”

Andy White, Coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a global coalition to advance forest tenure, policy and market reforms in which Forest Trends is a leading partner, reiterated this observation.

In his recent article, ‘Cash Alone Will Not Slow Forest Carbon Emissions’, published in Nature, he highlights a range of new studies by RRI and other partners. These studies show “that governments, not local people, are the primary drivers of global deforestation.” He added that “where indigenous peoples and forest communities have their rights recognized, they are far better forest stewards than are governments”

The RRI analysis also identifies major opportunities for advancing local land rights and livelihoods in 2011.

“We need to be doing a better job of taking advantage of these growing opportunities to benefit local people,” said White. “The year 2011 will undoubtedly present threats and potential rollback of rights, but there is tremendous opportunity for progress if we can seize it.”

Communities and Markets – a Long way to go

The Communities and Markets Program of Forest Trends is working to meet this challenge head on, says program director Beto Borges. Through partnerships, the program facilitates, identifies and leverages opportunities for local and indigenous groups to gain from PES mechanisms and markets, where appropriate.

The work concentrates on ensuring that communities and rural residents have sufficient information on PES to become aware of their rights and make informed decisions. This is accomplished through training workshops, policy advising, legal analysis of land tenure regimes, and project development support.

Nsamba, for example, met with Forest Trends officials during the Training Community Stakeholders on Payment for Ecosystem Services event in Uganda. Through the Katoomba Group and Communities and Markets Program, Forest Trends collaborated with The Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust to engage with a group of forty community leaders in Western Uganda.   The event provided these leaders with the background and techniques needed to help educate and prepare their communities about opportunities and risks in engaging in PES. The Ugandan National Environment Management Authority, United Nations Environment Program, Global Environment Facility and the United States Agency for International Development helped sponsor this event.

The training course, Nsamba said was “a big eye opener, it shows the possibilities.”

Clearly, he added, payments for ecosystem services provide financial and conservation opportunities for his tribal Kingdom.   But he understands his country’s land tenure system and access to benefits remains a major challenge.

To address this, Borges says his program and The Katoomba Group designed activities to support community involvement, create new policy contexts and enable and prioritize local participation in forest conservation through access to land tenure and PES information.  

Specifically, Forest Trends is working on strengthening information sharing and capacity between local communities, project developers, and governments.   It is offering a “South to South” collaboration to connect policy developers across Latin America and Africa so that they can share experiences in designing and implementing PES frameworks that involve and benefit communities. It added a “Peer to Peer” network that brings community leaders in Africa and Latin America together online and in person.   They share lessons learned from engaging in PES’s projects and discuss policies aimed at conservation of their natural resources and improved livelihoods.     Forest Trends provides capacity building training courses on PES to local communities and other audiences.   It offers technical assistance to regional governments in Latin America and Africa to help increase benefit sharing in PES projects and policies.  

“The effective engagement and participation of local communities in PES schemes, such as REDD+ actions to mitigate climate change, is recognized by the UNFCCC Convention and has gained significant momentum during the COP16 in Cancun,” Borges said.

“However, based on Nsamba’s on-the-ground account and recent discourse, we have a long way to go before land tenure is no longer a prohibitive factor in PES and REDD+.”

Traditional inhabitants, not governments, are often the most effective stewards of conservation.   But without land tenure they are unable to capitalize on this ability. Unless governments find a way to grant titles to historical conservationists such as the Bunyoro these governments could soon find themselves without forests to protect.

As Nsamba puts it: “Our livelihood depends on it.”

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Durban 2011