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Struggling to conserve the Mabira Forest

The Mabira Forest provides local communities with vital resources (Pius Sawa)
The Mabira Forest provides local communities with vital resources
Pius Sawa

One of the last areas of virgin rainforest in Uganda, the Mabira Forest, is valued for its rich biodiversity. Although protected as a forest reserve since the 1930s, management practices have been poor and increasing population pressure has resulted in extensive encroachment into the reserve. A further threat to the forest was a government proposal in 2006 to allow almost a quarter of the area to be cleared for sugar plantations. Although the proposal was successfully opposed, changing perceptions of the value of the forest remains a challenge.

The Mabira Forest covers an area of approximately 300km² and is a vital shared resource and source of livelihoods for local communities. It supports around 120,000 people living near the forest providing, food, charcoal, firewood and medicinal plants, including Prunus africana, used to treat prostate cancer. According to Moses Kanyike, Parish Chief of Najjembe sub-county, "The forest has helped our area because the climate is favourable. We are farmers, we grow our crops and the place is fertile because of the forest."

The government and local communities are becoming increasingly aware that if this shared resource is not properly managed and conserved, there could be widespread and damaging impacts, not only on local biodiversity and livelihoods, but on the entire region. Reduced rainfall as a result of further degradation would impact water levels and agriculture. As a water catchment area for Lake Victoria, lower river levels would affect electricity generation at Uganda's Bujugali Falls, on the River Nile. According to Moses Watasa from Uganda's National Forestry Authority (NFA), the forest "is of such colossal value to Uganda and the region that it has to be conserved at all costs."

The forest has become an important ecotourism destination (Pius Sawa)
The forest has become an important ecotourism destination
Pius Sawa

Until the 1970s, maintenance of forest boundaries and enforcement of restrictions on harvesting forest products ensured an abundance of resources. The subsequent absence of regulation led to settlement, agricultural cultivation and commercial extraction of timber, resulting in degradation of the reserve. Although evictions occurred in 1988 and management strategies were re-established, with population growth reaching three per cent per annum, encroachment is again posing a threat. At the same time, subsistence and commercial farming have led to a loss in soil fertility around the reserve. As a result, communities are becoming increasingly dependent on the forest, and illegal cultivation, commercial firewood harvesting and charcoal burning are rife.

Changing attitudes

Since proposing to clear 70km² of the forest to grow sugarcane, the government has realised the necessity of conserving this vital resource. Joseph Bahati, lecturer at Makerere University and research fellow at the Ugandan Forest Resources Institution Centre (UFRIC), believes that a combination of public protest and new research data helped change attitudes. The use of aerial photos taken since the 1970s is one way that UFRIC has been able to prove that rehabilitation has been working, and to encourage ongoing conservation. "I think it is a concern of everybody that this ecosystem should be sustained," says Bahati. "Once that ecosystem is really tampered with then it will affect even the operations of government in terms of electricity generation. So now they realise this ecosystem needs to be sustained".

The NFA currently manages the Mabira Forest with increasing collaboration from the local communities. It has enforced strict regulation of harvesting and access rights, while communities have been encouraged to plant and maintain trees and participate in alternative income-generating activities such as beekeeping. In return communities are given access rights to the forest and allowed to collect firewood for domestic use.

Careful management means the forest is now recovering (Pius Sawa)
Careful management means the forest is now recovering
Pius Sawa

Ecotourism is also a promising option. The Mabira Forest currently receives two-thirds of all tourists who visit forest reserves in Uganda, making them an important source of revenue for the government and local communities. The construction of a US$2 million eco-lodge by the Alam Group of Companies, and a community visitor centre built with support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme and implemented by United Nations Development Program (UNDP), are expected to attract an even greater number of visitors to the forest.

A Promising future?

It is evident that the forest is recovering. Bahati believes this is the combined result of the NFA's management, ongoing research that has increased awareness, support from the media to ensure that the forest is not gazetted, and local politicians realising the importance of conservation.

However, decentralisation, the process of giving local institutions more authority over the forest, is now one of the biggest challenges. Fearing it will result in a lack of incentive to continue conservation measures, Bahati, and others, are working to address the problem. "It will require time before people are able to grasp what they are supposed to do under decentralisation," he confesses. "We are taking community representatives on visits to other communities to learn from them, but this will take a while to have an impact".

Date published: November 2008


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