Shortcomings of natural resources-based economic growth in Uganda


Winston Churchill visited Uganda at the start of the twentieth century, he was impressed by the biological
diversity, rivers and lakes, the fertility of the soil, abundant rainfall, moderate
climate and food variety.

1894 Uganda was declared a protectorate. It would raise revenue from its own resources
through producing export commodities starting with cotton and later coffee, tea
and tobacco. The extensive method of cultivation resulted in clearing large
swathes of vegetative cover. Producing food for an increasing population and
livestock grazing resulted in more vegetation being cleared.

protect the environment, the British administration designated forest and game
reserves. Cultivation and grazing in wetlands/swamps was also prohibited. Hill
tops and slopes were planted with trees to prevent soil erosion and floods. In
areas where agriculture took place in hilly areas as in Kabale, terracing was
encouraged to check water runoff and mud slides.

mid-1970s, the government of Amin declared an economic war and called for
increased agricultural and livestock production using every available piece of
land. Wetlands were drained, hill tops and slopes were stripped of vegetation
to grow cash and food crops and raise animals including exotic ones. The
extensive de-vegetation resulted in ecological changes. Local temperatures rose
and the rainfall pattern changed affecting agricultural production. New
diseases were introduced. In Kabale, the rise in temperature created ideal
conditions for the invasion of the area by mosquitoes and the spread of malaria
with devastating impact on the population especially children who did not have
immunity. The economic impact was also considerable as workers became sick or
attended to sick children and/or relatives and spent their limited resources to
treat the disease.

activities that dependent on wetlands such as fishing, collecting fuel wood for
domestic use and for sale and raw materials for making mats and baskets for
domestic use and for sale were brought to an end contributing to unemployment
and increasing poverty and food insecurity.

that time most houses were built with timber and roofed with grass. With both
materials destroyed, communities turned to using clay, sand and stones as
building materials. The baking of clay bricks resulted in heavy deforestation.
And the holes where clay, sand and stones were extracted were filled with water
which provided ideal conditions for mosquito breeding.

roof their houses, households sold their assets such as land, livestock and used
their savings or married off their daughters early to raise money for buying
corrugated iron sheets. Given the limitation of resources, the new houses were
smaller resulting in overcrowding and the spread of contagious diseases.

the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government came to power in 1986, it included
environmental protection and management among its fifteen priority areas. Point
Number 15 of the NRM program states that “The Movement has all along been
sensitive about issues of our environment, and the importance of environmental
management for sustainable development. In 1986, soon after the NRM came to
power, it demonstrated its commitment to environmental management, by
establishing for the first time a full fledged Ministry of Environmental
Protection. Since then, a series of policy guidelines have been developed
culminating in the enactment of an Environmental Law for the country. To date
there is a full fledged authority in the name of National Environmental
Management Authority”.

addressing the nation in 1989, President Museveni stressed the importance of
environmental protection. He said in part “If we allow our environment to be
degraded, the much-talked-of beauty and the potential wealth of the Pearl of
Africa will cease to exist. It is frightening to note that in 1900 we had a
forest cover of 100,000 sq. km. Today [1989], that forest cover has shrunk to
16188 sq. km! I have instructed the Ministry of Environment to work out the
implications of this shrinkage for the rainfall, temperatures and erosion of
the top-soil. All of us should familiarize ourselves with these figures”.

government commitment, policy formulation and establishment of institutions and
laws, environmental degradation has accelerated in part because of the
export-oriented economic growth adopted since the 1990s within the framework of
the Washington Consensus or Structural Adjustment. The increasing production of
traditional crops of cotton, coffee, tea and tobacco and the introduction on
non-traditional exports of cut flowers, fruits and vegetables using mostly
extensive methods have increased de-vegetation. Increasing timber extraction and
fish harvesting for export have resulted in overexploitation of the two natural
resources with serious environmental consequences.

what Uganda is experiencing as the first decade of the 21st century
draws to a close is an environment characterized by rapid de-vegetation, loss
of top soil, increasing floods, inadequate and irregular rainfall, warmer and
longer dry seasons and increasing droughts, shrinking lakes, disappearing rivers,
dropping water tables, drying spring wells, dropping agricultural productivity
and spreading semi-desert conditions and diseases such as malaria.

adverse developments are contributing to a deterioration of human conditions in
Disease, poverty and food insecurity are on the rise. Some 35 percent of the total
population is suffering from mental illness due in part to poor feeding and
stress, 40 percent of children under the age of five are under-nourished, 12
percent of infants are born underweight because their mothers are malnourished
and up to 80 percent of children are dropping out of primary school in part
because they are hungry. Because of low earning capacity, 84 percent of Soroti
residents are below the poverty line in a country that is reported to have registered
an economic growth rate of 9 percent due in large part to the selling of food
and benefitting from the rising food prices.

adverse environmental and related economic and social consequences call for a
serious and urgent review of the development model Uganda has pursued since the 1990s.

on the exploitation of natural resources to raise the level of economic growth
and export earnings has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that the model
is not sustainable no matter how some Ugandans and other commentators have
tried to embellish it. The encouragement of livestock herding on a nomadic and
commercial scale especially of goats needs to be rethought because of possible adverse
environmental consequences.

economic hardship due to environmental stress is pushing migrants into urban
areas that do not have the capacity to absorb them. The hardship has the
potential of increasing mental stress, cultural breakdown and a rise in
criminal activity as urban residents try to make ends meet. Increasing police,
prisons and judiciary services may provide a temporary relief but in the long
run the solution will have to come from an economic model that depends less on
natural resource exploitation and more on industries and services that lead to sustained
and sustainable economic growth with equity.

strategic intervention to correct imperfections of free enterprise and free
markets is unavoidable whether we like it or not. Failure to act and soon is
likely to be costly in environmental, economic, social, cultural and ultimately
political terms.