The Uganda we have lost: Biological diversity

In this article the author will focus on the loss of biological diversity (biodiversity) in Rujumbura sub-county of Rukungiri district in south west Uganda as a result of human activities in the name of development. But first, let us look briefly at Uganda as a whole.

Uganda was originally covered by dense tropical forests, woodland vegetation, wetlands and large water bodies and rivers except in a few relatively dry areas in the northeast. Hunters and gatherers roamed freely in search of food without damaging the ecosystem.

Later, Bantu groups arrived in Uganda from the southwest corner with short-horn cattle, goats and sheep as well as iron implements and fire. As they cleared vegetation to grow crops, graze their livestock and construct shelters, the original vegetation cover was lost. Because land was still plentiful, shifting cultivation helped secondary environmental regeneration.

Then pastoral immigrants arrived from the north in search of pasture followed by the British in search of agricultural and mineral resources. These demands put additional pressure on vegetation cover. As the land frontier diminished forcing people to stay in permanent locations, shifting cultivation that had provided opportunities for regeneration of the vegetation was no longer available and de-vegetation accelerated and was made worse by increased timber exports, expansion of ranches and crop cultivation.

Rujumbura county, the author’s home area, like most of Uganda, was originally covered in thick forests, woodlands and wetlands that teamed with a wide range of plants, animals, fish, birds, fruits and vegetables. The southern part was settled first with Bantu mixed farmers who grew crops and raised livestock. They cleared land to make pasture and grow food crops.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, migrants from south Kigezi settled in the northern parts of the county that had previously been uninhabited by humans. The vegetation cover was cleared to grow food for domestic consumption and export crops of coffee and tobacco. Wildlife was hunted for meat or to get rid of animals that destroyed crops or attacked humans and livestock.

The soils were fertile and rainfall adequate and stable in amount, timing and duration. The thick vegetation allowed rainwater to seep into the ground and to supply water to perennial rivers that cut deep gorges into the landscape. The most famous was Kiborogota (the roaring river).

The county teamed with wildlife, fish in wetlands and lakes and birds some of them edible such as partridge and guinea fowl that permitted hunting on a regular basis with plenty of game meat to go around in many households. Wild fruits and vegetables were in abundance. There were three types of mushrooms (obutuzi, small in size, entyabiri, medium, and ebituzi, large). Obukoko, a type of fungus that grew on dead acacia trees provided a nutritious and delicious meal when mixed with other vegetables. The months of October, November and December provided extra protein from swarms of grasshoppers. The volcanic soils in concert with adequate moisture permitted the growing of a variety of foodstuffs, mostly for domestic use.
Rujumbura was home to an abundance of a wide range of flowers and birds. There were seasons when the county was covered with flowers of all colors, making the countryside very beautiful. The flowers attracted millions of butterflies and of bees so that honey was an important part of the diet. Most of the flowers and butterflies have been lost. Bees are still there but in significantly reduced numbers.

There were birds of two types: migratory and non-migratory. The latter included doves, crows, cranes, ibises, hawks and herons. They made wonderful sounds before daybreak and their colors beautified the sky and the branches on which they sat. People do not like hawks because they fed on chicks but they like herons for the simple reason that they hunt and eat snakes and rodents.

The migratory birds came in large swarms in different sizes and colors just about harvest time. They sang different songs and enriched the atmosphere and their colors mixed beautifully with those of flowers and butterflies. Because they fed on crops in addition to wild seeds, they were never liked by farmers, who built scarecrows and beat empty tins to scare and keep them away from crops. When harvesting had finished, they disappeared until the next season.

People enjoyed the swallows whose arrival according to stories signaled the onset of the rains. They were tiny birds but very active and flew at high speed skillfully avoiding obstacles. Another interesting bird was esasi, brownish in color that fed on ticks from livestock. It was interesting to watch it pick ticks from all parts of livestock. These birds have become extinct because of poisoning from inorganic chemicals introduced to kill ticks. Then there were the enyangyi, the white birds always in the company of cattle. They picked at insects of all sorts – but not at ticks. They are still alive. There was thus a division of labor between esasi and enyangyi. By the end of the 1960s the county still enjoyed natural beauty. However many changes have occurred since the 1970s.

Amin came to power in 1971 and declared an ‘economic war’ a few years later urging that every piece of land should be brought under cultivation or pasture in order to boost economic growth. The wetlands, hill tops and steep slopes that had been preserved to protect the environment and catchment areas were cleared and converted into farms. The wetlands were drained en masse. The wild animals, birds, bees and insects largely disappeared as de-vegetation spread. Hunting and fishing activities declined drastically as did the supply of game meat, fish and honey.

By the 1980s, the scenery had fundamentally changed. Instead of forests and wetlands, the topography was dominated by gardens and pastures fenced for grazing purposes or badly denuded hillsides whose color had changed from green to dusty brown. The wetlands were all gone. The local climate had changed and was warmer and drier than before. Mosquitoes invaded the place with adverse health and economic consequences mostly during the rainy season. Floods and droughts had become more common and rivers either dried up completely (such as the famous Kiborogota) or become seasonal. Water tables had dropped causing many spring wells to dry up. Soil fertility had declined and so had productivity per unit of land in the absence of organic or inorganic fertilizers. Can this situation be reversed?

The degradation can be repaired and vegetation restored only if all stakeholders can work together to make it happen. It will require strong political will and committed leadership. Planting trees could mark the first phase. Reducing timber exports, finding alternative sources of energy and construction materials and improving soil productivity by reducing extensive agricultural methods could also help restore ecological health during the second – mid to longer-term – phase. Such efforts must be sustained to have a lasting impact.

The government needs to implement its commitment to the removal of bottlenecks to environmental management through popular methods of mass mobilization and community programs. The introduction of new development programs likely to damage the environment such as goat herding on a commercial basis needs to be studied carefully.

The visible and negative changes in the ecological system particularly frequent droughts and floods have brought home the urgent message of taking corrective action. Many people in Rujumbura and indeed in the whole country would favor a modification in their activities with a view to improving the health of the environment. What is needed is a clear policy, strategy and a plan of action.