In the polluting nations, one of the major challenges for public engagement on climate change is that people perceive tackling climate change to involve sacrifice. Using a bus instead of a private car usually means a journey will be longer; saving energy at home means making an effort to change personal behaviour and habits. It has been a struggle to interest people in climate change because campaigners spend a lot of time telling people what they shouldn’t do – but much less time telling people what they should do instead.
In Uganda, there is a similar challenge to overcome. Most environmental messages tell people what they should not do – cutting trees, dumping litter in the streets, or building on wetlands. Most people do not want to act in a way that is environmentally destructive, but they often have very limited choices.
The problem for most people is that there is no obvious alternative: there is no positive vision for sustainable development.
As Ronald Musoke, an environmental journalist, explains:
“It is a very big challenge, this thing called sustainable development, because with more that 80% of our population directly dependent on the environment for their basic survival, telling them about conservation is going to be a challenge if you are not giving them options. If you tell somebody not to cultivate a wetland because it has repercussions for their environment, he will need an alternative, but where is that alternative land for him to cultivate?”
The biggest problem here is not communication – but that there is often nothing to communicate. For most people, their options are genuinely very limited. But slowly, alternatives are beginning to be developed. Energy-efficient cooking stoves are being distributed more widely, solar panels are now available (although they are expensive) and (more controversially), schemes that pay people to keep trees standing rather than chop them down are starting to emerge. As Susan Nanduddu, of the development NGO DENIVA says:
“People want to contribute positively, but the options are limited. It is important to give them a picture of alternatives. What can they do even with their limited alternatives, to work in a more sustainable manner? If you communicate that, maybe they will start doing something about it.”
So what does sustainable development in Uganda mean? Is the future for Uganda one that looks like industrialised countries, but with giant solar farms and hydro-electric dams instead of coal power stations? Or is there a different model for Uganda, one that sticks with agriculture but improves the capacity of it to generate value, by not just selling raw materials but making more processed foods?
Linda Nassanga, from the Mass Communication department at Makerere University, suggests that Uganda cannot simply copy the model of industrialisation that worked for the West:
“The rich countries are rich because they industrialized but they had an advantage which we don’t. We have advantages but we don’t use them because of the mentality that agriculture is something low class. We don’t realize the potential that it can have to boost the whole economy. So that is still missing because although we want to industrialize, the industries are not there. And who is going to buy the things?”
Where is the market for industrial goods in Uganda?
While few would dispute that Uganda is blessed with fertile land and the perfect climate for agriculture, young people in Uganda are increasingly moving away from farming as a ‘traditional’ way of life and embracing urbanisation and industrialisation. Unfortunately, this has not yet delivered prosperity in Uganda, as Professor Oweyegha Afunaduula, of NAPE, explains:
“In our poor countries what is happening is that villages are being transplanted in to the cities… people are coming for higher standards, but you won’t find them there. And these people who have migrated are the ones who populate the streets. Poverty moves around like a snake: during the day it moves into the city centre, during the night it goes back to the periphery where you will find 80% of the people don’t have latrines, 80% of the people don’t have clean water, 80% of people are children are not attending school”
People clearly have the right to develop their livelihoods from subsistence farming and to access standards of living that many other nations enjoy. But Professor Afunaduula’s argument is that a higher standard of living will not be achieved by the rural poor flocking to the cities. So what form will development take – should farming be abandoned altogether as a ‘low status’ occupation, or should the agricultural sector drive development in Uganda? Can Uganda’s fertile lands feed the rest of Africa?
These are big questions, but it is critical that they are not simply left for policymakers to consider. Ownership over Uganda’s future and sustainable development is something that every citizen should have a stake in. Without something better to believe in – and access to practical alternatives – people will continue cutting trees, building on wetlands and destroying the Ugandan natural environment.