Adam Corner

The wood for the trees

In Climate Change, trees, Uganda on January 26, 2011 at 10:06 am

Ugandan farmer next to some pine trees

Trees are important in Uganda. With most of the country lacking piped gas and reliable electricity, they provide crucial cooking fuel for rural (and not so rural) communities. For the many Ugandans who do not have an enclosed, private kitchen, a charcoal powered stove at the back of the house (or in a communal area) is the primary method of heating food and boiling otherwise un-drinkable tap water. People also sell charcoal to earn money.

Burning charcoal is literally keeping people alive in Uganda. But the rate of deforestation is depleting wood stocks at an unprecedented pace, and charcoal is a dirty fuel – and so burning charcoal is also ensuring that future Ugandan generations will not have access to this vital source of energy. It is an unenviable Catch 22 – Ugandans need trees now, and they need them in the future.

Bags of charcoal on a farm in Southern Uganda

The Africa Talks Climate research programme (which provided the first systematic analysis of public perceptions of climate change in the continent) pointed to a high level of awareness of the critical role that trees play in regulating the natural environment in Uganda.

Ugandans identify trees as being important for preventing topsoil from washing away in floods, providing habitats for animals, and fruit for the rapidly growing population. But they also feel compelled to chop them down. According to one participant in the Africa Talks Climate project, from Soroti in the East of Uganda:

“Poverty is the thing that causes a person to go and cut trees for charcoal…(then they) sell it to get some help”.

In the absence of other suitable sources of energy, it is not reasonable to expect people not to chop down their forests to help feed themselves. This is the brutal interaction between poverty and climate change laid bare. Those without the means of accessing clean energy must use polluting fuels – yet the greenhouse gases created by burning them will impact disproportionately on economically vulnerable countries.

A Ugandan woman cooking with charcoal and wood

People in poverty are compelled by necessity to pursue a path they know is not tenable in the long term. It is up to those in positions of power – the Ugandan government, civil society, and the international community – to ensure that citizens are not forced to embrace unsustainable practices, as Uganda is deeply dependent on the productivity of its agricultural land.

The Presidential election is less than a month away, but a quick scan of the national media suggests that campaigning on sustainable land use is not a political point scorer. Understandably, people have more immediate concerns – like improving the crumbling roads of Kampala, or the erratic and over-priced electricity supply. And the politicians know that promises of short term solutions will be preferred to strategic long term goals. The problem is expressed neatly in an article in the Daily Monitor, Uganda’s most respected daily paper:

“…(I)n a country where the vast majority of the voters are poor and illiterate, their voting decisions normally depend on what they hear. For the rural poor, justice, good governance, rule of law, press freedom, human rights and macro-economic policies are distant and intangible things” (Daily Monitor, Monday 24th January 2010, ‘Uganda Decides’ pullout, page 1)

Climate change – perhaps the most frustratingly intangible thing of all – could be added to this list. Convincing poor, rural populations that they should think long term about the natural environment is going to be a challenge. But without a more stringent strategy for sustainable forest management, Ugandans are in danger of not seeing the wood for the burnt, charcoal trees.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Oliver Cowan and Jack Watkins, Adam Corner. Adam Corner said: New Hidden Heat blogpost. Charcoal stoves in Ugandan: Not seeing the wood for the trees? […]

  2. Good Post.

    I saw this solar powered stove/heater/generator last year and thought it could help alleviate the burning of charcoal:

    It looks pretty unwieldy though…

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