Adam Corner

Archive for the ‘Indigenous knowledge’ Category

Seeing REDD in Uganda

In Climate Change, climate justice, Indigenous knowledge, politics, trees, Uganda on February 28, 2011 at 9:18 am

If you close your eyes very tightly and try squinting at climate change using the narrowest possible perspective, you can almost make out what look like some benefits of climate change in certain parts of the world. In the short term, crop yields in the Northern hemisphere are likely to be improved, while for tired old seaside resorts in the South of England, a few extra degrees of summer temperature would be a blessing.

A British beach on a beautiful summer's day

But for the overwhelming majority of the world’s inhabitants, climate change is not something to celebrate, and in Uganda, few people are able to identify any benefits of a changing climate. As Ronald Musoke, a freelance environmental journalist puts it:

“Maybe in the future, especially if we get serious and get on top of the issue and give it the attention it deserves, there may be opportunities that present themselves… (But) at the moment, I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel as far as climate change is concerned.”

The pessimism is understandable – Uganda is facing the infuriating challenge of adapting to a problem it didn’t cause. But could there really be future opportunities for Uganda in climate change?

Something that has been gathering an increasing amount of momentum in the UNFCCC negotiations on climate change is REDD – a mechanism for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. In a nutshell, REDD is supposed to allow developing countries with critical resources like rainforests (which absorb carbon, and are known as ‘carbon-sinks’) to receive payment from polluting nations in order to keep those forests intact, or to embark on programmes of tree planting to help absorb some of the world’s excess carbon.

The idea is that if they are valued appropriately, trees are worth more alive than they are dead. On the surface, it sounds like a promising method of tackling climate change whilst transferring wealth to developing countries. And in theory, there are real, tangible benefits to be had from the ‘carbon-credits’ locked up in Uganda’s trees, as well as huge potential for increasing revenue by planting more.

But in reality, there are serious concerns about REDD – and who will be the real beneficiaries. It is telling that the people who are most excited about REDD are not the inhabitants of forest communities, but the movers and shakers of the burgeoning carbon-trading sector – because trees with price tags are valuable commodities.

As Robert Bakiika, of the Environmental Management for Livelihood Improvement in Kampala, says, there is an inherent danger in locking critical community resources like forests up in complex financing mechanisms driven by international pressure for market-based solutions to climate change:

“There is a very, very big danger in involving most of our developing countries in financial mechanisms because financial mechanisms are so tricky. And our counterparts the developed countries have designed the system. They have designed the system and we are just players in a system.”

One of the biggest issues is that REDD is a very knowledge-intensive field – with most of the technical expertise located far away from the communities who will be directly impacted by it. The danger is that government officials, lacking the technical capacity to identify risks in REDD programmes, will promote them to rural communities, and rural communities, eager to reap the financial reward from selling their carbon-credits, will sign away their carbon rights.

One important resource in helping ensure that REDD benefits not only the carbon-traders, but also the communities who depend on the forests, is a new initiative called – an international network that seeks to champion the rights of the global south in the REDD debate. Top of the list of priorities is increasing the level of participation of community and civil society organisations from countries like Uganda in the policy discussions about REDD. Without a seat at the negotiating table, these critical stakeholders have no voice.

But there is also some understandable opposition to the very concept of carbon credits in Uganda. Ronald Musoke explains:

“Our President, he seems to have the view, that ‘why should they tell us to keep our forests when they themselves first destroyed the environment for getting the level they earn currently, why can’t we be given the chance?’…of course that is flawed, it is quite flawed…you don’t go through the same pattern you went through during the industrial revolution…but for him he thinks that we should be given the opportunity to destroy our environment in the name of development”

Musoke is correct that the President’s argument is flawed – destroying the environment in the name of development will not deliver the kind of long-term and sustainable changes that Uganda needs. But it is also a pretty compelling argument from the perspective of a nation desperate to develop. Doesn’t the logic of REDD look suspiciously like an attempt to permit the developed world to carry on polluting while the developing world tends to its trees?

Without practical, well-funded alternatives to the model of industrialisation that the developed nations have pursued, countries like Uganda cannot be expected not to exploit the natural resources in their forests. It is all very well paying people to keep their trees alive – but that is the beginning, not the end of the international community’s responsibility. Technology transfer, and capacity building needs to be massively scaled-up. It is not enough to price up the world’s forests and hope the market will deliver climate justice.

Indigenous knowledge & climate change

In Climate Change, Indigenous knowledge, Religion, Uganda on February 5, 2011 at 9:32 am

Religion & superstition go hand in hand in Uganda

Uganda is a deeply spiritual country. Almost 90% Christian with a sprinkling of Islam, the formal religions are supplemented with a hefty dose of ancient superstition. Witchdoctors and practitioners of herbal remedies abound. Due in part to the failure of the healthcare system to meet basic needs, many Ugandans still turn to ‘alternative’ medicines. Uganda is not necessarily anti-science, but science takes its place alongside superstition as a competing method of understanding the world.

Against this backdrop, you might expect the scientific explanation of climate change to fall on deaf ears. But in fact, indigenous knowledge in rural Uganda – built up over centuries of living in-synch with the natural environment, and often rooted in superstition and spirituality – is an ancient form of environmentalism.

Traditional Ugandan cultural institutions (that existed long before the Christian missionaries came to Africa) treated the natural environment with a great deal of respect. In an article for, Robert Bakiika argues that ancient cultural knowledge is vital for managing climate change:

“Cultural institutions have played an important role in the context of climate change adaptation and mitigation such as implementation of forest protection policies and passing of information to generations…Recalling that part of Mpanga Forest Reserve in Mpigi District used to be a burial ground for some heads of cultural institutions, clearly shows that such institutions respected natural resource management.”

Ben Twinomugisha, a climate change activist from Kampala, suggests that it is not necessarily a problem if people apply non-scientific explanations to climate change.

“They might not know that it is caused by industrialisation, because most people have not seen industries in their areas. So they say ‘we cut trees, and God is telling us not to destroy trees around us, so now that’s why we are suffering’. Indigenous knowledge comes from the history of the people from generation to generation. When I look at your societies, most people don’t have a history. Here, our communities have been together for centuries, so there is an oral tradition from one generation to the next. I can tell you a story of the last 10,000 years….it shapes my mind.”

That kind of panoramic historical view on the changes that are taking place in Uganda today is an aid, not a barrier, to communicating climate change in Uganda. People know their natural history. They recall stories about climatic events. They understand that the environment must be cared for and respected if it is to serve its purpose for humans.

Climate change is not about predominantly about science in Uganda – it is about environmental stewardship. Whether that stewardship is motivated by rationalism or superstition, few seek to deny its importance. But it is sobering to consider that the ancient cultural institutions in Uganda that represent the nation’s environmental consciousness are being steadily eroded by the inevitable march towards industrialisation.

Kampala's heaving taxi park - a sign of the times

Development is understandably the highest priority in Uganda – and so industrialisation will be welcomed with open arms if it brings improvements in standards of living. But thanks to the unsustainable practices of developed nations, Uganda’s industrial revolution will be constrained by the need to buffer itself against the effects of climate change. The balancing act for Uganda – as with so many developing nations – is to develop in a way that does not compromise the well-being of future generations.

Sustainable development is an all-encompassing term that has come to mean almost nothing in countries like the UK, where corporate social responsibility means offsetting the staff Christmas party with a cheque made out to the Indonesian Orangutans. But in Uganda, sustainable development means something profound.