Adam Corner

Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

A positive vision for sustainable development?

In Climate Change, politics, Uganda on May 16, 2011 at 12:06 pm

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.

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.

Politicising climate change in Uganda

In Climate Change, climate justice, politics, Uganda on February 16, 2011 at 9:57 am

In Uganda the average carbon footprint is less than 1 tonne of CO2 per year. In the US it is 20 tonnes. The average Ugandan will tell you instantly that the climate has changed – that the rains are unpredictable, the droughts are longer, and the temperatures are hotter. It is not politically controversial. In the US, a growing number of people think that climate change is a gigantic conspiracy aimed at curtailing their consumption – it is a political hot potato.

Given these stark differences in who is causing – and who is taking responsibility for – climate change, you could forgive Ugandans for being angry with the polluting nations for creating (and then deny responsibility for) a problem that Ugandans are now dealing with. But in fact, simmering resentment towards the industrialised countries is nowhere to be seen.

Why aren’t people angry about the deep injustice of climate change? Part of the answer is the very pragmatic way that climate change is understood in Uganda.

For many people in developed nations, climate change represents a direct challenge to their consumer self-identity. Previously mundane decisions about travel and energy use are now angst filled trade-offs. But in Uganda, climatic changes need rapid and effective solutions – practical measures must be put in place to ensure that the Ugandan environment remains as resilient as possible to the changes that are being forced on it.

You don’t find many Ugandans debating whether climate change is a political conspiracy. If you bury your head in the sand in Uganda, your crops will have failed by the time you re-emerge. According to James Tumusiime, the Editor of the bi-weekly national newspaper The Observer, the debate in Uganda has not really reached an intellectual level of trying to dissect what climate change means. People are concerned with much more immediate concerns – like ensuring that their families are housed and fed.

But while this practical and localised approach to climate change is impressive and understandable, some activists are concerned that a critical element of the climate change debate is missing in Uganda. Sarah Kisolo, of the Rural Development Media and Communication organisation, argues that climate change should be more politicised, because if it is not, then people will never fully understand how important it is:

“People are not knowledgeable. They are not aware…If climate change was politicised, then it would generate a debate….then they would demonstrate, they would shout, and people can feel it.”

Susan Nanduddu, Programme Assistant for Climate Change with the civil society umbrella organisation DENIVA, suggests that powerful political forces are shaping the way that Uganda is able to respond to climate change – but these forces are invisible to the ordinary citizen, as they take place behind the closed doors or the UNFCCC climate change negotiations:

 “The international community has an obligation to respond surely, to (financially) support these communities…(But) that ends up being a very sensitive issue. For example, the United States doesn’t even want to hear that information. They just don’t want to… The moment those around the table, the negotiating tables, turn around and they speak as donors, not as UNFCCC parties, then the language changes, unfortunately…”

Phillipa Kanyoka, also with DENIVA, is even more direct:

“It’s the duty of the polluters to pay, to offset…because in economics, there is something called the ‘polluter pays’ principle… (But) we cannot negotiate…you know it is like for the negotiations on trade. EU’s funding is assisting African leaders. So, I am being paid by EU. And they are sponsoring me. I go there…am I going to be at the same level as the other European, or other bigger nations? I am going there as a…as a beggar. So I think the power of nations plays a very big role…the problem of the positions of our political leaders, the problem of power relations. Whoever is funding you has the power to influence your decision…”

These fundamental restraints on the capacity of the Ugandan government to respond to climate change are not widely known in Uganda. Although many Ugandans have embraced the message of planting trees to absorb carbon dioxide, of switching to more drought-resilient crops, and of adapting to unpredictable rains, most have not grasped the injustice of climate change.

If and when they do, the focus of climate change in Uganda may change from passively adapting to changes that Ugandans didn’t cause, to actively challenging the political structures that prevent them from accessing the financial support they are owed by the international community.