Adam Corner

Archive for the ‘trees’ 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 REDD.net – an international network that seeks to champion the rights of the global south in the REDD debate. Top of the REDD.net 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.

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.