Children walking in the Forest Landscape Restoration HQ and nursery in Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda.

Plantations cannot replace natural forests but, if managed well, they can contribute to conservation and local economies in countries such as Uganda.

Uganda’s forests are disappearing rapidly. In 1990, approximately 30 per cent of Uganda was covered with forests but by 2015 this figure had fallen to 10 per cent.

Uganda loses up to 122,000 hectares of forests annually, according to an assessment by the Ministry of Water and Environment in 2015. Areas around Kampala alone have lost 78 per cent of forest cover since 1990. If business as usual continues, by 2050 no forests will be left in the country.

The destruction of forests and the ecosystems they support puts the lives of millions of Ugandans at risk. As a result of widespread deforestation, rainfall patterns are changing, which in turn has a negative impact on food production and food security. Dry spells are longer and rainy seasons are shorter. In 2016, Uganda witnessed extreme drought across the country that left millions, especially around the Karamoja, Isingiro and Bulisa regions in western Uganda, on the brink of starvation.

Forests on the frontline

The major drivers of deforestation include clearing of land for agriculture to cater to the needs of a booming population – growing at a rate of 3.2 per cent; expanding farmland; unregulated timber and charcoal production to meet energy and construction needs spurred by rapid urbanization; illegal logging; and wasteful consumption of forest resources, with recoveries standing at only 25 per cent (meaning that only a quarter of a tree is utilized while 75 per cent is wasted).

Illegal logging and illegal timber trade are significant issues. Since 1987, the exportation of round wood harvested from natural forests has been banned, but this ban has not been tightly enforced.

Uganda and other East African countries made a joint declaration in 2015 to tackle illegal timber trade in the region; however, deforestation is still rampant, averaging about 5.5 per cent every year, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

Only 10 per cent of Uganda's population has access to electricity and 89 per cent of rural Ugandans use firewood to cook, putting more pressure on forests to meet their energy needs. Amidst these challenges, robust interventions have to be implemented to reverse the alarming trend of deforestation in the country.

Restoration for recovery

The Ugandan government has made a number of international commitments to stop deforestation and promote landscape-level forest restoration, such as the Bonn Challenge, and has pledged to restore 2 million of hectares of degraded forests and 0.5 million hectares of agricultural land by 2020, which would support the Uganda Vision 2040 of restoring forest cover to 24 per cent by 2040.

These are all welcome commitments and the government needs to ensure these targets are achieved before Uganda loses its remaining forests. The private sector also has an important role to play, as forests and plantations in private ownership are an important source of timber as well as charcoal.

Plantations cannot replace natural ecosystems but, if managed well, they can help reduce pressure on natural forests and contribute positively to the welfare of local communities through creation of employment opportunities.

WWF-Uganda, in partnership with the New Forest Company and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), will host a New Generations Plantation (NGP) study tour in Uganda from June 4-8, 2018 under the theme “Plantations for Africa’s Prosperity”, to share lessons learnt in Uganda’s plantation sector and how responsible plantations can be an engine for sustainable development at scale.

WWF advocates for responsible management of plantations that ensure integrity of terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity. Such responsible management practices are contained in International Forest Management standards such as FSC standards that Uganda has domesticated and are being launched on 4th June 2018, during the NGP event in Uganda.  

As Uganda’s economy continues to grow, fueling increased demand for timber products through construction and rural electrification poles, there are many lessons we can learn from the creation of forestry plantations in Latin America and in Southeast Asia, particularly from working with communities, government and in tackling deforestation.

The strategy to protect Uganda’s forests has to be two-fold – halt deforestation and restore degraded land. But all stakeholders – from governments to companies to civil society organizations – need to be a part of this. Only together can we ensure that the next generation of Ugandans achieve the full benefits of forests as their ancestors once did.