By David Mafabi
KWEEN – A bird’s-eye view of what is left of the Mt Elgon forest in Kween district, one of Mt Elgon’s water catchment areas, is shocking.
Kween, part of Mt Elgon National Park was formerly grassy, with various trees that lay unperturbed by man’s activities – the trees stood out and the hills remained green.
Today, the forest now looks like baldheads, standing one after another, only comforted with thin patches of hair lining around them to cover the shame of their destruction.
A visit at the slopes of Mt Elgon in Kween reveals an open area with little regeneration; grazing on either side of the forest edge in combination with tree-cutting for firewood, farming and settlement appear the main forces eroding the forest edge and keeping these areas open.
The lush-green canopy that made Mt Elgon a water catchment area in East, a powerful ecosystem in Uganda, is fading, interrupted by open fields of barley and wheat, drying timber, settlements and bare land, fighting to redeem itself from fresh tree destruction.
Inside the Benet village that lies inside the forest in Kween district, evidence comes to sight that the persistent reports of its depletion are real.
Mt Elgon known for more than 197 species of indigenous trees; the depleted area has also lost the fruit trees that are supposed to be food for the primates that include White calabash monkey, red tail Monkeys and Velvet Monkeys.
The area used to have mixed forest/bamboo, bush land, grassland, the Elgon teak, Mahogany Neoboutonia macrocalyx and Podocarpus latifolius and other medicinal trees, all these are facing extinction as man scrambles to settle and do farming.
A report by monitoring and research unit at Mt Elgon national park indicates that the communities adjacent to Mt. Elgon forests rely extensively on the forests for poles, firewood, medicines and honey production.
The report dated September 2019 reveals that the mountain known as an enormous watershed, with its slopes supporting a rich diversity of altitudinal vegetation areas that range from the lush Montana, the mixed bamboo-belt forest to the intriguing high open moorland, dotted with the really uncommon worldly plant species such as the large lobelia plus the groundsel plants unusual to Africa will be no more if government does not rise up to end encroachment.
The report reveals that a total of 8664 ha [87Sq Km] of land has been cleared off forest putting 3055 ha [about 30.5SqKm] in Benet, Kween district alone.
Mr Peter Kamuron, an elder and former council Member for Sebei sub-region says one by one, the structures come up daily; the next occupier takes up the next available parcel of land, extending deeper into Mt Elgon forest.
He said they [Encroachers] then pave the way for whoever comes next, to dig deeper and help them cut down more trees.
“At first, they put up temporary structures, hundreds of mud-walled houses and those made from timber can be spotted littering the forest then shortly they put iron sheet houses with bricks and cement then the entire place is occupied for settlement and farming,” said Mr Kamuron.
He said they have marched hundreds of acres past the boundary marks, deep into the forest and that a good number of boundary marks have been broken down by their tormentors to erase the boundary, while others have been covered by vegetation grown around them.
But the destruction at Mt Elgon did not start and end with Forest at Benet in Kween district. The tragedy has since befallen the entire Mt Elgon area– a mountain once blessed with a wide range of biodiversity.
Most Mt Elgon forests in Mbale, Bududa, Namisindwa, Bulambuli, Kapchorwa, Bukwo and Sironko districts are at the verge of disappearing completely.
The monitoring and research report says besides Benet, Bumayoka, Bubiita, Bulucheke, Bududa sub-counties in Bududa district, Buwabwala sub-county in Manafwa district, Wanale, Bufumbo, Busano sub-counties in Mbale, Bumasifwa, Busulani sub-counties in Sironko district, Bumbo sub-county in Manafwa district and Kapsegek sub-county in Bukwo district areas have all been destroyed by encroachers.
Mr Nelson Cheptoris, an Elder from Kween and former LCV chairman for Kapchorwa says part of Mt Elgon national park has been converted into gardens of maize and beans, barley, wheat, while others have been replaced by eucalyptus trees.
“It is unfortunate that those responsible to protect natural resources are the very persons responsible for forest destruction. The forest land is now for settlement and farming and district officials say the decision to cut the trees stemmed from government’s decision to allocate them land within the park,” said Mr Chelimo.
Mr Sam Chemisto, the district natural resources officer says that farmers cut mature trees into timber and firewood and that the rate at which trees are cut exceeds the pace at which they are planted.
“And this makes Mt Elgon area a site for possible ecological and environmental crisis of catastrophic proportions in the near future,” said Mr Chemisto.
Seeing little resistance and pushback from the government, the Benet encroachers got comfortable and structures made from iron sheets started coming up.
As the authorities continued to look away, some became more courageous and started building more permanent structures.
Hurriedly, some put up structures hanging precariously on the sides of the hills, which can easily be washed away by heavy rainfall.
Mr. Chemisto says that in less than three years, it is impossible to tell there was once a canopy of trees covering the bare land that now stretches over the drying valleys and tributaries that feed into the main rivers that flow from Mt Elgon, some of which support several ecosystems in Kenya.
Although the percentage of tree cover destroyed is unknown to Mt Elgon, the area is already feeling the pinch of forest degradation.
Mr Charles Wakube, the Mbale District Environment Officer, says water springs and wetlands are drying up as a result of deforestation at Mt Elgon.
He says since most forests are river-lane, a decrease in the forest cover greatly affects water bodies in the district. “For instance, about 34 natural springs in Mt Elgon forest have dried up,”
He revealed that animals like Elephants, Buffaloes and birds that used to attract tourists to the Mt Elgon have migrated.
Ms Maria Namagidini, a farmer living at the slopes of Mt Elgon in Bugiboni village, says the entire Mt Elgon sub-region is experiencing more dry spells and erratic rainfall partners than before.
Uganda Wildlife Authority report 2016 indicates that clearing of the land for settlement and farming at Mt Elgon national park at Kween [London portion of the park], makes the area risk exposing the rivers, hence drying up in the long run and affecting hundreds of people in lower Sebei and parts of Teso.
The report adds that part of the London portion is a soft wood plantation worth sh45b at harvest time which would be affected when settlements are established in the neighbourhood.
The London portion is a sensitive part of the Mt Elgon ecosystem serving as a catchment area for rivers and several streams as well as being the source of two gravitational water schemes; it should, therefore, not be cleared for settlement and farming.
Mr Robert Mangusho, a local leaders and councillor says some politicians legitimised the land acquisition by urging the people to slash the land at night.
“And today, it is impossible to see how these people can now be ordered to exit the forest, which some say has been their home for more than two decades and on the ground, the picture of the forest in the eyes of residents is quite the opposite,” said Mr Mangusho.
Mr Fred Kizza the Mt Elgon conservation area Chief warden says that because trees absorb carbon dioxide and turn it into wood, where the carbon stays bound up for hundreds or even thousands of years, living forests are an important part of the earth’s climate system. Growing trees soak up CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in their trunks, roots, leaves, and forest soils.
Mr Kizza revealed that the benefit of a well-managed and intact forest resource is that it provides a country with significant biodiversity.
“Because trees absorb carbon dioxide and turn it into wood, where the carbon stays bound up for hundreds or even thousands of years, living forests are an important part of the earth’s climate system and growing trees soak up CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in their trunks, roots, leaves, and forest soils,” said Mr Kizza
“We must begin a crusade of gazetting Mt Elgon forest and through this process we can be able to recover the forest cover losses which has been lost over past two decades,” Mr Kizza said.
Mr Paul Buyera, the National Forest Authority acting executive director said besides Mt Elgon, the country loses about 100,000 hectares of forest cover every year, a situation that is worsening the effect of climate change.
He added that the restoration of forest cover can be achieved through collective efforts from individuals, communities, corporate organisations and religious institutions.
The State Minister for Environment Mary Goretti Kitutu has said Uganda’s forest cover has been depleted to 8% up from 24% in 1990s, attributing it to human encroachment for different activities like agriculture and tree cutting for timber and charcoal.
She warned that once people don’t embrace conservation of nature, they will suffer climate change effects such as prolonged drought, floods and landslides.
“The rate of deforestation in Uganda is high and the country will soon become water-stressed if citizens do not pay attention to environmental management. We all ought to take part in planting trees as a priority to manage the climate change challenges,” said Kitutu.