KWEEN – It is 4.00pm and a smoky haze is spreading across the slopes of Mt Elgon in Kween district.
When you stand at a distance and look at it, you will notice clouds of smoke hanging over the slopes of this national resource.
The lots of smoky haze sweeping across this area, as seen, often indicate that the Mt Elgon park vegetation including trees are being burnt.
In Bugisu and Sebei, part of Mt Elgon sub-region, small-scale farmers usually set alight the bushes, vegetation in November through December to March mainly to clear land for farming.
Traditionally, the local small-scale farmers use slash-and-burn techniques to open up small patches of Elgon forest for crops and livestock.
Unfortunately, this bush burning fire has spread deeper into protected forested areas where wildlife live [habituate].
And Mt Elgon is now going through a serious but slow environment ‘Cancer’; the soils are being degraded, the ecosystem is being destroyed, the environment is dying and the pangs of climate change are piercing deep especially at the slopes of Mt Elgon in Sebei and Bugisu sub-regions.
The yearly bush burning coupled with deforestation expose the peat beneath the trees and together with drainage, dries the material and repeated burning also encourages the growth of ferns and shrubs that are themselves more fire-prone.
Ms Sarah Bisikwa, the senior environment officer for Manafwa district says the majority of fires across Mt Elgon are caused by human activity – farmers and loggers clearing land for crops or grazing by burning
She revealed that across Mt Elgon ridges, agricultural activities have also affected forest ecosystems in diverse ways and removal of trees to enhance agricultural production has changed canopy structure, light regimes and the structure of populations and communities.
She added that deforestation and burning of bushes is a major cause of biodiversity loss and climate change with a negative impact on human health.
“Those large giant forest trees like the Elgon teak that we often associate with the old times are chopped down, left to dry and then fire is used as a tool for clearing the land to prepare for pasture, crops or even illegal mining,” says Ms Bisikwa.
The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) says that Fire and climate change are intertwined and that under natural conditions, carbon from forest fires is removed from the atmosphere when vegetation re-grows adding that when forests are burned or cleared, however, there is a net increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Research done by CIFOR shows that major air pollution events are no longer restricted to drought years, as deforestation and ongoing land degradation continue to make large parts of the landscape more fire-prone.
Mr Isaac Mayeku, the Mbale district entomologist says Mt Elgon is a home to some of the Earth’s land-bound species and that if farmers keep burning it, it’s likely to turn into a completely different ecosystem, with fewer trees and different species of plants and animals.
According to Mr Mayeku the bush burning problem or fires have caused severe environmental degradation and affected the livelihoods of communities in Mt Elgon.
“Many trees have died, and animals and other ground organisms have lost their habitat – some species might disappear from the area entirely. This could also be a disaster to man because insects like bees that pollinate will die and there will be no food for us,” said Mr Mayeku.
According to Mr Mayeku, human health, local and global economies, and sustainable food and water supplies all depend on state-of-the-art knowledge about insects, their integral roles in ecosystems, and their effective management.
“Insects outnumber all other life forms combined in soils and many more species of insects are beneficial, helping to control pests, recycle nutrients, and pollinate crops so by bushes/vegetation they are destroyed and the soils will remain unproductive,” said Mr Mayeku.
He revealed that insects play a very big role in the environment like Pollination, biological control, and other beneficial services as well as contributing to environmental biodiversity besides sustainable production of our vitally important corn, soybean and wheat industries, flowers and that once burnt, we will miss out on these services.
Mr Bob Natifu, the acting Commissioner, Minister of Water and Environment agrees that burning which in most cases deforests Mt Elgon areas displaces wildlife species, putting them in closer proximity with each other and to humans which increases human exposure to new infectious diseases and makes humans more vulnerable to pandemics like the deadly COVID-19, Ebola, Marburg etc
He explained that the ministry is working on restoring the environment integrity that is deteriorating at a significant rate, therefore, causing diseases for human beings, adding that a 2017 science paper also linked the recent forest loss to 25 Ebola outbreaks that occurred in 1976.
Mr Natifu says that while the burning will not deplete the Elgon’s supply of oxygen, the fires will release large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO?) into the atmosphere thereby affecting the climate of Mt Elgon sub-region.
“And this will be bad news, because as you probably know, CO? is a “greenhouse gas” that contributes to global warming and climate change – and humans are already creating dangerous amounts of Carbon-dioxide through burning, energy use and industry,” added Mr Natifu.
An International Cryosphere Climate Initiative [ICCI] paper on reducing black carbon and agricultural burning says that while burning carries some near-term benefits, such as removing stubble for easier plowing or revitalizing grasslands, over time the practice results in a net loss of soil nutrients, necessitating greater use of expensive fertilizers.
The paper adds that more seriously, over time it also results in poor quality, low humus soil structures that further lower crop yields, and these degraded soil structures are extremely difficult to improve.
Environmentalists also agree that bush burning negatively impacts soil quality by compacting and destroying the humus, some insects and organic matter that make agricultural lands productive.
“And this drastically decreases yields, at a time when agriculture already is under stress from climate change, leading to ever-greater dependence on fertilizers and greater run-off of nutrients from burned soils,” reads the paper in part published in 2020.
A story by infoNile January 24, 2022 titled; Firewood; Is Uganda burning its way to extinction? Says increased wood burning emits carbon dioxide and other climate pollutants including soot, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds such as methane.
A science paper by NASA’s Earth Science News Team [Carbon emissions from fires] September 10, 2019 says that open field and forest burning contributes to regional and global climate change by producing CO2, methane and that burning is the single largest source of black carbon globally, at 42% dwarfing all other sources (biomass burning for residential cooking and heating is 18%, diesel transport 14%).
“Fire signals an end of the deforestation process, start of Climate change and imminent trouble for the settlers across the country,” the report adds.
Although it’s evident the call to plant trees here has been loud and clear by NGOs and the government, the call to keep the vegetation and trees alive is still a mystery at Mt Elgon.
Why the worry
Mr Frank Muramuzi, the executive director of National Association of Professional Environmentalists [NAPE] says Bush burning has far-reaching effects, including disruption of ecosystem balance, loss of pasture for animals, pollution of the atmosphere and loss of scenic beauty.
He added that it also destroys soil biological, physical and chemical properties, hence contributing to environmental degradation, food insecurity and poverty in the region.
A report published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science March 24, 2021 says that outbreaks of both vector-borne and Zoonotic diseases are linked to burning and deforestation and that they increased between 1990 and 2016.
Research done on Ethnobotanical studies done on indigenous medicinal plants at Mt Elgon done in Kenya side of Mt Elgon [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3005380/] says that ethnomedicinal plant species which people rely on to manage human ailments are also being destroyed by burning.
“Traditional herbal remedies provide health services even in highly industrialized setups because they are important pillars of culture and human socialization and burning plant biodiversity is eroding these medicines,” says the report in part.
According to scientists burning vegetation and bushes at Mt Elgon will directly affect the attainment of three Sustainable Development Goals: SDG1 (no poverty) SDG2 (zero hunger) and SDG3 (good health and well-being).
Vegetation and forests act as catchment areas for rivers and lakes and also participate in the rain-making process, this means they are key to us and also support the rain-fed agriculture in a country like Uganda.
It is also true that vegetations in areas like Mt Elgon, Kidepo, Pien-UPE, Bokora-Matheniko game reserves and forests also provide habitats for wildlife and tourism and burning vegetation/bushes around them means loss of the national resources.
“The destruction of forests by burning means destruction of the economy and undermining our own survival,” said Mr Charles Wakube, the Mbale district senior Environment officer.
“We need to keep away from burning bushes and restore the degraded forests and also plant trees to meet present and future needs, “said he added.
-To protect the Mt Elgon biodiversity from bush fires, the governments responsible for protecting it must clamp down on bush burning and allow agriculture be done in an environmentally friendly way.
-There is need, therefore, for a comprehensive package of interventions to address bush burning. These should comprise the involvement of communities in the formulation and implementation of by-laws, proper enforcement of laws and incentives to motivate communities not to start fires.
There is also a need to conduct anti-bush burning campaigns and the formation of anti-bush fire task forces at village levels for self-monitoring for bush burning to be checked.