MBALE – Two front-line community members sit on a stone in Zesui sub-county at the slopes of Mt Elgon in Sironko district while music is playing in the neighbourhood.
At a distance, the charred ruins of burned huts tell of long-running tensions in the area surrounding Mt Elgon; an area where families who claim the area as ancestral land have been pitted against the government, which declared it a national Park in 1993.
For two years, the Mt Elgon front-liners have been cherishing all forms of programmes introduced by Action for Development [ACFODE] to co-exist with Uganda Wildlife Authority and live sustainably with Mt Elgon National Park.
As the music blares from tinny-sounding speakers, a heart-rending story about how this community is going to live with Uganda Wildlife Authority [UWA] emerges when they hear on 28 April that ACFODE winding up.
The winding-up of the project has sparked fresh concerns about the fate of other front liners in the same region who have not had lessons from ACFODE.
Mr Akisoferi Muzenze, a local front-line community leader in Zesui is has asked ACFODE to consider reinstating the project to fund other districts in Mt Elgon area which have not benefitted from the project.
Ms Aploniya Nabulobi from Bugitimwa, who led a focus group discussion says the winding of the project, leaves them with worries because it is as if ACFODE is handing them back to UWA again adding that as a community they have never had such a project before.
“We grew up in an environment where mothers suffered and we continued the same experiences but the lessons we have had from ACFODE have opened our minds and our children will grow up knowing what should be done correctly and its closure today spells doom for us,” said Ms Nabulobi.
She added that they used to go to the park hiding in search of food (Bamboo), traditional medicines, mushrooms, firewood, fruits including settlement and farming and that they knew the park for their entire survival but that through the project they have now learnt to live and survive outside the park.
Ms Petwa Nabujejere, a front line community in Bugitimwa said when the project started, there were so many wrangles between UWA and community – each was killing the other but that having received knowledge from workshops oragnised by ACFODE, the wrangles across Mt Elgon Park have reduced.
“Today my community has started relating well with UWA, some groups like Punga Bee keeping community have signed MOUs with UWA and have put bee hives in the park. We have also been given tree seedlings to plant along the boundary for our own use in the near future,” said Ms Nabujejere
She explained that as a front line community, they have under guidance of ACFODE started a training centre as a result of the training they received and that they access some resources in the park through collaborative resource management arrangement.
Mr Yusuf Makweta, a human rights activist requested that the ACFODE initiative and linkages with Mt/Elgon stakeholders be strengthened in order to promote community eco-tourism given the resources and that this would further reduce the risks of encroaching the park.
“I appreciate the relationship created being created between UWA and community by ACFODE and I believe that today through ACFODE the communities have improved their farming practices and are now adopting agroforestry and contour methods, this is great, “ Mr Makweta said.
Ms Maria Kakai, a front-line community member from Namangisili village in Bumbo sub-county, Namisindwa district said prior to ACFODE lessons, they did nt know their rights as front line communities and that women especially never participated in community meetings due to marginalisation by men.
She revealed that ACFODE has taught them all should work together and when our community monitors were chosen, they selected both female and male and that they have learnt to speak up when oppressed as women.
Adding that “ACFODE project has brought a great improvement in gender relations – now there is gender balance in conservation initiatives, for example in the past we could not plant a tree but now we have planted trees and we are aware of human rights as front line communities” said Ms Kakai, a resident of Namangisili at the slopes of Mt Elgon.
“ACFODE has taught us about rights as front line communities, the law, helped us improve our relationships with Uganda Wildlife Authority [UWA, taught us accountable conservation but there many frontline communities in Mt Elgon who are still ignorant of their rights and importance of the National park as a national resource who require to be taught, “said Mr Silver Masika, a Mt Elgon front line person from Butoto, Manafwa.
While presenting an end of project ACFODE report 28 April at Pretoria Hotel in Mbale, the project manager Ms Happy Ainomugisha said since 2020, ACFODE in partnership with the Swedish Foundation for Human Rights (SFHR) has been implementing a 2-year project titled; Promoting Equitable, Just and Accountable Conservation in Mount Elgon Conservation areas.
She explained that the project aimed at advocating for the respect, protection and fulfillment of rights of frontline communities living around Mount Elgon National Park in Uganda particularly in the districts of Mbale, Sironko, Manafwa and Namisindwa.
“And our outcome was to mitigate human rights violations of marginalized indigenous communities in Mount Elgon Conservation Area which I feel we have done well in the two years,” said Ms Ainomugisha.
Mr Rashid Mafabi, a Sironko district National Forestry Authority officer who doubles as the focal person said the ACFODE established community structures are underscored to be the most reliable link between UWA and communities which has fostered peace in homes and community.
“And I want to say mobilizing and empowering more community monitors (women and men) to match the target population has enabled the project to reach more and far areas but some frontline communities have not been able to benefit from empowering information and skills provided by ACFODE due to wide scope,” said Mr Mafabi
ACFODE carried out two baseline study; The status of human rights in the frontline communities in the Mt. Elgon conservation area and Mapping and analysis of Conservation laws] that revealed that the people displaced from Mt Elgon National Park have continued to suffer from gross human rights violations at the hands of the UWA.
The main objectives of the study were: (1) to collect baseline data upon which to monitor change in the operational communities; (2) to obtain useful background information that will consequently inform planning and review project strategies and interventions; and (3) to develop from the project goal and risk matrix a detailed M&E framework for the project.
Ms Ainomugisha said after the two years, ACFODE has now recommended the need to deepen human rights education, gender dialogues/engagements and conservation awareness targeting all frontline community members (children, women and men) and UWA in the protected areas.
She explained that consistent community engagement on human rights promotion/protection and conservation will help to enhance sustained action and accountability on human rights violations and biodiversity conservation.
“And this awareness should be expanded to reach to the young population (in and out of school) to inculcate a culture for equitable, just and accountable conservation in protected areas,” said Ms Ainomugisha 28 April in Mbale.
According to End of Year project Report, ACFODE staff and an independent consultant jointly undertook an end of project monitoring process aimed at documenting milestones achieved so far, lessons learnt, challenges and existing opportunities that ACFODE and project partners can explore to enhance the protection of the front line community members in Mt. Elgon conservation protected areas.
The report adds that the mandate of the monitoring and documentation team was to review and make an overall assessment of the progress and outcome of “mitigating human rights violations of marginalized indigenous communities in Mount Elgon Conservation Area,” reads the report in part.
“The monitoring exercise was conducted in the month of December 2021 and gathered views from duty bearers (UWA, District leaders, Local council leaders), civil society representatives, community monitors and frontline community women and men in districts of Mbale, Sironko, Manafwa and Namisindwa
The report particularly focused on assessment of effectiveness, coherence, relevance, sustainability, and impact of the project and in addition, the report examined the level of success achieved in terms of changes in the conditions of frontline communities (women, men, girls and boys), lessons learned and practical recommendations for promoting equitable, Just and Accountable Conservation in Mount Elgon Conservation areas.
Ms Ainomugisha said the process monitoring, assessed the extent of change since project inception, how project implementation contributed to the observed changes at individual, societal and institutional levels. Project implementation structure considering capacity in delivering the project outcomes and stakeholder-wide expectations was examined. Refection of critical contextual changes that presents opportunities for further future action in the conservation area was assessed.