On 12 August last year, the entourage of Mr Emmanuel Awagwa-Omwa pulled up at the home of Mr Dick Muwonge in Matugga- Buwambo, Luweero District.
Mr Awagwa-Omwa was to take Ms Margret Nabukenya, a daughter of Mr Awagwa-Omwa, as his wife.
Mr Awagwa-Omwa had been forewarned, so among the things he carried along were tree seedlings.
“Mzee asked for three trees and said without them we cannot take Margret. He was serious,” Mr Awagwa-Omwa says. “I was lucky Margaret had alerted me earlier that it was a requirement in Buganda now to have trees on such days and we carried them. The trees saved us.”
Responding to massive deforestation which conservationists say is nearing crisis levels, several initiatives by the government, civil society organisations and traditional institutions have come up to save the dwindling forest cover.
“As Buganda Kingdom, we thought of how to engage the subjects to conserve the environment and marriage was a perfect entry,” Mr Gerald Mulindwa, a Buganda Kingdom information official, said. “The kingdom communicated to the subjects this initiative and it is now an obligation to plant trees as long as you are marrying a Muganda. We have to protect our mother earth.”
There are no statistics of the trees that have been planted since the initiative was launched four years ago, but Mr Mulindwa is confident that “the results will be seen after some time as more marriages happen”.
And there is an extra motivation for the families where the trees are planted to take good care of them – the marriages is thought to have better chances of blossoming if the tree blossoms.
Last month, Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga proposed that before conducting weddings, religious leaders should require those intending to be joined in holy matrimony to present proof that they have planted at least 15 trees. And, she further proposed, all districts should come up with by-laws providing for planting trees.
Ms Kadaga worries that Uganda is losing her forest cover with consequent drought that has affected the agriculture and that time is now to arrest the situation.
“We are taking the environment for granted. There used to be Lake Chad but it disappeared. It is because of environmental damage. The solution is planting more trees to prevent our lakes, [rivers and wetlands] from disappearing,” Ms Kadaga said.
Chad, a freshwater lake in the Sahelian zone of west-central Africa, is shared by Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger, but it has almost disappeared due to a number of factors.
Marriage as a rallying factor
“When we have a marriage, that ceremony should partly be used for tree planting. We plant five trees at the girl’s home, five at the boy’s home and the other five where they are going to stay.”
Mr Mulindwa says if Ms Kadaga’s proposal is adopted across the country, reforestation will be easy and Uganda will be green everywhere again.
“There is no excuse that people do not have land where to plant trees. At least in Uganda everyone has a small plot to plant a tree,” Mr Mulindwa opines, very likely not so accurately.
Statistics from Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB), the government agency mandated to register all marriages that take place in Uganda, indicate that in the Financial Year 2014/15, a total of 1,066 marriages in Kampala alone were registered in Kampala alone.
Another 5,172 faith-based marriages and 1,070 customary marriages were recorded, and 1,051 others filed notices of marriage in the said period. That is more than 8,000 marriages in a year. Uganda would get 16,000 trees in that year if each couple planted two trees; and the number would be 120,000 if each couple planted 15 trees as proposed by Ms Kadaga.
Since the departure of the colonial government in 1962, Uganda, once described by the British imperialist Winston Churchill, in 1908, as the “Pearl of Africa” partly because of its rich flora and fauna, has seen massive depletion of forests and wetlands.
Some forecasts gloomily predict that private land will not have forests in the next 10 years. This is backed by evidence from a 2016 Joint Water and Environment Sector Review Report that says forest cover has reduced from 24 per cent of the total land area in 1990 to just 11 per cent in 2015.
Between 1990 and 2005, natural forest estate outside protected areas reduced by 35 per cent (from 3.46 million hectares in 1990 to 2.3 million hectares in 2005). People are converting hitherto forested land into settlement and agricultural land, timber and charcoal burning zones.
The current tree planting programmes are far smaller and severely outstripped by demand. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 hectares of forest area are planted annually, while deforestation is more than 90,000 hectares. This is per the 2015 Biodiversity Financing in Uganda Policy and Institutional Review done by the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema).
Latest figures by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) paint a gloomier picture, suggesting that Uganda loses more than 200,000 hectares of forest cover annually.
The report suggests that to arrest the situation, there is need to adopt an “integrated approach” that includes either increased forest production and slowing down of demand for tree products, “particularly through renewable energy technologies”.
But the development of renewable energy sources – solar, wind, etc, is at a very low level in Uganda, meaning that the country will continue to disproportionately rely on trees for fuel and other purposes for the foreseeable future. The rally for planting more trees therefore makes added sense in this regard.
Why trees matter
A recent assessment of the contribution of the forestry sector to the national economy using a natural resource accounting approach by Nema shows the sector contributed about $1.3b (about Shs4.6 b) to the national economy in 2010.
Because trees, and the environment in general, matter, the Catholic Church has also voiced its support for environmental protection, with Pope Francis proposing that caring for the environment should be added to the traditional Christian works of mercy such as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick.
Rev Fr Joseph Mary Ssebunnya, a Catholic priest, says initiatives targeted at getting Ugandans to plant more trees are welcome, but says marriages should not be stopped on account of the couple not having planted trees since “the church is already doing a lot to conserve the environment”.
“We have been encouraging people to plant trees and we have planted trees on church land,” Rev Fr Ssebunya says.
Scientists say there is a big linkage between vegetation cover, forests, livelihood and reducing emissions that result into climate change effects like long dry spells and extreme temperatures.
Dr Mary Kitutu, the State minister for Environment, says 40 per cent of the total rainfall received in Uganda is on account of wetlands and forests. The other 60 per cent is influenced by external factors such as the Indian Ocean.
Destroying forests therefore means reduced rainfall, a recipe for disaster for a country which has almost 60 percent of its population depending on rain-fed agriculture.
Mr Paul Mafabi, the director in charge of the environment at the Ministry of Water and Environment, says Uganda has already paid the effects of environment degradation manifested in long dry spells which has affected the agricultural sector.
Last year, Uganda faced food shortages to the extent that the country received food aid from Chinese government to a tune of more than 5,000 tonnes of rice. This was after a National Food Security Assessment, showed that 26 per cent of Uganda’s population was facing food insecurity.
President Museveni has blamed Ugandans for the food shortages saying they have destroyed the environment and thus they are paying for it.
Speaking at Ibanda-Kibubura Integrated Primary School during the national celebrations of the World Environment Day, Mr Museveni said that by degrading wetlands through agriculture and other activities, “we are hurting ourselves” and it was against God’s wish. Ibanda is one of the heavily degraded areas.
Mr Museveni, in his defence of the environment, even went biblical: “The water God put in wetlands, swamps, lakes and rivers is ours; he created it for us, I don’t think the water is for God because I have never heard that he gets thirsty and takes water. He put that water in swamps for us, when we destroy it we are hurting ourselves.”
Nema, in its own effort to save forests, said during the World Environment Day celebrations that it is entering agreements with local governments to promote massive tree plant, maintaining ecosystems, and other initiatives.
The arrangement is that residents in the respective districts will receive free tree seedlings from Nema and partners, but the districts will take the responsibility of ensuring that the trees are indeed planted by recipients and before cutting them when they eventually mature, replacements are first made.
Last month as the world marked Environment Day in Ibanda District, Nema’s Nuwagira says Dr Kitutu spearheaded the planting of more than 90,000 trees on Olanga, Bukusu and Fuluma Hills in Manafwa District.
Because of clearing vegetation that holds the soils together, these areas are now prone to mudslides that have in the past claimed hundreds of lives. Another 15,000 trees were planted in Ibanda District, while Ms Kadaga spearheaded the planting of 30,000 in Kamuli District.
Mr Mafabi, however says the ministry hopes that by 2030, it would have reforested 100 million hectares of currently deforested and degraded land.
To demonstrate their commitment, Mr Mafabi cites the country’s target of planting 200 million trees by the year 2020 embodied in the 2012 National Tree Planting Strategy.
To pull off the feat, many agree that every possible rallying point should be leveraged. So Mr Frank Muramuzi, the executive director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), proposes that the requirement for planting trees should spread from marriage to baptism, entering a new house, graduation parties, among other social functions.
And, Nema’s Mr Bob Nuwagira says, “It is very encouraging when we get support from the Speaker and Buganda Kingdom in our drive to protect the environment.”