Once There Were Trees: Impacts of Agricultural Policy on Climate Change in Uganda

by Eric Kashambuzi
Since the 1970s, the international community has voiced concern over the
potential causes of and subsequent environmental destruction associated with
climate change. Two United Nations-sponsored conferences were held in Rio de
Janeiro in 1992 and 2012 to specifically address some of these issues.1 As a
participant in these conferences, Uganda has begun to assess its own agricultural and
environmental policies, which have had disturbing consequences for the landscape
and population within it. Two major documents have emerged from the assessments:
Agenda 21 and The Future We Want.
Following the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, the United Nations General
Assembly established an Open Working Group (OWG) of state and non-state
representatives to prepare proposals on goals and targets about sustainable
development as an integral part of post-2015 development agenda from 2016-2030.
At the end of its two and half years work, the OWG proposed 17 goals. The urgency
of addressing climate change was captured in Goal 13, which emphasized the need
to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” The OWG planned
to achieve this by designing three targets for the Goal, which are: 1) the need to
become adaptive to climate-related environmental disasters; 2) the importance of
incorporating climate change into government policy and planning efforts; and 3)
increasing education worldwide about the causes and effects of climate change.2
Despite widespread efforts to combat climate change, there are a number of
vocal critics actively preventing such policy and education efforts. John Whitney Hall
Eric Kashambuzi is currently a consultant on international issues in New York City and
previously worked with the United Nations Development Program as well as consulted on the
Millennium Development Goals.
Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations
[Some question] whether the Earth’s climate is in fact warming to any significant degree.…
[and] whether it is human beings who are making this impact on the world’s climate, or if
this is some little ‘bounce’ in the long-term cycle of the world’s climate or whether this is a
more lasting phenomenon, something that humans have done nothing to cause and can do
nothing to effect. Most scientists do seem to agree that human activities are at least
aggravating global warming.3
In October 2007, Time Magazine published a piece titled, “Global Warming: The
Causes, the Perils, the Politics.” It was noted that:
It is too soon to tell whether unusual global warming has indeed begun…But if the climate
did begin to change…we [should] expect ‘dramatically altered weather patterns, major shifts
of deserts and fertile regions, intensification of tropical storms and a rise in sea level.4
This questioning of whether or not climate change is a natural phenomenon has
made pursuing official projects aimed at ameliorating its effects particularly difficult.
Securing funding for projects that many people may be unwilling to believe are
necessary or important considerably hampers efforts to slow climate change.
In the case of Uganda, however, the evidence is overwhelming that humans are
principally responsible for climate change. Existing methods of extensive land
clearing and bush fires contribute largely to local warming. These practices include
de-vegetation of forests, woodlands, grasslands, and wetlands in order to grow food
and other agricultural produce not only for domestic consumption, but increasingly
for export and trade.
The effects of environmental damage in Uganda over the past century are
substantial. At the start of the 20thcentury, Winston Churchill wrote and talked
about what he witnessed in parts of East Africa, including Uganda. He confessed to
the National Liberal Club of London that he had never seen countries so fertile and
beautiful outside of Europe as those of East Africa. The description of Uganda he
provided a hundred years ago contrasts starkly with the Uganda we see today:
There are parts of the East African Protectorate which in their beauty, in the coolness of
the air, in the richness of the soil, in their verdure, in the abundance of running water, in
their fertility – parts which absolutely surpass any of the countries which I have mentioned,
and challenge comparison with the fairest regions of England, France, or Italy. I have seen
in Uganda a country which from end to end is a garden – inexhaustible, irrepressible, and
exuberant fertility upon every side, and I cannot doubt that the great system of lakes and
waterways, which you cannot fail to observe if you look at the large map of Africa, must
one day become the great center of the tropical production, and play a most important part
in the economic development of the whole world.5
At the start of colonial rule in 1894, Uganda was marked by tropical forests,
woodlands, grasslands and wetlands. Uganda experienced 8% more rainfall,
providing for more vegetation and a healthier agricultural landscape. The
temperatures were moderate, and in areas of higher elevation as in Kabale, it was
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so temperate that some disease vectors such as mosquitoes could not survive. In
1900, Uganda had a forest cover of 100,000 km2. Wetlands, forest, game reserves,
water catchment areas, and steep slopes were well conserved in this vegetative
cover until 1962. By the end of the 1970s, however, much of this vegetation had
been destroyed to such an extent that by 1990 the forest cover had shrunk to
16,188 km2, with adverse consequences for soil erosion, fertility, food production,
hydrological regimes, and thermal regimes.6
The genesis of rapid environmental degradation in Uganda and subsequent local
warming can be traced to the beginning of the 1970s during Idi Amin’s
administration. Deteriorating economic conditions—made worse by the decline in
manufacturing and commercial sectors—forced the Amin government to turn to
agriculture as the main economic activity and source of employment with serious
consequences for biodiversity. Additionally, the political insecurity of the military
regime resulted in urban to rural migration which put more pressure on natural
resources. Amin’s regime created policy which intended to double production,
rapidly develop rural areas, and accelerate agricultural practices in its third Five-Year
Development Plan, which was launched in 1972. Agricultural development within
this plan included:
5,000 acres of cocoa will be planted every year, and 30,000 acres of cashew nuts a year in
suitable areas. 5,000 acres of tea will be planted. The production of cotton, haricot beans
for export, vegetables for airfreight, fire-cured tobacco, will be doubled. The production of
wheat and rice will be increased so as to make Uganda self-sufficient.7
Efforts were also made to meet an increased demand for livestock, deforest areas
where the space could be used for agricultural production, and increase the
manufacture of various forms of fertilizers and fungicides. Ugandans were
instructed to clear vegetation in order to grow crops and graze animals to boost the
economy and compensate for the declines in the manufacturing and commercial
sectors. Anyone who did not fully utilize their land would lose the surplus to an active
neighbor. Massive de-vegetation ensued, including in areas that had previously been
conserved by the colonial administration. The development of desertification
conditions threatened peasant sources of livelihood and resulted in “environmental
migration” from rural to urban areas. Uganda has experienced an urban growth rate
of 5.7 percent per year, double the annual rural population growth of 2.6 percent.8
Needless to say, Amin policies of commercialized agriculture have had a
profoundly negative impact on Uganda rural and urban areas and the landscape is
now suffering the harsh effects of desertification conditions. Uganda is a prime
example of how governmental policies can seriously impact the local climate of an
area, and also serves as a case in point that much of the most serious effects of
climate change that we see in the world are a direct result of human activity.
Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations
When Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) government
came to power in 1986,it deplored the extent of vegetation clearance and made a
point to stress the importance of sustainable development. The political
commitment was translated into establishing a Ministry of Environmental
Protection, enactment of several environmental laws and the establishment of the
Environmental Management Authority.9
To understand fully the dilemma of efforts at environmental protection and
management translating into climatic changes, one needs to examine the NRM’s
policies that have been developed since May of 1987. The NRM government
dropped its ten-point program of a mixed economy (an economy consisting of both
private and planned economic aspects), and embraced a structural adjustment
program (SAP) administered by
the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund (IMF). The program
replaced a mixed economy doctrine with
the ideology of market forces, laissezfaire
policies, and trickle down
mechanisms coupled with a severe
reduction in state intervention in the
economy. Furthermore, the SAP
stressed rapid economic growth and
diversification of agricultural production for export to earn foreign currency with
which to repay external debt and generate surplus currency for the importation of
goods and services. The program resulted in an increase in the production of
traditional crops of cotton, coffee, tea, and tobacco, as well as expanded production
of the non-traditional exports of maize, simsim (sesame), beans, cut flowers, fruits
and vegetables, and meat.
Rapid urbanization accelerated environmental degradation, as did the expanded
and diversified agriculture which used inappropriate methods of clearing of
vegetation. The introduction of commercial goat herding will likely damage the
environment faster than cattle and sheep and accelerate de-vegetation because goats
eat leaves and strip the bark from trees.10 Massive vegetation clearance has
accelerated water runoff and corresponding decline in water seeping into the soil. As
a result water tables have dropped, many perennial rivers have either disappeared or
become seasonal, and lakes have shrunk. Conventional rainfall has declined
dramatically by draining wetlands and clearing woodlands, such as Miombo in
western Uganda. Consequently, thermal changes have taken place including rising
local temperatures with adverse impacts on the epidemiology of disease, food
security through reduction in agricultural production, and “environmental”
migration from rural to urban areas.
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In the district of Kabale in southwest Uganda, rising temperatures have had
dramatic adverse effects. The clearing of vast wetlands to graze exotic cattle since the
1970s has resulted in rising local temperatures that attracted malaria-carrying
mosquitoes in an area where people had no immunity. The spread of malaria—
especially among children—was so catastrophic that the district was declared an
emergency area by the national government. Temperature changes will likely affect
the structure of agriculture and diet. When the temperatures were cooler, Kabale was
renowned for producing nutritious sorghum and vegetables. Warmer temperatures
may facilitate growing and eating less nourishing foodstuffs like bananas rather than
sorghum, resulting in serious nutritional deficits.
In many parts of Southern Uganda—where two rainy seasons typically enabled
two harvests per year—declining rainfall in amount, timing and duration has
seriously reduced crop production and virtual disappearance of two-growing season
into one harvest. in some areas grazing areas are dwindling because desertification
conditions have reduced pastures
and dwindling streams and bore
holes have dried up, adversely
affecting milk and meat
production as well as incomes and
In his 1992 State of the
Nation Address, President
Museveni touched on the issue of
environmental protection,
noting, inter alia, that a program
of reforestation should start
immediately with fast-growing species to put “hair” back on the bald heads of
Ugandan hills. This is the only way satisfactory levels of rainfall and protection of
topsoil can be assured, as well as serve to mitigate climate change.11 Internationally,
a number of organizations have also addressed Uganda’s environmental degradation.
At a 1997 conference jointly organized by the Ugandan government, United States
Agency for International Development (USAID), and the European Union (EU),
participants observed that Uganda’s economy depended entirely on agriculture and
natural resources exploitation, leading to bush fires and extensive farming practices
(i.e. extensive clearance of vegetation andovergrazing).12
An environmental policy was subsequently formulated, covering, methods for
improved land use and tenure systems, coordinated approaches to sustainable land
use, coordinated and integrated management of water resources, promotion of the
sustainable use of wetlands, new approaches for the sustainable use and management
of forest resources, and advocacy of sustainable rangelands. Despite these efforts,
however, Uganda’s gross exploitation of natural resources for predominantly
agricultural purposes has continued at an accelerated rate and contributed to
egregious climatic changes and local warming. In this regard, Tarsis Kabwegyere
Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations
observed that, “Despite the above glaring political commitment to the question of
the environment, technical and bureaucratic officials charged with implementing the
environmental law have little to show on the ground.”13
The moderate climate that Churchill witnessed at the start of the 20th century
has since been replaced by warmer and longer dry periods. Droughts alternating with
floods have become frequent with devastating results foragricultural production and
food security. Although these thermal and hydrological changes are regarded by
some as “Acts of God” beyond human control, the overwhelming evidence is that
the principal factor is human activity. Regional trade within the East African
community has also put undue demand for deforestation in Uganda. According to
the 1997 report of a workshop referred to above, “The rate of extraction of forest
resources in Uganda in order to balance trade with Kenya may lead to environmental
Uganda participated actively in preparations for Rio+20 in 2012 and subsequent
OWG meetings from March 2013 to July 2014, and paid particular attention to the
causes of climate change and impacts on the country and population. Besides Goal
13 proposed by the OWG, the Uganda delegation was active in Goal 12, which
focused on production and consumption patterns to reduce food losses along the
production and supply chains, including post-harvest food losses. By reducing food
loss and waste, more food will be available for domestic consumption and export
without increasing production and productivity through extensive or intensive
methods of cultivation that damage the environment and raise local
temperatures.15 Uganda also focused on Goal 15, with an objective to protect, restore
and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests,
combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity
loss through conservation. Needless to say, this is also intended to curb the
dangerous effects associated with climate change. Uganda’s increased interest in the
causes of climate change and its impacts is based largely on a report issued a few
years ago by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO),
which warned that if drastic steps were not taken urgently to address environmental
challenges, some 80 percent of Uganda will turn to desert within 100 years—a
very short time by historical standards.16
To mitigate these challenges, agricultural clearing and associated bush fires that
lead to de-vegetation need to be reined in. Intensive agriculture using a combination
of organic and inorganic fertilizers might increase productivity of land per unit
without seriously damaging the environment. Zero grazing will need to be stepped
up to reduce land clearance for ranches. Eliminating food loss and waste at all levels
along the production and supply chains will increase food availability without
clearing bushes. Diversification of the economic structure into non-agricultural
activities, such as manufacturing and service industry, will help to ease pressure on
dwindling natural resources. This will require a new development paradigm based on
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public and private partnerships, as well as a strong political commitment.
In summary, human causes of climate change in terms of adverse hydrological
and thermal regimes, including rising local temperatures and their impact are evident
in Uganda, despite the claims of some policy makers who seek to minimize
accountability by claiming they are “Acts of God.” In Uganda, as in many other parts
of Africa, widespread de-vegetation caused by crop cultivation and grazing has led
to rapid surface runoff as the vegetative cover that would facilitate rain water to sink
into the ground and raise water tables is cleared. Rivers are disappearing, lakes are
shrinking, and water tables are falling, and will continue to do so if Uganda doesn’t
adjust its agricultural policy to focus on preventing further environmental damage.
Policy makers globally would do well to observe the pitfalls that Uganda is currently
struggling with, and note that there are lessons to be learned regarding what happens
when environmental erosion is not a considered factor in governmental policy.
1 United Nations, Report of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development
Goals established pursuant to General Assembly resolution, General Assembly (66/288; Agenda Item 14). (New York
City, September 8, 2014).
2 United Nations Open Working Group, General Assembly, Open Working Group Proposal for Sustainable
Development Goals (A/68/970). (New York City: United Nations, 2014).
3 John Whitney Hall, History of the World: Earliest Times to the Present (East Bridgewater, MA: World
Publications Group, 2013), 896.
4 Editors of Time Magazine, Global Warming: The Causes, the Perils, the Politics (New York City: Time Magazine,
October, 2007).
5 Winston Churchill, Never Give In! (London: A&C Black, October 14, 2013), 22.
6 United Nations, Statistics Division, Uganda Environmental Statistics (New York: United Nations, 2013).
7 “Achievements of the Government of Uganda during the first year of the Second Republic,” Government of
the Republic of Uganda (Entebbe, Uganda: Government Printer, 1972), 17.
8 United Nations, Statistics Division, Uganda Social Indicators (New York: United Nations, 2013).
9 State House of Uganda, President of Uganda: H.E. Youweri K. Museveni (Uganda: The State House of Uganda,
10 Margaret Hathaway, Living with Goats (Guilford, Connecticut: Lyon Press, 2010).
11 Yoweri Museveni, State of the Nation Address (Kampala, Uganda: 1992).
12 U.S. Agency for International Development, Assessment of the Northern Uganda Manufacturer’s Association
(Washington, D.C.: USAID Uganda, 1997).
13 Tarsis B. Kabwegyere, People’s Choice, People’s Power: Challenges and Prospects of Democracy in Uganda. (Uganda:
Fountain Pub Ltd, 2000).
14 Ibid.
15 United Nations, Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: United
Nations, June 2012).
16 United Nations, Economic and Social Council, Economic Commission for Africa (ACSD-5). (New York City:
United Nations, October 2007).

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