GULU, Uganda (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The convulsive rhythms of local “lakubukubu” music blast from the back of a pickup truck in the dusty town of Pajule, where two towering trees give welcome shade.
At a community meeting in the northern Ugandan town, “Our Trees, We Need Answers”, a fledgling pressure group of journalists, researchers and community workers, comes with an even louder message.
The group is fighting the rapid destruction of trees in the region, once the epicenter of a 20-year war that has left a legacy of poverty and fragile land rights.
Trucks piled high with white sacks of charcoal clog the road to the capital Kampala as Uganda’s rapidly growing urban population is boosting demand, accelerating one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world, according to researchers.
“The level at which trees are being cut is on a huge commercial industrial basis,” said Arthur Owor, a director at the Center for African Research in Gulu, who is involved in the campaign.
He blamed the problem on a tangled web involving middlemen, including local politicians, “who are working in connivance with military-economic elites in Kampala”, an assertion acknowledged by a government official but denied by the military.
In the past 25 years Uganda has lost 63 percent of its forest cover due to tree-cutting for firewood, timber and charcoal, as well as the growth of farms and towns, according to the National Forest Authority.
At community meetings, locals echo the campaigners’ views, blaming tree-cutting for unpredictable rainfall in the north, where clusters of trees stud the tangled grassland.
“Outsiders come from the south,” said Cecilia Lalum, a resident of Pajule. “We don’t know them but what we see are bags of charcoal piled up.”
A government survey in 2015 found some two-thirds of urban households use charcoal as their main cooking fuel, with 40 percent of supply coming from the north.
In Uganda, one of the poorest countries in the world, charcoal-burning is a means of survival, said Peter, a self-employed tree-cutter, resting by a smoldering tree stump in Palaro in Gulu district.
Peter, who would not give his surname because of the sensitivity of the issue, had traveled 400km (249 miles) from the outskirts of Kampala, where his tiny farm is not enough to make a living.
He and his six companions planned to spend two months in the north, sleeping in the bush and selling charcoal to traders for 20,000 shillings ($5.40) a bag.
“People from central Uganda ... being dispatched by big businessmen, are coming in with chainsaws, paying huge sums of money for trees and then clear-cutting everything in sight,” said Michael Tebere, a consultant who has been working with local government leaders on the issue since 2012.
South Sudan’s 2011 independence opened new trade routes through northern Uganda.
Traders ferrying goods from Kampala loaded up their trucks with charcoal as they returned through northern Uganda, though the war in South Sudan has since disrupted this traffic.
Land insecurity complicates matters further for the 1.5 million Acholi people who live in northern Uganda, many of whom were driven from their farms during the war.
Between 1987 and 2006 the government battled rebel leader Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army in the region.
As the Ugandan army herded people into camps, trees flourished in abandoned fields. When peace returned, the woodlands drew loggers and charcoal burners who had already devastated forests further south.
The Acholi have a customary land ownership system which recognizes seven categories of land, said Tebere. That includes communal forests, where “you harvest just what you need”.
But the system is under strain, with conflicts over farming and grazing land as well as trees.
“The long years in the camps broke down a lot of cultural values and norms,” said Tebere, who works for Icon-Institut, a German consultancy.
“The Acholi now feel under siege, that everybody’s eyeing their land,” Tebere said.
Many people sell trees voluntarily or engage in small-scale charcoal production to supplement their incomes.
But some sell trees out of fear that the land will be taken away from them, according to researchers.
Large-scale charcoal production is controlled by Kampala-based business people “who often appear to have some kind of connection to the state or military”, said Adam Branch, an academic at the University of Cambridge and co-author of a 2018 study into charcoal in Uganda with the American University of Beirut.
“The (LRA) war was experienced as a war against civilians by the state and today people are facing the same kind of thing, where the state is destroying the environment that they depend upon to survive,” said Branch.
Anyone cutting trees for commercial purposes must get a permit from district authorities.
Last year the Ministry of Water and Environment imposed a temporary ban on felling Afzelia Africana and shea nut trees, two species considered “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
But Margaret Adata, the ministry’s commissioner of forestry, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that “the trade is still going on illegally”.
A 2015 report by the ministry said illegal logging, mostly for timber, involved “local and national political leaders” and “some individuals in security agencies”, among others. That is still the case, said Adata.
James Nabinson Kidega, the central government’s representative in Lamwo district, said loggers use people on the ground, such as local councillors, to sidestep regulations.
“Money is involved,” he said, adding that soldiers also have interests in logging.
In Gulu district, an army officer and his men last year held police officers at gunpoint to demand the release of impounded logs, according to a district official and the regional police spokesman.
Separately, the district forest officer was arrested for allegedly handing out fake charcoal receipts, said the police spokesman. He has been released on police bond while investigations continue.
Richard Karemire, an army spokesman, denied that any soldiers were involved in charcoal burning or logging.
“That is propaganda,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The mission of the (army) does not involve burning charcoal.”
The “Our Trees, We Need Answers” group is working on a report which it hopes to present to the speaker of parliament, while also encouraging people to replant trees that have been lost.
But in one community meeting some locals raise a sobering complaint: the campaign to save trees is a good one, they say, but it is already too late due to the large-scale deforestation in the region.
Reporting by Liam Taylor, Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org