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Curbing forest loss with and for the local communities in Uganda – interview with Rose Kobusinge

Experience and Perspectives from Uganda

This interview is part of the ‘Forest Governance Unpacked’ series with key experts in forest governance. It was developed in the context of the NewGo! project which aims to provide scientific knowledge on lessons learned from initiatives related to zero deforestation, forest restoration, and sustainable forest finance. The project sets the ground for the EFI Governance Programme.

Tell us a bit about who you are.

Rose Kobusinge

I am a Ugandan environmentalist and policy enthusiast. My education background is a BSc in Environmental Science from Makerere University and an MSc in Environmental Change and Management at the University of Oxford. Before joining the University of Oxford, I worked with the World Wide Fund for Nature Uganda Country Office (WWF-Uganda) in the Forests and Biodiversity department. My responsibilities included supporting in driving community, state and non-state actor engagement in sustainable forest management, biodiversity conservation and forest landscape restoration. I am currently working as a consultant with the Portugal-based New Generation Plantations (NGP) Technical Assistance team. My role involves offering technical assistance in developing investible community forest businesses, engaging different stakeholders and investors to invest in community-focused agroforestry, woodlots and forest landscape restoration programmes for the benefit of both People and Nature.

What is forest governance? Please introduce your own concise, to-the-point definition of the term forest governance.

I understand forest governance as the existence of operational arrangements, mechanisms, social-economic systems, and structures that determine decision-making power, control, participation, benefit and cost-sharing of forest resources. Governance always aims at achieving a specific objective (s), the traditional forest governance systems usually aim at curbing forest loss and illegal logging, yet with less focus on increasing benefits to the forest-dependent local communities.

Why is governance needed?

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Credit: R.Kobusinge

Forest governance is now more crucial than ever before. With the climate change crisis, the high rates of biodiversity loss and the race to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is a need to maintain high integrity of the existing forests and increase forest cover. Well governed and managed forests have the capacity to facilitate Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for carbon sequestration, climate change adaptation and improving community resilience through tangible ecosystem goods like food, water, construction and craft materials and herbs, sustainable livelihood support and non-material services such as climate and flood regulation, natural recycling and cultural services. Also, good governance is needed to ensure sustainable use of forest resources, curb illegal logging and timber trade, curb the rapid loss of biodiversity and protect the rights and livelihoods of the forest-dependent communities given the rapidly growing human population and unsustainable development. Hence, favourable policies, laws, institutions and socio-economic structures are required not only in the forestry sector but in all sectors to maintain existing forest carbon sinks, increase the quality and quantity of forest cover and support sustainable community livelihoods if humans are to live in harmony with nature.

What makes governance “good”?

The word ‘governance’ comes from the Greek verb, kubernaein, meaning ‘to steer’. Thus, good governance is the one that facilitates forest stakeholders ‘to steer’ themselves rather than being steered by the government and technocrats as passive stakeholders. Therefore, good governance adopts and integrates polycentrism and adaptivity while applying systems-thinking at all levels. In other words, good forest governance should ensure that decisions and developments in the forestry sector and other sectors of the economy do not conflict with the objectives of maintaining and increasing forest cover, curbing illegal logging, improving and maintaining the integrity of biodiversity and ecosystems and improving the lives of forest-dependent communities. Most importantly, good governance should be based on the pillars of active stakeholder participation, bottom-up approaches, transparency/accountability, efficiency and effectiveness, as well as equity in resource allocation and benefit-sharing, and the rule of law.

How can it achieve the well-being of both the forests concerned and communities depending upon them?

Celebration of Rangers Day in 2019. Bwindi, Uganda. Credit: Faraja Africa Foundation

Traditional forest management and governance systems in Uganda have failed to achieve the set objectives of curbing forest loss largely because local communities are not positioned at the heart of policies, practices and projects. For example, forest governance during colonial times was mainly based on command and control whose aspects are still predominant and hinders a local community sense of ownership and value for the forest resources. This also excludes them from benefit-sharing and discourages community policing practices to curb illegal logging. More modern governance systems should therefore put local communities at their heart, adopt bottom-up approaches and facilitate local communities to organize and ‘to steer’ themselves. For example, allowing local communities to benefit from controlled activities such as gathering fruits, mushrooms, herbs, weaving materials, and services such as cultural benefits increases local community attachment and value for the forest resources.

Other options like supporting local communities to plant woodlots, engaging them in agroforestry, and other forest-friendly livelihoods like beekeeping and eco-tourism, have proven to reduce encroachment pressure on natural forests while enhancing the livelihoods of the local communities. Besides, investing economic gains from forest conservation into the local communities for their benefit can influence the attitudes towards forest conservation and governance. For example, while working with WWF-Uganda to support community conservation for the Bwindi impenetrable forest and national park, it was found that community support and value for conservation increased with an increase in investment in social services such as health, education and transport using revenues from the tourism site.

Women groups, students and World Heritage Volunteers during the celebration of Rangers Day in 2019. Bwindi, Uganda. Credit: Faraja Africa Foundation

How should governance function?

Good forest governance should be operational rather than remain on policy papers and in debates. For example, a country like Uganda sometimes has policies that could produce good results, but corruption, political interference, limited capacity and resources hinder policy implementation and compliance. Good forest governance should also involve functioning systematic, socio-economic structures and arrangements at all levels from global to regional, national, local and community. A malfunction at one level of governance could lead to negative spillover effects at other levels. When it comes to operationalization, good governance should be based on human-centric and multi-stakeholder designs and implementation with high levels of inclusion at all stages of governance for the attainment of multiple socio-economic, climate action and biodiversity benefits. More effort should be invested in providing support, resources and capacity building for the local communities and organizations to take charge and steer themselves in forest resource decision-making and benefit-sharing.

Who needs to be involved?

Batwa people. Credit: Conscious Earth.

Forest governance needs to be systematic, structural, multilevel, and inclusive. Therefore, in good governance, different stakeholders at global, regional, national, local and community levels including state and non-state actors, media, academia, farmers, women, youths, indigenous groups and interest groups should be involved. As a young woman, I recognize that women, youth and indigenous groups have received the least consideration to date in forest governance. Yet, there are currently ongoing efforts and significant changes in participation and consideration of women in other sectors like agriculture, energy and water – unlike in the forestry sector. Thus, women, youths, indigenous groups and other marginalized groups of people, and the local governments, local organizations and communities should be facilitated and empowered to maximize benefit-sharing at the local level.

Where is governance most needed?

Forest governance is most needed at all levels; global, regional, national and local in both developed and developing countries adopting relevant approaches for both forests on public and private land. However, governance at the country and local level is needed more for both developed and developing countries to save their remaining forests, protect and establish new ones. This is because the real practicalities of forest conservation and governance take place at country and local levels. Also, relevant systems, structures and policies are needed at the global level to ensure equity, justice and transparency in the carbon markets sphere. The current carbon prices are low unstable whereas the polluters continue to enjoy high profits from carbon-intensive ventures in the name of carbon offsets while expecting local communities in poor developing countries to maintain standing forests.

What are the challenges with governance today in the light of what you said in the previous question?

Unfortunately, in some countries, it is still ‘forest government’ rather than governance. In Uganda, the power of major decision-making in the forestry sector belongs to the state hence the predominance of linearity, top-down approaches and some aspects of command and control. The local governments only have limited powers vested in them as regards decision making on financial benefits from forest resources. Besides, frequent political interference (“order from above”) in the utilization of forest resources and benefit-sharing continues to interrupt and disempower local governments and communities. Also, governance emphasis has been put on forests on public land over forests on private land (natural forests, woodlots, plantations, and agroforestry systems). Yet, the forest activities on private land have significant impacts on the forests on public land, overall biodiversity, tree cover, carbon sinks and community livelihoods. The negligence of forestry on private land also limits the implementation of the concept of ‘growing the right trees in the right place at the right time for the right purpose under the right guidance’.

Visitors’ Center at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Credit: R.Kobusinge

Other challenges in Uganda’s context include corruption, limited financial and human resources, conflicting government objects (conservation versus development projects) and political interference. These challenges make it harder to develop and implement fair, just, and inclusive policies, laws, projects or even apply systems thinking in forest governance and management. For example, forest loss has continued at a high rate (24% forest cover in 1990 to about 9% in 2020) despite efforts to curb the loss. Moreover, the forestry sector remains isolated and yet there is high interconnectedness with other sectors such as mining, construction, transport, electricity, agriculture, and energy. These sectors either depend on forests and/or affect forests. Thus, the need to map the interconnections between forestry and other sectors to harness synergies, identify neutral points and mitigate trade-offs. In addition, the Uganda national forest policy of 2001 needs to be updated to match modern challenges and targets.

At the global level, greater focus is on international agreements and treaties, for example, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Paris Agreement, Ramsar Convection, etc. Even though these global-level initiatives and agreements are important, they have become political tools and part of window-dressing strategies rather than one step for states to establish real mechanisms to facilitate good forest governance at all levels. The institutional, financial and expertise capacity, leadership, interests, resources and policy environments often contradict the international commitments. I think due diligence should be part of the process before countries sign agreements in addition to rigorous periodic monitoring during the implementation phases. Or else, international agreements will continue to remain for ‘showbiz’ purposes and little commitment.

What are the positive changes that you have seen happening in the context of forest governance?

I think the establishment of forest standards and stewardship programmes such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT), and REDD+, depict worldwide significant shifts from traditional governance whose main emphasis is on curbing forest loss. These initiatives tend to prioritize biodiversity and environmental integrity, as well as local community rights and livelihood development. In Uganda, crucial lessons are being learnt to achieve the set objectives of such initiatives even though there are operational challenges such as corruption, political interference, limited human and financial capacity and land tenure issues.

Some other positive changes have taken place in Uganda, for example, the decentralization of some forests (local forest reserves) to the local governments and the establishment of Collaborative Forest Management (CFM) even though their powers are still limited as I already mentioned.  More so, an increase in stakeholder collaboration has been observed with different actors such as WWF-Uganda, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Uganda Timber Growers Association (UTGA) and New Forests Company (NFC) are working closely with the National Forestry Authority (NFA) to curb forest loss and promote good forest practices in Uganda. Also, there has been an increase in litigation cases from the public and Civil Society Organizations such as Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) regarding forest resources. 

Please provide an example of a success story/case study.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Credit: R.Kobusinge

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda provides some good lessons especially in actively engaging local communities to achieve conservation an and a UNESCO World Heritage site found in the Greater Virunga Landscape (GVL). The national park is home to different animal species, reptiles, plants, birds, insects, the endangered indigenous Batwa people and a lot more. Animals include forest elephants, baboons, monkeys, chimpanzees, and the endangered flagship endemic mountain gorillas; only found in the same landscape transboundary to Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. Faced with challenges such as encroachment, habitat destruction and disease outbreaks that threaten the existence of the great apes and biodiversity in general, there is a consistent increase in the number of mountain gorillas in the Virunga landscape (from 458 individuals in 2010 to about 1,000 in 2020). Uganda hosts about half of the total population of these great apes. The conservation success in this landscape can be attributed to transboundary collaborations between the three countries and on the Ugandan part, collaborations from different stakeholders led by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and working with local communities are the key drivers of the ongoing work-in-progress success story.

One of the most important lessons from this case study is the stakeholders’ emphasis on the proactive engagement of local communities, local organizations, women groups and the indigenous Batwa people (pygmies) as active partners in fighting and reporting illegal activities such as poaching and illegal logging. Community-led development and forest/conservation-friendly initiatives including eco-tourism, weaving, art, beekeeping, and alternative livelihoods, such as music/drama for entertaining tourists are also prioritized and supported. More so, local communities are prioritized in employment as tourist guides, hotel attendants and porters. Another important approach in gaining community support, improving community appreciation and social ownership for the conservation area is the investment of financial and economic benefits from the tourist site into community development and social services such as health, transport and education. However, more effort is needed in protecting the rights of the endangered Batwa people (the original dwellers of the Bwindi Impenetrable forest) in addition to ensuring equity in the distribution of benefits and accelerating further community engagement and sustainable livelihood development. #VisitUganda

Read the other interviews of the ‘Forest Governance Unpacked’ series:

Community participation makes for better forest governance in Ethiopia – interview with Tefera Mengistu

Stakeholder participation in forest governance is key for sustainable forest management – interview with Eva Müller

Involving and remunerating local communities to save the Amazon – Interview with Johan Wittkamper

Visit the NewGo! project website

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