Conserving beautiful green Uganda

Big shout out to Big Beyond conservation volunteers for the great strides made in Uganda recently – we’re really excited about how the projects are evolving. Nice work. It makes us happy involving volunteers with such initiative and passion. Here’s a little update on the consevation projects over there. 

The Kafuga Pocket Forest sits on the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and is suffering from serious encroachment and rapid degradation from various local activities. And there’s a bit of politics thrown in to complicate matters.

Now, from my perspective it’s a very gorgeous forest, understated, managed to avoid being exchanged for exotic pine and gum trees so far, there’s a stunning little waterfall, loads of incredible birds, chameleons, plants and indigenous trees, it’s very peaceful, awesome for hiking, no doubt potential for tourism experiences to be developed… I don’t really know how its survived this long when so much of the area outside protected Bwindi has been logged and cultivated over the years and there are quite a few different stakeholders hungry for something from it. Well, that’s my perspective and some of the values I associate with it.

But values associated with the Kafuga Pocket Forest are not the same for everyone. Fact. It’s a familiar story with natures fight for survival. Successful conservation in our eyes is a lot to do with understanding these different values. Not just stamping feet about what’s right or wrong based on one’s own opinion.

Thinking about that. Some people here value this forest for the grazing land that it offers their livestock relied upon for food and income. Some people value the abundance of timber that can be produced from the indigenous trees. Some people value it as a resource for firewood used to cook for their family. Some people live on the borders and have never really been inside. Some value it as a potential hotspot for tourist trails and camping. Some value all the blossoming plants and potential honey production.

Some value the forest because it’s not part of the neighbouring and more exclusive government owned national park and some say they feel more ownership. Others value the last remaining indigenous trees outside the protected area sitting right amongst their villages because of cultural stories. Some value the impact that trees have on the climate affecting their crops. Others value nature in its pure form and have a passion to keep it alive for the next generations.

As with most parts of the world there is no general consensus. And in situations like that, it’s a challenge to make everyone happy, keep nature living on, especially when time is of the essence. This is one example of a forest struggling to live amongst a human reliance on natural resources, and, if it’s to survive the next few years, there needs to be way sweeter harmony between the local people and that natural environment surrounding them so they can co-exist. Sound easy?!

Shouting loudly about all that isn’t enough though if the next generation is to benefit, whether that’s an environmental benefit or a potential economic opportunity that would be foregone should it disappear. There needs to be genuine involvement, true understanding and innovative solutions implemented right the way down to the grassroots. Banning people from entering isn’t the trick. And some may say, not very fair at all. The affect on some people whether that’s economic, cultural, environmental, personal or whatever can’t be brushed under the carpet if nature and people are to live happily ever after. And what are those specific values and is there an alternative to a one-off use of that ‘resource’?

Amongst the range of projects that step by step are helping to create a more positive relationship between the conservation of Bwindi and it’s adjacent communities, we’re also looking to the equally important natural environment that’s managed to survive so far in amongst the villages, outside of what’s officially protected. This is also an ecosystem that would have big implications if it disappeared, not just for the plants and animals, but also for the people.

You may have heard Big Beyond mention her before, but Scottish Ann is one of our star volunteers, rather more of a Nombe resident now after about 5 months, and she’s undoubtedly a key driving force behind a more realistic future of the Pocket Forest. She’s become at one with this little haven since June and definitely knows it better than most!

Ann kick-started the first proper map of the pocket forest by exploring it in-depth, up and down the hills, through swamps, along rivers and has helped to inform and steer the conservation strategy that’s in development. On top of that she’s been working closely with the local people helping to give them a voice, pushed forward with the conservation education projects and also looked at the potential tourism opportunities too. Her many years of experience with Scottish Natural Heritage is invaluable for us and the local community.

Slightly more recently on the team, volunteer Claire is however also another local resident these days, and joined forces with Ann to help build up the research and community relations. She’s shown excellent initiative and hoping to build her experience as part of her Conservation Biology degree in her university Placement Year. Valerie who also visited us, over from the USA, was amongst a few other brilliant volunteers that have also lent a hand over the last few months towards getting a great plan in place.

The volunteers have been busy identifying different species, taking photos and finding out from the local experts what the more mysterious one’s are. A forest management plan was drafted up by the government with other stakeholders over the last couple of weeks and Ann has been working with the District Forestry Office to add her comments in preparation the next version. She’s also been meeting with the local Parish Chief and Forest Guard in relation to the emerging Pocket Forest rules and regulations. So really involved and a great rep for us.

Frustratingly the stats and info about actual species in this particular forest were a little like the original draft in this recent version seemlingly pretty assumptive that it’s just a small version of Bwindi. We’re aiming to help provide a more solid set of info now to base the conservation plan around – so appropriate decisions are made inside and outside the boundaries.

Government or local stakeholders basically don’t have the capacity to research into this rich pocket of forest but our volunteers are grafting away to pull as much info as they can together. They’ve been hard at work noting and measuring areas of encroachment, presence of Purple Breasted sunbird for example, listing and photographing trees with local names and uses, mapping trails, summits, points of interest. Busy bees. Fun and a nice office though!

Ann and Claire have also been out and about meeting different individuals living around the forest to understand the reasons behind encroachment so we can begin to work on effective solutions that benefit not only the forest, but those reliant on those natural resources too. They’ve helped build a group of local conservation leaders and taken them into the forest so they can understand the pressures and critical issues the forest is facing right now. The conservation leaders were genuinely shocked with the devastation and urgency.

“We have recently taken groups of local community leaders through the Pocket Forest, guiding them with western eyes, introducing them to how tourists might see the place, highlighting the issue of damage and ongoing grazing, and received an enthusiastic response and the promise that they will take the message back and use their influence to bring about change. This could develop into a good working team.” (Ann)

It’s been truly inclusive but not an easy road for the volunteers who have faced numerous challenges but it’s challenges we love to take on. Right?!

Relations with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) have been continuously strengthened and the team are working really well with alongside them.

Ann reported she’d “received permissions for tree seed and seedling collection in Bwindi (yeehaa!) for the school wildlife clubs tree nursery project, so that one is on the move, much to the delight of teachers and pupils – we are working with the Community Conservation Ranger on those”  

 

She feels they’re “bringing together a good team, including Julius from the Kafuga tree nursery who is beautifully helpful, understands and is concerned by the relationship between deforestation and local climate change and would like to work with Big Beyond in a full partnership role. He will help with the seed collection and pupil training”. 

 

The volunteers have also been collaborating with UWA around wildlife education. A new programme is now underway thanks to the hard work of Ann and Claire to take children from the local schools and wildlife clubs into Bwindi to collect tree seeds. A specialist group will then advise them about planting and caring for their seedlings. Establishing tree seedling nurseries in local schools has lots of benefits as it promotes the project amongst students and their parents, raises awareness amongst future generations of the importance of natural resource management, helps all concerned to learn to look to the future (Beyond today of course!).

And, the initiative will also provide young indigenous trees for planting back into the Pocket Forest to replace the exotics when removed, around the local town as part of an initiative called Go Green led by one of our community partners, and also around the schools and throughout the local communities, to give shade, fruit or resource materials. The project also includes cultivating some non-native timber for the children to take home as an alternative to raiding the park or Pocket Forest. And, as the tree nursery project continues the team will be talking with the Wildlife Clubs about the importance of forest conservation and other environmental topics.

It’s the start of something exciting and will be great to watch them and it grow!

Away from the Pocket Forest, the conservation work at our Uganda site also focusses on keeping the animals in Bwindi as much as it is keeping people out! They tend to take peoples limited food from their fields and cause other damage too. It needs to be a two way thing for this relationship between the park and the local people to become more positive.

Volunteers Ann and Claire have also been working alongside UWA using the GPS to survey Mauritius Thorn Hedge along the borders of Bwindi, helping measure the success of this physical barrier against crop raiding by forest animals. They’re mapping location, size and any possible reasons for gaps (e.g. poor soil, no maintenance), to aid UWA discussions with local community groups. The volunteers have also been meeting with Reformed Poacher groups with UWA reps from different areas in Southern Bwindi – these meetings are at an early stage as we all try to identify the most useful contribution to the success of the groups – UWA are keen for our involvement so more interesting developments expected on the horizon there. It could be educational, enterprise based or something else.

This part of Uganda is green, lush and you can just feel the nature breathing around you. These forests, from massive Bwindi to a little Pocket Forest, are more islands in a sea of people. So how can people and other nature co-exist. For longer than a few years. It’s going to be fascinating to watch these projects evolve over the next few years – and amazing to be a part of it. It’s been a challenge, we expect more, and life wouldn’t be so interesting without them! Determination, passion and the ability to just listen can go a very long way.

Good work Big Beyond team Uganda!

And nice local trips out of the forest to be had too : ) A break down the road at Lake Mutanda.

To apply for Big Beyond Uganda conservation programmes you can check out some details on the Big Beyond website (remember all volunteer placements are completely bespoke so programmes are just a guideline), give us a shout by email – answers@bigbeyond.org – or call us on +44 (0)800 6446203