Interviews – Day 37

Posted on April 11, 2012

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My interview with the National Forestry Authority (NFA) didn’t happen on the day I had scheduled it. Bad weather, the Easter break and lack of transportation meant it had to be postponed. But when I did finally catch up with the officer in question I was mildly surprised by how refreshingly honest he was.

He admitted there were several failings within the organisation as well as within the government which has allowed the trade in illegal logging to flourish:

  • There are not enough patrols regularly throughout the forest.
  • There’s concern among the men who do carry out patrols that they will be attacked if they confront a large group of illegal pit-sawyers (armed with Pangas and spears).
  • Poor record keeping both at the NFA and at police stations means there is no history of whether this is a repeat offence.
  • An influx of immigrants, especially from Congo has meant these people are more likely to do illegal work to earn money.
  • Corruption within the NFA has led to 10 per cent of staff being sacked.
  • Corruption within the police force has meant suspects get bailed and disappear.
  • Corruption with magistrates means not everyone is handed out tough sentences.
  • There is no private prosecutor who works solely for the NFA.
  • Despite knowing which men are driving the trade in Cordia they cannot arrest them without hard evidence.
  • The demand for this wood locally is higher than Mahogany and fetches an even higher price by the lake.
  • Tree planting is slow and is not seen as a priority by the government.

Not that any of these points are a revelation, but to have them said to me on record was something I was not expecting. I was waiting for denial, excuses  and fudging, if I am honest. I am hoping to shed some light on illegal Cordia logging to the Ugandan government via the Environment and also the Fisheries Department in around four weeks’ time.

I have realised that few people in those departments actually care about conservation issues – it’s mostly a façade, but politically they have to be seen to be doing the right thing. My African friends here have told me stories about ministers waving through plans for a large hotel on  protected wetland. Forests have been cleared for sugar cane plantations killing hundreds of endangered butterflies which are crucial pollinators for the surrounding areas to appease wealthy business men and investors. People at the top are not well-informed about the knock-on-effect of their actions. They only see a short-term plan of getting rich quick and all too often bribes are accepted. So it’s with this attitude in mind, how to make and save money that I’ve decided to try to find a proposal that will get government to look at planting Cordia not as a matter of conservation, but from a new perspective…..one that is driven by businesses sense.

Currently the fish export market is the second biggest income driver after coffee. The most recent figures show (2007) that one hundred and eighty thousand tonnes of fish comes from Lake Albert. Fish is big businesses nationally – aquaculture is actively encouraged as well fishing in the natural lakes (put the issue of overfishing to one side). If the government wants to see this industry continue to flourish and increase its export revenue they need to start safeguarding the only species used to build boats in Uganda, and that’s Cordia. If these trees disappear, then the fishing industry will collapse and they will lose billions of Ugandan shillings. They won’t find another naturally occurring alternative species of timber to build boats (according to the NFA) if this tree becomes extinct; so Cordia will either have to be pillage from neighbouring countries or imported – which would be costly!

Fish from Uganda is exported all over the world so it’s within their interest to start planting this tree to prevent the collapse of a bigger industry. If a scheme can be worked out between departments whereby some money from fisheries could assist in the growing and planting of Cordia seedlings, the two should complement each other. It could also create jobs for local people. This is of course in an ideal world,  and I’m sure I’ll come across some hurdles to this proposal in the next month. Cordia is not a fast growing tree, it takes between 50-80 years to fully mature, so if this idea, potentially does take root (yes pun intended!) they’ll need to get a move on.

Briefly……I was interviewed from Uganda last week by nature.com

The website was running a series about people make career transitions in science and I was asked to take part. Here’s the link.

http://blogs.nature.com/soapboxscience/2012/04/05/transitions-from-journalism-to-science-and-back-again-asha-tanna

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