Fish and Chimps – days 66 to 68 continued….

Posted on May 12, 2012


When I started this study I was curious to find out what factors could be affecting the well-being and indeed the long-term survival of wild chimps in the Budongo Forest. I had no idea how many complex layers I would uncover in the process of probing and I’ve also come to realise there is a web of corruption that spreads very far and very wide.

The Cordia millenii tree is not only an endangered species like these great apes, but it is protected and NO ONE should be harvesting it. The chimps rely on it as an important food source as well as using it as a tree for nesting and resting in. But as my time in the Budongo Forest Reserve has shown me there are few mature trees and those standing are also under threat of being hacked down by the dark and dangerous trade of illegal pit-sawing. The demand for this wood is high and on the black market it fetches a high price because it is not so easy to come by. But the scarcity of the wood coupled with the necessity for fishermen to get hold of it to make their boats is leading to its rapid decline. Cordia millenii is the main timber used to make all boats  – canoes called Ngoto; larger boats called Barque and also the motorised boats. There are a few other species, which I only know the African name for, but all timber users have said there are just no substitutes for Cordia. This week I saw hundreds of boats­ beached along the shoreline of Lake Albert in one landing site called Piida. And that was when most are still out on the lake. The lake is vast and is also shared with Congo so if there are hundreds in a tiny area like Piida then there’s bound to be hundreds elsewhere at the other sites which are equally as busy. In just three days I have interviewed 10 people and this is what I’ve gleaned so far.

All the boats are made of Cordia and people call it by its local name Ngoma Ngoma. It’s freely admitted by those I’ve interviewed even though it is illegal to use this wood.

Fish is on the decline and all case studies have confirmed so from fishermen, women selling and buying fish, smoking and salting fish, boat builders and timber sellers.  They all talk about the demand for more boats still being high in order to try to make a living and that over saturation on landing sites has led to smaller catches and less income. Everyone is concerned about the drop in fish stocks but not everyone believes it’s due to them. They say perhaps it is seasonal. Rough estimates from different “stakeholders” have all put the amount of boats in Piida at around 1,000.

The fishermen say they are buying Ngoma wood that has been stamped to avoid being hassled by the authorities. I’m not sure they can differentiate between the different forestry organisations. I spoke to the National Forestry Authority (NFA) and one ranger he told me that Cordia is a protected tree and should not be on sale. I asked about the stamping and he claims it is possible that the District Forestry Services (DFS) could be stamping planks because people have to pay money per plank (roughly 1,800 Ugandan shillings a piece – under a dollar). He says there is a loophole which is undermining the job of NFA patrols because the DFS needs to generate money at county level for the ministry. Both organisations sit under the umbrella of Ministry of Water and Environment.

So the environment ministry needs to tighten up its legislation if it’s serious about protecting the tree and safeguarding the fishing industry in the long-term.

I’ve been given an address for a timber yard in Hoima, a town 45km from Biiso, where planks have been stamped. I have a good contact there I met two years ago who I’ll ask to sniff around for me.

One timber seller I spoke to on Thursday in Piida, claims before 2009 forest rangers would freely let people use specific blocks in Budongo Forest to cut Cordia. Now they do not, he told me: “They are strict!”. Also most timber sellers buy timber from Nybayeye – one of the villages close to Budongo so it all comes from the forest. The sellers then hide the Cordia underneath other felled wood which they have been given an official letter for in order to transport. My source told me he’ll pay tax on 100 pieces of other species and then smuggle out 100 Cordia pieces out without their knowledge. Sellers come from everywhere to use Budongo Forest: Masindi; Kampala; Hoima; Sudan; Arua; Nebbi and Ajuman. It’s big money for the large sellers earning them multi millions….maybe even billions. There are specific pit-sawyers who stay overnight in the forest, I’ve seen their camps in W21 and N5 and other researchers say there are plenty more pit-sawing sites elsewhere on and off grid. The there are specific cutters who just carry out timber of the forest. They are paid per plank (2,000 shillings) to carry it out on their heads and these include women! People are usually in their late 20s to early 30s and he says the trade is driven by poverty. Lorry drivers are also brought in and get paid for transporting the timber away, up to several tonnes can be loaded at a time. Everyone is creaming money off Cordia. I asked whether he knew the tree was endangered and he said yes. Most people believe the tree can never become extinct in the same way overfishing is not possible. They believe in finite resources.

This timber seller has never been arrested but he lost his loot in the forest in 2005 when rangers surprised him. He legged it leaving the bounty. He lost 7m shillings’ worth of timber. He waited 2 years and then started to go back; he now gets official letters for legal timber in order to smuggle out the Cordia. Everyone does this! Cordia is also used for making roofs for houses and furniture as well as boats.

Also pit-sawyers are most prevalent in the Budongo Forest during the wet season. There’s no water for cooking, bathing and drinking in the dry season and as it’s too hot and no one wants to work inside the forest in those conditions so the timber supply drops off. The NFA have been quick to blame immigrants for the problem, in particular Congolese, but this timber seller told me everyone he uses is Ugandan and there are six people in particular he will always go to.

I’ve hopefully got an interview with a prisoner in Masindi jail next Friday. It was meant to happen yesterday but fell down. My dear friend and forest-husband Moses is accompanying me as my translator. The guard I’ve spoken to Corporal Alfred is setting it up for me, he claims that he used to work for the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. I also want to find out why he left, he has promised to share his story with me next week. Moses thinks he genuinely wants to help and isn’t looking for a sweetener and can be trusted. Moses is a pretty good judge of character, so I’ll take his word for it. I want to get a proper insight into the life of a pit-sawyer and what drives them to do this dangerous work. Corp Alfred says there are quite a few Ugandan pit-sawyers banged up, so it can’t all be an immigration issue.

In the last few years the price of timber has gone up, more than likely due to increased demand and fewer trees. Locally Cordia is sold for 17,000 shillings a plank but in the big towns and cities it can go for 35,000 a plank. It usually takes 25-pieces on average to make a boat and obviously the bigger ones for fishing Nile Perch will use more. Boats only last around 5 years as few people paint them because it is another cost. Repairs can also be pricey ranging from 10,000 to 35,000 plus. More people in the villages tend to repair their boats than have many of them. But your average fishermen still has around two boats at any one time.

The people here still don’t know the full reasons for my study and as far as they are concerned it’s related to fishing and not chimps and conservation; although all the issues are connected and interwoven. I am beginning to discover that if the government want their fish export market to expand or indeed to keep it going they are going to have to pull their finger out and start planting this bloody tree. The tug of war between legal and illegal practices will mean that in the end the criminals will benefit.

Another factor affecting the timber boat building trade are illegal fishing practices which are carried out on a daily basis. Everyone needs a boat to do this. There’s piracy, robbery and illegal gear and nets being used, all fuelled by poverty. Some fishermen were shot last year following armed robberies on the lake. Their money (several million) was stolen en route back from Congo on the lake. No one stops this activity because if hearsay is to be believed, there are several politicians at ministerial level who have money tied up in some of the fish factories so they need the stocks to be bountiful. They rely on people getting hold of fish using whatever means possible. No one has named names but local councillors say their hands are tied at clamping down on these practises and they fear reprisals. Mukene is a very small fish that is usually dried to eat. For human consumption it’s dried on plastic bags; but when it’s dried on the sand it’s for chicken feed. This is big money and lots of Mukene is processed in these large factories which the politicians either own or part own. I’ve seen loads of this fish drying on the sand and have photographed it.

It’s like a crime novel, there’s no one straight here!

I also managed to get access inside the closed down fish factory just on the outskirts of the village called Wild Catch Fisheries Ltd, it opened in 2006, and closed in 2008. They were only turning over 80-tonnes a month in Piida. The co-owners (two Indian men) have five other factories elsewhere in Uganda. The one in Jinga turns over 90-tonnes a day for export. Nile Perch is sold to Spain, Italy, Portugal and Germany and also the UK. By-products remain for domestic market and Congo (that’s oil; bones; liver, kidneys etc). They hope to re-open the factory once power comes to the area. The generator was costing them a fortune. They hope to turn over 30-40 tonnes a day and mix this with fish from one of the other factories. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside but I was given a tour. It’s so dilapidated now. The site cost around 20 bn shillings to build and it’s huge. Not sure who else is investing in that but they are keen to get production going again.

There are many questions I have for the ministries, but I doubt I’ll have any of them answered and I have to be very careful how I tread. I don’t want to jeopardise my safety or indeed the reputation of the Budongo Conservation Field Station. Don’t panic Mum and Dad! I am taking stock of what I know and I’m seeking advice on what to do next when I reach the Big Fish. But in the meantime I am keeping my head down and cracking on with just collecting data. I am after all a very small fish in a large pond filled with sharks.