The Cutter – Day 72

Posted on May 14, 2012


Kalegeja is only 4km from Biiso. The road there is quiet and discreet and the village is tiny. Everyone knows everything about each other and the accepted practice of pit-sawing is seen as one man’s way of overcoming poverty and providing for his family. The Budongo Forest is on their doorstep, and the reserve is viewed as a natural resource that should be tapped into.

I’ve waited nearly ten weeks to bag an interview from a cutter. I wasn’t even sure if it would materialise during this study, but today I met one man who clearly explained his day-to-day life in the forest and the risks he says he faces in order to earn a living.  It’s not a lifestyle he aspires to and given the chance, says he would leave tomorrow if there was an alternative. The fat cats in the big cities have created a lucrative black-market that sucks in the poor and desperate. It’s fuelled by a chain of command that probably goes very, very high, but the likelihood of prosecution for those responsible is very, very slim.

John is 41 years old and has lived in this village all his life. His father was a pit-sawyer and he used to follow his father and his co-workers into the forest every day. It was a trade he was weaned on, so after his father died the only way to make ends meet was to pick up where he left. This is his story:

“The Budongo Forest is close. You can see it there,” he points behind the trunk of a small tree we are seated under. He squints and fidgets before settling.

“I tend to go into the forest for two weeks at a time and I go on foot. When I return to the village I am here outside for about week before going back again. There are many of us who work, maybe 12, sometimes 15.

“The demand for wood is high now and the price has gone up because there are not enough trees. Ngoma ngoma (Cordia millenii) and Musizi (Maesopsis eminii) fetch good price and it is what we go to cut because that is want people want. When we cut a tree we take maybe between 30 to 50 pieces from it depending on the size. We can cut 12X1 (11,000 Shillings per piece) and 4X2 (5,000  Shillings per piece). One year and a half ago the price was less, we were only getting 7,000 and 2,000 each piece.

“Most people want Ngoma ngoma for canoes and boats. Munyama (mahogany) is also popular but it is restricted and difficult to get.

“These buyers who come to see me here, can be from all over – Masindi, Hoima, Kampala even the lake. They buy the timber and then charge more when they sell it on because they have to pay for a vehicle to transport it, carrying timber is very expensive, so the price is higher. I can’t charge those prices as I can’t offer transport.

“Everyone in the village knows who is a cutter. So when people come looking for timber they just ask the people, it is common knowledge. I started cutting when I was 28 years old. I don’t make a good living out of it. By the time I pay people to carry the wood out of the forest for me, I am left with very little. After removing all the expenses I earn, in a month, maybe 120,000 Shillings (£32) and this is used to­ provide for my family (two wives and 11 children).

“The forest life is hard. There is sickness all the time. We get bitten by Tsetse flies and mosquitoes, there are snakes, ants, wild animals and we are chased by the rangers. We fear. I have never been caught, but I have run, and when you run you leave your timber behind.

“It can take us two days to chop a mature tree. We use two people and one saw, we work maybe 7 hours and in that time we also have to set up camp and fetch water from the river. Sometimes we are quite a distance from water, so it takes time to walk there and back. We also have to cook for ourselves – usually we bring pocho and beans to eat for two weeks. And when we sleep, we build a fire and sleep on the timber, it is safer. We live like that.

“We fear the chimpanzees. They disturb us, they come to our camp and take our food and they chase us. We also fear the researchers. They come into the forest in very large groups and use the pathways. When we hear their voices we hide in the bushes.

“Cutting the planks is dangerous. We first have to build a rack and we need very many people to help roll the tree up two planks onto the rack. The tree can be very heavy and it’s very tiring. We need everyone to help lift it.  When we roll it up and get tired, we use other bits of wood to stop it rolling back down, for us to rest. People have been crushed, it can kill you, I have seen one man die.

“We then take a long rope and coat it in charcoal. We have one person each end of the rack holding the rope straight on the rack until it is tight. Then someone pulls the middle part of the rope up and releases it, this leaves a black line on the rack. We use that mark as a guide to cut the planks straight. The log is first cut in half and then divided and then we use a tape measure to cut 12X1 or 4X2.

“People from everywhere are cutters. Some are local, some come from Bakiga near Kibaale, there are Congolese but it is mainly Ugandans who work in Budongo Forest. Most people start cutting at around the age of 20 and will work like this probably until 50. It is heavy work.

“The rangers are not there that often. Maybe they come once in a week, sometimes twice. If they see us before we see them, then there is the danger they will catch you and prosecute you. But if we see them first, we will hide rather than run. If you spend a lot of time cutting one tree it is not good to leave the timber because there is stealing in the forest. Timber that has already been cut is taken by thieves. Once you have cut planks you then have to walk out of the forest to go and fetch the people who carry it for you. Sometimes when you come back the timber is gone. Those people who carry the wood are paid a deposit. We give them almost half the full amount as an advance and they get the rest when they bring the timber back. But if the timber is gone, they keep the money and you get nothing. The price they are paid is negotiated.

“The rangers have been more strict these days so it is more difficult to get Ngoma ngoma. It is less than it used to be in the forest.  I know because the forest is very big and for me to realise there is less shows how much further we have to enter to find it. We used to cut just here, very near to the village but now we can start walking at 7am and not reach an area until midday. That means we have entered deep because we are also then meeting cutters from the other side of Budongo near Masindi. Only once we find the trees do we start to make our own paths to be able to carry it out. If you find a tree you want then you clear the area around it, so another cutter knows it has been ‘booked’ or you mark it with your Panga like a cross, deep in the wood.

“It is true the people in the cities get more money for timber than we do, but you need to have a lot of money to work in this trade. You have to be able to also afford to pay bribes along the route or your timber gets confiscated. You have pay the police, forestry officers, rangers everyone takes money from you.

“Yes I know Ngoma ngoma is endangered and it is becoming more hard to find. I think it will run out if the cutting continues at this rate…..hmmm, maybe in 7 or 8 years. But if it runs out we will use another wood Mujwa (Alstonia boonei) and there is also Red Nongo, the bark is somehow red and white, they can be used instead.

“Why do I do this? It is because there is no work around. If I had an alternative I would leave, it is not easy working like this.”

After our interview John took me to where he keeps his stash. Like many other cutters, he does not keep his loot on his property for fear of being searched and arrested. His neighbour has an empty mud hut. As I pushed past the straw and plastic covering the entrance I ducked down to see inside. I was met with the sight of a large pile of freshly cut wood. John took a seat and was happy to pose for photograph.