'Tree talk' founder builds conservation support in Uganda

by Otim Joseph | CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research)
Friday, 7 March 2014 23:16 GMT

Watson’s undying passion for people and agroforestry, her impatience for results and her shrewd strategizing makes her a very special and exceptional woman — a true forest heroine, says Otim Joseph, a forest supervisor with Uganda’s National Forestry Authority. Picture credit: Claude Nankam

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Forest heroine" Catharine Watson drives tree planting, forest protection

In 1990, Uganda’s natural forests and woodlands covered an estimated 4.9 million hectares (ha), representing 24 percent of total land area, according to the country’s National Forest Plan. By 2005, this area had been reduced to just over 3.6 million ha or 18 percent of the land area — a loss of 27 percent in just 15 years.

In the face of this worrying trend, Uganda got much-needed help from passionate people like Catharine Watson, head of program development at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), to help stem the tide of forest loss in the country.

To raise awareness of the problem among Ugandans, and in 2005, through Straight Talk Foundation, a local non-governmental organization, she helped found Tree Talk, a social forestry effort. As part of this effort, a “Tree Talk” newspaper was distributed in schools, public offices, and elsewhere to discuss issues of forests and conservation. To overcome low literacy levels, Catharine initiated radio programs in a dozen radio stations in various local languages. This created awareness for forest conservation and — most importantly — a high demand for tree-planting, for which she employed young professional foresters to help.

In 2006, during an insurgency in northern Uganda, displaced people exhausted the trees around camps, prompting Tree Talk to sign an agreement with the World Food Programme, which funded Tree Talk to start tree nurseries and plant woodlots to provide schools with fuel wood with which to cook WFP rations. Tree Talk planted about 480,000 trees.

To date, Catharine’s project has resulted in the planting of more than 7 million trees (95 percent native species) in northern Uganda, reducing pressure on the natural forest.

In a country where professional foresters are very few and only one out of 100 foresters is female, through her NGO Mvule Trust, Watson helped create a “population explosion” of female foresters in the National Forestry College by giving scholarships to 122 foresters, 75 percent of whom were young women. Female enrollment increased from 15 percent of students to 40 percent — which required the construction of more latrines, which Catharine oversaw.

Many of the young foresters found work, but the job market couldn’t absorb all of them. But Catharine did not want them to waste their skills and knowledge acquired in college. So she is currently funding 30 of these young foresters for internships and mentoring at the National Forestry Authority so they can apply the skills to help increase Ugandan forest cover. The internship also aims to improve the employability of Mvule alumni and prevent long-term youth unemployment.

Watson considered other aspects of forest biodiversity as well. Due to habitat destruction, the number of chimpanzees remaining in Kyambura Gorge in western Uganda has shrunk to about 24. Through Mvule Trust, Catharine is supporting a community agroforestry programme that is hoped to create a forest corridor for the chimps so that they can travel out of the gorge and into a nearby forest that has a larger population of chimps.

In February, she funded six Ugandan forestry professionals to attend the World Congress on Agroforestry 2014 in India.

Watson’s undying passion for people and agroforestry, her impatience for results and her shrewd strategizing makes her a very special and exceptional woman — a true forest heroine.

International Women’s Day is Saturday, 8 March, and in honor of women’s many contributions to forestry, Forests News is publishing stories from readers about their “forest heroines” — women who have devoted their lives to make a difference for the world’s forests and the people who live in them. In this one, guest blogger Otim Joseph writes about his forest heroine, Catharine Watson. Otim Joseph is a forest supervisor with the National Forestry Authority in Uganda.The views expressed above are those of the author and not of the Center for International Forestry Research