Uganda religious leaders act on deforestation

by Pius Sawa | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 24 May 2011 11:30 GMT

Churches are handing out seedlings and promoting replanting as the country's forests vanish

KAMPALA, Uganda (AlertNet) – When Anglican bishop Nathan Kyamanywa was appointed to his job in 2002, he decided that climate change should be a matter of concern for Christians. Kyamanywa bought 55 tree seedlings and gave one to each of the parishes in his diocese of Bunyoro-Kitara in western Uganda.

“My fellow bishops laughed at me. They thought I wanted to impress the public. But I can tell you, the tree planting has never stopped since I started,” said Kyamanywa.

The bishop is just one of a number of Ugandan religious leaders from various faiths who are educating their communities about the environment and taking steps to preserve it, particularly in the face of deforestation.

Uganda has lost more than two-thirds of its forests over the last 20 years as its population quickly expands and as access to electricity and other power sources except wood and charcoal remains low.

In addition, the north of the country saw many trees cut down by government forces during a 20-year civil war against the Lord’s Resistance Army, as the government sought to deprive the rebels of hiding places.

The widespread deforestation has made land across Uganda more vulnerable to climate-linked extreme weather, including droughts and floods. That worries a growing number of the country’s church leaders, who are now working to protect and expand the country’s remaining forests and protect the lives and livelihoods of their congregations.

Many religious groups are carrying out the planting efforts on large chunks of land they own, which have suffered forest losses to charcoal production, farming and other development. Others are helping members plant trees on their own land.

“In central Kampala, we have more than 1,000 hectares of land that we have planted (with) trees, and in the next few years the church will start harvesting timber from pine as we protect our nature,” said pastor Godrey Lubwama of Uganda’s Seventh-Day Adventist church.

The church provides its employees with three-quarters of the capital needed to plant their own trees, and gives free seedlings to church members, ranging from fruit trees to cash crops such as coffee. Lubwama says this empowers church members economically while protecting the earth. The church’s one condition is that a tithe is given back to the church.

“When we give you ten seedlings, one is for the church,” he said.

Bishop Kyamanywa has taken his climate advocacy work a step further, making an energy-saving stove for his house. His example has influenced members of other dioceses to do the same.

“Climate change is our problem. When we sink we sink together and when we float we float together,” Kyamanywa said.

Kyamanywa’s efforts have been recognised by the British Council in Uganda, which has named him a “climate change icon.” Another religious figure similarly recognised for his advocacy concerning climate change is Muslim leader Imam Kasozi.

Kasozi has long been engaged with the Green Top Project, a secular organization that produces tree seedlings that are then given out free to communities, schools and mosques. The project integrates training for youths and elders from communities across the country on the need to combat the impacts of climate change.

Kasozi has donated more than 60,000 seedlings through the project, and since 2009 he has visited most regions of Uganda, speaking on climate change each month at mosques.

The imam has established a savings scheme to fund community development projects. Under the terms of the scheme, called Mia Mia or Kikumi Kikumi (Swahili and Luganda words meaning “one hundred one hundred”), each member of an established community group contributes 100 Ugandan shillings (about five U.S. cents) each day. This money is then pooled to purchase seedlings.

“If you have a group of 50 people ... you can raise 5,000 shillings each day, enough to buy 25 seedlings. This is the best way of saving our motherland from desertification,” Kasozi said.

Reducing deforestation in Uganda also means finding other ways to manage energy needs. Childcare Kitgum Servants, a Christian NGO that cares for more than 7,000 war orphans, was challenged by a donor to find a more efficient way of cooking food than using wood-burning stoves.

“We used to buy a lot of wood for firewood and we realized that we were damaging our earth by clearing the trees,” said pastor Alfred Komagum.

The organisation’s leaders travelled to Rwanda to see how biogas was being generated from human waste.

“We visited one of the biggest prisons in Rwanda, and here human waste was being diverted back into the kitchen as biogas for cooking. We came back with the idea and now we are producing (biogas) energy for the orphanage,” said Komagum.

Other religious groups are following a similar path. The Roman Catholic Church, through its charity organization Caritas Uganda, for instance, is providing communities with seedlings to plant a variety of species including fruit trees.

“The challenge is big but we are doing well in this,” said Rev. Seraphine Opio of Gulu diocese.

Pius Sawa is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.