KAMPALA, Uganda -- When Maria Mutagamba, Uganda's former minister of water and environment, addressed the U.N. conference on climate change last December, she did not make excuses for her country's slow progress toward reducing carbon emissions. Nor did she blame the summit's power brokers for assigning poor nations like Uganda too much responsibility and too little money to tackle the problem.
Rather, Mutagamba implored the U.N. delegates to adopt much stricter policies to curtail deforestation, Uganda's leading environmental problem and one of the developing world's most pressing challenges with respect to climate change.
An economist and a former bank executive, Mutagamba called for an overhaul of the Kyoto Protocol's market-based approach to curb forest destruction -- embodied in the Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program. In lieu of market-based solutions to curb deforestation, she said, the United Nations should adopt measures "designed to stop deforestation and degradation, not simply reduce or defer emissions" associated with the conversion of forests for agriculture or development.
Indeed, the clearing of forest in Uganda -- especially on private land but also on government-owned forest reserves -- has become so widespread that some experts predict the country will be denuded of its private forests by 2040. Left behind will be a patchwork of government-owned reserves, many of which are also under assault from illegal timbering, encroachment and other forms of degradation.
Such conditions would bode poorly for a country considered a global biodiversity hot spot and whose Albertine Rift rainforests are among the world's 10 most threatened forest ecosystems, according to Conservation International. Moreover, as Uganda experiences the world's fourth-fastest population growth and attendant rising energy demand, its remaining forests will only grow in importance as carbon sinks.
The United Nations Environment Programme recently reported that deforestation worldwide accounts for roughly 17 percent of global carbon emissions, more than the emissions from shipping, aviation and land transport combined. And in a country like Uganda, with a relatively small industrial sector, deforestation and the burning of trees for charcoal and wood-fired cooking and heating account for a much larger share of carbon emissions, experts say.
A national park's worth of forest lost annually
While politicians and environmentalists are quick to decry Uganda's deforestation crisis, the full extent of the problem can be difficult to see, as much of Uganda remains sparsely developed and largely green.
But experts here say the landscape is much different from 100 years ago, when 40 percent of the country's land mass was under forest canopy. Today that figure has declined to 15 percent, and the number is falling annually.
Data from Uganda's National Forestry Authority show the country is losing 227,000 acres of forest each year, an area roughly 25 percent larger than Shenandoah National Park. Such figures take on heightened urgency when one considers that all of Uganda could fit within the footprint of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.
Nor is the current deforestation crisis new. It follows decades of forest loss and degradation between 1970 and 2000, when political instability, war and corruption brought about "a general breakdown of law and order," resulting in encroachment and degradation, according to a 2005 NFA overview of Uganda's forest health and status.
The losses have accelerated as Uganda added 10 million to its population over the last decade, from 24 million in 2000 to nearly 35 million people today, roughly equivalent to California's population.
Of Uganda's remaining forest area, 70 percent, or 8.5 million acres, is privately owned, meaning there is little or no restriction on how it can be managed, said Gonza Kaita Araali, a spokesman for NFA. "Some areas are completely cut over," he said. "Where it used to be thick with trees, now it looks like gardens."
Much of the best of what's left exists in the government's network of central forest reserves, which together account for 15 percent of Uganda's remaining forest, or roughly 3.1 million acres. The last 15 percent, bound up in national parks and game preserves, is managed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority and represents some of East Africa's most pristine wildlife habitat.
According to 2006 estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Uganda's remaining forests store 1.23 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, although other experts have calculated a much lower figure, in the range of 430 million to 480 million metric tons.
For millions, it's cut trees or starve
Charlie Langan, a senior forestry consultant at the Uganda Carbon Bureau, which advises clients on climate change issues, said that despite government and private-sector efforts to slow deforestation, including by replanting millions of trees, the losses are still mounting.
"The overwhelming tide is that we continue to lose forests, and there's no easy solution to change that," he said. "Fundamentally, this problem is about population pressure. For over 90 percent of Ugandans, the choice is to use the forests to grow food and harvest wood for energy, or starve."
In 2003, the government made its strongest gesture to date to encourage forest protection with the passage of the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act. The law created the National Forestry Authority, and charged that the central forest reserves be used "for purposes of protection and production of forests and forest produce; to provide for the sustainable use of forest resources and the enhancement of the productive capacity of forests."
The law also promoted tree planting both by the government and by nongovernment agencies that could aid in the regeneration of Uganda's forests for altruistic reasons, but also for the purpose of generating carbon credits that could be sold on voluntary and formal carbon markets such as those operating in Europe.
Under government policy, a half-million acres of central forest reserves were identified for tree planting projects, with roughly 75 percent allotted for private-sector firms working in collaboration with NFA and 25 percent held for government-led restoration. Local communities around the reserves were allotted at least 5 percent of the acreage for their own restoration projects.
The government also embraced programs like the Sawlog Production Grant Scheme, which seeks to encourage private-sector conservation and teach principles of sustainable commercial silviculture for the purpose of both providing essential forest products and creating carbon sinks.
The program, supported by the European Union and the government of Norway, has helped to establish more than 42,000 acres of fast-growing pine and eucalyptus forest in Uganda, with a goal of reaching 74,000 acres by the end of next year.
Good intentions gone awry
Yet despite such programs, the removal of trees from private land continues at a furious pace, and the government's forest reserves remain under constant threat of encroachment from both sanctioned and unsanctioned activities.
The trade-offs between forest health and human rights have also come under sharp scrutiny, as evidenced by a widely distributed 2011 report from Oxfam alleging the Ugandan government had helped forcibly evict more than 20,000 people from their homes to make way for a reforestation program led by a private firm called the New Forests Co.
Oxfam characterized the evictions as a "land grab" that would enrich the company through the selling of carbon credits and the eventual sale of timber to sawmills. Officials with the British-based company, which has 27,000 acres under cultivation in central Uganda, said they had no involvement in any evictions and follow strict principles protecting local peoples' social and economic well-being.
The Ugandan government also strongly rebutted many of the Oxfam report's charges, saying, "The insinuation of a land grab by NFC is patently false." Government and some independent observers also say Oxfam failed to account for the government's long struggle to maintain boundaries around its forest reserves, many of which have been overrun by subsistence farmers who believe their need for agricultural plots takes precedent over the government's conservation goals.
Sugar cane proposal crystallizes debate
The promotion of monocrop agriculture has also clashed with forest protection goals, including as recently as last year when the government of President Yoweri Museveni resurrected a controversial proposal to transfer more than 17,500 acres of the Mabira Forest Reserve to sugar cane producers.
Officials suggested that sugar cane cultivation was a better use of parts of the Mabira forest that had already been degraded by encroachment, and it would have helped rectify a sugar shortage that triggered nationwide price spikes, sugar rationing and public anger.
Environmental groups such as the Rainforest Alliance and NatureUganda, an affiliate of BirdLife International, decried the proposal, citing the forest's value as a wildlife habitat and carbon sink.
"In this age of abrupt climate change, collapsing forest ecosystems, and abject poverty, rainforest destruction for agricultural plantations and/or biofuel production is simply unacceptable," an online petition circulated by the nonprofit group Ecological Internet Inc. stated.
More recently, the government has faced criticism for permitting private firms to log in some parts of Mabira forest that were considered less pristine. Critics say that the sanctioned cutting, which began late last year, has encouraged illegal harvesting in other parts of the forest and that the National Forest Authority has little ability to enforce the law.
"I have never seen this kind of destruction in Mabira," resident Vincent Lubwama told the Kampala-based New Vision newspaper early this year. "Illegal loggers and charcoal burners are not sleeping. They are taking advantage of the situation to exploit the forest."