By Denis Jjuuko

Last week, I was in Gangu Forest Reserve, which is part of the Mpanga Forest Range in Mawokota. Gangu is that forest where they sell fresh beans throughout the year along the Kampala-Masaka highway. Although the forest looks thick from the roadside, once you go about 3kms deep, you will find empty tracts of land that stretch beyond the hills where locals are growing maize. A few years ago, this was a thick forest with indigenous species. Today, to call it a forest is a misnomer.

I had gone to Gangu with Rotarians to kick-start a campaign to restore this forest with 20,000 trees of indigenous species on 40 hectares this season alone — an effort spearheaded by Rotary District Governor Ken Mugisha and supported by Uganda Breweries. The National Forestry Authority and its parent ministry is providing this land to Rotary Mission Green, an initiative that aims to plant a million trees every year for five years. Uganda Breweries of course is worried that once forests like Gangu remain as empty as they are today, one day they will be affected by less water in Lake Victoria. (Disclaimer, I chair the PR Committee of Rotary Mission Green but if you stop reading because of this revelation, you would have missed the point).

In my view, one of the reasons these forests have been destroyed by charcoal sellers and land grabbers is because they are mainly single purpose. The communities see no real value in protecting them. Telling uneducated people or those who want to drive fancy cars that forests are good for the environment, they don’t see that as something that directly benefits them. Turning them into businesses from which the communities benefit will lead to less destruction and increase their vigilance.

This applies to those planting commercial forests as well. A lot of people who get involved in some form of tree planting as a commercial enterprise are now selling them many years before maturity especially those who focused on wood trees as opposed to fruit ones. After spending so much money to ensure that the trees grow, some have got tired or found better ideas to do with their money.

Of course like most long-term investments, trees are very profitable but you need to spend a lot before you get anything out of them unless if you got some money as part of carbon trading. When you plant trees, you must ensure they aren’t burnt or destroyed by termites. You must do thinning and lots of other work. The money from trees sold after thinning may not be enough to cater for many costs involved. So if you planted pine trees for example, you are looking at 15-18 years before you can sell them. There is no guarantee that when they mature then the buyers will come running like a hungry lion that has identified its prey. So investing in tree planting can sometimes feel like watching paint dry.

This is because in the tree planting business plan, most people didn’t include options of how to get money out of these trees before maturity. Yet there are some options that commercial tree planters and NFA could explore and that is recreation and tourism.

Today, there are fewer places where people can go camping or do extreme sports or physical exercises like tree climbing and line zipping. Commercial tree planters can think of such as an option as they wait for the trees to mature.

On many of our highways to major towns, there many tree farms that aren’t far off the road. The buses and long haul truck drivers have no places to make stop overs apart from a few fuel stations like the one in Migyera on the Kampala-Karuma highway. It is not uncommon to find buses that have parked by the roadside and people are doing “an Abiriga” on the roadside. Why not create these stopovers in these forest reserves or commercial tree farms? Rotary Mission Green plans to create such a place in Gangu.

In fact there are some businesspeople who have built eco tourism lodges in places like Mabira forest. They make lots of money where people camp to see snakes and explore nature. I believe that even in a commercial tree project this is possible. If a nice affordable facility is built in any forest, people will come over. Weddings could be organized there and schools could pay for study tours.

Organisations will hold retreats; couples would enjoy honeymoons and anniversaries. Kids would come over to play and ride bicycles. Communities will get jobs and provide food and other necessities. They will see value in ensuring the forest isn’t as destroyed as the Gangu one. Those who invest would protect them. I know that some efforts have been made by giving forest reserves to some ‘investors’ though most of them their main interest is land, not the forest.

This is important because even in many towns across the country where previously land wasn’t a problem, people are now buying 50×100 feet size plots to build their homes. Such homes are very squeezed that kids have nowhere to play. Schools are facing similar problems.

So if you planted trees and turned them into a multipurpose business instead of waiting for them to mature at 15 or 18 years, you would mitigate some of the problems that lead people to sell early but most importantly you would be ensuring that forests aren’t destroyed.

The writer is a media consultant and businessman.

Photo of Mark Ocitti, the UBL MD (second left), DG Ken Mugisha (third left) and State Minister of Environment Mary Goretti Kitatu and other Rotarians and NFA Staff during the kick off campaign to restore Gangu forest