Environmental degradation in Uganda is a result of governmental neglect, local communities that rely on the land are eager for change, says Elena Priesen-Reis.

In Entebbe luscious hills seem to stretch into the horizon infinitely, decorated in a patchwork quilt of maize, plantains, cassava, sweet potatoes, their precise planting a satisfying representation of agricultural tradition and expertise. When I visited as an ICS volunteer, I was entranced by the landscape’s beauty until I noticed that, scattered amongst these natural earthy tones of land, clashed collections of artificially coloured waste.

Michael Aboneka’s envirogreen plantation located in Kangulumira.

As we left the capital and neared Jinja district, these mounds exponentially increased. Not only were they growing in size, but also in frequency. Unwanted garbage and burning plastics, are a scar on the beautiful landscape of our planet, and a reminder of how much climate change is taking from us. I saw a mother bathing her toddler in the waters of a brook. A brook polluted by glass and plastic, this brought home the human impact of this scourge.

The welfare of people and communities are being overlooked by a system of pollution left unchecked by governments, but as I would find out, communities are taking action.”

A sidestreet in Kangulumira Town Centre; chickens and cows are reared among the waste as villagers burn plastic in their backyards.

I interviewed two well-respected community officials, Agricultural Officer Alex Semakula and Health Assistant Lucy Akoko, both of whom agreed that mindset and funding were at the heart of the problem. A lack of external funding by the government prevents the establishment of reliable waste disposal systems that community members will trust and follow. Separating waste requires a collective effort from the community, which starts with a change in mindset. These problems are swept under the rug by those in power and left for communities to tackle alone. Disorganisation dominates even in the collection of medical waste, posing serious health challenges for both staff and patients. Though events led by NGOs, such as community cleanups, are successful in the short-term with large turnouts, these are unsustainable. Ultimately, no permanent system means things quickly return to how they were, increasing communal frustration and feelings of abandonment towards the authorities.

For an alternative perspective, I contacted Michael Aboneka, the founder of Envirogreen Trust Limited, a local seedling plantation that also advises tree planters both in and out of Uganda. Michael emphasised the devastating impacts of climate change on local farmers; the late arrival of the second rain season back in 2016 almost resulted in his company going bankrupt. He told me that during these catastrophic dry spells, hunger and missed meals come often, and the unpredictable rain pattern only exacerbates this. Paradoxically, agriculture is the main driver for deforestation here, creating a calamitous cycle of environmental imbalance. A possible solution to this is emphasising the benefits of tree planting to the community. Though the general opinion on sustainable farming is encouraging, the primary focus is often profit and cost-effectiveness, encapsulated by Michael’s explanation, “Everyone does what they think will make them money.” The government should be shouldering the responsibility of empowering local farmers and offering incentives to invest in sustainable practices to properly integrate agricultural programmes into the community.

(Left)  Michael Aboneka and Elena (author) after a tour of Michael’s plantation, a seedling ‘tent’ can be seen in the background. (Centre and Right) Community members taking part in the local Agricultural Day Activities run by the Kangulumira Agricultural Club; displays informed locals on more sustainable farming practices and local school were invited to the event.

My host “father”, Vincent Kiggundu, worked at the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI), and was enthusiastic about future sustainable programmes that he would like to introduce into the community. He believed that, with a reliable role-model, community members could start to adopt environmental practices in a way that would bring them profit. He suggested the notorious rapids at the nearby Kalagala Falls, which attract numerous tourists and professional kayakers, could draw revenue as a “Biodiversity Picnic and Campsite”. As well as championing sustainability in his working life, Vincent also ran training sessions for the local communities to learn how to embrace ecotourism. The driving force behind his campaign was to eradicate prevalent socioeconomic issues in the area, such as malnutrition in children and the rising rate of high-school dropouts.

Separating waste requires a collective effort from the community, which starts with a change in mindset.”

The community’s agricultural dependence has been jeopardised by the effects of climate change; unpredictable rainfall and erratic changes in season create lower crop yields which, along with a rise in demand caused by an increasing population, force farmers to raise their prices in order to survive. Therefore, sub-county officials and local businesses also plan to independently implement changes in the near future, becoming less reliant on governmental aid to solve these issues. Throughout Kangulumira and the surrounding villages, families have been encouraged to become self-sufficient, and Alex has led sessions on environmentally conscious farming to local farmers — now that the effects of climate change are explicit and personal, people are eager to learn and adapt. Michael’s objectives are now to grow tree seedlings that local people will be able to plant in their own available land, tackling the issue of land availability and unnecessary deforestation.

This small community has genuine potential to protect the environment through its deep, long-established relationship with the land on which their livelihoods depend. There is much that environmentally-disconnected overdeveloped countries could learn from these evolving rural villages, as all too often nature’s well-being is overlooked. What started out as an overwhelming concern on my part for what seemed like careless environmental practices soon became optimism, inspired by the self-motivated efforts of the individual communities who must battle against the inefficiencies of those with power. 

Elena Priesen-Reis

Elena Priesen-Reis

My name is Elena Priesen-Reis and I am a current third year university student studying to achieve a MSci in physics at University College London. During the summer of 2019 I decided to be spontaneous and take part in a 10-week volunteering program with Restless Development in rural Uganda. During my time there I experienced many shocking and delightful things, but the main aspects that stood out to me were most likely influenced by my science background and passion for the environment; the visible impacts that climate change was already having on this vulnerable community, the attitudes in response to this, and local attempts to tackle this issue. The entire experience was extremely eye-opening for me, and I hope that through my article I am able to provide others with even just a glimpse of the situation in locations such as Kangulumira, who’s weak infrastructure and geographical location put them at serious danger in the face of the growing climate crisis.

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Embracing nature in Kangulumira

by Elena Priesen-Reis Reading time: 4 min
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