Uganda covers an area of 24.1 million hectares of which 82% is mainland, 14% is open water and 4% is permanent swamp. It is endowed with diversity of animal and plant species and ranks among the top ten most bio-diverse countries in the world. Uganda’s economy is heavily dependent on biodiversity including the fishing industry, tourism (from wildlife biodiversity), livestock industry, commercial and subsistence use of medicinal plants, and ecotourism, among others.
The Ministry of Water and Environment, in 2019, estimated forest cover at 12.4 per cent (or 2.9 million hectares) of its total land area, down from 4.9 million hectares in 1990, reducing due to deforestation and forest degradation. Forests contribute 7.5 percent to Gross Domestic Product and play a big role in increasing agricultural productivity, supporting livelihoods, being a backbone to the tourism industry and the combat to climate change.
As Uganda pursues middle income status, it is faced with vagaries of development and the associated social injustices, characterized by abuse of environment and human rights, degradation of natural resources and restrictions imposed on civic spaces.
The Government of Uganda had the best intentions with the establishment of oil palm plantations. The aim was to reduce poverty among the Lake Victoria island populations of Kalangala and Buvuma districts and contribute to import substitution through domestic production of palm oil. The project supported by IFAD established plantations in Kalangala in 2002 with crude palm oil production starting in 2010, and plantations were planned to be established in Buvuma from 2019. From the time oil palm harvests started in 2010, experiences showed that increased production of oil palm benefited the national economy through import substitution and associated foreign exchange savings, with many associated local economic benefits. The project proponents mainly presented positive impressions regarding the benefits of oil palm and therefore the adoption of oil palm by smallholder farmers has happened swiftly. However, the other side of the story is that also brought negative impacts. Cognisant of the requirements of land and the nature of oil palm plantations, it is important to note that social conflicts, issues of local land ownership and negative impacts on the local ecology have occurred.
The GLA programme in Uganda worked on halting the oil palm plantations because of its negative effects on livelihoods and environment and on reducing the negative impacts of the plantation establishment (see below). This was done through support in the field, sustainability schools, exchange visits and awareness raising, dialogue, gaming and research.
The negative impacts of oil palm plantations are manifold. The establishment of oil palm plantations puts pressure on other land uses including food crop production. Two sectors negatively impacted are agriculture and fisheries which were (in Kalangala) or still are (in Buvuma) the backbone of rural livelihoods. Rapid land use changes accelerate biodiversity loss and negative impacts of associated ecosystem services, leave the very communities who are the intended project beneficiaries vulnerable to the effects of environmental stresses. The process of implementation associated with large scale oil palm plantations proofed to have a high risk of social injustice from the outset, such as from inadequate land acquisition processes. In the case of the oil palm project in Kalangala, the mismatch between the provision of social services such as health, water and sanitation and the increasing population became obvious. In Buvuma there have already been major changes in the population due to land acquisition, even before any plantations have been established. Half of the island’s subsistence farming land is planned to be replaced by oil palm, and large out-migrations have already happened, while newcomers arrive in search of new opportunities, in total contrast to the project’s objective of improving the livelihood of local people. Targeted local poor and vulnerable communities and especially women were actually displaced by the project during land acquisition or were further marginalised during implementation. Oil palm is not always the best or only option to improve household incomes for the majority of farmers; e.g. local communities complain about low prices for fresh fruit bunches. In addition, the current outgrower model does not allow for alternative food crops and intercropping, making it difficult to diversify farming options. Economic forecasts show that oil palm is profitable to both the single company and the smallholder, but only in the short term. Projections in the medium and long-term reveal declines in economic returns to smallholder farmers as ecosystem services are lost, alongside growing demands to ensure food security as the area of land available for growing food crops becomes limiting.
Ecological Trends Alliance (ETA) is a non-governmental organization with a mission to secure solutions to biodiversity, development and tourism challenges through providing biologically diverse and proven alternatives;
National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE; until 2019) is an action organization committed to sustainable solutions to Uganda’s most challenging environmental and economic growth problems.