“A funny place to store carbon” Chapter 2

30 Dec

MOUNT ELGON

By Chris Lang and Timothy Byakola, published by WRM, December 2006

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Mount Elgon is an extinct volcano on the border between Uganda and Kenya. The highest peak is 4,320 meters above sea level.[28] The upper area has montane heath and moorland vegetation. Many shrub and herb species found here are endemic to mountain areas in East Africa. Some are endemic to Mount Elgon. Lower down the mountain is an area of tropical afro-montane forest and bamboo surrounded by densely populated farming areas.[29]

Several major rivers have their headwaters on Mount Elgon, including the Suam River flowing north and the Lwakaka River flowing south. The supply of water from Mount Elgon is often cited as a reason for conserving the Mount Elgon watershed. For example, P.C. Howard, in a 1991 report for the Forest Department, states that Mount Elgon “plays a vital role as a water catchment serving around one million people”.[30]

Mount Elgon and a few other East African mountains are habitat to a number of rare and threatened bird species. IUCN has listed 37 species in the area of Mount Elgon as “globally threatened”.[31] The governments of both Uganda and Kenya have established National Parks aimed at conserving the Mount Elgon ecosystem. On the Ugandan side of the border with Kenya, the national park covers an area of 112,385 hectares.[32]

In Uganda, Mount Elgon lies within Mbale and Kapchorwa districts. There are 58 parishes and 500 villages surrounding Mount Elgon National Park.[33] The population densities around the park are among the highest in Uganda: 512 people per square kilometre in Mbale and 224 people per square kilometre in Kapchorwa.[34] The mountain rises gradually and the area surrounding the park is intensively farmed. Almost no land is left unfarmed.

When we travelled to Mount Elgon in July 2006,[35] there was a light drizzle in the air once we reached the boundary of the national park, although it was the dry season. During the rainy season many of the roads around the park are so muddy that they cannot be used.

The land is green and the soil is volcanic, deep and fertile. However, farmers report that yields are falling, probably due to soil erosion and overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, according to Perezi Wamboga, a resident of Bwambwala.[36] Farmers grow maize to sell in local markets. Because they have no means of storing the maize, they sell the maize as soon as it is harvested. All farmers sell their harvests at more or less the same time and as a result they have little bargaining power. Later on in the year, when food starts to run out, they have to buy maize back – at greatly inflated prices. Farmers are poor, not simply because of “overpopulation” and certainly not because the soil is infertile, but because of their reliance on a market over which they have no control.

The peoples living in and around Mount Elgon

Two main ethnic groups, the Sabiny and the Bagisu, live around Mount Elgon. Today, the Sabiny live mainly in Kapchorwa district and the Bagisu in Mbale district.[37]

The Bagisu

The Bagisu were agriculturalists and have gradually moved further up the lower slopes of Mount Elgon. The Bagisu moved into the area in the 16th century.[38] Bamboo shoots (malewa) are widely eaten by the Bagisu tribe. Villagers collect malewa from the forest. Poorer households living as far as 10 kilometres from the park collect shoots for sale in local markets.[39]

In a 1994 report for IUCN, Penny Scott describes how thousands of Bagisu people go to the forest during bamboo shoot growing season, to harvest and dry bamboo shoots. They stay for three or four days, living under makeshift bamboo shelters. They sing and chant, shouting progress to neighbours and friends across the valleys, working until late in the night and sleeping only a few hours.[40] “The bamboo shoots are not merely a source of food during periods of shortage,” Scott writes.

“The income generated from their sale is an important supplement to the household economy, particularly for residents of the forest-adjacent parishes of southern Mbale. Most important, however, is the cultural connection with ancestors, which is represented by the harvesting and consumption of bamboo shoots. The dish is an essential component of circumcision ceremonies and weddings. According to a prominent district official, ‘you can take away whatever you like, but you can’t take away our Malewa!'”[41]

Because of the importance of bamboo to the Bagisu community, continued access to bamboo shoots was one of the most important conditions put forward by local leaders to parliament when the areas was being gazetted as a national park in 1993. Communities complain that this access is now stopped.[42]

In addition to bamboo shoots, Bagisu people collect a range of foods from the forest, including wild mushrooms and vegetables, honey and sukura (salt water given to animals like cattle). They use a particular tree for making drums used during the circumcision ritual. Bagisu communities visit specific parts of the forest to celebrate the birth of twins. They harvest building materials for houses and supports for banana stems in their gardens. Firewood comes from the forest. Medicinal herbs are used by traditional healers and birth attendants. Traditional medicine is very important around the park – the nearest clinic can be as far as 40 kilometres away. Woven stretchers made from materials in the forest are used to transport sick or dead people down from the mountain.[43]

The Sabiny

The Sabiny migrated from Ethiopia and Sudan as pastoralists a long time ago to the upland areas of Mount Elgon and the northern plains. Those in the plains adopted a semi-mobile agro-pastoralist lifestyle. Before they were evicted from the forest in the 1970s and early 1980s, those living in the upland grassland-forest areas lived as pastoralists, moving in search of water and pasture for their cattle, sheep and goats. They also hunted wild animals, gathered fruits and harvested honey. They made baskets from bamboo plants which they traded with communities surrounding Mount Elgon for maize and other food.[44]

The term Benet is highly contested. In various contexts it is used to refer to all the Sabiny from the upland area; to a specific group of people who came from an area called Benet which is now within the park (although not all the people who lived in the park lived here); and more recently to the residents of the Benet resettlement area (which also includes people displaced from the plains, see Chapter 3).[45]

The Benet’s cattle grazing maintained species-rich grassland on Mount Elgon. A research team from the Universities of Aberdeen and Dundee found that while grazing in forested areas suppressed tree regeneration, the grasslands were dependent on grazing. “Areas of grassland where grazing has ceased have been invaded with woody plants and a ban on cattle grazing in the grassland would almost certainly result in the loss of this species-rich habitat,” writes Mark Reed, who took part in the research, in the African Journal of Ecology.[46]

Cattle are an important part of Benet livelihoods and culture. Anthropologist David Himmelfarb observes that “Cattle represented a key status symbol for men; the wealth and ability of a man to provide for his family was measured by the size of his herd.” The Benet “exchanged, slaughtered and consumed cattle at important ritual occasions such as circumcision ceremonies and marriage celebrations and, before widespread conversion to Christianity, sacrificed burnt cattle offerings on ridgetops”.[47]

UWA rangers impound cows they find grazing inside the national park and impose fines that most villagers cannot pay. Himmelfarb notes that people go to the forest not because they are ignorant of the law, but because they do not have enough land or money to rent land to graze their animals. Himmelfarb concludes that the increased poverty among Benet communities is a direct result of UWA’s management policy:

“As such, these tend to be the people who do not have enough money to pay the fines, so each time they are arrested, they have to sell off one or two cows, reducing their herd. With insufficient grazing land, the same people face a difficult decision: they can sell their herd, go back to the forest and risk further arrest or watch their cows die of malnourishment. Selling all their cattle is both culturally unacceptable and would eliminate their primary insurance against food insecurity. This management strategy, while effective in reducing grazing in the park, has served to further pauperize the people who have the least; it reduces the grazing pressure on the park without having to compensate cattle owners for their lost livestock in the name of punishment.”[48]

In 1998, researchers from Aberdeen University asked cattle owners in Kwoti what they would do if forest security were increased to prevent all cattle grazing in the forest. While some farmers said they would sell their indigenous cattle and buy exotic cattle that could be fed using zero-grazing techniques, others were clearly concerned. “We would die; we depend on cattle”, replied one farmer.[49]

REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES

[28] IUCN EARP (no date) “Mount Elgon Regional Ecosystem Conservation Programme“, IUCN East Africa Regional Office.

[29] Sean White and David Hinchley (2001) “Managing Mt. Elgon“, in arborvitæ, The IUCN/WWF Forest Conservation Newsletter, no. 18, October 2001, and Penny Scott (1998) “From Conflict to Collaboration: People and Forests at Mount Elgon, Uganda”, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge UK.

[30] P.C. Howard (1991) “Nature Conservation in Uganda’s Tropical Reserves”, Forest Department/Ministry of Environment Protection Uganda, cited in National Environment Management Authority (1996) “1996 State of the Environment report for Uganda“, Republic of Uganda.

A series of recent research papers challenges the conventional “sponge theory” which was developed by European foresters at the end of the 19th century. According to this theory, forests act by soaking up water during the rainy season and releasing it slowly during the dry season. David Kaimowitz, at the Centre for International Forestry Research writes: “Logging and deforestation can make small floods worse, but probably don’t affect big floods much. In most cases removing forests will not dry up streams or rivers, not even during the dry season. Still, in some cases it may, particularly if the land use that replaces the forests compacts the soils and keeps them from holding water. There is no solid evidence that chopping down trees reduces rainfall, but we should still be concerned because various studies suggest it might. Replacing forests with crops or pasture usually increases soil erosion and sedimentation, but not always. In any case building roads and houses may be the real culprits when it comes to sedimentation. Planting trees can be part of the problem, not the solution, even if you don’t plant eucalypts.” Kaimowitz’s comments are based on a review by Sampurno Bruijnzeel titled “Hydrological Functions of Tropical Forests, Not Seeing the Soil for the Trees?”, published in Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, September 2004.

A 2005 report, the result of a four year international study led by researchers from the University of Newcastle in Britain and the Free University of Amsterdam showed that trees soak water from the ground and discharge it to the atmosphere at least twice as fast as grasslands. One of the researchers, Ian Calder, of the Centre for Land Use and Water Resources at the University of Newcastle told The Guardian that “Generally, forests evaporate a lot more water than other vegetation types.” The report was especially critical of the idea of planting trees to conserve water. (Tim Radford, “Research pours cold water on moisture conservation role for forests”, The Guardian, 29 July 2005.)

Becky Hayward (2005) “From the mountain to the tap: how land use and water management can work for the rural poor“, DFID Forest Research Programme.

Forests and floods: Drowning in fiction or thriving on facts?“, Forest Perspectives 2, RAP Publication 2005/03, CIFOR and FAO, 2005.

[31] Mark Reed (no date) “A Comparative Review of Agroforestry Practices in Two Forest-adjacent Parishes on Mount Elgon, Uganda“, Project Elgon, Leeds University.

[32] SGS (2002) “Mount Elgon National Park Forest Certification Public Summary Report“, SGS (Société Générale de Surveillance) Forestry Qualifor Programme, Certificate number SGS-FM/COC- 0980, page 6.

[33] Sean White and David Hinchley (2001) “Managing Mt. Elgon“, in arborvitæ, The IUCN/WWF Forest Conservation Newsletter, no. 18, October 2001, Himmelfarb, David (2006) “Moving People, Moving Boundaries: The Socio-Economic Effects of Protectionist Conservation, Involuntary Resettlement and Tenure Insecurity on the Edge of Mt. Elgon National Park, Uganda“, Agroforestry in Landscape Mosaics Working Paper Series. World Agroforestry Centre, Tropical Resources Institute of Yale University, and The University of Georgia, page 7.

[34] David Himmelfarb (2006) “Moving People, Moving Boundaries: The Socio-Economic Effects of Protectionist Conservation, Involuntary Resettlement and Tenure Insecurity on the Edge of Mt. Elgon National Park, Uganda“, Agroforestry in Landscape Mosaics Working Paper Series. World Agroforestry Centre, Tropical Resources Institute of Yale University, and The University of Georgia, page 7.

[35] Timothy Byakola, Jutta Kill and Chris Lang travelled to Mount Elgon in July 2006. Jutta Kill works with FERN’s SinksWatch initiative based near Oxford in the UK. We are very grateful to Perezi Wamboga for translating and helping to organise the visits.

[36] Interview with Perezi Wamboga by Jutta Kill, Timothy Byakola and Chris Lang, 18 July 2006.

[37] David Himmelfarb (2006) “Moving People, Moving Boundaries: The Socio-Economic Effects of Protectionist Conservation, Involuntary Resettlement and Tenure Insecurity on the Edge of Mt. Elgon National Park, Uganda“, Agroforestry in Landscape Mosaics Working Paper Series. World Agroforestry Centre, Tropical Resources Institute of Yale University, and The University of Georgia, page 7.

[38] G.S. Were and D.A. Wilson (1970) “East Africa through a Thousand Years”, Evans Brothers Limited, cited in Mark Reed (no date) “A Comparative Review of Agroforestry Practices in Two Forest-adjacent Parishes on Mount Elgon, Uganda“, Project Elgon, Leeds University.

[39] Interviews carried out at Mount Elgon by Timothy Byakola, December 2004.

[40] Penny Scott (1994) “Bamboo: Potential for utilization by the communities surrounding Mount Elgon National Park”, Technical Report for IUCN, Mount Elgon Conservation and Development Project, Uganda, cited in Penny Scott (1998) “From Conflict to Collaboration: People and Forests at Mount Elgon, Uganda”, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge UK.

[41] Penny Scott (1998) “From Conflict to Collaboration: People and Forests at Mount Elgon, Uganda”, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge UK.

[42] Interviews carried out at Mount Elgon by Timothy Byakola, December 2004.

[43] Interviews carried out at Mount Elgon by Timothy Byakola, December 2004.

[44] Action Aid (2005) “Summary of the Benet Problem“, Action Aid International Uganda, and
Kapchorwa District Landcare team (2006) “Kapchorwa Landcare Chapter, Kapchorwa District, Uganda“.

[45] David Himmelfarb, e-mail to Chris Lang, 3 November 2006. In an attempt to resolve the confusion, Himmelfarb uses the terms mosop and soi to differentiate between different groups of Sabiny. The terms are Kupsabiny adjectives meaning upland and plains. In this report we’ve stuck to the term Benet, with the acknowledgement that this term is contested. See David Himmelfarb (2006) “Moving People, Moving Boundaries: The Socio-Economic Effects of Protectionist Conservation, Involuntary Resettlement and Tenure Insecurity on the Edge of Mt. Elgon National Park, Uganda“, Agroforestry in Landscape Mosaics Working Paper Series. World Agroforestry Centre, Tropical Resources Institute of Yale University, and The University of Georgia, page 8.

[46] Mark Reed (2000) “Effects of Grazing and Cultivation on Forest Plant Communities in Mount Elgon National Park, Uganda“, African Journal of Ecology, Vol. 38, No. 2, pages 154-162.

[47] David Himmelfarb (2006) “Moving People, Moving Boundaries: The Socio-Economic Effects of Protectionist Conservation, Involuntary Resettlement and Tenure Insecurity on the Edge of Mt. Elgon National Park, Uganda“, Agroforestry in Landscape Mosaics Working Paper Series. World Agroforestry Centre, Tropical Resources Institute of Yale University, and The University of Georgia, page 13-14.

[48] David Himmelfarb (2006) “Moving People, Moving Boundaries: The Socio-Economic Effects of Protectionist Conservation, Involuntary Resettlement and Tenure Insecurity on the Edge of Mt. Elgon National Park, Uganda“, Agroforestry in Landscape Mosaics Working Paper Series. World Agroforestry Centre, Tropical Resources Institute of Yale University, and The University of Georgia, page 15.

[49] Mark Reed (no date) “A Comparative Review of Agroforestry Practices in Two Forest-adjacent Parishes on Mount Elgon, Uganda“, Project Elgon, Leeds University.

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