07 November 2006

Uganda: Mt. Elgon Conservation Causes Tension

The Monitor (Kampala)

November 6, 2006

Ben Simon & David Mafabi

Tension has been mounting among local communities around Mt. Elgon National Park over environment conservation policies.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) believes there are short-term solutions to the tension currently plaguing Mt. Elgon National Park MENP.

UWA has already had considerable success sensitising communities about the importance of environmental conservation and has established programmes to enable local communities to continue to benefit from park resources without living on, and causing serious degradation to park land.

But all of UWA's strategies centre on the concept of 'sustainable use:' how to extract resources from the environment without causing permanent harm.

The reason the long-term outlook for their efforts, and the long-term future for the region are potentially bleak is that sustainable use is inseparable from population growth. As the size of park communities grow, their demand for resources also grows and it therefore becomes increasingly difficult to use park resources in a sustainable way.

The population growth rate in the MENP communities and throughout the country as a whole is high; therefore, the sustainability strategies in place now are all but certain to face serious challenges in the years to come.

Short term success

Public attention for the MENP issue has been focused exclusively on the issue of encroachers, but encroachment is just one aspect of a very complicated situation.

Encroachers are a specific group that UWA believes has no legitimate claim to park land. They are disgruntled at the moment, but UWA's resettlement efforts with many other local communities have been successful.

On October 5, Daily Monitor attended a meeting in Bulago sub-county, about 100 metres from the MENP boundary. Present at the meeting were UWA officials, and local leadership for Busiya, Bunabude and Bunasufwa parishes.

The purpose of the meeting was the renewal of a resource sharing agreement.

In 2002, UWA began sensitising communities about the dangers of living on parkland. In response, those living within the park agreed to relocate, and practice sustainability, in exchange for certain resource sharing benefits.

Among other things, the agreement entitles communities to grow crops up to 10 metres inside the park boundary and guarantees locals 20 per cent of all MENP tourism revenues.

At the meeting, community leaders uniformly praised UWA for their assistance. Only a few minor grievances were voiced.

Richard Matanda, deputy chief warden for community affairs at MENP, frequently attends meetings like this one.

While he concedes attitude change from parish to parish vary, for example Buluganya parish is fiercely contesting the park boundaries that UWA is enforcing, he insists that overall relations between park officials and the surrounding communities, encroachers aside, are amicable.

Long term outlook

The Ndroba of Benet are a community that have received considerable media attention over the past few years. They are unique because they are recognised as the only community legitimately entitled to live entirely within MENP boundaries. They have done so since 1957, and the government and park officials are hesitant to ask them to move.

As Matanda puts it, their lifestyle poses no real environmental threat. They are hunter gathers and therefore not inclined toward the large-scale agricultural practice that is particularly damaging to the natural environment.

And yet, they must be moved. Because their way of life notwithstanding, their population is steadily growing, and Matanda believes if they are allowed to continue to live nomadically in the park, "the results will be catastrophic."

So, the plan is to find a contained area within the park where the Benet can live. "This is a difficult problem," chief warden Johnson Masereka says.

There is territory available to allocate to the Benet. 6000 acres of parkland was given to them in 2002 and probably could be done again.

The Benet never received the originally allocated territory. UWA officials and local leaders indicated that certain influential people effectively stole the land and the Benet were forced to return their nomadic life in the remainder of the park.

But if the population continues to grow the problem will re-emerge in another 10 years. As Masereka puts it, "to compensate these people without addressing population explosion is not a solution."

Be it land pressure in the east, or unemployment in urban centres, a doubling population is a powerful and complicated socio-economic force.

One could argue that now is the time to ask what other strategies for managing population growth are available, and whether the government should be exploring them.


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