On October 6th 2016, a group of concerned and furious NGOs led by Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) petitioned Prime Minister Rt.Hon. Ruhakana Rugunda on the state of Uganda’s forest resources and what they call ‘increasing forest crimes and illegalities’. NGOs are deeply concerned that in spite of Government’s commitment to increase the percentage of forest cover from 14 percent in FY2012/13 to 18 percent in FY2019/2020, Uganda’s forest cover loss has since increased from 90,000 hectares to an estimated 200,000 hectares annually (Onyango G.2015). NGOs could also have been activated by recent reports that government was considering giving out 6,000-hectare Zoka Central Forest reserve in Adjumani District to an investor to grow sugarcane. Lands Minister Betty Amongi clarified that ‘Zoka Forest and others are protected from whoever would want to deplete them for sugar cane growing’.
Among a number of asks, NGOs want Prime Minister to compel Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development to cancel all land titles acquired illegally in central forest reserves; establish an Independent Commission of Inquiry into the illegalities that have happened in the forestry sector in the last ten years and take action; and put a moratorium of at least 10 years on degazzetement of central forest reserves. Certainly, the concerns, fury and asks of NGOs are worth the salt and deserve attention, response and actions from the highest levels of government. Even so, because government retains a constitutional duty to hold in trust and sustainably manage the country’s forest resources to meet the needs of both the present and future generations. Clearly, as a government and a people we are failing on this fundamental obligation.
Beyond the mostly technical asks of NGOs, I think to save our forests and quickly transition from net deforestation to net reforestation, Uganda’s officialdom and all facets of society will need to engage in the hard adaptive work that pursues alternative development pathways that are not only environmentally sustainable but also economically, politically, and socially sustainable. This is because, for most Ugandans, forests continue to provide access to essential sources of food, energy, or income that cannot be readily obtained elsewhere. There is therefore a need for an incentive structure and initiatives that provide alternatives to alter dependency of majority Ugandans on forests.
Like most countries, Uganda finds itself in a difficulty of figuring out workable incentives to save forests, primarily because of the hard reality that economics of deforestation present. For example, analysis by Marco Albani, Jeremy Oppenheim, Jens Riese, and Adam Schwarz of McKinsey & Company illustrates that in some cases; deforestation can enable compelling market-based returns, particularly given the opportunities that have emerged for alternative uses of forested land as agricultural commodity prices have skyrocketed. They argue, that at current prices for crude palm oil, a palm-oil plantation with typical productivity can generate average annual revenues of $4,500 to $5,400 per hectare, which provides a net present value (NPV) of $5,000 to $17,000 per hectare, depending on conversion costs and productivity assumptions.
Compared with the expected returns from generating revenues from carbon credits on preserved forest, the average reduction in biomass carbon stock between a tropical rainforest and a mature palm-oil plantation on mineral soil is about 150 metric tons of carbon per hectare or about 550 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. The NPV of not deforesting a hectare at a price of $5 per carbon dioxide equivalent (the interim price used in the 2009 Guyana- Norway Agreement) would be about $2,750, which is only about half of the lower range for the NPV of palm-oil conversion. This could be the same for sugarcane and gap would likely be even wider for the extraction of high- value mineral resources like gold or petroleum.
Although this analysis lacks finality and is mostly half the story, it illustrates the difficulties countries like Uganda encounter in their efforts to devise workable incentive models that encourage landowners or concession holders to forego development in exchange for REDD+ /carbon credit payments. What then does this mean for Zoka and other forests in Uganda? Beyond delivering on compliance with existing laws and policies, government will need expertise of think tanks like Agency for Transformation, ACODE and Economic Policy Research Center among others to help figure out an incentive structure that put peoples livelihoods at the center while restoring, protecting and expanding forests for present and future generations.
Beyond the McKinsey analysis, there are middle ground opportunities that would help stop the deepening forest crisis in Uganda. Such opportunities should include adoption of sustainable agricultural practices, diversion of development of agricultural or other plantations away from forests and onto idle or degraded land, alter conventional logging practices to minimize their impact on forest management, and reduce consumption of wood as fuel. All this will require green growth driven planning, investment and stakeholder engagement.
One clear pathway for Uganda to reduce pressure on forests is to improve agricultural productivity of land use in areas that are already cultivated. McKinsey research indicates that best-practice applications in commercial farming could increase crop yields by 20 percent over base-case outcomes from 2011 to 2030. Achieving such productivity gains would be equivalent to freeing up more than 150 million hectares of land globally. Smallholders in Uganda and beyond could make even larger strides, potentially increasing their productivity by 60 to 70 percent by adopting proven techniques. Lets begin here.
Chief Executive Officer – Agency for Transformation, think and do tank based in Kampala. [email protected]