MBALE —Just about twenty years ago, a climb on Mt. Elgon’s deserted moorlands would unveil a magnificent and uncluttered wilderness without the summit-oriented approach common to many mountains.
The lower slopes of Mt Elgon were covered in thick tropical montane forest with extensive stands of bamboo.
And above 3000m, the forest fade into health and ten afro-alpine moorland and Mt Elgon higher slopes created an extensive trans-boundary conservation area which was declared a UNESCO Man & Biosphere Reserve.
But today, a bird’s-eye view of what is left of the Mt Elgon forest in Kween district, one of Mt Elgon’s water catchment areas, is shocking.
The land that was formerly grassy, with various trees that lay unperturbed by man’s activities – with the trees standing out as the hills remained green is no more.
The former forest now looks like baldheads, standing one after another, only comforted with thin patches of hair lining around them to cover the shame of their destruction.
Today Mt Elgon faces high rates of deforestation which is endangering both its fauna and flora.
According to Uganda Wildlife Authority, these levels of deforestation are negatively impacting on Mt Elgon as they rely on the forest for the storage of rainwater, the prevention of flooding, the fertility of the soil, and the regulation of climate conditions.
Mt Elgon which is known for more than 197 species of indigenous trees now lies in an open area without these trees.
The area used to have mixed forest/bamboo, bush land, grassland, the Elgon teak, Mahogany Neoboutonia macrocalyx and Podocarpus latifolius and other medicinal trees, all these are facing extinction as man scrambles to settle and do farming.
The Mt Elgon National Park forest is one of Uganda’s largest water catchment areas in Uganda and feeds several lakes, Rivers and swamps in Eastern Uganda and Western Kenya.
But Mt Elgon forest is shrinking as its trees fall to human pressures. Even the protected areas inside te national Park and at te slopes f te mountain are not immune. One of these is Kween slopes of Mt Elgon, which is facing high rates of deforestation as people cut down trees for timber and fuel wood collection and to clear land for farming.
A visit at the slopes of Mt Elgon in Kween reveals an open area with little regeneration; grazing on either side of the forest edge in combination with tree-cutting for firewood, farming and settlement appears the main forces eroding the forest edge and keeping these areas open.
The lush-green canopy that made Kween side of Mt Elgon a water catchment area in East, a powerful ecosystem in Uganda, is fading, interrupted by open fields of barley and wheat, drying timber, settlements and bare land, fighting to redeem itself from fresh tree destruction.
Inside the Benet village that lies inside the forest in Kween district, evidence comes to sight that the persistent reports of its depletion are real.
Reports from UWA also indicate that the depleted area has also lost the fruit trees that are supposed to be food for the primates like White calabash monkey, red tail Monkeys and Velvet Monkeys.
A report by monitoring and research unit at Mt Elgon national park indicates that the communities adjacent to Mt Elgon national Park rely extensively on the forests for poles, firewood, medicines and honey production.
The report dated September 2019 reveals that the mountain known as an enormous watershed, with its slopes supporting a rich diversity of altitudinal vegetation areas that range from the lush Montana, the mixed bamboo-belt forest to the intriguing high open moorland, dotted with the really uncommon worldly plant species such as the large lobelia plus the groundsel plants unusual to Africa will be no more if government does not rise up to end encroachment.
The report reveals that a total of 8664 ha [87Sq Km] of land has been cleared off forest putting 3055 ha [about 30.5SqKm] in Benet, Kween district alone.
Mr Peter Kamuron, an elder and former council Member for Sebei sub-region says one by one, the structures come up daily; the next occupier takes up the next available parcel of land, extending deeper into Mt Elgon forest.
He said they [Encroachers] then pave the way for whoever comes next, to dig deeper and help them cut down more trees.
“At first, they put up temporary structures, hundreds of mud-walled houses and those made from timber can be spotted littering the forest then shortly they put iron sheet houses with bricks and cement then the entire place is occupied for settlement and farming,” said Mr Kamuron.
He said they have marched hundreds of acres past the boundary marks, deep into the forest and that a good number of boundary marks have been broken down by their tormentors to erase the boundary, while others have been covered by vegetation grown around them.
But the destruction at Mt Elgon did not start and end with Forest at Benet in Kween district. The tragedy has since befallen the entire Mt Elgon area– a mountain once blessed with a wide range of biodiversity.
Most Mt Elgon forests in Mbale, Bududa, Namisindwa, Bulambuli, Kapchorwa, Bukwo and Sironko districts are at the verge of disappearing completely.
The monitoring and research report says besides Benet, Bumayoka, Bubiita, Bulucheke, Bududa sub-counties in Bududa district, Buwabwala sub-county in Manafwa district, Wanale, Bufumbo, Busano sub-counties in Mbale, Bumasifwa, Busulani sub-counties in Sironko district, Bumbo sub-county in Manafwa district and Kapsegek sub-county in Bukwo district once forested areas have all been destroyed by encroachers.
Mr Nelson Chelimo, an Elder from Kween and former LCV chairman for Kapchorwa says part of Mt Elgon national park has been converted into gardens of maize and beans, barley, wheat, while others have been replaced by eucalyptus trees.
“It is unfortunate that those responsible to protect natural resources are the very persons responsible for forest destruction. The forest land is now for settlement and farming and district officials say the decision to cut the trees stemmed from government’s decision to allocate them land within the park,” said Mr Chelimo.
Mr Sam Chemisto, the district natural resources officer in Kween says that farmers cut mature trees into timber and firewood and that the rate at which trees are cut exceeds the pace at which they are planted.
“And this makes Mt Elgon area a site for possible ecological and environmental crisis of catastrophic proportions in the near future,” said Mr Chemisto.
Seeing little resistance and pushback from the government, the Benet and other Mt Elgon encroachers get comfortable and structures made from iron sheets start coming up.
As the authorities continued to look away, some became more courageous and start building more permanent structures.
Hurriedly, some put up structures hanging precariously on the sides of the hills, which can easily be washed away by heavy rainfall
Mr. Chemisto says that in less than three years, it is impossible to tell there was once a canopy of trees covering the bare land that now stretches over the drying valleys and tributaries that feed into the main rivers that flow from Mt Elgon, some of which support several ecosystems in both Uganda and Kenya.
Although the percentage of tree cover destroyed is unknown to Mt Elgon, the area is already feeling the pinch of forest degradation.
Mr Charles Wakube, the Mbale District Environment Officer, says water springs and wetlands are drying up as a result of deforestation at Mt Elgon.
He says since most forests are river-lane, a decrease in the forest cover greatly affects water bodies in the district. “For instance, about 34 natural springs in Mt Elgon forest have dried up,”
He revealed that animals like Elephants, Buffaloes and birds that used to attract tourists to the Mt Elgon have migrated.
Ms Maria Namagidini, a farmer living at the slopes of Mt Elgon in Bugiboni village, says the entire Mt Elgon sub-region is experiencing more dry spells and erratic rainfall partners than before.
Uganda Wildlife Authority report 2016 also indicates that clearing of the land for settlement and farming at Mt Elgon national park at Kween and Kapchorwa [London portion of the park], makes the area risk exposing the rivers, hence drying up in the long run and affecting hundreds of people in lower Sebei and parts of Teso.
Mr Fredrick Kizza, the Mt Elgon area conservation manager says part of the London portion is a soft wood plantation worth sh45b at harvest time which would be affected when settlements are established in the neighbourhood.
He adds that the London portion is a sensitive part of the Mt Elgon ecosystem serving as a catchment area for rivers and several streams as well as being the source of two gravitational water schemes; it should, therefore, not be cleared for settlement and farming.
Mr Robert Mangusho, a local leaders and councilor says some politicians legitimised the land acquisition by urging the people to slash the land at night.
“And today, it is impossible to see how these people can now be ordered to exit the forest, which some say has been their home for more than two decades and on the ground, the picture of the forest in the eyes of residents is quite the opposite,” said Mr Mangusho.
Mr Kizza says that because trees absorb carbon dioxide and turn it into wood, where the carbon stays bound up for hundreds or even thousands of years, living forests are an important part of the earth’s climate system.
“And growing trees soak up CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in their trunks, roots, leaves, and forest soils,” said Mr Kizza.
Mr Godfrey Chelogoi, a local leader in Kween [LCV chairman], said hundreds of acres of forests in Kween part of Mt Elgon National Park have been destroyed.
He added that with deforestation linked to water insecurity, Mr Chelogoi said he is worried that continued deforestation in Mt Elgon and te slopes may have dire impacts within the districts surrounding Mt Elgon area and beyond.
“Mt Elgon national Park forest is an important ecosystem, and continued degradation will affect millions of people who depend on it for water and our rich biodiversity is also at stake if the forest continues to be degraded” said Mr Chelogoi.
Mr Kizza revealed further that the benefit of a well-managed and intact forest resource is that it provides a country with significant biodiversity.
“Because trees absorb carbon dioxide and turn it into wood, where the carbon stays bound up for hundreds or even thousands of years, living forests are an important part of the earth’s climate system and growing trees soak up CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in their trunks, roots, leaves, and forest soils,” said Mr Kizza
“There is need to start a crusade of gazetting Mt Elgon forest and through this process we can be able to recover the forest cover losses which has been lost over past two decades,” Mr Kizza said.
Mr Paul Buyera, the National Forest Authority acting executive director said besides Mt Elgon, the country loses about 100,000 hectares of forest cover every year, a situation that is worsening the effect of climate change.
He added that the restoration of forest cover can be achieved through collective efforts from individuals, communities, corporate organisations and religious institutions.
The Minister for Environment and water Mr Sam Cheptoris said Uganda’s forest cover has been depleted to 8% up from 24% in 1990s, attributing it to human encroachment for different activities like agriculture and tree cutting for timber and charcoal.
He warned that once people don’t embrace conservation of nature, they will suffer climate change effects such as prolonged drought, floods and landslides.
“The rate of deforestation in Uganda is high and the country will soon become water-stressed if citizens do not pay attention to environmental management. We all ought to take part in planting trees as a priority to manage the climate change challenges,” said Mr Cheptoris.