World Rainforest Movement

Uganda: Collaborative and Community-Based Forest Management are not synonymous

Forests and woodlands cover about 24% (or 5 million hectares) of the total land area of Uganda, of which 80% is woodland, 19% moist high forest and 1% commercial plantations. Approximately 30% of such forests and woodlands are gazetted mainly as protection forests directly under various forms of government jurisdiction. The 70% outside the gazetted forest domain exist under various forms of private and customary control.

Forests and woodlands are land-based resources and thus land tenure has important implications on access to land and its resources. Although no formal (written) policies were in place during the pre-colonial era, localized tribal kingdoms reputedly ensured environmental regulation through a system of customary controls that were informed by local indigenous knowledge systems. Without necessarily romanticizing, human-environment relationships in typical Ugandan pre-colonial societies evidence largely appears to suggest the context of people living in some form of “harmony with nature”.

The incipient phase of the colonial period saw a marked influx of foreign forces including explorers and missionaries, and later fortune seekers and business interests, and it culminated in colonial conquest and the advent of capital led development policies. In the forest sector, new entrepreneurs sought to expand their fortunes through the commercial extraction of timber, wild rubber and coffee, which in the absence of some form of regulation, resulted in rapacious destruction of forests. The introduction of cash crops and taxation further aggravated forest destruction through clearance for cultivation and other cash generating activities. Protected forests were invariably created through the eviction of some peasant communities from their ancestral homelands.

Forest policy during the early post-colonial period (1962-1980s) was “more of the same”. Later, in 1988, a policy review apparently instituted at the behest of external donors, emphasized on new initiatives to halt deforestation, the need for forest sector rehabilitation, the creation of awareness on environmental issues and a multiple stakeholder approach, which is thought to have spawned the emergence and mushrooming of local environmental NGOs.

Uganda collaborative forest management policy reflects a conceptual bias that appears to equate community forest management with collaborative forest management, a spatial bias that appears to focus on the forest margin zone, and a project bias. Because of their project proclivity and related requirements, including the need to demonstrate tangible impact within restricted timeframes, collaborative forest management initiatives lose a considerable measure of the flexibility of social-learning experiments that they are supposed to be.

The collaborative forest management policy was further enhanced by an emphasis on decentralized governance, whose initial phases appear to have been dominated by the political and fiscal aspects of the policy, with environmental aspects apparently occupying backstage. On the ground, collaborative forest management in state forests under the Forest Department is being pioneered at 7 sites, with all of them using project-based approaches relying on donor funding.

There are two types of forest reserves when discussing management powers decentralized under collaborative forest management arrangements. There are those forest park reserves such as Mt Elgon Forest Park, which have been closed to commercial exploitation. Here communities can access some subsistence resources, whose extraction is deemed environmentally benign, through collaborative community management schemes. Here power over the forests is either under Uganda Wildlife Authority or Uganda Forest Department. Collaborative management schemes are kinds of agreement in which ultimate directive power rests with the state wildlife and forest bureaucracies.

The second type of forest reserves are those from which commercial harvesting of resources can be undertaken. Power over the management of these forests is supposed to be distributed between the central government and the local governments. The latter is supposed to be responsible for forest reserves less than 100 hectares in size while the state deals with those of bigger sizes. Even in this arrangement no effective decision making powers have been devolved to the local governments. Power over what can be exploited, who can exploit and when, is in the hands of the central government forestry officials.

Decentralisation under collaborative forest management arrangements, therefore, largely does not go beyond allowing communities’ access to a circumscribed range of resources. In spite of the rhetoric of community empowerment, the gulf between the interests of the so-called local communities and other stakeholders is more often than not quite conveniently understated. For instance, the European Economic Community made the eviction of peasant communities that had encroached onto protected areas a condition for the disbursement of funding support for collaborative resource management activities.

In Mbale National Park collaborative forest management involved restoration and conservation of the forest through tree planting in an initiative supported by the Uganda Wildlife Society – Forests Absorbing Carbon Emissions (FACE), funded by a Dutch electricity generating consortium. An audit of how much carbon dioxide had been sequestered was then done in response to which the sequel Greenhouse Gas Verification Project was commissioned. In commenting on how such ideas were so out of sync with the realities of their everyday social life, Kanyesigye and Muramira (2001:35) quote a 75-year old villager arguing “…we grew up and found our parents and grandparents depending on the forest. The forest is our father, our mother…How can some stranger come and pose as one who knows more about what has long been our own”.

The impact of collaborative forest management initiatives on poverty has been weak. It is generally the relatively richer farmers that have been able to invest land, labour and cash who have been able to benefit from these initiatives, which it seems have not reached the poorest of the poor.

The above excerpts from Mandondo’s research clearly show that, although collaborative forest management may in some cases improve local peoples’ livelihoods, it has very little in common with community-based forest management, where people are empowered to make decisions on the management of their forests.

Excerpted and adapted from: “Learning from international community forestry networks – a Synthesis of Uganda Country Experiences”, by Alois Mandondo, 20 August 2002, a draft study carried out as part of the CIFOR project “Learning from International Community Forestry Networks”, e-mail:

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