By Miguel Leal
Last year El Nino hit Uganda, the horn of plenty of east Africa. Endowed with two fertile seasons, Uganda saw its maize dry up and its banana trees dissipate. Food staples like posho and matoke diminished and prices went up. For the first time, there was hunger across the country and not only in the drier north and eastern parts – a sign that for poor communities, climate change is very real and painful.
Yet in a small corner in western Uganda things were not as bleak as elsewhere. For the roughly 1,000 private forest owners in the district of Hoima where the maize was still green, prices had doubled, enabling them to earn extra income. These are the small holder farmers living in the Murchison-Semliki Landscape – one of the conservation landscapes that WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) is trying to climate-proof for the benefit of the parks and people around it.
WCS and partners have been helping farmers adapt to climate change in return for their participation in forest and wetland conservation. These ecosystems regulate regional climate and buffer against extremes weather events. Conserving these forests and wetlands are part of the solution to stabilize the climate. Farmers have begun to recognize that they are better off with these ecosystems than without them.
But if the farmers need healthy ecosystems, the opposite is surely just as true as climate change makes its presence felt. In the national parks, the impact is unavoidable: water holes and grassland are drying up; wildfires scorch the earth; and animals constrained in their parks starve to death.
Outside the parks, the situation is not much better. People face food insecurity from failed harvests. Looking for relief, some commit illegal activities in the parks to supplement their diet or income – in the process expending their natural resources even faster to grow enough food. If rural communities around and in between the parks cannot adapt to climate change, conservation will fail and parks will be invaded by climate change refugees.
To address this threat, the WCS joined the Jane Goodall Institute and the Chimpanzee Wildlife Conservation Trust six years ago to introduce a new conservation farming initiative. The groups have been working closely with rural farmers in the Hoima district of western Uganda, where forests and wetlands are disappearing fast as a result of human pressure and climate change.
To stop deforestation and wetland conversion, a new “climate smart” agricultural technique increases and extends soil fertility, removing the need to clear new forest for agriculture. So far, harvests have more than doubled, lowering the risk of failure.
This is a win-win solution for both rural communities and wildlife. So far, WCS has been able to protect 3000 hectares of forests and lower the risk of disaster.
Additional support from donors and the agri-business community could help expand this program to ensure its long-term success. It’s unconventional conservation, but it works for both farmers and wildlife.
In Uganda we have little choice. With 36 million people and not enough land to cultivate in the traditional way, pressure on the few protected areas and wildlife corridors will only increase. Will Uganda continue to be a horn of plenty or be vanquished by the growing pressure of a changing climate? The choice is ours.
Miguel Leal is a Climate Smart and Inclusive Green Growth Expert for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).