Ugandan climate activists fight deforestation by planting
How to finance renewable energy may be the dominant question in global public policy discussions of climate change. But at a very local level, two Ugandan activists are making the case that when communities get involved, climate adaptation doesn’t have to cost much.
It all begins with local micro-climates. Prolonged periods of drought and erratic rainfalls have become more frequent due to massive deforestation. In the past 20 years, Uganda has lost over a million hectares of tree cover—nearly a third of the country’s total.
The knock-on effects on the country’s biodiversity and climate are large but can be mitigated through rain and flood-resistant infrastructure, improved water mapping, conservation, and thoughtful tree planting. IMF staff estimates that actions like these could reduce GDP losses from natural disasters by two-thirds and almost halve the resulting fiscal gap.
With Uganda losing hundreds of hectares of forest every year to population pressures and illegal logging, community involvement is key, and Uganda’s youth are taking the lead. Enjer Ashraf and Ismael Tamale, founders of the My Tree Initiative,have mobilized hundreds of volunteers to plant and care for native trees, hoping to reach the “million tree” milestone by 2023. The IMF’s Resident Representative for Uganda, Izabela Karpowicz, recently met with the founders to learn more about what they do.
Karpowicz: How did the My Tree Initiative start?
Ashraf: The organization was founded in September 2019. We wanted to do something to positively impact the environment where we live and to give a hand to people from different parts of the world who are fighting against climate change. So we recruited our fellow students. Right now we have about 30 members volunteering on our committee and around 300 who help with tree plantings and community outreach to help spread the message about how planting trees and caring for them can help conserve the environment.
Karpowicz: What’s your mission?
Ashraf: To get every person in the world to plant a tree, at least one in their lifetime. That will be enough to save this world.
Our goal is to plant 1 million trees by the end of 2023. In Uganda we started with students. Over eight universities have joined the challenge.
But we’re also taking this message to communities, government leaders, nongovernment organizations, and businesses. They’ve been supporting us in different ways. The National Forestry Authority is giving us indigenous trees for free. Some individuals are providing land, others are volunteering to plant, prune, and water.
Karpowicz: How big a problem is deforestation in Uganda?
Ashraf: The majority of Ugandans use firewood from trees for cooking and for construction—roofing and framing, making furniture. We also use trees to make charcoal, which we export to South Sudan, Rwanda, and other neighboring countries. All these goods are from our forests. We lose around 10 football pitches of forests per day in the country, or more.
Governance is an issue. Every day we hear about forests being sold to private companies to grow sugar cane or for construction. For example, the Goma forests. The land crisis is another issue. You can’t easily find a place to plant trees. Some of the land that is meant to be protected and reserved for forests is being taken.
And the people who do plant, plant for business. They don’t plant for conservation. They plant trees that are not good for the environment, or they plant in swamps so the tress can grow faster, to cut them down and make money.
Karpowicz: How are you getting the word out? Are there similar organizations in Kampala that you’re in touch with?
Tamale: Our major area of focus is to engage people online through our social media platforms. We are working with school administrations and principals to engage students and pupils through the “Green Clubs” that we created. We empower students with the knowledge and skills to look after trees and be community contact points. We also have a weekly online “Green Talk Show” with government leaders, civil society, private sector, and youth. And we have a website where we post updates on what we’re doing.
We are in touch with other organizations but there are not so many. We’re trying to organize something together to inspire other people to join. You can’t fight climate change alone. There are people fighting against plastic pollution, against use of coal. The goal is the same: fighting for the environment, fighting against climate change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.