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Using activism to protect Environment in Northern Uganda, the story of ‘Our Trees, We Need Answers’

By James Onono Ojok
Environmental depletion in Northern Uganda incorporates report that Uganda Forest Cover across the country is tremendously declining where in 1990s it declined by 24% about 4.9 million hectares of land area to less than 9% in 2018 about 1.967 million hectares of land according to National Forestry Authority meaning Uganda lost about 3 million hectares of forest Cover in 25 years and the major threats to Uganda’s Forest Cover are; illegal logging and massive tree cutting for charcoal production in order to meet the growing demand for charcoal especially in urban areas across the country.

This became worst in Northern Uganda due to the silence of the gun after decades of war of the Lord’s Resistance Army as logs and ‘black gold ‘investors turned their focus in the north’s virgin trees that were difficult to harvest and exploit at the peak of the war prompting the birth of environmentalists including Our Trees, we need Answers. , James Onono Ojok explores the activism, link with the salient beneficiaries like the local herbalists whose trade are also threatened with depletion of the forest cover in the region. The herbalist also presents an attempt to support reproductive health and global problems like COVID-19 through their practice.

Background to the activism
‘Our Trees, we need Answer ‘is an activist group of young environmentalists based in Gulu, Northern Uganda. The team comprises media practitioners, members from civil society organizations and community members. This group was started in 2018 with the major interest of protecting the indigenous tree species based on the fast rate at which charcoal and log dealers were destroying the environment and eradicating tree species that take long to mature and yet others have great medicinal value supporting health care of the community members as well as preservation of the cultural attachment to some of the species.
In 2018 the group through a survey of the environmental degradation hot spot in Northern Uganda district of Amuru, Nwoya, Lamwo, Agago reported that two third of the forest cover in the region is already lost in the commercial logging and charcoal business which has endangered tree species such as Shear-nut tree and Afrizella-Africana, or Mbeyo in the local language among others.
James Onono Ojok caught up with Owor Arthur, the director Centre For African Research who is the team leader or coordinator of ‘Our Trees, We need Answer” the activist group.
Why the activism?
“Authorities and institutions were not doing enough as the traditional or indigenous tree species like shear-nut trees, Mbeyo and others came under attack by the environmental perpetrators who were cutting the trees and selling them to different countries and we thought activism was the only solution”. Owor said.
According to him, many environmental actors and non-governmental organizations working in the area of conservation were preaching ‘restoration’ of the trees with fear of their license being revoked hence they would just pick school children and students and demonstrate planting of trees like eucalyptus, pines trees among others.
“This was not enough because those species are never endangered yet there are many issues with them in relation to soil damage and since some of the perpetrators of the environment were government officials in the military and other public service, gagging was in line and the only approach was to use activism”.
Owor said the strategy worked as they faced big powers and humbled them by naming and shaming campaign in the media and targeting the activists was difficult since there is no formal address and registration of the group.
The group also claimed the Local Governments in the region had become perpetrators of environmental crime since most of their revenue target was labeled under ‘forest product’
“This is one of the biggest conspiracy in the charcoal and log trade business in the sub region districts because these leaders are happy taxing forest products and majority of their local revenue in every financial year projects forest products as the most source and this means they have leniency in preaching conservation because is double standards”
Achievements and challenges

It about Five years down the road and the activists are still struggling with the powers involved in commercial charcoal trade and logging by defending the native tree species and preaching conservation hence the activism has already achieved some millstone as highlighted by Owor Arthur.
He said the name and shame campaign of the perpetrators of the environment in northern Uganda helped raise the neglected issues concerning the indigenous tree species.
“We were able to face people in the military, politicians, who were moon lighting in the charcoal trade and drummed support through conferences about general climate justice in the sub-region”.
Owor narrated. He believed that the pressure helped in forcing local governments in the region to start looking for other alternative local revenue sources other than just looking at forest products as the best source of local revenue which placed them perpetrators of environmental crime in the region.
“Our Trees, We need answer” also worked with Acholi technical working committee on charcoal and supported the drafting of the charcoal control and management ordinance which prohibits cutting of the local tree species and calls for charcoal farming from other tree species as an investment.
“We are glad Kitgum district was able to pass the ordinance in 2020 and now only waiting for the Attorney General of Uganda to bless it with final approval so that we can enroll it formally to the other 7 districts in Acholi”.
The local trees species prohibited under the charcoal control and management ordinance include, tamarind, wild plum trees, mango trees, black plum, shea -nut,afzelia-Africana, cedar mahogany and sausage tree among others.
“Actually, COVID-19 has been a challenge to our operations in terms of contact with the community for our one on one engagement with them on the value of environment, but I must say to a greater extend COVID -19 ironically was a big blessing in disguise to underline boldly the relevance of native tree species with its medicinal value the entire globe woke up to”

He said the story of Covilyce and Covidex herbal remedy in Uganda approved by Uganda National Drug authority pending clinical trials brought the gist of their campaigns and empowered the herbalists in the country that through them great discovery could be made.
Covilyce is a poly-herbal concoction developed for COVID-19 treatment with Dr Lamwaka Alice Veronica of Gulu University as its principal investigator. Uganda’s Presidency has directed the Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation to give UGX 3.7 billion shillings to Gulu University for full clinical trials of the herbal remedy which Dr Musenero Monica confirmed is in the budget of next financial year 2022-2023 when she visited the University in May 2022.
Meanwhile Covidex is another herbal remedy by Prof Ogwang Patrick who is the principal investigator from Mbarara University of science and Technology and both herbal concoctions was allowed to be used in Uganda pending clinical trial.
Owor Arthur added that their aspirations are in line with the development of local herbs to support the world but it can’t happen when natives tree spicies are cut and he called upon the herbalists to take matters in to their line and become the first line of defense for the environment with potentials in the local herbs demonstrated during the COVID19 pandemic in Uganda.
Herbalists speak on conservation and reproductive health
The environmental activists like Owor Arthur and his team normally fights for the environment and local tree species with the intent of protecting the indigenous tree species that others act as strong cultural attachment to the people of Northern Uganda, for example the shea- nut butter from the shea-nut trees has over the decades been a powerful smearing oil for young babies and adult in the region.

Dr Alice Lamwaka Veronica, a clinical pharmacist and principal investigator of Covilyce, said some of the endangered tree species with medicinal value in the region include, Afrizella-Africana or Mbeyo, Warbugia Ugandensis, shea-nut trees among g others. Dr Lamwaka uses
indigenous herbs as a raw material that laters she subjects those herbal extractions to scientific test to determined what is for human health and reduce excess quantity of unwanted chemicals in a collaboration where she works with herbalists, in Acholi-sub region including chemist and biologists of the university using Gulu University Multi-Functional Laboratory from which partnership, Covilyce is discovered, one of the magical herbal concoctions even the Government of Uganda have interest in to develop.
“You see, these trees play different roles, others are anti-fungal or anti-bacterial others act as reproductive health therapy and is on record people think we don’t have local herbs for family planning but hear it from me as a professional pharmacist we have “. Dr Lamwaka said.
Dr Lamwaka said the local herbs for family planning are taken once by a woman who wants birth-control and her menstrual cycle stops immediately until another dosage is given to re-activate the cycle back. She also said that even Convilyce already have some reports from the clients she wants to confirm during clinical trial where most clients who used it reported that apart from fighting respiration blockage it also supports sexual boost after they used it during the pandemic lock down.
“You see, this is the reason why I need the UGX.3.7 billion because through the clinical trial, Ugandans would be surprise about the potential of Covilyce that is purely from natural trees and with the depletion of environmental cover in the region, getting the raw material for extraction
has become very difficult for me”. Dr Lamwaka added. Currently Dr Lamwaka and her team uses rudimentary tools like the traditional mortar and pestle for preparing the herbal remedy which she hopes would end when government releases the UGX.3.7 billion to the University in the next financial year since making the medicine for a big number of people is hard.
Dr Lamwaka also expressed concern that those who believe in herbal medicine must be suffering because the environmental depletion has also made the price of herbal drugs go high as herbalist have to trek long distances longing for these natural trees.
“As part of the defensive mechanism, I’m preaching the issues of traditional tree gene bank where we are currently planting and preserving most of the trees with medicinal values as part of conservation strategy because capitalism is high now as communal venture in other people’s forest or vegetation cover is now not easy as those days of our parents “
According to Dr Lamwaka, women have shown resilient in the trade of traditional medicine than men because they normally pay attention to details and in most cases traditional medicine knowledge are passed from old people to the young people by elders hence the women are normally at home and their grand-parents would whisper for them about a certain medicine while others also just dreamt them where a person see in the dream tries it and once it works that is it Dr Lamwaka said she also have herbal remedy for sexual transmitted diseases like Syphilis, Gonorrhea which concoction are not far from Covilyce and she has registered them all under Covilyce 1 natural products and she was able to find many testimonies during the 21 st East African Community Micro and Small Enterprise Trade fair held in, Mwanza, Tanzania in December 2021 where her herbal remedy and innovation made Uganda second in the region.
“Many people gave testimonies and I’m hopeful clinical trial would support this and make it known globally “
Adoch Esther Paska another young herbalist of 27 years of age in Gulu said that her late grandmother Alwoch Georgina passed to her the indigenous knowledge of herbs which she uses to treat people and she is able to support challenges of sexual transmitted diseases including minor issues of alleged barrens in women.
“The only bareness that is difficult to cure is the one which when a woman’s womb is cursed by an elder because she would need that very elder to forgive her but worst when that person has died”. Adoch said getting the medicinal plants at times take her now about 25 kilometers to support her client because of the destruction.
These herbalists have followers and clients and their trade is completely threatened when the environment is depleted hence activist like Owor Arthur and his team are not only protecting the environment but defending this sectors that need a blend of science like the case of Covilyce to make great innovations again and again.
The Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr Musenero Monica while visiting Gulu University in April 2022 to establish the Science Technology and Innovation infrastructure at the the university warned Ugandans that some of the trees they are destroying has not yet been domesticated to find out if they grow in other places.
“Let’s practice sustainable use of the environment and ensure that trees that have taken ages remain and we plant more since climate change is real but as a government we are encouraging conservation”. Dr Musenero said.

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