Cut a Forest and Put a Man on the Moon

11 01 2011
Illegally cut mahogany log

Illegal sawpit logging in Uganda

Yesterday a Ugandan man and I were planning an environmental education training for teachers.  He was lamenting the poor state of the environment in Uganda and said that he wished Ugandans had the same sense of responsibility towards the environment that Americans have.  He said “why can’t we Ugandans see the value of the environment and the forests?”

I pointed out to him that the United States has actually cut down 98% of our original forests, and that we aren’t exactly model citizens from an environmental perspective.

His response was “Yes, but you have something to show for it.  We cut down our forests and have nothing – you cut down your forests and put a man on the moon.”

He has a certain point.  The rampant resource extraction of the 1800s in the United States made us a very rich country, and until recently that wealth was spread much more evenly across society than it is in many other parts of the world.

So here’s my question to you:  Why was the United States able to create national wealth from our resources when Uganda’s resources are just making a few people very rich?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala


Creative Approach to Saving Paper

15 12 2010

You know those people who just have to print out every e-mail they get, and every document that gets forwarded to them?  I have frequently found myself thinking hard about whether or not to include somebody on an e-mail with an attachment because I know they will print it out, even if they’ll never look at it again.  Entire forests get needlessly cut down for these people.

Well, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has come up with a solution.  They have developed a PDF-type format that can’t be printed out.  That’s right – if you send a party announcement, memo or other document to these folks, you can first save it as a WWF document and know that you have not been an accomplice to the early demise of a Douglas fir or western hemlock tree.

Will it catch on?  Who knows, but at least it is creative, and anyone who downloads the free software will probably give some though to whether they want to send their documents as PDFs or WWFs.

So far it is only available for Mac operating systems, but a Windows version should be coming soon.

For more information, go to Save as WWF, Save a Tree

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Environmental Sustainability at St. John’s Teachers College

3 12 2010

This post is dedicated to my friend, David Cook, who said I was starting to depress him with the environmental news out of Uganda.  He was right to call me on it – when I started writing this blog, my goal was to have a good balance between challenges and hope, but somehow the balance has been tipped in favor of the challenges.  It has been hard to be hopeful with oil drilling happening in the national parks, and the corruption of the recently disbanded Uganda Wildlife Authority board (who are still trying to get payments out of the UWA accounts!).

However, as is so often the case in Africa (and elsewhere, I guess), the problems are often at the higher levels, and the hope comes from the grassroots.  I honestly have very little faith that the Ugandan government has the will to protect the environment in this country in any way.  I have a personal policy here, though – whenever I get discouraged about the future of Uganda, I try to spend more time with individual Ugandans.  That’s what reignites my hope and reminds me why I am here.

I had that opportunity this week at the St. John the Baptist Primary Teachers College here in Kampala.  It is one of the leading teacher colleges in East Africa, and about 2,000 students attend each year from the five countries in the EAC.  The college has a very active environmental club that has partnered with Tusk Trust, Uganda Conservation Foundation and Siren Conservation Education to implement some model sustainability projects that the newly trained teachers can implement in the schools where they are ultimately placed.  With 2,000 teachers being exposed to this every year, you can imagine how many children will be taught the importance of environmentally sustainable practices.

The project looked at some of the main environmental challenges confronting the college, which also happen to be some of the biggest challenges facing Africa as a whole:

Below are some pictures of what they have put in place in each of these areas:

Rainwater Catchment System:

Rainwater Catchment

Dr. Mayanja with Rain barrel

Harvesting rainwater has multiple benefits wherever it is used.  In many parts of Africa, women still walk for miles to gather water from streams or lakes.  This exposes them and their families to diseases from water that is often shared by livestock, it takes a lot of time and energy to retrieve it and carry the 20+ kilogram jerry cans, and in conflict zones like eastern Congo, exposes them to attack while walking along paths early in the morning.  Directing rainwater into barrels rather than letting it flow freely off the roof also prevents the erosion that frequently undermines the walls or foundations of buildings.  In urban areas, it can also save families or schools quite a bit of money if they are able to use less of the municipal water supply.  During the rainy season, the Teachers College expects to save over 50% on their water bill.

Eco-San Toilets

Eco-san toilet

Eco-san toilet

Everybody poops, right?   Human waste management is a challenge everywhere in the world.  Eco-san toilets provide a way to use that waste rather than “wasting” it (sorry – couldn’t resist).  In these toilets, the solid waste is separated from the liquid waste.  Many people don’t realize that urine has a very high nitrogen content, and that if it is diluted with water (harvested in the rain barrels), it is an incredible fertilizer for crops.  The solid waste goes into a compartment below, and in six months (if mixed regularly with wood ash), it becomes usable as compost for gardens or landscaping.



Seedlings for Permaculture

They are just getting started on this aspect of the project, but in time it will be a very important piece of the puzzle in this largely agricultural country.  Most agricultural leftovers here, like banana leaves, maize stalks, etc, are just piled up and burned.  The soil in Uganda is so fertile that nobody has ever really had to worry about replenishing it.  Composting is probably the cheapest thing that Uganda can do to ensure its future food security.

Fuel-Efficient Stoves

Fuel-efficient stoves are another simple technology that has far-reaching and many-pronged implications.  Deforestation is believed by many to be the most pressing environmental threat to Uganda.  93% of the population uses wood or charcoal for cooking, and the forest are disappearing at an alarming rate.  In addition to the environmental devastation, there are also the same impacts on women that are seen with water collection.  As sources of firewood or water get more scarce, women and children are having to go farther to collect these resources.  There are also respiratory issues that come with the traditional indoor “3-rock” open fireplace.  Fuel-efficient stoves can reduce firewood use dramatically.

Fuel-efficient stoves

Fuel-efficient stoves

But there are cultural issues to overcome and old habits to break.  Some people like cooking over the old, familiar, 3-stone fireplace.  Check out the picture below to see where the cooks at the school, despite the money and effort that was put into building the fuel-efficient stoves and their obvious benefits, have set up an open fire pit to cook.

3-stone fire

3-stone Firepit. Old habits die hard.

There are also supply-chain issues.  The picture below shows a recent delivery of firewood to the school.  Look at the size of the logs.  First of all, this was a mature tree cut down rather than more sustainable saplings and, second, there is NO WAY these are going to fit in the stoves.  Is somebody really supposed to cut these down to size with a machete or a hand-saw?  This school does not have chainsaws or a mechanical log-splitter.  It takes time to shift behaviors in a more sustainable direction.


Firewood Delivery

Income Generation

The environmental club has started raising chickens to fund some of the club activities, like trips to the national parks for club members.  The chickens in this pen are expected to nearly pay for an entire group of 30 students to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park.


Chickens for Income Generation

I left inspired by the work of the environmental club at St. John’s, and will be going back in January to do a training for their in-service teachers.  The school would also like to become a model site, and will soon be welcoming visiting groups who might be interested in implementing similar projects at their own sites.

And David – thanks for the reminder!

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Murchison Falls Continues to be Museveni’s Punching Bag (or Punchline)

23 11 2010

Golfing and Wildlife don't Mix

Can this really be happening? In another blow to the survival of Murchison Falls National Park, President Museveni is demanding that the Madhvani Group, the owners of Paraa and Chobe Lodges, be allowed to build a golf course within the park.  Clearly he does not take the concept of “National Park” seriously.

I think building a Wal-Mart or a 24-hour Nakumatt at the Top of the Falls would be a reasonable next step.

First, let’s address the fact that Museveni is really in no position to make this call, either legally or in terms of his ability to assess the impacts of a project like this.  He is quoted as saying Golf has no fumes. It is not a factory to generate fumes, it is just grass. This must be resolved. Tell UWA that I want this to be done.”

He has absolutely no environmental credentials, and there are, theoretically, laws that a development like this should have to follow (for instance, undergoing one of those pesky Environmental Impact Assessments).  It should also be a decision made by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, not by decree of the president.  If the president is able to just sidestep constitutional process whenever it is convenient for him, that is a sign of a broken political and legal system.

While there are efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of golf courses in countries with strict environmental oversight, unregulated courses are notoriously polluting.  The chemicals used to maintain the “perfect” grass have contaminated water sources around the world.  I don’t know where in the park the Madhvanis plan to build this course, but my guess is that they will want a view of the river,  which means there is a high likelihood of chemical runoff into the Nile.  There is also the issue of irrigating the entire course during the dry season, presumably with water from the river.

Building a golf course in Murchison Falls National Park will also result in yet another area of the park where the wildlife, the main reason for the existence of the park, will not be welcome.  As oil development expands into the production phase, the wildlife will already be feeling pressured as the open habitat shrinks.

The Madhvanis requested permission to build a golf course in Queen Elizabeth National Park sometime back, but were turned down by the Uganda Wildlife Authority because of the impact it would have on wildlife.  The current, questionably-appointed Acting Executive Director of UWA, Mark Kamanzi, has apparently agreed to the current proposal, saying “There’s nothing wrong with the President allowing a golf course to be built in the park. It does not mean that the land has been given away.” It is important to note that, like President Museveni, Mark Kamanzi has no environmental credentials – he is a lawyer who was moved into the position of Executive Director by the Board that was recently disbanded.

Uganda’s natural assets should not be sold off to the highest bidder.  The national parks here have the highest level of protection of any blocks of land in the country.  If even that level of protection can’t keep these places safe, what does that mean for the rest of the remaining forests and other natural lands?  Ugandans successfully fought to keep Museveni from selling off part of Mabira Forest, but they shouldn’t have to continually fight to save places that are already legally protected.

It will be a sad day if Uganda’s National Parks become little more than a National Joke.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Uganda’s Mountain Parks Might Be the Last Refuge in a Changed Climate

19 11 2010
Rwenzori Mountains

Rwenzori Mountains from Queen Elizabeth NP

The Rwenzori Mountains and Mount Elgon, the bookends of Uganda, may provide a last bastion for biodiversity in Uganda in a changing climate.  While these mountainous national parks get fewer visitors and fewer conservation dollars than the savanna parks and gorilla parks with their charismatic wildlife, they might turn out to be the most important ones to protect.

Global Warming” Is A Distraction

Most people know by now that “Global Warming” is an unfortunate misnomer, giving ammunition to climate change deniers who say “yeah, but my backyard has gotten .06 degrees cooler on average over the last six months.”

The reality is that some places will get colder, some will get warmer, some will get wetter and some will get dryer.  There is a very complex dynamic that determines our climate, which is why scientists look at the “big picture” rather than just localized information.

Likewise, climate change will not impact all species equally.  My unscientific guess is that coyotes and cockroaches will do fine in a changing climate, just like they always do.  They are incredibly adaptive generalists, they are mobile, they delight in popping up wherever people least expect them, and coyotes, at least, breed more rapidly under stress.  Very few governments will need to invest in a Cockroach Conservation Strategy.

Wildlife Will Need Options in a Changing Climate

But what about species like plants that are less mobile, or animals that have more specific habitat needs?  For those species, it is important to have a variety of climate conditions in a concentrated area so that they can find a suitable place to live.  In a flat expanse of land, it might be many miles before you reach a different temperature or vegetation zone.  On a mountain, however, moving just a few feet could completely change your reality.

Mt. Elgon

Mountains have possibly the widest variance of ecosystems per square kilometer of any landscape.  Not only are there extreme temperature differences resulting from altitudinal change, but the angle of a slope and its exposure to the sun can make one spot completely different from another just around the corner.  A crevice in a rock can provide protection from winds that make the surface of the very same rock uninhabitable.  Snowpack on a protected slope can insulate plants and trees that would freeze solid on a slope that gets blown clean during the winter.

According to a recent study done in the Swiss Alps, “alpine terrain is for the majority of species a much ‘safer’ place to live under conditions of climate warming, compared to flat terrain which offers no short-distance escapes from the changing temperatures.”

The Human Factor

As the lower elevations in Uganda become hotter and dryer, and thus less suitable for agriculture, humans will also begin to move to find better habitat.  Our legendary mobility will always give us an advantage over the other species that are trying to relocate (except, of course, the cockroach which will be there waiting for us).

With Uganda’s population projected to exceed 100 million by 2050 (nearly tripling the current 32-34 million), there will be incredible pressure on every square inch of arable land.  If there is going to be any space left for maintaining the biological diversity of this country, we need to be sure the mountain parks in Uganda are receiving the attention and funding they deserve.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Solar Panels Have Potential to be 10 Times More Efficient

29 09 2010
Solar Panels

Image of Conventional Solar Panel

This is great news that shows we have only begun to tap the full potential of alternative sources of energy.  Some people have already written-off solar, saying that the energy it takes to create the panels isn’t justified by the energy-creating potential.  That argument could quickly become a thing of the past if advances like this continue:

Solar cells thinner than wavelengths of light hold huge power potential, Stanford researchers say

Ultra-thin solar cells can absorb sunlight more efficiently than the thicker, more expensive-to-make silicon cells used today, because light behaves differently at scales around a nanometer (a billionth of a meter), say Stanford engineers. They calculate that by properly configuring the thicknesses of several thin layers of films, an organic polymer thin film could absorb as much as 10 times more energy from sunlight than was thought possible.

Read the Rest:

World Gone Mad | Derrick Jensen | Orion Magazine

15 09 2010

The most recent issue of Orion Magazine includes an article by Derrick Jensen, a pretty edgy environmental writer, looking at the psychopathic tendencies of modern society in its attitudes towards the planet.  I have certainly seen our relationship to the earth as unhealthy, but he looks at very specific, clinical definitions of psycho- and sociopathology and draws direct lines between our attitudes towards the environment and a serial killer’s attitude towards his victims.

‘The New Columbia Encyclopedia states that a sociopath can be defined as one who willfully does harm without remorse: “Such individuals are impulsive, insensitive to others’ needs, and unable to anticipate the consequences of their behavior, to follow long-term goals, or to tolerate frustration. The psychopathic individual is characterized by absence of the guilt feelings and anxiety that normally accompany an antisocial act.”’

via World Gone Mad | Derrick Jensen | Orion Magazine.

Maybe we need a global therapy session.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala