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


South Sudan Peaceful so Far

10 01 2011
Sudan Geography

Sudan as Seen from Space

The news out of South Sudan has been very positive for the last couple of weeks, and continues to be after the first day of polling (polls will be open until January 15).  Turnout and enthusiasm have been staggeringly high.

Even up to a month ago, many people believed northern Sudan would never allow the south to secede.  However, recently, Bashir, the ICC-indicted president of Sudan, made public statements that he would recognize the legitimacy of south Sudan if (when) voters approved secession and that he would not take military action to prevent south Sudan becoming independent.

So now the fears are not so much about what the north will do, but what the southerners might do to themselves.  Already on Saturday, a southern militia led by Gatluak Gai staged an attack to disrupt the referendum vote.  It was quickly put down by the South Sudanese army, but it shows that there are still elements in the south of the country that want to keep things destabilized.  There are also tribal rifts that will not be mended by a referendum and a new identity as “South Sudanese.”

The issue of identity is interesting on a continent where national boundaries were drawn by Europeans with no regard to existing realities and where families were split and enemies merged.  The secession of South Sudan is one step towards rectifying this, as north and south Sudan really are two different worlds – Arab/African, Muslim/Christian.  It is unrealistic, however, to redraw the map to recognize the thousands of traditional kingdoms, clans and tribal boundaries that existed a few hundred years ago.

I recently read an article in The Monitor, called South Sudan: Countdown to Freedom, that got me thinking.  It refers to a South Sudanese politician talking about “Suganda.”  Basically, that South Sudan and Uganda have more in common than north and south Sudan, and that they could form a unified state.  This got me thinking about a single country comprised of South Sudan and Northern Uganda.

It could make a lot of sense.  Northern Uganda already feels disenfranchised from control and power in Uganda, and culturally there as many, if not more, similarities with South Sudan than with central Uganda.  Intermarriage and cross-border trade already make the boundary fuzzy.  The oil wealth in southern Sudan and the agricultural potential in northern Uganda could combine to create a formidable economy.  Once Uganda builds an oil refinery, a pipeline could even be built to that facility, making the current one through northern Sudan obsolete.  This would further cement the independence of the African south from the Arab north, and also justify a larger refining facility in Uganda.  It could also make it easier to manage for the wildlife that migrates across the current border.

Obviously there are challenges to this.  Part of the reason why northern Sudan is allowing this referendum to go forward is because the oil currently must go through the north, enabling them to continue sharing in the oil revenues.  A reroute of the oil would reduce this willingness.   The power center in central Uganda would also not take secession lightly, leaving Suganda landlocked and surrounded by uncooperative neighbors.

Northern Uganda has also not been abused by the central government of Uganda nearly as much as South Sudan has been by the north, so the political will is not there at this point.  However, if South Sudan becomes strong in the next ten years, and the trade relationship grows even more, who knows?  With national identity being tenuous in many African countries, success in South Sudan could cause many people to take a new look at old boundaries.

This referendum is momentous.  It is a victory after a hard-fought battle that raged for years and took many lives.  There are still challenges ahead, such as establishing the boundary between north and south, and getting control of the many militias still operating throughout the south.  Hopefully the visionary leadership that got South Sudan to this point, and who captured the world’s attention, will create a new country that can represent all of its citizens and make them proud to be South Sudanese.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Conflict Over Conflict-Free Diamonds in Zimbabwe

14 12 2010

Are you a conscious shopper?  When you buy lumber or wood furniture, do you always buy it from a certified sustainable source?  When you buy clothes, do you check to make sure the company doesn’t use sweatshop labor?  Is your chocolate fair-trade?  Are your diamonds conflict-free?

Is there really any way to know?

Despite having the best intentions to use your consumer dollars to lobby for human rights and sustainable practices, and despite the hard work of NGOs with their certification schemes, it can be nearly impossible to know where your money is actually going.

Zimbabwe’s Blood Diamonds

Zimbabwe’s Chiadzwa region, near the border of Mozambique, is the source of a large percentage of the world’s diamonds.  In the last few years, Mugabe’s soldiers have been strafing independent miners with machine guns and forcing them to work in the mines as virtual slaves before smuggling the gems out of the country for sale.  The diamonds are often smuggled through Mozambique, which is not a party to the Kimberly Process, the primary international certifying scheme for diamonds.  The money from these diamonds has funded much of Mugabe’s brutal regime in Zimbabwe, which is why the diamonds have not been cleared for sale by the Kimberly Process.

It would make your buying decision easier if that was the end of the story.  The diamonds aren’t certified, so they shouldn’t show up on the market, right?  Wrong.  In the last few months, South Africa, Namibia and Angola have all said that they would allow Chiadzwa diamonds to be mixed in with their own certified diamonds for sale to international markets if the Chiadzwa diamonds are not approved.  They believe that the Government of Zimbabwe has met the demands of the Kimberly Process and should now be approved.   According to a news source in Zimbabwe, though, “the military has continued its brutal control of Chiadzwa and there have been continued reports of abuses at the military’s hands. This has included reports of intimidation of local villagers, forced labour and rampant smuggling.”

The Kimberly Process has been going back-and-forth on whether or not to certify the diamonds, feeling the pressure both from African nations that want them certified, and international human rights groups that are fighting the certification.  The United States still has sanctions in place that don’t allow U.S.-based diamond dealers to knowingly purchase diamonds from this region, and this ban is likely to stay in place regardless of the decision by Kimberly.  One way or another, the validity and authority of the Process will be questioned once the final decision is made.

Illegal Products Can Slip Through the Cracks of Any Certification Scheme

While “blood diamonds” have gotten a lot of attention in the media after the movie with DiCaprio came out, not every product has such a heavy-hitting spokesperson.  All certification schemes, be they fair trade coffee, sustainable forestry, non-DRC coltan, or conflict-free diamonds have chinks in their armor and can’t be perfect.  Wherever humans are involved, there are people who can be bought off.  Wherever borders are permeable, as they are in much of Africa, smuggling can take place, confusing the origin of any product.  You can buy illegally-cut mahogany from Uganda and poached Ivory from Zambia, all through legal channels, because of these weaknesses.

Certification schemes are an important part of our increasingly-globalized economy.  We need other people and organizations to watch out for us, because we simply can’t do enough research into every single product we use.  These watchdog groups also put pressure on oppressive regimes or industries and make it a lot harder for them to abuse their employees, their citizens or the environment.  They are a huge improvement over the free-for-all a few decades ago when nobody was watching, and it is much harder to hide anything in this connected world.  Buying products that are certified is, for the most part, much better for people and the planet.

But we can’t just sit back and assume that these certification schemes will do all the work for us, because they can’t.  We still need to do at least some research, and then make our decisions.  If 80% of certified diamonds on the market truly are conflict-free, is that a high enough percentage to make it worth buying that ring and supporting that industry?  Only you can make that decision.


If you are inspired to do so, please put your answers in the comments section so that we can all benefit from your thoughts:

  1. Do you try to buy products that have been certified (ie. Fair Trade, Forest Stewardship Council, etc)?  If so, why?  If not, why not?
  2. Are there specific products that you try to do research on before making a purchase?
  3. What are the best resources you have come across for researching the origins of products?

Read More About Zimbabwe’s Chiadzwa Diamonds:

Africa plans to subvert Zim diamond ban

Conflict & Blood Diamonds: Zimbabwe

US$1 billion Marange diamonds looted

Critics step up call for Kimberley Process Reform

Mines Minister insists full diamonds sales will resume

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

120 Girls Circumcised in Uganda Last Week

5 12 2010

It is horrifically ironic that this took place in the middle of the 16 Days of Activism against Violence Towards Women.  Read this article in the New Vision:

Link: 120 Sabiny girls circumcised

SOME cried. Some were confused. Others still traumatised, while many were left speechless.They looked on in disbelief as a local female surgeon tried in vain thrice, probably using a very blunt knife, to cut off a girl’s clitoris.

She then asked for another, similarly blunt knife and to make it work, applied extra force, going back and forth, the way a saw cuts into timber. The girl struggled not to show fear and to contain her trembling, which is culturally unacceptable and would have attracted scorn and ridicule from the attentive crowd.

As blood gushed from her private parts, the crowd urged the girls: “Be strong! You are almost done! Remain calm!”

You can find more information and ways to take action in my earlier post, “Female Genital Mutilation Continues in Eastern Uganda.”

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

Signs of Uganda #5

25 11 2010

Lovers Hotel

Now why didn’t I think of this for my honeymoon location?

Thanks to Charles Steinberg Photography for this submission.

If you have a picture you think belongs in this series, send it to me at

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

Was it Really Churchill who Called Uganda “The Pearl of Africa?”

22 11 2010

I have always bought into the idea that Winston Churchill should be credited with dubbing Uganda the “Pearl of Africa.”  That’s what everybody says, and knowing that he came here and was enamored with the country, I never had a reason to doubt it.

Then this morning I read an article on Musere’s Live Journal called “Uganda the “Pearl of Africa,” Henry Morton Stanley, and Winston Spencer-Churchill.”

This article makes a pretty convincing argument that it was actually Henry Morton Stanley, that incredibly brutal explorer and scourge of Congo, who first called Uganda the “Pearl.”

I must admit that if this is true, I am a little disappointed.  However, disappointing or not, the truth must be told.

Has anyone else out there come across references that connect this phrase to Stanley rather than Churchill?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala