Why Do Ugandans Hate Trees?

5 08 2010
Cutting down trees

Tree outside my driveway

The buzz of chainsaws is ringing in my ears as I write this.  I live in Kampala, next door to a large lot that was a school up until about a month ago, lush with big trees and flowering bushes.  The trees are frequent hosts to numerous falcons, weavers, turacos, gonaleks and many other birds, in addition to countless butterflies and lizards.  I have always envied the green shadiness of those school grounds when I compare it to the sparse compound in which I live.

But recently the mzungus who ran the school moved out, and within just a few weeks, the chainsaws have decimated most of what once lived on those beautiful grounds.

I just assumed that everyone living in my compound would feel the same distress I was feeling.  How could you not mourn the loss of life as you gaze at the piles of branches and stumps and stare at the ugly, bare chain-link fence that was once mercifully covered in bougainviller flowers?

But most of the people in my compound are Ugandans, and as I started to ask them how they felt about this, over and over I heard “Oh, finally it looks nice there!”  “Those mzungus didn’t know how to keep a compound!”  “It’s good that they are finally improving that place.”

This is happening all over Kampala.  When I was living here in ’04-’05, right behind my house was

Where once there was forest...

a small but lush½-acre forest backing up onto a papyrus marsh.  I used to walk there every morning, and recorded over 70 bird species on that small piece of land.  It was also a safe haven for side-striped jackals who were remarkably still surviving in the city.  When I returned for a visit in 2007, nearly every tree was gone.  To add insult to injury, the forest was cleared to make way for something that will be ironically named “Forest Village Botanical Garden” if they ever finish it.  If you want to market yourself based on the idea of a forest, why not just leave the forest there in the first place?

And this isn’t an issue of poor people cutting trees to have firewood so they can eat.  The man who owns the compound next to me right now seems to own half the neighborhood.

Beyond my own selfish desire to have more trees around me, this is a city that needs trees and their ability to filter pollution out of the air, reduce flooding and moderate the heat that sometimes makes it unbearable to walk around Kampala.  Paul Theroux, in his book Dark Star Safari, writes about Kampala in the 1960s when it was famous for its streets lined with flowering trees.  Those trees all seem to be long gone.

Uganda is losing most of its natural forest cover.  A lot of money is being spent in the rural areas to replant native trees, plant mono-culture woodlots for firewood, and improve regulation and enforcement to reduce illegal logging.  But what about in the urban areas?  We need trees here, too, but I am not aware of any efforts to plant trees in the cities or even to protect the ones that already exist.  There are, remarkably, some very large, old trees remaining in Kampala.  We need laws to protect those trees, and we need education to let people know why trees are important in cities.

Kampala is still a relatively green city, but how long will that last?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala