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Militarised conservation and pathways to peace in a climate change crisis-reflections from Uganda

Almost all countries in the world are experiencing the effects of climate change. For Africa it portends serious setbacks to poverty reduction, food security, water resource availability and human health viability. Even more critical is that climate change can contribute to violent conflict. Forests are an essential part of the climate change, peace and conflict nexus. They absorb and store large amounts of carbon, thereby reducing greenhouse emissions and lowering temperatures. They are also critical for sustainable agriculture, biodiversity, quality water supply and as sources of energy. However, some reports estimate that deforestation is now the second leading cause of global climate change. The world’s forest area decreased from 31.6 percent of global land area to 30.6 percent between 1990 and 2015 while the global loss of tropical forests contributed to about 4.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year between 2015 and 2017. This year the world watched in shock as its largest rainforest, the Amazon in Brazil, experienced the most intense fires it has had in over a decade. In the Democratic Republic of Congo where two thirds of African’s remaining forests are located, it has been estimated that deforestation there could reach 5, 400 square kilometres per year by 2050, which is akin to the current rate of forest loss in the Amazon.

Uganda’s statistics indicate the same worrying trend. According to a 2016 report on the State of Uganda’s forests, the country has been losing on average 122,000 hectares of forest every year from 1990 to 2015. The greatest forest cover loss in the country is estimated at 250,000 hectares of forests annually for the period 2005 to 2010. Uganda has reportedly already lost two-thirds of its forest cover and if these deforestation rates continue, it risks losing all of its forest cover by 2050. In light of this stark reality, the Government of Uganda has prioritized Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR) in its national plans, with an aim to restore forest cover to its 1990 levels by 2020. It has also embraced the REDD+ strategy aimed at Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation plus sustainable Forest Management.

This stark reality has also led the country to deploy its army in efforts against deforestation and to ensure forest recovery. In 2017 it was reported that over 400 out of the country’s 506 central forest reserves were heavily encroached upon. The Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) were deployed alongside the Environment Protection Police and National Forestry Authority enforcement Officers in over 40 forest reserves to enforce eviction of encroachers including those who had illegally acquired titles of ownership there, as well as to ensure proper demarcation of the reserves. According to the spokesperson of the UPDF at the time, the encroachers were very aggressive and the army had a mandate to protect forests as part of the National Vital Assets and Strategic Installations Security.

The deployment of the army to engage in conservation causes is not a strange concept. Brazil deployed 44,000 of its troops to tackle the recent fires in the Amazon. In India, retired army generals participated in planting over 10 million trees between 1985 and 1995 at Kutch in Gujarat, where they also monitored pollution and helped protect wildlife in the Greater Himalayas. This use of military or paramilitary personnel and techniques towards conservation has been referred to as ‘green militarisation’. The approach receives support and criticism from different academics and practitioners. In Botswana, militarised responses have been credited for effectively reducing rhino poaching by either deterring or intercepting poachers and increasing the perception of security among the locals and the tourist population. In Australia, the military working in conjunction with the police and the justice system have been credited for ensuring security in highly complex situations and reducing some of the wildlife trafficking that had been so detrimental to biodiversity. While it is acknowledged that the urgent rush to save species from extinction as well as the increased aggressiveness of poachers and encroachers might warrant drastic intervention measures including through militarisation, some note that not enough attention is being paid to the potential harm in the strategy. In particular, it has been observed that the conservation debate is largely about poverty and inequality which requires a ‘hearts and minds’ approach yet militarised approaches to conservation tend to foster intimidation, violence and surveillance. Some studies suggest that the military generally tends to have a negative impact on social relations with the local populations where its conservation activities are based, particularly when its interventions are prolonged. For instance, military conservation interventions have been implicated in ‘reproducing social inequalities through violent exclusions’ in the process creating fear and resentment among local populations in Kruger National Park in South Africa. This is especially so as the military was in most cases not trained in conservation principles. In another study on militarised forest conservation in Cross river state in Nigeria, it emerged that the militarisation approach was perpetuating regimes of unequal power relations by facilitating local populations’ loss of resource control through violent dispossession, intimidation and surveillance, all the while facilitating a timber economy attuned to the military elites’ interests. In addition, the approach resulted in the exclusion of locals from accessing non-timber forest products essential to their economic and spiritual welfare such as fruits, wild game, and herbs.

In Uganda some of the foregoing concerns about exclusion, loss of resource control, corruption, opacity and lack of accountability of army officials engaged in forest conservation are already manifesting. In Adjumani, local communities have withheld support to security personnel towards curbing illegal logging of the endangered afzelia tree, which is a major source of income for them. This indicates the failure of a single tract model to conservation through militarisation. Accusations also abound of some army officers being involved in the illegal logging themselves. The common accusation has been that some officers enable the transportation and illegal sell of timber using army trucks while pretending to be on patrol to prevent the very same illegality. Other ongoing inquiries have implicated some UPDF officials in illegal logging activities in Zoka Forest. There is also the matter of partial occupation by the UPDF of Barifa forest in Arua, which has stirred up historically based grievances of state dispossession and exclusion among the local communities there.

Uganda need not wait for these problems to grow into major obstacles before it can consolidate a comprehensive forest conservation strategy where our army plays a constructive role alongside local communities. The National Forest Authority has reportedly started implementing Community Forest Management initiatives around major forest reserves through which communities are introduced to alternative sources of income outside of illegal logging. The UPDF through Operation Wealth Creation could further supplement this initiative for not just the local communities but also for its own personnel. Additionally, Uganda’s National Climate Policy calls for community based and participatory approaches to managing climate change and its effects. This means that UPDF personnel deployed for conservation interventions need to be trained in conservation principles with emphasis on civil military relations, conflict resolution, human rights, and communication skills, among others. The approach also means the UPDF has to lay more emphasis on transparency and accountability for any of its officers involved in illegal logging, unlawful encroachment on forest reserves and any violation of human rights. This way the army can secure legitimacy and support from the local communities in its conservation interventions and the overall national goals on managing climate change can be fostered. The Ugandan army is relevant to interventions aimed at managing or mitigating climate change effects in line with national laws and policies. Uganda’s rapidly disappearing forest cover and the aggressiveness of forest encroachers arguably warrant military intervention in support of the civil authorities. However, as we celebrate international peace day under the theme ‘climate action for peace’ it is necessary to appreciate that in order for the army’s intervention to be part of a solution towards peaceful conservation, it will be necessary to infuse military doctrine with human rights and conservation principles.


Disclosure: This article was first published by the New Vision on 21st September 2019 as authored by the Human Rights and Peace Centre (HURIPEC).

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