Uganda — The World Environment Day is celebrated today under the theme Low Carbon Economy. There is need, therefore, to address the bush burning problem. Bush fires have caused severe environmental degradation and affected the livelihoods of communities in West Nile. In this region, the major dry season runs from December through January.
Field visits and observations have indicated that communities in the area are hard working and enterprising. But their efforts are being frustrated by bush burning. Investments of many years such as trees are destroyed in just few hours of bush fire.
Bush burning has far-reaching effects, including disruption of ecosystem balance, loss of pasture for animals, pollution of the atmosphere and loss of scenic beauty. It destroys soil biological, physical and chemical properties, hence contributing to environmental degradation, food insecurity and poverty in the region. Although some fires are recklessly started by communities, majority of the fires are lit deliberately. But if this practice is obviously bad, then what drives people to burn bushes and how do they feel when the bush is burning?
My discussion with communities in West Nile, especially the youth, revealed that they derive enormous excitement from setting bushes ablaze.
Other reasons given include clearing vegetation for quarrying and obtaining poles for building, hostilities among communities, removal of old grass to induce the growth of new pasture and as a way of hunting edible rats due to lack of alternative sources of meat or protein. Some officials in Adjumani district say bush burning is due to poverty of the mind and is embedded in the cultural values and traditional farming systems of the people with little incentive not to burn.
This is in agreement with the United Nations Environment Programme Report of 1999, which states that poverty has been and remains a major cause and consequence of environmental degradation and resource depletion.
Bush burning issues are currently being resolved by the National Forest Authority and the district departments of Natural Resources and Environment. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that the impact of these agencies and institutions has been minimal.
Compliance with the law is also still weak. It has been difficult to reduce or eliminate bushfires although there are district ordinances and by-laws on bush burning. This could partly be because of lack of incentives and alternatives to motivate people to comply with the law. Sanctions alone do not seem to work.
Surprisingly, most of the people I interacted with said they were aware of the bush burning regulations but expressed concern that they did not participate in the formulation of these regulations. Yet in the 2006 report titled, Who knows Who cares?
The determinants of enactment, awareness, and compliance with Community Natural Resource Management Regulations in Uganda, found out that the probability to comply with regulations enacted by village councils was greater than the case with such regulation passed by high legislative bodies such as district councils.
There is need, therefore, for a comprehensive package of interventions to address bush burning. These should comprise the involvement of communities in the formulation and implementation of by-laws, proper enforcement of laws and incentives to motivate communities not to start fires.
There is also need to conduct anti-bush burning campaigns and formation of anti-bush fire task forces at village levels for self monitoring for bush burning to be checked.