The armed conflict between 1986 and 2007 in Northern Uganda had profound impacts on human rights and on the degradation of the natural environment. Unfortunately, peacetime did not revert this. On the contrary, the consolidation of extractive supply chains is bringing environmental deterioration to another scale while social conflicts are emerging among ethnic groups, local communities, families, and authorities around land access and tenure.
In 2007, while the peace talks were going on, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights made a number of recommendations to Uganda’s national authorities and the Uganda Human Rights Commission, including: “to ensure the integration of human rights and justice as key elements for sustainable peace” (1).
After the war, it has been claimed, the Government of Uganda has made significant progress “to improve respect for human rights and the enjoyment of these rights by all individuals under its jurisdiction” (2) and to advance the “rule of law and democracy including ratification of key international and regional human rights instruments” (3).
Unfortunately, current environmental transformations in Northern Uganda are hindering that progress. Even though the rebels – the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) – are no longer active in the country, peace in the region is yet to be guaranteed.
Disputes over access to (and exploitation of) land and natural resources, as well as the resulting environmental degradation, are playing a key role in the future of peace in the eight sub-regions that make up the North region of the country.
In June 2020, I had a conversation with Patrick Okullo – journalist and environmental advocate based in Gulu, Acholi sub-region– and learned that during and after the war, environmental concerns were rising in the local agenda for peace. Unfortunately, this was not translated into an environmental peacebuilding policy. Journalists, NGO’s communities, and local authorities among others, are strongly advocating for environmental justice and human rights protection, for a sustainable peace in Northern Uganda.
In the following two sections, I share some of the key concerns we discussed with Patrick and complement with other sources such as those from local journalists and academic experts. In the final section, as a way of conclusion, I establish linkages between the protection of the natural environment and the protection, promotion, and fulfilment of human rights in the context of Uganda.
The emergence of ‘new’ natures and supply chains during war
For a period of about twenty years, Uganda witnessed its most prolonged armed conflict between a rebel army (LRA) and the national security forces – the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF). Even though different sources contest the final number, in 2004 it was estimated that 1.4 million persons were pushed from their homes into internal displaced people’s camps (IDP camps) (4) in order to facilitate UPDF’s surveillance and securitize the most conflictive districts: those of Acholi sub-region (former districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader).
Patrick Okullo recalls that during the armed conflict, the Ugandan security forces arrived in the North to reach the LRA rebels seeking to deter their violence towards civilians and stabilise the situation. This was done by the construction of roads crossing forests and savannahs. In the process of implementing these strategies, natural resources were discovered by these actors coming from other regions of Uganda. Logging and trading of valuable tree species, such as the Africana Afzelia started then, when the security forces accessed unexplored forests. At the same time, they had access to natural resources in “abandoned” rural areas, as Patrick recalls:
“…in the process, when people were in the camps, when in  they left their homes and were confined in the camps, the security forces, the LRA and the UPDF they had access to these areas, they would exploit whatever they could in terms of natural resources, this contributed to degradation”.
Environmental and forest degradation started during war, with the emerging trend of logging of valuable species for trading, small-scale charcoal production and tree cutting for other purposes (such as building) for household consumption.
The high number of people living in camps resulted in an uneven spatial distribution of natural resources exploitation in the Northern sub-regions, highly concentrated in the camps and around them, as those living there “resorted to cutting of trees, for charcoal burning, for fuelling, for cooking. This also contributed to high level of degradation”, according to Patrick (see also 5).
In 2005, the USAID and the Wildlife Conservation Society sponsored a comprehensive study on the impact of the armed conflict on the environment and natural resources management in Northern Uganda (6). Based on mixed-methods and the use of remote sensing technology to study vegetation cover in the country, the report affirms that:
“In north eastern Uganda there has been a net loss of woodland (…). Around urban centres loss of woody cover was particularly high, although for Gulu and Kitgum this was confined to the immediate vicinity of the town and around IDP camps. Around Lira there has been widespread loss of woody cover, which may be partly a result of the conflict (people migrating south) but also due to expanding human population and conversion of natural habitat to farmland” (6: 9-10). [*]
The paradox is, nevertheless, that the armed conflict worked also as a driver for environmental protection. The study shows that vegetation was also restored in some of those territories where the LRA rebels were based, or with no easy access. This might be explaining the higher level of environmental conservation: “[t]here is a large belt of increased woody cover west and north of Kitgum where the LRA has been most active and as a result it is clear that there has been some recovery of natural habitat as a result of the conflict” (6: 9).
The causes of vegetation change need to be further explored on the ground. The internal armed conflict has been a clear driver of vegetation change, but other factors might be explaining this, such as climate change or population growth (expansion of urban settings and/or farming land).
The report argues, however, that “it is clear that the movement of large numbers of people to IDP camps has allowed vegetation to recover in areas they have vacated and has led to degradation of vegetation around the camps and urban centres where they have settled” (6: 10). This explains the uneven geographical distribution of environmental degradation and conservation.
New conflicts and environmental deterioration during peacetime
Environmental degradation did not decrease after the armed conflict and during peacebuilding. On the contrary, it intensified. Savannahs and forests restored, turned into a source of rich timber to be exploited during peacetime. TNH (2012) observes that this is particularly the case because those regions previously supplying Kampala were totally depleted (7).
From 2007, once the violence against civilians deescalated and people started leaving the camps, Northern Uganda became the scene of the expansion of charcoal production and high-value timber extraction for distant markets such as those in Kampala, Kenya or China.
According to the Ministry of Water and Environment from Uganda (2016), during the period 2010-2015, an estimated number of 250,000 hectares of forest were lost. In the same period, forest estate outside protected areas reduced from 61% in 2005 to 38% in 2015 (8).
The resettlement process brought people back to their land, but with much need to complement their meagre incomes, as farming and husbandry take time to give a produce. Livestock had been wiped out from the region as a result of the war (9) so people had to restart their livelihoods. This partly explains the resulting land use change and ecological degradation that we are witnessing now.
Charcoal production and high-value timber species
During the post conflict and peacebuilding period, new and powerful actors arrived in the North and scaled up natural resource extraction and trade (10), not only for valuable timber logging but also for charcoal production.
This ‘industrial’ or large-scale charcoal production incorporated small-scale farmers and other rural dwellers into an international supply chain, highly extractive and dependent on natural resources, further marginalising local communities from their natural resources and livelihoods and/or inserting them at the bottom of emerging international supply chains.
Patrick Okullo explains that the levels of degradation and conflict intensified between 2015 and 2019: “hundreds of trucks would pass day and night from the Acholi sub-region and part of West Nile down South to Kampala”.
He further clarifies that trees such as shea nut or African Afzelia play an important role in the cultural life of Acholi people, who suffer in their territory much of the impacts of the armed conflict. This is why local chiefs, and other cultural institutions are worried to see how these trees are decreasing in number, as people will not only miss food and shelter, but cleansing rituals that are very important for the life in community, peace building and conflict resolution. Cultural leaders understood that failure to protect precious trees would affect in the future local peoples’ culture as these species have a key role in the reproduction of social life.
Access to land
New conflicts emerged during the post-conflict between local leaders, communities, clans, ethnic groups and families due to contested land ownership, district borders, soil degradation, land use change, over exploitation or access to local forests, among other issues related to the natural environment (11; 12).
Patrick Okullo recalls that “after the war the owners of those lands where camps were established were appealing to the government to support them, to compensate them, because the camps were established in their lands, and the natural resources were highly destroyed”.
The fragile land tenure and unstable land access pushed people to cut down trees as they were unsure for how long they would have access to natural resources. This has further accelerated the degradation process, according to different sources (10).
In this context, the arrival of investments for oil exploration and exploitation, and agribusiness –such as sugar cane or cattle ranching- has exacerbated conflicts between those supporting one or another livelihood and/or land use (13, 14, 15). Wildlife conservation in natural parks and reserves has also brought conflicts between local dwellers and authorities (16).
Role of the local district authorities
Local district authorities realised the need to address these urgent matters and understood – Patrick shares – that if tree cutting continues, acute weather changes would occur, affecting the soil humidity or quality and abundance of water and in the long term this will affect agriculture production, cattle raising, and other important livelihoods directly dependent on natural resources and ecosystem services (such as fisheries).
This explains that local district authorities for the entire Acholi sub-region came together and passed a bill in 2016 to control charcoal trade and the movement of timber from one place to another (17). This ordinance seeks to regulate the transportation of timber making it illegal to move it around without the corresponding documents from the authorities.
According to Patrick, “now that the authorities have been enforcing new control mechanisms, tree cutting is decreasing and less timber is leaving the region”. It seems at least, that illegal charcoal trade might be decreasing (18) though this is contested (19). In addition, “they are currently drafting a charcoal policy to address alternative sources of energy for households”, Patrick tells me.
Human rights and the environment: building sustainable peace
It has been argued by many that the armed conflict in Northern Uganda began as a consequence of the historical economic and political marginalisation of the region from the rest of the country (20). The armed conflict brought violence to people and to their natural environment, the violation of all kinds of human rights.
Even though the armed conflict is over, peacetime unfortunately is not completely free of violence. Nowadays, violence against people continues in an indirect way: against their nature, their natural environment. It might not be exactly the same actors perpetuating it, but there is no doubt that the role of the Ugandan security forces is still relevant. As Branch & Martinello (2018: 242) put it “charcoal production, and its particular destructiveness, should be understood as a continuation of the violence of the 1986–2006 war between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government” as “[m]ilitarized, forceful displacements of communities by the state, whether for minerals, game reserves, parks, infrastructure, agri-business, or personal accumulation, are often enforced through military violence” (p. 248) (10).
Ecological degradation and environmental deterioration during the armed conflict was the result of the activity of few actors (e.g. army officials, camps dwellers) and it was very much localised (e.g. around the camps) (6). The geographical scale of environmental deterioration during peacetime has changed: it has increased. The network of stakeholders became more complex, bringing together diverse actors within and outside the Northern region (7, 10, 19).
It can be argued that peace succeeded in inserting the region in national and international markets – as provider of natural resources – and bringing certain levels of economic growth and development. Nevertheless, this is not experienced equally by most of the population who see their natural environment depleted and receive little benefit from this ‘development’.
These complexities and the emerging inequalities pose the challenge of coordinating political efforts to revert the situation and implement policies and strategies to promote human rights, environmental restoration, and sustainable development.
Uganda finds inspiration in international, regional and national standards and instruments to promote peace, environmental protection and human rights. There is, for instance, a resolution by the African Commission from 2012 calling for a Human Rights-Based Approach to Natural Resources Governance (21) urging member states among other issues to “[e]nsure that respect for human rights in all matters of natural resources exploration, extraction, toxic waste management, development, management and governance, in international cooperation, investment agreements and trade regulation prevails”.
The country – it is claimed – has made progress in domesticating human rights standards and incorporating environmental concerns in its legislative frameworks. The Constitution of Uganda in article 39 provides that every citizen has the right to a clean and healthy environment; and since 2019, the Ugandans have a national law to protect the natural environment and regulate how it should be used: the National Environment Act. In fact, there are many acts, policies and plans at the central level dealing with the promotion of sustainable use of the natural environment and nature protection, such as those dealing with biodiversity, wildlife, forestry, tree planting, water, wetlands or land.
Local and central authorities also play a key role in the protection of human rights and the environment, with the creation of bills and policies, such as the drafting of the Acholi Sustainable Charcoal Production and Marketing Bill from 2019 (22).
In this context, I argue that the ‘problem’ is not the lack of environmental or human rights recognition or legislative frameworks, but the way these are implemented (or silenced). I am referring not only to environmental interventions, but also to human rights ones.
Human rights interventions I have in mind are those that go hand in hand with environmental protection and ecological restoration. The natural environment cannot be left aside in planning, designing, implementing, monitoring, or evaluating human rights strategies. Such strategies should work towards political empowerment, sustainable development, and peace for all, and particularly for those more in need. They should be attentive of not (re)producing conflicts.
Branch (2011: 9) points out that “human rights intervention may inadvertently provide the tools for emancipatory politics, politics possibly based upon concepts of human rights that imply and depend on individual and collective social and political agency” (23). I believe that the role of journalists and civil society in denouncing environmental injustices and/or human rights violations are central in promoting a real implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the existing international and national laws and policies. Members of diverse organisations of the civil society with support from (and despite of) the international community are nowadays active in denouncing the ongoing environmental deterioration (24) and human rights abuses in Uganda.
The question remains then for the different authorities in Uganda and for Ugandan peoples to collectively discuss and decide how they wish the Northern region to be integrated to the rest of the country and the global economy, how to promote alternative sources of energy, and how to restore degraded natural environments, while promoting, protecting and fulfilling human rights for all.
I would like to thank Patrick Okullo for his time to chat and enlighten me about his work and worries from those living in Acholi and other sub-regions in the North of Uganda. I extend my gratitude to my colleagues Kasiva Mulli, Yvonne Oyieke and Alice Kasznar for their feedback to draft versions of this blog-post.
[*] Lira is a town in Lango sub-region, which has also been affected by the armed conflict as IDP camps were located there.
(1) HRC (2007) “Report on the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Uganda”, Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and follow-up to the World Conference on Human Rights Addendum. Human Rights Council. A/HRC/4/49/Add.2. Available online here.
(2) OHCHR (2013) “Report on the Activities of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Human Rights Situation in Uganda”, Nov. 2011 to Sept. 2013. Available online here.
(3) HRC (2016) National report submitted in accordance with paragraph 5 of the annex to Human Rights Council resolution 16/21. Uganda. Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review Human Rights Council. Available online here.
(4) UN (2004) “Specific groups and individuals. Mass exoduses and displaced persons”, Report of the Representative of the Secretary-General on internally displaced persons, Deng, Francis. Mission to Uganda. Economic and Social Council, United Nations. Commission on Human Rights. E/CN.4/2004/77/Add.1. Available online here.
(5) Oroma, Gladys (2008) “The forgotten ‘victim’ of the northern Uganda war”, news article in Daily Monitor Only (Uganda) June 4. Available online here.
(6) Nampindo, Simon; Picton-Phillipps, Guy & Plumptre, Andrew (2005) The impact of conflict in Northern Uganda on the environment and natural resource management, USAID and Wildlife Conservation Society. Available online here.
(7) TNH (2012a) “Charcoal boom a bust for forests”, news article in The New Humanitarian (formerly IRIN News). 7 February. Available online here.
(8) Ministry of Water and Environment (2016) “State of Uganda’s Forestry”. The Republic of Uganda. Available online here.
(9) Owiny, Tobbias Jolly (2020) “LRA war victims beat odds to succeed in dairy farming”, news article in Daily Monitor. 18 August. Available online here.
(10) Branch, Adam & Martiniello, Giuliano (2018) “Charcoal Power: The Political Violence of Non-Fossil Fuel in Uganda”, in Geoforum, 97: 242-252. Online here.
(11) TNH (2012b) “Land disputes threaten northern peace”, news article in The New Humanitarian (formerly IRIN News). 19 April. Available online here.
(12) Otim, Denis Barnabas (2012a) “Uganda: Local land dispute threatens violence”, blogpost in Peace Insight. 27 December. Available online here.
(13) Otim, Denis Barnabas (2012b) Is it oil, land or investment triggering increasing land dispute in Lakang village of Amuru district? Situation report. Refugee Law Project, School of Law, Makerere University and Advisory Consortium on Conflict Senstivitiy (ACCS). Available online here.
(14) Otim, Denis Barnabas (2012c) “Dealing with land conflicts in Amuru, Uganda”, blogpost in Peace Insight. 13 Noviembre. Available online here.
(15) Otim, Denis Barnabas (2013) “Uganda: Investors must involve the locals in acquiring land for investment”, blogpost in Peace Insight. 04 March. Available online here.
(16) Taylor, Liam (2019b) “’This is our land’: Uncertain future for Ugandans facing eviction from wildlife reserve”, news article in Thomson Reuters Foundation. 23 July. Available online here
(17) Kitara, Jackson (2018) “Environment committees to fight charcoal burning”, news article in New Vision. 20 July. Available online here.
(18) Muhumuz, Rodney (2019) “Africa’s charcoal trade is decimating fragile forest cover”, news article in The Associated Press (AP). September 25. Available online here.
(19) Owiny, Tobbias Jolly (2019) “Why illegal logging, charcoal burning persists in the north”, news article in Daily Monitor. 3 November. Previously available online here.
(20) Doom, Ruddy & Vlassenroot, Koen (1999) “Kony’s Message: A New Koine? The Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda”, in African Affairs 98 (390): 5-36. Available online here.
(21) ACHPR (2012) Resolution on a Human Rights-Based Approach to Natural Resources Governance, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Available online here.
(22) Labeja, Peter (2019) “Acholi Region Drafts Charcoal Policy”, news article in Uganda Radio Net (URN). 20 February. Available online here.
(23) Brach, Adam (2011) Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Available online here.
(24) Taylor, Liam (2019a) “’Cutting everything in sight’: Ugandans vow to curb rampant deforestation”, news article in Thomson Reuters Foundation. 12 March. Available online here.