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A Nile Tulip seedling (Markhamia Lutea), one of 200,000 seedlings at the Kasongoire Community Development Association nursery in March 2023. Local nurseries in collaboration with JGI consist of a mix of Indigenous and non-native species that the community has chosen based on their own priorities and conservation goals.

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In Rural Western Uganda, A Tree-Planting Initiative Shows Signs of Life

Despite numerous technical obstacles, the 200,000 trees planted by Ecosia and the Jane Goodall Institute in the Budongo-Bugoma Corridor are improving the lives of locals

Along the western end of Uganda, just a skip away from Lake Albert and the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo lies the rural district of Hoima. 

Villagers make their livelihood primarily through farming sugarcane, a cash crop that has made Uganda the second-biggest sugar producer in East Africa. However, this has led to widespread deforestation as small-scale farmers have been forced to cut down swathes of primary-growth forests to plant their crops.

In Uganda, where the population doubles every two decades, citizens are grappling to find a sustainable solution. “It’s not because communities don’t care about trees or their forests,” says James Byamukama, Executive Director of the Ugandan chapter of the global nonprofit Jane Goodall Institute. “It’s because they don’t have other options to feed their families.”


Much of Uganda's forests have been cleared for agriculture, especially sugarcane, with its steep rise in population. (Kang-Chun Cheng for The Xylom)

Enter Ecosia: the world’s largest not-for-profit search engine that uses advertisement profits to fund community-centered tree-planting initiatives. In 2017, Ecosia and Jane Goodall Institute Austria signed a contract to grow 200,000 trees in the vital Budongo-Bugoma Corridor in Uganda to support forest-adjacent communities. To reach that goal while accounting for the natural death of saplings, 280,000 trees were planted by nearly 1,500 small-scale farmers across the region by 2018.

Since then, the two organizations have worked on several projects to improve living conditions and biodiversity in the area, including restoring chimpanzee habitat, educating rural communities on health and agricultural benefits from trees, and subsidizing energy-efficient cookstoves.

What makes this partnership unique is the connection that both Ecosia and the Jane Goodall Institute have with the local communities. They recruit respected members from the villages and ask communities about their perspectives on how to best approach a balance between accommodating both families and forests. 

The village man can’t worry about climate change if he’s dead. He’s more worried about how his daughter has to collect firewood rather than go to school.” 

It is hard for families to make this transition alone without external help. “The village man can’t worry about climate change if he’s dead,” Byamukama says. “He’s more worried about how his daughter has to collect firewood rather than go to school.” 


A woman washing clothes on the banks of a stream near her village. Remote parts of Uganda remain 'underdeveloped,' lacking infrastructure and basic amenities. (Kang-Chun Cheng for The Xylom)


 

Sweetness is expensive. While sugarcane is a major livelihood for the Hoima community, research has found that regions whose main economic activity is sugarcane farming remain among the most impoverished in the nation. 

As communities across rural Uganda clear more land for agriculture, Uganda has lost around 13% of its tree cover since 2000, and the pace of deforestation has not let up. Incidents of human-wildlife conflict have also surged, especially with the country’s famous chimpanzee populations. 

Some farmers in Hoima have been placing steel traps to keep the chimpanzees from raiding their crops. But it is a catch-22: local communities lack economic incentives to sustainably manage their forests and reduce deforestation, while wildlife copes with the rapid change in habitat by venturing into the newly deforested land.

But forest degradation also means that gathering firewood, which used to take an average of an hour a week for the women and children of Hoima, now requires up to ten times the amount of time.


A village in rural western Uganda in the Kasenene parish where the Jane Goodall Institute has been operating. According to community members, women and children now have to spend 8-10 hours a week gathering firewood, as opposed to one hour, as their surrounding forests rapidly dwindle. (Kang-Chun Cheng for The Xylom.)

By sitting down with villagers dealing with these issues, the Jane Goodall Institute and Ecosia are working to avoid the mistakes made by other top-down, over-generalized developmental efforts that have proven ineffective or even downright destructive. Take, for instance, Indonesia's massive mangrove restoration projects that ultimately backfired because of undertrained workers who didn’t understand the plant’s biological needs. 

Israel Adige, a parish pastor in the nearby Kasongoire village, has been planting trees since 2018 with support from the Institute and Ecosia. Although his trees may seem healthy to a layperson’s eye, particularly in contrast with the denuded slopes across from his home, Institute director James Byamukama’s expert eye sees issues with intercropping. He sees umbrella trees intercropped incorrectly with smaller ones, causing needless competition amongst tree roots. He cites this as a good example of the need for technical input.

For its ground operations, Ecosia enters into contracts with partners to decide on the number of trees expected to survive after three years and conduct monitoring as part of the agreements.

Antonia Burchard-Levine, Network and Impact Officer at Ecosia, says three years is the benchmark because “if you can get a tree to grow for three years, it has passed the most vulnerable stage and then is likely to survive.”


Ecosia and JGI colleagues touring villages in western Uganda, where their conservation work is taking place. (Kang-Chun Cheng for The Xylom)

If the conditions aren’t met, usually due to external environmental factors, the company approaches its partner for context to figure out how to fix the low survival rate of seedlings and regenerate biodiversity. Unless it’s an issue of force majeure — floods, pandemics, wildfires — it’s the partner’s responsibility to replant, Burchard-Levine adds.

Between October 2021 and January 2022 — the three-year mark of the project — the Jane Goodall Institute and Ecosia conducted a randomized survey to assess the condition of the trees that were planted in 2018. 

“The milestones in our contracts act as yardsticks or indicators for us to also learn and see if we are doing things right.”

By extrapolating the results, the two organizations found that not only are they likely to exceed their 200,000-tree promise by more than 6%, but a third of the plots surveyed had more trees than they started, according to an unreleased copy of the survey report provided to The Xylom. This meant that a sizable number of farmers have adopted agroforestry systems where they planted more trees themselves or let additional trees grow.

“The milestones in our contracts act as yardsticks or indicators for us to also learn and see if we are doing things right,” says Jade Devey, Head of Communications at Ecosia. 


 

In Makame Village in the Hoima region, Wandera Wilson manages a nursery that produces an estimated 200,000 seedlings a year. He purchases seeds from the national forest authority as well as private collectors, depending on the type.


Wandera Wilson manages a nursery in Makame Village in the Hoima region, that produces an estimated 200,000 seedlings a year. (Kang-Chun Cheng for The Xylom)

“We believe that a good tree is born from a good deed,” he says. Antiaris, a tree in the mulberry and fig family, can often be one of the most difficult to propagate. But through their tended compost heap, which is warmed by the sun, the young seedlings receive significant nutrition.

Wilson uses the funds from the sale of his seedlings to support his three kids and buy a sewing machine for his wife. He even helped one of his neighbors buy a motorcycle, an asset that can be shared amongst the entire community.

“That’s where the love begins — from the local man,” he says. “The connection increases the desire to protect them later on.”

In Rubona Village, just northwest of Uganda’s Kibale National Park, subsistence farmer Samuel Isingoma grows maize, tomatoes, and beans. He has been partnering with the Jane Goodall Institute and Ecosia for a few years, planting Indigenous tree saplings on his seven-acre plot. He also started intercropping with coffee a few years ago, hoping to bring in more cash. But after troubles with chimpanzees, he decided to plant 20 jackfruit trees just to sacrifice them to the mammals. 

While Ecosia’s work has great value for the communities in Uganda, any such undertaking comes with certain pushbacks and obstacles. The 2022 survey reveals some of the challenges. First, although 129 locations were surveyed, only 66 had data that could be reliably used for analysis, be it due to a lack of geotagged photos to verify planting locations, GPS inaccuracies, or human error. 

Second, 14% of the trees planted were non-native species — far above the agreed-upon goal of 10%. Forest monitors could only say with certainty that around 60% of the trees planted were native.


A girl at the Kasongoire Community Development Association nursery. (Kang-Chun Cheng for The Xylom)

David Lelei is a researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF)’s Living Soil Laboratory in Nairobi, Kenya, who is not involved in the project. He believes that Ecosia’s field monitoring protocol has good methodology, but is lined with some documentation discrepancies, such as comparing slow-growing trees — mostly indigenous species — to exotic species. 

He suggests that Ecosia performs more consistent mapping of tree nurseries and planting areas via GPS, that the company accurately collects information from farmers, and that it involves taxonomists in the process.

Third, there exists an inherent conflict of interest between doing the planting and conducting the monitoring at the same time, explains Jonathan Jenkins, the Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Restoration in Kenya, who is also not involved in the project. 

“We’re the ones doing the Global Biodiversity Standard,” Jenkins says in a call, referring to the world's only international certification that specifically recognizes and promotes the protection, restoration, and enhancement of biodiversity. 


A member of the Jand Goodall Institute Uganda team on a jungle walk to catch a sight of chimps. (Kang-Chun Cheng for The Xylom)

Although Ecosia, CIFOR-ICRAF, and the Centre For Ecosystem Restoration are all partners of the Global Biodiversity Standard, Ecosia has yet to announce any implementation of the Standard into their African projects save from a few pilots in Kenya.

Despite the frustrations —  trees growing in the wrong place, battling against thirsty non-native species such as the eucalyptus, and the occasional yet devastating fires — and the limitations of their methodology, plots where the Jane Goodall Institute and Ecosia operate remain good learning opportunities for the communities. It helps them gain planting experience as well as decide how they want their villages to look in the future. 

“That’s where the love begins — from the local man. The connection increases the desire to protect them later on.”

While Jenkins currently perceives Ecosia’s model as short-term given the metrics, he likes their work and believes that upon scaling, it could have a significant impact.

Thanks to this initiative, someone like pastor Israel Adige can communicate his experiences to fellow farmers. He has restored the buffer area to his home, which helps with erosion control and microclimate regeneration. The slopes on Adige’s side are now cool and breezy underneath the shade of the trees, whereas everywhere else, the valleys are bare and oppressed with heat. 

“The concept of riparian restoration has been achieved,” Byamukama said. 

It truly is a relief to protect oneself with some shade at last, a sweet reprieve from the dizzyingly hot sun.


A view of rural western Uganda, with a mix of dissipating primary growth forest (including native species like Prunus Africana, the African cherry) and agricultural plots (commonly maize). (Kang-Chun Cheng for The Xylom)


 

Freelance contributor Kang-Chun Cheng received travel assistance from Ecosia to cover the story. The Xylom maintains editorial control of the coverage. We will cede no right of review or influence of editorial content, nor of unauthorized distribution of editorial content.

Correction (April 17th, 2024): An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated the tree-planting goals of Ecosia and Jane Goodall Institute Uganda.


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Kang-Chun Cheng

KC 鄭康君 (b. 1995) is a Taiwanese-American photojournalist based in Nairobi, Kenya covering how climate change exacerbates insecurity, Indigenous communities' response to development, China-Africa relations, and outdoor adventure. She uses photography as a tool for storytelling.

KC has herded reindeer in the Arctic, roasted lamb with pastoralists in the mountains of Xinjiang, hitchhiked through Tunisia, harvested honey with the Yaaku in Kenya's Laikipia North, walked the Camino de Santiago, and free-dived on the south Sinai peninsula. Her bylines include The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Christian Science Monitor, Climbing Magazine, and Al Jazeera.

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