Story and multimedia by Fredrick Mugira
Technical support by Annika McGinnis and Code for Africa
There are blooming flowers in Mugandu–Buramba wetland in the southwestern Uganda’s district of Kabale, those of lavender; white; red; yellow; blue and pink – most of them tube-shaped, amidst green leaves.
And then, there is Mauda Kehikyirwa – an 89 year old peasant, who lives alone in a mud house on the edge of this wetland.
For all her life, Mauda has depended on Mugandu–Buramba wetland for a living. On most days, she eats like an affluent Ugandan: beef; Irish potatoes and beans bought using money she earns from selling mats made from papyrus and other stuff harvested from this wetland.
Mauda is one of the 276 people that depend on this 104 hectare wetland, located in Rubaya sub-county of Kabale district.
Mugandu–Buramba wetland, which drains into Lake Bunyonyi, the second deepest lake in Africa, is one of the few wetlands that are still intact in Uganda, a country that has had most of its wetlands degraded.
It is part of the Gweru Bay Wetlands and lies at 29°56″E, 1°25″S.
The limited availability of land in the hilly sub county of Rubaya forced farmers to opt for this wetland to grow their crops. But through wise use and creation of management plans, they have been able to use, protect and preserve it for decades, which is enabling them to earn a living.
This follows a community conservation agreement that people neighboring the wetland signed with the government of Uganda to conserve it.
The 49-year old lease agreement signed in 1980 gave local communities the right to own, manage and conserve their own wetland. It is now helping to reduce degradation of the swamp, improve livelihoods and promote health and biodiversity.
At least 20 bags of Irish potatoes are harvested by each member every season, which has boosted their levels of income, according to Justus.
Each bag of Irish potatoes costs between 80,000 and 100,000 Uganda shillings (about 27 USD). Part of the remaining wetland is used to provide materials for roofing and making handicrafts such as mats and baskets that they sell to generate income.
Through their association, members bought a tree plantation and a plot of land which they leased to a neighboring school.
One has to pay 200,000 Uganda shillings (55 USD) to join this association. However currently, the association is full to capacity since it has no more land in the wetland to exploit.
Arafat Aramanya, 39, joined the association in 2000 after struggling with heavy rains and floods that would sweep his fertile soils and crops down the slope.
Arafat now harvests over 30 bags of Irish potatoes every year. He has been able to buy a piece of land using money he got after selling potatoes he harvested in the wetland.
Similarly, Frank Buhaze, 65, joined this association in 1985 after his crop gardens on the slopes yielded little profits. He grew sweet potatoes first and later ventured into Irish potatoes.
Frank is now able to harvest more than“15 sacks of Irish potatoes every season.” From his income, he is able to meet his day-to-day demands.
Likewise, Milton Ahabomugisha, 53 has been able to take care of his family of nine persons courtesy of the wetland. After harvesting Irish potatoes, Milton is able to plant beans and maize in his part of the wetland.
Planting is usually in June and harvesting takes place in October.
Enock Kazooba, the Rubaya sub-county chairperson, said the wetland is the main source of livelihood for residents in his sub-county.
“By God’s grace we have this wetland. Residents of Ryakaremera town council, Buramba parish, Kibuga, Karujanga and part of Rwanyana earn their livelihood by growing Irish potatoes and maize in this wetland.”
This, Milton says enables them to get schools fees for their children.
Darius Nandinda, the Kabale Resident District Commissioner assures farmers there that nobody will evict them from this wetland since they are using it wisely.
“We as government cannot evict people from wetlands without first negotiating with them.”
Unlike Mugandu–Buramba wetland, most wetlands in Kabale district are under pressure, according to Rogers Akatwijuka, the Kabale district natural resources officer.
He attributed this to “scarcity of land for farming” and “upland soils (that) have lost fertility,” stressing that in the event that crops are not doing very well, “then farmers tend to run down to wetlands.”
Richard Kyambadde, a principal officer in the Wetlands Management Department under the Ministry of Water and Environment, said the Ugandan government encourages wise use of its wetlands.
The Ramsar convention, an international treaty on the sustainable use of wetlands signed in 1971, defines wise use of wetlands as “the maintenance of their ecological character, achieved through the implementation of ecosystem approaches, within the context of sustainable development.”
Richard lamented that wetlands in the country are experiencing rapid degradation in several parts of the country due to urbanization and agriculture, indicating that in 1995, 13% of Uganda’s land was covered by wetlands, but this has been reduced to just 9% today.
Mary Goretti Kitutu Kimono, Uganda’s state Minister for the Environment, said flaws in the old law was partly to blame for the degradation, since although the former law designated wetlands as protected ecosystems, “it did not have a biting clause that would make government enforce and protect them.”
However, she noted that the new law spells out the government’s enforcement role clearly, and degrading of fragile ecosystems in Uganda could soon come to an end.
To sustainably address the drivers of wetland loss and degradation, Godber Tumushabe, the Executive Director for Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), an independent public policy research and advocacy think tank, called for “alternative development strategies so that people may not destroy environment.”
For example, “people need to produce more food on small acreage of land, so they need alternative technologies, for instance irrigation,” Godber said.
This article was made possible thanks to support from InfoNile and Code for Africa.