The UN Environment’s sixth Global Environment Outlook (2019) report published in time for the recent Fourth United Nations Environmental Assembly, calls on decision makers to take immediate action to address pressing environmental issues to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals as well as other Internationally Agreed Environment Goals, such as the Paris Agreement.
Even when such flagship reports show governments how they can put the world on the path to a truly sustainable future, there is still reluctance by many to take full action. For example, when over 170 countries recently gathered in Nairobi to address the environmental impacts of plastics, they could not still take bolds decision to eliminate single-use plastic products. So how do we then deal with the report’s emphasis on urgent and inclusive action needed by decision makers at all levels to achieve a healthy planet and with healthy people?
As RLP and Uganda join the rest of the world on March 21 to mark International Day of Forest, a day proclaimed by the UN General Assembly for raising awareness on the importance of forests, I offer my thoughts on our different roles in this journey to achieve a truly sustainable world by 2050.
First, pollution of the aquatic spaces: Annually more than eight million tonnes of plastic enter the world’s oceans—leave alone what ends up in our lakes, rivers, wetlands, and the environment around us. Earlier proposed initiatives such as the phasing out of single-use plastic by 2025 had already been objected to by several richer nations - led by the US. So with such high profile engagement failing to bring about an agreement to phase out single-use plastics, for how long shall we continue postponing our moral obligation to address our environment issues? It’s a shame that selfish interests coupled with lack of political will of nations, institutions and individuals continue to impede achieving key milestones in the right direction to save the environment for future generations. The current Pope once expressed his support during the push to the #BeatPlasticPollution for clean seas campaign, saying “we cannot allow our seas and oceans to be littered by endless fields of floating plastic”. Natural polymers and organic materials that biodegrade rapidly are practicable options that also could manage our ecosystems smartly & sustainably. Uganda needs to revive or enforce the seemingly shelved government ban on environmentally hazardous product (Plastic/Kavera) that the president ordered last year to be effected (Section 2 of the 2009 Finance Act), a statutory instrument issued over nine years ago banning the manufacture, importation and sale of polythene bags less than 30 microns in order to protect our environment but fell short of implementation by NEMA for some reasons.
Second, depletion of forest cover: We are in trouble. In Uganda, a review Article-Environmental Risk Assessment and Remediation (2018) Vol 2, Issue 2 indicated that in the 1980s, approx.75,000kmsquare (31.7%) out of 236,040kmsquare of the total land in Uganda consisted of forest and woodlands. Today, forests and woodland cover about 15.2% of Uganda land surface meaning that Uganda has lost HALF of the forests and woodland cover that were in place forty years ago. Loss of forest cover is also a common occurrence in other African countries and the world over. As Refugee Law Project (RLP), we have been engaging in documentation and advocacy on the impact of mass environmental degradation actions such as: the massive booming charcoal burning and illegal logging business in Northern Uganda that is affecting exotic endangered indigenous natural tree species such the shea nut and Afzelia Africana ‘Beyo’ trees. Both species are facing extinction and require many years to mature. The destruction continues unabated despite directives from the President, NEMA etc. banning the cutting of such trees. RLP has continued providing video advocacy boot camp training for refugee and host youth in Basic Video Advocacy (BVA) to be able to amplify voices from the affected communities and this has seen advocacy video documentaries such as the ‘Apocalyptic Fuel’ highlighting climate change challenges being produced by the trained youth and RLP. In the Regional Forced Migration Conference we convened just months ago, our Director emphasised the importance of addressing these issues when he noted that “The environmental destruction of today is the transitional justice issue of tomorrow”. Critical to note also is the fact that, beyond providing the much needed fuel wood, construction materials, various flora and fauna species associated with the economic development of the country, we need forest cover now more than ever for its vital role in helping mitigate and reverse increasing climate change symptoms. Every time our forest resources are diminished, our vulnerability, risk and impoverishment as a society are increased.
Last but not least, while this is no guarantee for better results or success, we need to at least provide a new start and fresh energy and urgently get the discussions on environmental protection moving on in our efforts to reverse climate change trends and the current status of natural forests and woodland cover both from within and without.
In this context, it is vital that we have organised platforms where formal action must be taken. This should include proper handling of investigations, prosecution and court proceedings related to environment—where the violators of such acts and laws are prosecuted and tried expeditiously and if found guilty, sentenced by the courts of law. Similarly, NEMA must remain engaged and demand just and transparent Environmental Impact Assessments be done for all upcoming investment. Period.
Otherwise, all these need a concerted effort of all the stakeholders, including the judiciary, police, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Water, Cabinet, local governments, NEMA, NFA, UIA, academia, and local community. It can be a drop in the ocean but surely it will have an impact in reversing impacts of environmental degradation. So how do we strengthen these actors and encourage initiatives such as those by Refugee Law Project and other? So, as the NDP III planning is underway, what restorative measures is government putting in place to restore the environment more importantly the forest vegetation after refugees have long gone while keeping in mind all the available durable solution options? We all must stand up and demand more.