Sep 26, 2017

Planting Trees One Farmer at a Time

Ocaya training village women on reforestation
Ocaya training village women on reforestation

Opoka and his fellow farmers remember that the parish of Atiyaba in northern Uganda was once forested. This mosaic landscape of savannah-like grassland was punctuated by great swathes of tropical forest expanding out from river ways and swamps. Tree cover was the norm and not the exception, and even in grassy landscapes trees were everywhere. 

These trees were necessary to human survival, providing food, medicine, materials for building homes and for creating useful items like baskets and clothing. And in this regard, little has changed. Though the global economy’s reach has provided plastic replacements for some of life’s necessities, trees are still the only source for many of the essentials.

What has changed, and changed dramatically, is the area and quality of forest to be found in Atiyaba. Juliet, an herbalist who harvests medicines to heal her community, describes having to go further and further afield to find the plant remedies that once abounded much closer to home. “You just cannot believe how people are living without trees. It makes you sad to see it. Even now they take down mango trees for charcoal to sell, because the other species are not there any longer.”

Deforestation in northern Uganda is dramatic and has happened in just a generation or two. The way the land looks has been totally transformed within the span of Opoka’s lifetime. But he and other farmers in his area know there can be another way. They are part of a growing group dedicated to the reforestation of their villages and landscapes.  

Reforestation can mean many things, including exotic fruit orchards and commercial timber plantations that in ecological terms cannot really be called forests. What is unique about the farmers in Atiyaba and elsewhere is that they are planting native trees, the species that have always defined their homeland and which are now hard to find.  

Perhaps surprisingly, planting native trees was something of an unfamiliar concept to Opoka and his neighbors. That is, until Juliet and the group known as Wise Women - Uganda arrived to Atiyaba in May of this year. Providing training in tree planting basics and, later, seedlings of a variety of important native species, this group of women traditional herbalists arrived to Atiyaba with knowledge, with seeds, and with hope. 

Working with local leaders at a grassroots level, the Wise Women have reached 29 villages so far, and provided trees and training to over 350 farmers this year. In addition, several schools and institutions have joined the effort. While many farmers received a modest 10 seedlings, some frontrunners have planted a thousand trees or more. 

The tree seedlings themselves were produced locally at the Wise Women’s nursery in collaboration with Wild Forests and Fauna, a US-based non profit dedicated to the restoration and protection of wild forests the world around. WildFF first teamed up with Wise Women in 2015, and since has helped this community-based organization to grow into a force for native species restoration in the region. 

In fact, the real work begins after the trainings and the plantings. Somewhat rare among reforestation efforts in the area, the Wise Women are dedicated to follow up. Monitoring and evaluation is an ongoing task until the trees reach an age when they can take care of themselves. 

It’s amazing and it’s true: your support has allowed the planting of thousands of trees in climate-vulnerable communities throughout northern Uganda. And your support will help the Wise Women to ensure the success of the trees that have been planted, even while engaging with more farmers and planting more trees. It’s a model that embraces the age old practice of exchanging seeds and know-how from community to community, farmer to farmer. As this model is applied to a broader scale, you are helping to reforest northern Uganda, one farmer at a time. 

Opoka, in his village, praising native trees
Opoka, in his village, praising native trees
Outreach trainings with local villages
Outreach trainings with local villages
Planting native tree seedlings with local farmers
Planting native tree seedlings with local farmers
Jun 27, 2017

The story of our world

Wise Women of Uganda - traditional healer co-op
Wise Women of Uganda - traditional healer co-op

This is the story of our world:

For the first time ever, more than half of all people live in cities.  Cities are simply something that didn’t exist for most of the human era – indeed, what we now mean by city has scarcely existed for a hundred years.  

For the first time ever, most humans live within a landscape that was constructed almost entirely by and for humans.  And cities are on the rise.

As just one example from around the world out of hundreds we could choose: Kampala, Uganda went from being a set of densely gardened and forested hills to what we now recognize unmistakably as a city – in the span of a mere four generations. The transformation has been total.  Teeming slums and manicured golf courses have erased the memory of the intensive indigenous agroforestry systems and towering African mahoganies that shaded the well-populated hill citadels of the Baganda kings.

But Kampala is a capital and a former colonial seat, so perhaps its recent rise to metropolis status is unsurprising.  For a more stark example of the unprecedented speed and span of urbanization around the world we can look slightly north to Gulu, Uganda, a frontier city of a hundred thousand that has sprung up in just a few decades. The circumstances of Gulu’s rapid growth are unique to Gulu – violent conflict, forced displacement – but the fact of its urban burgeoning is representative of an overwhelming trend repeated around the globe.

We can learn a lot about the world from Gulu’s example.  In the era of cities, this small newcomer’s rise has been concurrent with the destruction of its forested hinterlands, felled to feed Kampala’s growing demand for charcoal – a commodity used for cooking and for industry (think charcoal-burning factories).  In a familiar way, the forests are fueling the fires of progress.  

On a human level, cash economies have penetrated into areas where barter and cashless self-sufficiency were very recently the norm.  Traditional mechanisms for obtaining food and healthcare have quickly eroded.  The setting of prices for goods and services that previously stood outside of a black-and-white valuation system often occurs with a sort of violence toward the have-nots.  Traditional people are marginalized in the transaction, and expected to catch up or perish. 

Gulu’s story is a microcosm of vast processes affecting the whole globe, and not just in the sense of urbanization.  Gulu is a mirror of the world in which we live, unique to our time.  In this young city just a few degrees from the equator, the weather is not as it once was.  Droughts are becoming more frequent, and drought means crop failure and hunger.  Age-old agricultural practices have become unreliable as if by black magic.  The connection is not lost on farmers between the overall trend of a drying climate and the loss of the majority of Uganda’s forests in the last brief decades.

Often overlooked, a principle underlying factor in urbanization is desperation.  As elsewhere, many people have moved to Gulu because the rural predicament became untenable, sometimes tragically so.

When I first visited Uganda in 2015, I heard stories that were familiar to me from other places in the world.  I heard about a younger generation estranged from traditional ways and suffering from previously rare mental and physical diseases.  I heard about the almost universal perception that the loss of trees has worsened the severity and damage of storms and droughts.  I heard about languages dying out and places that were once considered holy desecrated to bulldozers.  I felt echoes of a legacy of colonial oppression which could well be described as collective trauma.  

This is the story of our world.

And I saw people doing something about it.  I met foresters and farmers, women and men who have overcome extraordinary hardship and have seen a better way.  I saw the spark of inspiration in people’s eyes and it was a sign in itself of healing having occurred.  In Gulu, I met the Wise Women of Uganda, a group of traditional healers who heeded a calling to serve their communities as alternative healthcare practitioners – and, remarkably, to restore their forests by planting native trees.  

In the few years since, when I have returned to Uganda I have seen, well, more.  Burgeoning nurseries stocked with dozens of native medicinal tree species.  Highly trained forestry technicians alongside medicine women – both with their hands in the dirt.  People going out on a limb to plant trees that nobody has really even tried to plant before, knowing they’re doing the right thing.  (You can hear more about their work in our past project reports.)

Our world is full of extreme forces, some of which are cataclysmic. But when I see what is possible with the work of our human hands I feel hope for the future of the story of our world.  Cities can become intensive gardens again, and perhaps they will have to.  In a crowded world, people will only need more plants that heal.  Perhaps more of us will work toward a better way.  Perhaps we will yet assume the mantle of responsible stewardship for the world that we as humans are uniquely capable of healing or harming.  

This could be the story of our world. 

Thank you for supporting the work of the Wise Women of Uganda, and thank you for all the ways you help make the world a better place.  


Attachments:
    Mar 27, 2017

    Mother, farmer, agent of change

    Oromo, speaking
    Oromo, speaking

    Hi all,

    I’d like to introduce you to someone. Her name is Oromo Jenet. She is a mother of seven, and she makes her modest living as a farmer and traditional healer, growing crops for subsistence and providing health care and healing to her community. She is at once both gentle and fierce: gentle, with a smile that immediately washes away any preoccupations running through your mind, and fierce, with a will and determination as strong as the ground beneath her feet. 

    She lives in a small village called Koc, about a thirty-minute drive down a dusty dirt road outside of Gulu, in Northern Uganda. Although most days when she comes to Gulu, she walks, leaving just after dawn to begin her three hour walk to town. But, if you ask her, she prefers staying in Koc: she feels at home amidst her fields of sesame, maize, and cassava, and enjoys the simple conversations with her neighbors as they prepare for their harvests. In her own words, in town, “people move too fast, and there are so many cars.” 

    I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Oromo over the past two years, seeing her at trainings and at the group’s weekly Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA). I don’t know how to best put into words her personality, but I can say this: she has an air about her that invites a certain carefree contentment with life, while still being cognizant and connected to the challenges and realities that she, or anybody else, faces. She is grateful for what she has, despite the hardships she encounters. And she has the best laugh. 

    Oromo is thirty-five. Which means she was six years old when war came to her village – and twenty-eight when peace arrived for good. In between, there were periods of happiness and short-lived calm dispersed intermittently among twenty-two years of armed conflict, uncertainty and displacement. But as she’ll explain, “Life continued. Life always continues.” The same year the war came she attended her first year of school. A few years later she stopped. She was a girl, and her parents only had enough money to send some of the children to school. So, she worked the fields with her mom and sisters. Soon, she began to learn traditional healing. At sixteen, she was married. At 17, she had her first child: another girl, like her. 

    Today, a mother of seven, she asks many of the same questions her parents had to ask: “Can I afford sending all of my kids to school? Even if I wanted too, how can it be? I am just a farmer,” she explains to me. There are other questions she asks too, ones that her parents, or her parents’ parents, never had to ask. Questions about irregular weather patterns, and more frequent droughts, and the rains coming late, and subsequently not knowing when to plant her crops anymore to ensure their success. 

    In this Oromo is not alone. These are questions that many farmers throughout the tropics are beginning to ask. Oromo, like countless others, is on the frontline of what climate change feels like when it touches us. The wave of uncertainty that comes with it. 

    Recently she invited me to her home, so she could show me how her children are benefiting from the Native Seeds Project. I arrived to her compound with the golden late afternoon light sending incandescent sparks gleaming through her stalks of sesame as they rustled in the breeze. Two of her sons ran to greet us; she walked behind catching up with them. We sat down in her compound on a reed mat and discussed everything from climate change to the price of tomatoes at the market to her hopes for the future and what her boys’ favorite new Drake song was. We sat and shelled groundnuts, and picked leaves from the bo’o harvest with her sons. 

    Oromo is a part of four different initiatives with the Native Seeds Project. Last year, she attended a three-day beekeeping training and came home with two of her own beehives, now hung-up on a tree a five-minute walk from her compound. She talks about her beehives with a smile, explaining her process of colonizing her hives with bees, how at first she was a little nervous about accidentally getting stung by the bees. She harvested honey for the first time this past October – which she was able to bring to market for a good price, adding to the fund for her children’s school fees. Soon it will be honey harvest time again. Through her hives, Oromo is able to increase her income in a way that takes care of nature, with relatively little energy and time on her part, energy and time she can focus on taking care of her kids, tending her fields, and treating patients. 

    It is women like Oromo who make our work possible, and there are many other stories just like hers that paint the tapestry of the Native Seeds Project. From beekeeping to tree planting to the production of herbal medicines, we are working with women like Oromo to build a better and more prosperous future for families, to combat climate change and bring back Uganda’s forests. 

    Thank you for supporting this work. 

    Oromo and friends, at Oromo's home
    Oromo and friends, at Oromo's home
    Oromo's sons helping with the harvest
    Oromo's sons helping with the harvest
    Oromo with a tree seedling she planted
    Oromo with a tree seedling she planted
    Oromo's sesame field in flower
    Oromo's sesame field in flower
     
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