BY ALEX BALUKU
In the heart of Uganda’s ongoing battle against deforestation, a remarkable initiative is taking root within the prison system. In a nation where forests are under relentless pressure due to the widespread use of firewood for cooking, an unexpected group of individuals is emerging as environmental champions: inmates.
Uganda, often celebrated as the “Pearl of Africa” for its breathtaking natural beauty, has witnessed a staggering decline in its forests over the past two decades. Experts predict that most of its forests could vanish by 2050 if the current trend continues. This alarming deforestation trend has grave environmental consequences for Uganda’s climate and impacts the livelihoods of its citizens, particularly marginalized communities.
A recent survey by the National Environment Management Authority revealed that Uganda’s forest cover dwindled from 5 million hectares in 1990 to just 3.5 million hectares in 2005. This decline is primarily attributed to the prevalent use of biomass energy, with a staggering 95% of Ugandans relying on firewood and charcoal for their cooking and lighting needs, according to the Uganda National Household Survey Report of 2009/2010.
However, amidst this dire scenario, a glimmer of hope emerges from an unexpected source: the prison system. Institutions such as schools, hospitals, and even prisons themselves have historically depended on firewood for cooking, often without actively contributing to replenishing the trees they consume. Uganda’s prisons, home to a population of 76,248 inmates spread across 259 prison units, have been major consumers of wood fuel, burning a staggering 8,000 tonnes of wood fuel annually.
Dr. Johnson Byabashaija, the Commissioner General of Prisons, acknowledges the significant role prisons have played in exacerbating the country’s deforestation problem. He emphasizes the urgent need for intervention to restore the environment and reduce the carbon footprint of these institutions.
Byabashaija points out that due to the high cost of electricity, prisons have been compelled to rely on fuelwood for cooking, incurring an annual expenditure of 3.6 billion Ugandan shillings on firewood. As the prison population continues to grow at an annual rate of 10 percent, the demand for more trees to be cut for food preparation becomes glaringly evident, intensifying the deforestation issue.
To address this pressing concern, Byabashaija is making a fervent appeal to the Ugandan Parliament to allocate 2 billion shillings for the installation of energy-saving stoves within prisons. These stoves would not only reduce the environmental impact but also alleviate the effects of climate change caused by rampant deforestation.
The Upper Prison, the most densely populated among Uganda’s correctional facilities with 3,375 inmates, stands out as a significant contributor to wood consumption. This facility currently consumes one truckload of wood fuel every three days, or one and a half truckloads daily when electricity is unavailable, amounting to a staggering 45 trucks per month.
Byabashaija further recommends the adoption of energy-efficient cooking technologies to reduce fuel consumption. However, limited funding has hindered the widespread implementation of this technology across all prison units.
In a bid to make prison cooking more environmentally friendly, Byabashaija announced a groundbreaking partnership with Rotary to promote tree planting within prisons. This collaboration aims to turn inmates into “green warriors” who actively participate in reforestation efforts while serving their sentences.
Regarding the cost of installing energy-saving stoves, Frank Baine, the prison’s publicist, states that each stove costs 15 million shillings. Currently, 75% of the 259 prison units have embraced these energy-saving stoves, and the remaining 25% are expected to be equipped within the next two years.
These stoves offer substantial benefits, including a more than 50 percent reduction in energy consumption and lower costs for firewood, as well as reduced environmental degradation. Laboratory tests also indicate significant reductions in carbon emissions and fine particulates, marking a vital step towards a greener future.
The issue of wood consumption in Uganda extends far beyond prisons. Educational institutions, hospitals, and various industries also contribute significantly to deforestation. Efforts to combat this issue include the adoption of energy-saving technologies, which, despite their potential, are hindered by high initial costs.
As Uganda grapples with the urgent need to preserve its forests and combat deforestation, the unexpected emergence of inmates as champions of conservation offers a glimmer of hope.
Through innovative initiatives such as tree planting within prisons and the adoption of energy-efficient cooking technologies, Uganda’s green warriors are proving that even in the face of adversity, positive change is possible.
With continued support and investment, they may yet help Uganda regain its title as the “Pearl of Africa,” with lush forests that benefit both the environment and its people.