Rift in Paradise
As the global population soars toward nine billion by 2045, this corner of Africa shows what’s at stake in the decades ahead. The Rift is rich in rainfall, deep lakes, volcanic soil, and biodiversity. It is also one of the most densely populated places on Earth. A desperate competition for land and resources—and between people and wildlife—has erupted here with unspeakable violence. How can the conflict be stopped? Will there be any room left for the wild?
By Robert Draper
“We want land!”
The speaker gives his name as Charles, a 24-year-old sitting on a freshly cut log in a forest, a machete in his hand. He does not belong here, in Uganda’s Kagombe Forest Reserve. Then again, maybe he does. No less than a presidential order has stopped the evictions of those who’ve encroached on forest reserves and wetlands. Charles says a government minister recently visited the Kagombe inhabitants. “He told us we can stay,” he says, grinning. The minister’s cronies have an election coming up, and the best way to placate voters is to promise them land.
Charles and a few other pioneering young villagers moved into the forest in 2006. “We’d been living on our grandparents’ property, but there were too many people on the land already,” he says. “We heard people talk about how there was free land this way.” A migrant group, the Bakiga, had already begun to settle in Kagombe, and when the National Forestry Authority tried to evict them, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni—himself facing reelection—issued the executive order forbidding evictions. Thereupon a few local politicians urged the native Banyoro people, who include Charles and his friends, to grab some forestland as well, lest all of Kagombe wind up inhabited by nonlocals.
Charles and his friends each claimed about seven acres of timberland and began slashing away. They built grass-thatched huts, feed-storage sheds, a road, and a church. They planted corn, bananas, cassava, and Irish potatoes. Then they sent for their wives and began to have more children. Today Charles is one of about 3,000 inhabitants of the forest reserve and has no desire to leave. “We’re very well off here,” he says.
The forest, meanwhile, sometimes looks like a smoky wasteland, as people use fire to clear the forest for crops. The damage goes beyond the aesthetic: Kagombe serves as one of a series of connective forests that make up a wildlife corridor for chimps and other animals. As Sarah Prinsloo of the Wildlife Conservation Society observes, “The health of the wildlife population in these parks is dependent on corridors like Kagombe.” The habitat destruction has contributed to a plunging animal population throughout the region. In Kagombe itself most wildlife has been hunted out.
The forestry authority’s sector manager, Patrick Kakeeto, contemplates the devastation with a despairing smile. “They’re cutting all of this down,” he says. “And we can’t touch them. For us, it’s a kind of psychoprofessional torture.”