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Restoring our forests

Ask about deforestation in Uganda, and fingers often point to the little guy: a poor man with an ax clearing land for farming, or a refugee woman collecting firewood. In Adjumani – where refugees from South Sudan almost outnumber Ugandan citizens – the competition for trees is intense.

But Mr. Amanzuru encountered a more complex story in Zoka Forest, a state-managed reserve covering 24 square miles in Adjumani district. It was 2015, and he was trying to bridge community divides in the surrounding area, where the government was evicting people from a wildlife reserve.

There was timber-cutting in the forest, he learned. But it was being led by work teams with machinery: bulldozers, crane loaders, power saws.

“Now tell me,” he asks, “can a local person like me afford to hire equipment worth 2 billion shillings [$540,000] to be parked in the bush?”

And there was another puzzle. Although logging is prohibited in forest reserves, and although there are several roadblocks on the way to the capital, Kampala, his investigations revealed that much of the timber was making the journey unimpeded.

Mr. Amanzuru says the trade is controlled by army officers and businesspeople who use connections to buy off forestry officials, local functionaries, and the police.

His claims have some support. In 2016 the minister for the presidency, Esther Mbayo, told Parliament that 30% to 50% of the forest had been depleted, including by illegal lumbering that involved “security personnel, some politicians, [forest] officers, timber traders, charcoal dealers and the locals.”

Stephen Galima, coordinator of natural forests management at the National Forestry Authority, says illegal logging in Zoka has been done “both by soldiers and the locals. … There are those who use their positions for selfish gain.”

As they learned more, Mr. Amanzuru and his friends created Friends of Zoka to share news about the forest. They spoke on radio talk shows, visited local politicians, and campaigned against a rumored plan to sell off part of the forest to growers of sugar cane.

Last year a national television station came to Adjumani and interviewed Mr. Amanzuru. The reporters went undercover, tracked the journey of a log truck, and filmed the district police commander taking a bribe.

Mr. Amanzuru and Mr. Galima say that the destruction of Zoka has now been reduced, but illegal loggers have shifted to community lands outside the forest reserve, harvesting rare hardwoods that they export to China and Vietnam.

One morning, Mr. Amanzuru follows a tipoff, driving for an hour along ocher roads fringed with a hundred shades of green.

A local man is scared to show him the logging site, but it is not hard to find the fallen tree. The government has banned the cutting of this species, Afzelia africana.

There is time for a few photographs, and then Mr. Amanzuru must leave. That evening men came to the village asking who had been looking at their trees, one of his informers tells him later.

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