Women at the Heart of Conservation and Development

“No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens.”

This profound statement made by the former first lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama, is a good reminder that women are key to the development of any nation. International Women’s Day, therefore provides an opportunity to recognize and celebrate these unsung heroines who strive daily to improve the well-being of their families.

We celebrate Lucy Nantongo, a resident of Katuugo 1 village in Nyantonzi sub-county, Masindi district. In June 2020, the mother of eight, through her Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA), received 200 tree seedlings, beehives, and an energy-saving stove from Child Rights Empowerment and Development Organisation (CEDO).

The project dubbed Efforts to Promote Environmental Conservation (EPEC) is funded by USAID’s Uganda Biodiversity Fund Activity through Uganda Biodiversity Fund (UBF) and sub-grantees CEDO.

Over the last 30 years, CEDO has been at the forefront of development in local communities in Masindi district. According to Nantongo, the project activities have had a positive impact on her family. When she joined a VSLA, she was able to buy 100 tree seedlings, which were supplemented by the 200 seedlings donated to her under the project.

To support her family better, Nantongo diversified her woodlot investment to include beekeeping, which has enabled her to produce and sell honey, thus boosting her revenue streams.

This community previously, entirely depended on the natural forest as a source of firewood, but with her own woodlot, she can now get firewood and effectively participate in the restoration of the Budongo Central Forest Reserve (CFR). This project is helping reduce pressure on the Budongo CFR.

“National Forestry Authority (NFA) officials allow us to go into the forest twice a week — on Wednesday and Saturday — to collect fallen branches to use as firewood,” Nantongo says.

“CEDO talked to us. We were told that if we continued to cut the forest, we would soon have dry and unproductive land,” she adds.

Nantongo says she now understands the value of conservation and notes that there is a collective recognition in her village of the importance of protecting and preserving biodiversity. The simplicity of the message, which suggests that all actions that damage the environment affect productivity in the long run, has made a difference in her village in under one year.

USAID through Uganda Biodiversity Fund awarded $50,000 to enhance and promote biodiversity conservation and its sustainable use by giving communities alternative sources of income that keep them away from the Budongo forest, which the locals previously saw as their only source of livelihood.

According to CEDO executive director Abdallah Byabashaija, the initiative targets 767 farmers, including men, women and youth. He says women are particularly encouraged to participate in the project.

“These women are educating their children and have contributed positively to the development of schools in the villages. They are also participating fully in conservation efforts,” he says.

“This is the people’s way of life. Their livelihood is based on the Budongo CFR. They cut trees for firewood, and timber, burn charcoal for sale and this has been the practice all their lives. We are changing that mind-set,” Byabashaija adds.

Herbert Wandera, the programs manager at CEDO, says so far 32,000 Mahogany and Umbrella Terminalia tree seedlings have been planted out of the targeted 72,000 tree seedlings. He says the remaining seedlings will be distributed and planted soon.

“We shall continue to monitor the growth of the trees and the regenerated areas,” Wandera says.

The project is being implemented in the 12 villages which cover Budongo and Nyantonzi sub-counties in Masindi. It has since taken root and of the 100 people targeted, over 60 have now been trained in the production of energy-saving cook stoves.

Not too far away in Kyangwali, Kikuube district, Judita Nyangoma, another woman whose livelihood has improved, boasts of better cooking conditions since she acquired an energy-saving stove from Better World Uganda (BWU).

She says it is healthier as it produces less smoke and she can cook faster as she does not spend endless hours looking for lots of firewood.

“These stoves use less firewood compared to the old ones and produce less smoke in my kitchen,” she says.

According to Nyangoma, she can now spend more time working in her garden to produce crops, which she sells to earn an income. She even says she can now wear her nice clothes without worrying that the smell of smoke will linger on them.

BWU is also supported under USAID’s Uganda Biodiversity Fund Activity. It includes women in its intervention on effective biodiversity conservation strategy in the forest-farm mosaic of Kikuube District.