Read, Debate: Engage.

William Amanzuru on the price of defending Uganda’s forests

July 09, 2021
tags:#Uganda, #conservation, #illegal logging, #environmental activism
by:Bob Koigi
William Amanzuru is a man on a mission. As a human rights defender who is passionate about environmental conservation and climate justice in Uganda, he has taken it upon himself to protect the Ugandan forests at a time when illegal logging and deforestation remains a lucrative business.

As more trees are felled, the impacts of climate change are felt especially among smallholder farmers who form the bulk of food producers in Uganda.

Forming a network of environmental activists keen to protect the iconic Zoka Central Forest Reserve in the West Nile region of Uganda, Amanzuru and his family have faced threats from government officials and timber merchants. 

His pursuit for environmental conservation, however, has remained unfazed. 

Amanzuru spoke to FairPlanet about his mission, his recognition as a Human Rights Defender by the European Union and what the future holds for his activism.

FairPlanet: What is the current status of the Zoka Central Forest Reserve?

William Amanzuru: We have managed to save around 50 percent of Zoka Central Forest Reserve, but to date we still witness illegal activities like illegal settlements, farming, illegal logging and commercial charcoal production happening inside the reserve.

We are also experiencing boundary challenges of the reserve, because its boundaries have not been clearly marked and opened. This has led to massive encroachment for farming and other illegal activities like poaching, because 90 percent of the reserve lies inside East Ma’di Wildlife Reserve that is facing extinction and degazettement challenges.

We shall continue our advocacy to conserve Zoka Central Forest Reserve. 

How has the journey of Friends of Zoka been and what would you say are the major milestones of the initiative?

Friends of Zoka (FoZ) helped to sensitise more local people about the illegal deforestation taking place, using tactics such as community dialogue meetings. FoZ also helped to strengthen various local networks of women and youth in Adjumani district, West Nile in the districts of Yumbe, Koboko, Arua and Nebbi and Northern region in the districts of Gulu, Kitgum, Amuru, Nwoya and Lamwo that in turn educated their neighbors, and mounted collective pressure against various political and cultural leaders at the local and national levels, as well as against the illegal loggers themselves.  

We have also attracted the attention of local and national media outlets to report on the issues of environmental destruction and climate change, and this enhanced our capacity as FoZ to develop a campaign using social media and radio talk shows to raise attention across the district and the country about the destruction of the Zoka Central Forest Reserve. 

Working with community members, we have captured photo and video documentation of the illegal logging, often at great risk to our own safety, which we shared as part of our campaign to provide visual evidence of what was happening. Using greater national public support galvanised through this exposure, I have lobbied government ministers and other nationally influential individuals, exposing the illegal logging scheme and demanding accountability from the government and corporate entities responsible for the deforestation. 

Our advocacy led to the Ministry of Water and Environment banning logging of Afzelia Africana and Shea nut tree species. This gave us a legal platform upon which to strengthen our mobilisation and awareness-raising work. Through sustained grassroots mobilisation and pressure, public visibility and national level lobbying efforts that we catalysed, illegal logging in the forest substantially decreased. 

We have exposed the networks of governmental and corporate power that threaten the existence and preservation of the forest. We have demonstrated how the model of grassroots community activism can work in elevating a cause to the national level. 

We have used the protection of the Zoka Forest to help raise national awareness about the massive threat posed by climate change, and how large-scale commercial logging and commercial charcoal trade exacerbates it.We created like-minded networks across the regions of West Nile and Northern Uganda.

Violence, harassment, and surveillance: the price of environmental activism

It has, however, been a tough experience and we, personally, have paid a heavy price. My home has been broken into [several times], I have faced trumped-up charges many times, I have been isolated by many of my friends and contemporaries, I have been labelled as a traitor, as a person who is not interested in local development, as a failure in life; it has never been an easy journey.

My family is broken just because we cannot live together as a family because of threats, intimidations, surveillance, harassment. Some members of my family fear for their lives. My children are not free to interact with their mates, they live in isolation and they fear being kidnapped. They can not live with me for fear of many things that can happen to them.

To what extent has technology assisted you and Friends of Zoka in championing your cause?

FoZ was born on WhatsApp in bringing together government, development partners, religious and culture leaders, private sector, media and community members.

We have tapped into social media in our interactions. Social media is an interactive computer-mediated technology.

Even with a difficult operating environment, technology has also helped save Zoka Central Forest Reserve.

Autocratic regimes have become increasingly interested in digital censorship and adopting new strategies for controlling online information. In Uganda, tax has been levied on social media because of its use, but amidst all, we pay the tax to save our Environment.

We have used social media for sharing pictures and videos of the forest, holding meetings for fear of arrests if we hold them physically, recording and sharing songs, articles and poems on conservation, members asking questions and naming and shaming those who devalue our forest.

To date, we continue to use social media like WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook [and] Instagram to advance our advocacy in environmental conservation.

Despite the government ban on logging, illegal felling of trees still exists in Uganda. Where exactly is the problem?

The problem is intertwined due to a lack of political will to stop illegal logging, because the loggers literally run most of our governance systems. Systemic corruption that has broken our moral fabric and massively eroded our institutions, [...] weak and non-punitive laws, and high poverty rates that leads communities to fell trees as a means of survival. 

Proceeds of the business are high, which has attracted many to it. It is also a highly militarised trade and is managed by top security agencies.

“My life and that of my community is heavily dependent on the environment”

You have won the 2019 EU Human Rights Defenders award. What does this recognition mean for you and your activism?

It has validated our work. We feel that we have people who believe in our cause and who we can count on for support. 

The award has motivated me and the team to continue the struggle to conserve our natural resources. This award has greatly reduced the threats against me and my colleagues. I thank the EU for giving me this Award.

Why does protecting the Zoka forest and in extension environmental activism matter to you?

My life and that of my community is heavily dependent on the environment that feeds on the rich ecological support from Zoka Central Forest Reserve. From water, food, medicine, livelihoods, social, economic and political and cultural identity, we owe it to.

Tell us a bit about the activities you have so far spearheaded and to what extent the organisation has achieved its mission.

We have managed to save the Forest from total depletion since it was to be cleared to give room for sugarcane farming, a move we heavily opposed and protested. We have created networks across the region and International linkages. We have secured an executive ban on dealings in Afzelia Africana and shea nut tree species, which are threatened natural resources.

We have created civic awareness among local communities and provided a platform for checks and balances to local authorities on management of local forest and other natural resources.

Our advocacy has created more networks across the region of West Nile and Northern Uganda.

What is the toughest thing about being an environmental activist?

The fear of losing my life, family, friends and everything around me.

Explain to us about the nature of the attacks you have faced in defending human rights and the environment and how they have shaped your cause.

My house has been broken into several times. I have on many occasions been physically assaulted by the loggers, both in public and in private. I have reported many cases of physical attack to the local police but to date no action has been taken. 

I am always on surveillance by those who do not like what I do. This has been extended to my family and friends. 

I have faced harassment from people in authority who do not like what we do. 

I have also faced frivolous charges to try and stop me from my activism. This has also been extended online, where I face cyber harassment and attacks. Trumped-up charges in order to curtail me from continuing to do my work.

Environmental crimes must be categorised as crimes against humanity

In your opinion, are governments and the global community doing enough to address the climate crises and protection of biodiversity? What would you want to be done differently?

I don’t think the global community is doing enough. There is too much finger pointing and blame games rather than discussing how to [quickly] rescue our diminishing natural resources. 

There is also too much boardroom talk and little effort at the field and grassroots that need serious intervention. 

More support, both financial and technical, is needed, especially [one that is] focused on the local and indigenous communities in order to help them scale their environmental conservation and climate change mitigation projects.

We need to put more pressure on governments across the globe to increase funding for climate and environmental conservation programs.

Environmental crimes must be a global concern. They must be categorised as crimes against humanity just like genocide and other crimes.

As an environmental champion, what is your message to the global community concerning the environmental situation at the moment?

The current environmental situation is getting serious, unpredictable and dangerous. We need to speak in one voice and invest our resources and energy in protecting mother earth, because it is the only one we have got.

What plans do you have for the future?

I want to invest more time and energy to teach the youth and women on climate change and nature conservation.

With Friends of Zoka, we want to lobby and advocate for policy changes, especially our laws so that they are more punitive on environmental abusers.

We want to also build the institutional capacity of Friends of Zoka, to ensure that we have more resources and capacity to continue with our environmental conservation work.

Image: Julie Ricard

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
William Amanzuru. \'We have managed to save around 50 percent of Zoka Central Forest Reserve.\'
© Friends of Zoka
William Amanzuru. "We have managed to save around 50 percent of Zoka Central Forest Reserve."
Friends of Zoka engages in community outreach to raise awareness about the threat posed by climate change and how large-scale commercial logging and charcoal trade exacerbate it.
© Friends of Zoka
Friends of Zoka engages in community outreach to raise awareness about the threat posed by climate change and how large-scale commercial logging and charcoal trade exacerbate it.
Despite the NGO\'s achievements in protecting the Zoka Central Forest Reserve, illegal activities like farming, logging and commercial charcoal production continue to take place inside the reserve.
© Friends of Zoka
Despite the NGO's achievements in protecting the Zoka Central Forest Reserve, illegal activities like farming, logging and commercial charcoal production continue to take place inside the reserve.
Call to Action
Help Ugandan farmers access global markets and end poverty
Support now