Put them in the Ground and Let them Grow: Bwindi Tree Network Project

Categories: Journal, Ausgabe 68, People & Gorillas, Uganda, Bwindi, Mountain Gorilla

Tree seedlings in September 2022 (© Martha M. Robbins)

When traveling on the roads of Rubanda district, Uganda, you see pine trees everywhere: tall ones, short ones, big ones, small ones. Some trees may be lying on the ground waiting to become a chair, a part of a bed, a house, or used to keep a family warm. You might think, "Growing pine trees must be easy because everyone has pine trees. Therefore, having a pine plantation must be a piece of cake" … well … It's not like that.

The goal of the Bwindi Tree Network Project is to provide community members living next to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda with seedlings of pine, fruit, and indigenous trees to grow on their land. The aim of the project is two-fold: to prevent people from extracting resources from the forest and to improve their quality of life. The wood from the pine trees and the fruit can be used by the family who owns the trees or sold to earn a small income. Additionally, indigenous seedlings with medicinal uses are provided to discourage people from harvesting such resources from the forest. Overall, the plan is to increase awareness for conservation, emphasize the importance of traditional knowledge, and help conserve the natural forest.

The project began in April 2022. We planned to purchase the fruit tree seedlings from a commercial grower in a nearby town. The indigenous tree seedlings would be bought from the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, the research institute in Bwindi, which has permission from the Uganda Wildlife Authority to harvest the seeds from trees within the park as well as the knowledge to grow these seedlings, which is known to be difficult. For the pine, we decided to grow the seedlings ourselves since we already had some experience doing so with the local schools and we thought it would be a way to further involve community members in the project. In other agroforestry projects, it is common to end up with about half the number of pine seedlings as the number of seeds initially planted, so we were not expecting 100 % success.

Nonetheless, we naively thought that growing the seedlings would basically entail constructing the nursery bed, planting the seeds in pots, waiting a few weeks for them to germinate, watering them from time to time, and then after a few months have thousands of pine seedlings. However, as is often the case with agricultural projects, it turns out that growing seedlings is not as straightforward as anticipated. We have met many challenges over the past two years and we continue to learn. Many conservation projects are hesitant to admit their mistakes, but we were encouraged by B&RD to write about the various challenges we have had with this project. We would also like to stress that this is a side project of the Bwindi Gorilla Project. As embarrassing as it is to admit mistakes, we would like to add that we primarily focus on gorilla research and we did not enter this project as agroforestry experts.

First, we created a small nursery located in Katooma village, less than 1 km away from the boundary of Bwindi. The basic construction of the nursery features beds made of pine trees in which to grow the seedlings and a fence to provide protection from cows, goats, and pigs. The nursery beds are covered with a basic 'roof' made out of fern leaves to shield the seedlings from intense sunshine or heavy rain.

For our first attempt, we planted about half a kilogram of seeds, expecting as many as 50,000 seeds to germinate, but we had only about 7,000 seedlings poke out of the soil. We initially speculated that this was due to the very heavy rain that fell almost daily for the first two weeks after planting. Perhaps the seeds became waterlogged. The community members who manage the nursery, Peter Tumwesigye and Patrick Muhwezi, suggested that mice were eating the seeds and the small seedlings so we built a small fence around the nursery beds to discourage rodents. However, in all likelihood, we had bought bad quality seeds. We now buy seeds from the National Forest Authority only a short time before we intend to plant them and we also soak them in water briefly before planting.

Unfortunately, we also had many seedlings dying within a week or so of germinating. Again, there were a handful of possible causes. We had initially mixed the local soil (which is heavy in clay) with sand to have a mixture that the roots could grow in and yet also not remain too wet. However, the soil in the area is of relatively poor quality due to heavy agricultural use. Therefore, we are now mixing manure from local farmers in with the soil and sand as well as applying liquid fertilizer to the seedlings. Some of the seedlings were also dying because of fungus, so we also apply a fungicide.

Because we plant the seeds in soil in the nursery beds, the small seedlings need to be transferred to pots of soil when they are about 5 cm in height. This must be done before they are too big and the roots of the different seedlings start to become entangled, making the process of moving them to the pots harder. This process requires careful handling to prevent root damage. The process of transplanting the seedlings causes stress to the seedlings, resulting in some dying. We also tried germinating the seeds directly in the pots to circumvent the stress of transplantation, however, lower germination rates were obtained.

During the duration of the project, community reception has been positive. Throughout, we have hired local community members, including many women, to assist with putting soil in the pots and transplanting the seedlings to the pots. We also buy many supplies locally, such as the manure, wood, and the covers for the beds.

Once the seedlings reached a certain size, it was time to distribute them to the communities. We coordinate with the local village leaders to generate a list of community members who will receive the seedlings. Having a representative of the local government is helpful to avoid problems and to ensure that the people receiving the trees are inhabitants of the nearby villages. To date we have distributed seedlings to six villages, including 625 households. They have received approximately 23,000 pine seedlings that we grew as well as 1,500 indigenous tree seedlings we obtained from the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC), and 1,400 lemon seedlings that we purchased. On the days we distribute the seedlings, community members arrive early with containers to carry the seedlings; they are happy to receive them. We have attempted to monitor the survival of the seedlings after distribution. So far, we have information from 40 households approximately one year after they received the seedlings, with the following survival rate: Pine seedlings 64 %, Lemon trees 88 % and indigenous seedlings 46 %.

A question we are frequently asked is why are we distributing pine and lemon seedlings, and not only indigenous trees. We are aware that pine trees are not native species to the area, as are the indigenous trees. In reality, many of us have a romantic idea of conservation, where we all hold hands and go together to the forest, plant millions of trees and grow a forest again. However, in all honesty, that's what everybody wishes, but that is not how conservation usually works on the ground.

Conservation cannot be done without the community; it is not just arriving at a place, telling people what to do and then leaving. The project may finish one day, but the community is there for generations. It is important to understand the context in which people are living. Before we started the project, we consulted with community members and they clearly stated that they wanted pine trees and lemon trees much more than indigenous trees. Pine trees were chosen due to their economic potential and utility in meeting daily needs like firewood, holding sticks for crops like beans, construction of fences, house building or improvement, etc., mitigating reliance on forest resources.

The project not only tries to avoid having people going to the forest in the search of resources, but also to improve the quality of life for the local community members through these trees. Pine trees are considered as a long-term investment, helping community members economically. Fruit trees, particularly lemons, support long-term income generation and they bear fruit within a few years of planting. Indigenous trees were provided to meet medicinal needs, reducing reliance on forest harvesting of bark, leaves or roots for local medicinal treatments. In this way, knowing the community context and necessities as well as understanding why people still go into the forest, the project aims to choose the better options to stop dependency on the forest and give alternatives to do so.

In conclusion, the challenges of this project are not unique to tree distribution projects throughout the world. Like elsewhere, this project underscores the importance of integrating local knowledge and community participation for conservation success. Additionally, it provides employment opportunities, further benefiting the local community. True conservation involves collaboration, empowerment, and understanding community needs for long-term success.

Mathias Banshekuura, Cristian Alvarado Tamayo and Martha M. Robbins

We are grateful to Mondberge for funding the Bwindi Tree Network project.