Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Living on the margins: it’s not just people who complain

What would you do if a huge deep crack appeared just above your house and threatened to swallow up your farm and sweep away your cattle and children?  Don’t rush to answer, as you’ll never know until it happens.  A couple of years ago, a family living in the small Scottish seaside village of Pennan remained firmly in their picturesque old cottage even when the mud poured down the cliff and rose right up to the sills of their windows, much to the fascination of TV watchers across the country.  People are living on marginal land all over the world, and sometimes that land begins to complain.  It happens in Britain and it happens in Uganda.  It happens everywhere.

Time was when the British Isles were covered in thick forest, wolves and wild boar ran free across the country and much of Lincolnshire was waterlogged.  However, man moved in, cut down the forests to plant his crops, build his houses and cook his meals; killed the wild beasts for food and to protect his farm animals; and drained, farmed and built on wetlands and marshes.

Time was when Uganda was covered in thick forest, lions and leopards ran free across the country and much of the area around Kampala was water-logged.  However, man moved in, cut down the forests to plant his crops, build his houses and cook his meals; killed the wild beasts for food and to protect his farm animals; and drained, farmed and built on wetlands and marshes.

Forest on its way to cook the family's dinner
The British Isles is a crowded little island, the top half pretty empty and the bottom half pretty full: 55 million people in all and a fertility rate of 1.9.  Landlocked Uganda is much the same size, though not yet as crowded: 33 million people at the last count and a fertility rate of 6.3 – not long until it has a population the same size as Britain’s. 

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Britain used to send its surplus population overseas, sometimes willingly, often not.  The convicts went to Australia, the evicted Highlanders to Canada, the younger sons of aristocrats to Kenya and the upwardly mobile middle classes to India.  There they cut down forests to plant their crops, build their houses and cook their meals; killed wild beasts for sport and to protect their farm animals; and drained, farmed and built on wetlands and marshes.  They also, of course, used various means to persuade the local population to move. 

The Ugandans pretty much stayed put, within Africa anyway, and didn’t have much of a surplus population, particularly after a continent-wide slave trade, so they just carried on with their farming, killing and draining more or less where they were.  In the last half century they have lost millions from internal conflict, political violence, malaria and AIDs, but the large new families currently being born to replace them still need somewhere to live, somewhere to farm.  Africa is one of the few remaining places where people sometimes just get up and find somewhere else to settle.  Alas, these days the only land left free is often marginal land, even dangerous land. 

So, every so often, the land complains, as it does elsewhere in the world.  People are swept away by mudslides in Ecuador, floods in Bangladesh and tsunamis in Japan.  Even in Britain we all stared in horror a couple of years ago as we looked at aerial photographs of Tewksbury Abbey, an island in a brand new sea.  And when the land complains, do people move away to somewhere less dangerous?  Not usually.  They go back and build again just where they were before.  They often have no choice. And so it has been across most of the world as the centuries pass.  People move in, settle down and carry on, as if they’ve always lived there, as if that was the best place in the world to build their homes, and because often that is the only place available. 

The land complained here in Uganda just over a year ago.  Three hundred or more people perished in landslides in Bududa, the Mount Elgon area on the Kenyan border, a disaster caused by deforestation and degradation from over-cultivation.   Much of the area had been designated a national park almost twenty years ago , with fences erected to keep out the local clans and protect the environment and the animals.   The government has helped many of the landslide survivors move to central-west Uganda, giving them small plots of land, farm tools and cooking utensils.  However, others are gradually moving back up the slopes, back into the threatened area and there they are re-building their houses, planting their crops and pasturing their cattle.  The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is doing its best to draw attention to the dangers of encroachment and has warned people to relocate.  However, during the recent election a few irresponsible politicians are reported to have promised the right of return to within the park area in exchange for votes and no one is willing to call their bluff.

A misty Mount Elgon hovers over Mbale and its surrounding swamp.
And how do we know the land is complaining once more?  A huge crack has recently developed on the slopes of Mount Elgon, threatening the lives of 30,000-80,000 people.  The crack is 40 kilometres long, up to a metre and a half deep and has recently widened to 30cm.  Mud has started flowing down the mountainside and water springs have begun to gush from the rocks.  It is only a matter of time before the side of the mountain starts slipping away, taking with it whatever or whoever has managed to dig a toe hold in the thin surface soil.  But the people are insisting on staying put.

Sometimes it is not the land but the animals which complain as population rises and people move into areas which were once left wild.  Recently, in the Luweero area north of Kampala, baboons have been destroying crops and frightening children away from school.  80 baboons were killed by the local vermin control team in January, to the dismay of the UWA who would have preferred a more selective cull.  

Baboons are remarkably unafraid of people.
In the north of Uganda, villagers who had recently moved back to their homes after many years in the IDP camps woke up to the sight of 60 snakes, probably recently hatched young pythons, all coiled up together.  Young pythons mainly eat rodents, but adults can eat goats and even people. After years in the camps, the people had forgotten how to deal with the local wildlife, and the snakes had no reason to think they weren't welcome. 

In the villages bordering on the Murchison Falls National Park, villagers have been warned to expect more attacks by elephants that have started to move into farmland looking for food.  A rather sad story has been circulating over the last couple of days, about the death of Mary the elephant, who had become quite a tourist attraction in the village of Kutunguru in Queen Elizabeth Park.  Sometimes it takes imaginative solutions to accommodate both animals and humans.  Further south in the Ishasha area of Queen Elizabeth Park, local rangers supported by the Uganda Conservation Foundation, have succeeded in enabling elephants and villagers to live peacefully side by side by building elephant pits to keep the huge beasts out of the farmland and away from the crops.  The disgraceful decision to develop a golf course in Murchison Falls National Park may not be quite so straightforward a problem to solve, recalling the shame of Donald Trump’s Balmedie golf course on the sand dunes of north east Scotland, an area of scientific interest.  I'm sure the elephants will have lots to complain about.

An uncomplaining elephant.
However, it is not just in the rural areas that the land complains.  Sometimes it is not sudden disaster but long term incremental damage to the environment that threatens not only those who are responsible for the damage but an entire eco-system, in this case, Lake Victoria.

Kampala is a city of hills, but in between the hills are swamps, papyrus wetlands in the past largely left alone to the water birds and fish.  There are swamps like this all over Uganda.  They stabilise soils, regulate the water cycle and recycle nutrients.  Without them, land erodes and rainfall is disrupted, leading to drought and food insecurity: a phenomenon even fertile Uganda has begun to experience.  And in Kampala, these wetlands and their meandering streams play an essential role in filtering the city’s filthy polluted sewage-filled water before it reaches the lake.   

Swamp in the centre of Kampala, gradually being turned into gardens.
Squatting on the edge of the Northern Bypass.
Even the police station is squatting.
However, Kampala is a rapidly expanding city of getting on for one and a half million people.  Unsurprisingly, not all these people have houses or land on which to build - which is why all along the Northern Bypass close to us, on the margins of the city, the swamp is being built on.  Squatters move in, cut down the papyrus (making it into mats and baskets), dig up the red earth and mould it into bricks which they either fire or bake in the sun.  

Bricks drying against a background of pit latrines.
These bricks they sell, a very common source of income for the poor.  And out of these bricks are built tiny ramshackle houses with their accompanying pit-latrines, homes to thousands of marginalised people living on marginal land all around the perimeter of the capital city.  Banana trees are planted, schools are built, churches are erected and before you know it, an entire community is in existence.  And what happens when it rains?  The water seeps up wherever it can, rubbish-choked gutters become surging rivers and homes and livelihoods are swept away.  Lake Victoria becomes even more polluted.

And then the whole of East Africa complains.

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