Environmental defenders work to maintain the peace-building role of nature in northern Uganda

Bicentina Auma, chairperson of a small farmer's co-operative in Northern Uganda, harvesting finger millet. Image by DFID – UK Department for International Development from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0 DEED).

This story was written by Maria Andrea Nardi and originally published by Peace News Network, and an edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

In recent years, there has been a “crackdown” against environmental defenders across Uganda. Journalists, students, farmers, and rural dwellers are defending the natural environment, protesting and mobilizing against unfair treatment and forced displacements brought on by fossil fuel infrastructures, agribusiness, hydropower, or carbon offsetting. This has pitted authorities and large-scale capital business interests against environmental defenders who are seeking to protect the natural environment from profit-driven corporations expanding the resource extraction frontier into new areas. In this context, and 15 years after the end of the armed conflict in northern Uganda, we question whether peace can be sustainable in this region of the country.

To fully comprehend current disputes over land or the defence of the natural environment, it is necessary to observe how nature is integrated into peace-building and development policies. This is because there is often a narrow understanding of how local communities integrate the natural environment into their everyday life. Three issues stand out in relation to the contributions nature can make to foster sustainable peace and development in northern Uganda beyond its role in generating income through the exploitation of resources. The natural environment is relevant for peace because it works as a (a) semiotic system, (b) public space, and (c) reconciliation means.

Nature as a semiotic system

In northern Uganda, once people left internal displacement camps and returned home after the war, evidence shows that tensions among families and clans arose because of decreasing access to land. One of the reasons for this is transformations in the natural environment, as the features in the landscape that used to serve as markers for territorial formations were removed.

The natural environment functions as a semiotic system, where elements like rivers, hills, and trees carry significant meanings for local communities. These features guide people in navigating their surroundings and staking claims to ownership. For instance, a mango tree at a crossroad or a stone by a pond may serve as markers to find one’s way home. In the absence of formal demarcation systems, customary tenure becomes crucial, and maintaining peace between families and communities often relies on these symbolic landscape markers.

Nature as a public space

In Uganda, trees in villages are important spaces for reunions. They provide shelter from the sun; people stay under their shade to cool down, to chat, to play, to read, to teach or study, and to discuss the future of the local community. Some tree species are even deemed sacred, and some, due to their size, shape, or location, are worshipped (such as the Nakayima tree in central Uganda).

Public space under a tree might serve as an arena for political participation, empowerment, social cohesion, and community healing and reconciliation. For ecological and political reasons, “nature” in villages and urban areas is highly relevant, as shown by the work currently done by environmental organisations in northern Uganda. 

Nature as a means for reconciliation

The Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation signed in 2007 by the government of Uganda and the Lord Resistance Army specified traditional rituals performed by local ethnic groups “to reconcile parties formally in conflict, after full accountability.” Mato Oput is one such ritual: a reconciliation ceremony that takes place after someone from a friendly clan is killed. The name refers to the drinking of oput, a bitter drink prepared with smashed roots of the oput tree and drunk at the peak of the ceremony. For some, “there is perhaps no single tree more vital in the great work of healing from the brutal civil war that has raged throughout Acholiland for over 20 years.” 

Various parts of the oput trees and other natural elements are required for this ceremony which marks the end of a lengthy mediation process. The natural environment is necessary for local accountability and reconciliation, for healing and sustaining peace. Environmental defenders and cultural leaders are currently concerned about the alarming rate of logging of oput trees in northern Uganda. 

Environmental defenders as peacebuilders

A narrow understanding and utilisation of nature that restricts people’s possibilities to relate to one another and their environment might exacerbate conflicts, either by marginalising certain knowledge or destroying the material base for peoples’ socio-ecological relationships.

Therefore, there is an urgency to revise the ways in which the value of nature is integrated into current existing peacebuilding and development policies in Uganda. It is also crucial to support environmental advocates who are pushing for the inclusion of local perspectives on nature in development strategies.

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