Martha Tiko Ondoga, a resident of Gulu district, is saddened by the rampant cutting of Shea trees in the West Nile sub region. Tiko anticipates that the practice may not spare her job which she has been at since 2012.
Tiko got into the business when she was recruited as a buying agent for the shea nuts from the community on behalf of KFP, a German firm operating in Lira city.
Aged 75 years, Tiko who derives her livelihood from the shea nuts, said unless cultural leaders and law enforcement agencies take tough action, the trees are on the verge of extinction in West Nile.
Despite President Yoweri Museveni’s ban on tree cutting in 2018, Tiko said her proposal to Yumbe district local government to institute a fine of sh300,000 for anyone disobeying the president’s directive was ignored.
Margaret Laloyo, a resident of Pader town council, suggests that there should be a reward for families that appreciate the purpose of the trees.
She predicts that the reward scheme if taken up by the Government, will lure others into conserving the trees.
In relation to all the pleas, Robert Taban, the shea butter ambassador for northern Uganda, said in the past before the war, cutting shea trees was a taboo.
Taban who is also the Resident District Commissioner (RDC) of Nebbi district, explained that since the trees were part of the bigger forests that were used by the fighting forces during the insurgency, they started cutting them down for firewood and to also clear the places where rebels used to hide.
The RDC also slammed a section of individuals who he described as masqueraders who allow cutting down of the trees, claiming to have “powers from above”.
“As chairpersons of security in the districts, we should always engage the Police environmental protection unit to have such people arrested,” he advised.
Men more destructive
Women take the lion’s share in the shea butter business while most of the men in the region cut the trees for charcoal.
This is worsened by the traditional “belief” in some communities that land belongs to men.
Prof. John Bosco Okullo from Makerere University Forest department said whereas women would want to conserve the trees, they are discouraged.
Okullo added that in some parts of Uganda, such as Oyam district, during the night, youths steal dried seeds from different homes and then go ahead to cut the trees. This practice, he said, frustrates those who want to conserve them.
“The biggest challenge we have is that we do not know how much they yield,” he noted.
Okullo expressed concern over the ministry responsible for the conservation of the endangered species, adding that there seems to be limited effort to enforce the ban that was issued by the President.
“Cutting down the trees is still on the increase even when we have ministries of water and environment and agriculture. Which ministry will protect the shea tree?” he wondered.
The conservation of the trees must be a concerted effort with leaders at village level enacting bylaws which they must enforce.
State minister for Northern Uganda Grace Freedom Kwiyucwiny said the bylaws must work to supplement with traditional customs.
“In Acholi, it was a taboo to cut these trees. And, equally, in Alur culture, anyone found cutting the trees was given a fine of two bulls. One bull was for the king and the second for the community,” she explained.
To improve on the local business, the minister suggested opening of shops dealing in only shea butter products in the major towns of Gulu, Arua and Nebbi.
“You cannot go far with the type of business where products are being hawked in small bags by women. If these shops are opened, it will save the women from moving all over in search of markets.
“Through this, the quality of the products will improve. But, equally, if there is a census conducted to find out the number of product dealers and how much revenue is generated, it would help other people appreciate the venture,” she said.
The notion that shea butter trees take a long to bear fruit is soon coming to an end, with the research effort from National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO).
Traditionally, shea trees are known for starting to fruit from 15 years and above. NARO is currently budding to shorten the period by almost a half.
Dr Graceline Akongo, the team leader technical and outreach programme at Ngetta Zardi research institute in Lira city, said the research will not compromise the quality of the seed products in any way as some people speculate.
She noted that the long fruition of shea butter is due to poor care.
“The care they give to other trees like oranges and mangoes is also necessary for shea trees,” she disclosed.
NARO has also started on the processing of products, such as wine, smearing oil, soap, jam and juice.
Once these are accredited by the Uganda National Bureau of Standards, NARO will commence training of people in northern Uganda on product development and quality standards.