Why Do Ugandans Hate Trees?

Cutting down trees

Tree outside my driveway

The buzz of chainsaws is ringing in my ears as I write this.  I live in Kampala, next door to a large lot that was a school up until about a month ago, lush with big trees and flowering bushes.  The trees are frequent hosts to numerous falcons, weavers, turacos, gonaleks and many other birds, in addition to countless butterflies and lizards.  I have always envied the green shadiness of those school grounds when I compare it to the sparse compound in which I live.

But recently the mzungus who ran the school moved out, and within just a few weeks, the chainsaws have decimated most of what once lived on those beautiful grounds.

I just assumed that everyone living in my compound would feel the same distress I was feeling.  How could you not mourn the loss of life as you gaze at the piles of branches and stumps and stare at the ugly, bare chain-link fence that was once mercifully covered in bougainviller flowers?

But most of the people in my compound are Ugandans, and as I started to ask them how they felt about this, over and over I heard “Oh, finally it looks nice there!”  “Those mzungus didn’t know how to keep a compound!”  “It’s good that they are finally improving that place.”

This is happening all over Kampala.  When I was living here in ’04-’05, right behind my house was

Where once there was forest...

a small but lush½-acre forest backing up onto a papyrus marsh.  I used to walk there every morning, and recorded over 70 bird species on that small piece of land.  It was also a safe haven for side-striped jackals who were remarkably still surviving in the city.  When I returned for a visit in 2007, nearly every tree was gone.  To add insult to injury, the forest was cleared to make way for something that will be ironically named “Forest Village Botanical Garden” if they ever finish it.  If you want to market yourself based on the idea of a forest, why not just leave the forest there in the first place?

And this isn’t an issue of poor people cutting trees to have firewood so they can eat.  The man who owns the compound next to me right now seems to own half the neighborhood.

Beyond my own selfish desire to have more trees around me, this is a city that needs trees and their ability to filter pollution out of the air, reduce flooding and moderate the heat that sometimes makes it unbearable to walk around Kampala.  Paul Theroux, in his book Dark Star Safari, writes about Kampala in the 1960s when it was famous for its streets lined with flowering trees.  Those trees all seem to be long gone.

Uganda is losing most of its natural forest cover.  A lot of money is being spent in the rural areas to replant native trees, plant mono-culture woodlots for firewood, and improve regulation and enforcement to reduce illegal logging.  But what about in the urban areas?  We need trees here, too, but I am not aware of any efforts to plant trees in the cities or even to protect the ones that already exist.  There are, remarkably, some very large, old trees remaining in Kampala.  We need laws to protect those trees, and we need education to let people know why trees are important in cities.

Kampala is still a relatively green city, but how long will that last?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

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50 Responses to Why Do Ugandans Hate Trees?

  1. Wolfgang says:

    Well observed … it seems a fashion to cut mature trees to the ground, then build and then grow afresh instead of building ‘around’ the trees and maintain shade and bird life … we chose our place on the lake for the mature trees, amongst other reasons … since we moved here we recorded over 130 bird species in and from our garden … BUT, many visiting friends, after digesting the ‘awesome’ effect the view to the lake inevitable prompts, then start figuring how many maisonettes they could build into the compound … without trees of course … and fail to understand that I love the place the way it is … different culture I suppose … and different value on keeping nature as intact as possible … look at the Konge valley which is being encroached from both sides and where NEMA is totally absent …
    Well, in my lifetime, hopefully a few more decades, my compound is NOT going to suffer the chainsaw invasion …

  2. Raul says:

    This is sad to hear about. Trees are beautiful…I can’t see why they would not want them there?


  3. Eukalo says:

    I think the generalization “ugandans hate trees” does not help, i believe everywhere is people who cares about; besides this is happening all over the world, here in Colotlán, Jalisco, Mexico, (http://colotlan.wordpress.com) the local goverment started to cut the trees in the river and the neighbours dont agree with that. I think is a matter of education and understanding the value of the trees.

  4. CrystalSpins says:

    Thank you for sharing. The removal of the trees being seen as an improvement is very interesting — my parents bought some land in central South Dakota that they plan to retire to in a few years and they have been planting trees on it ever since they bought it — in an effort to IMPROVE the property! Interesting cultural difference!


  5. Olivia says:

    SO SAD..
    At first I thought that was to build houses (that’s how it is here- India), upon further reading I discovered that That was to IMPROVE upon the Look??!!

    A land with no trees is barren- desert.. Its the trees, vegetation and plants that make it look like a compound.. The older they are, the better it looks.. We are talking of Compounds and not Office Gardens..

    Hell.. Humans are polluting Nature- of whatever is left of it i.e.,

  6. Thanks for bringing this issue to people’s attention. I like Eukalo’s comment. I think it if often a matter of education and understanding the value of trees. Throughout history, people destroyed the natural resources around them (primarily trees), whether for plunder or self-gratification. The result was that the land could no longer support the people, and societies were wiped out.

  7. It is because of the many instances of trees raping Ugandan women.

  8. Am curious on why these trees are being cut down or did I miss something? Hope the people in Uganda will be educated soon on the great value trees render to their country. Present situation is sad beyond belief.


  9. Thank you for sharing. I too love the view with trees and hope that change in attitude towards them will come to your area soon.

  10. lycons says:

    Thank you for sharing information.

  11. Lòt Poto-a says:

    I used see the same in Haiti; and not necessarily because of firewood. Some people simply do not care about the environment, rather, they are more interested in personal gain. However, in many third-world countries, the environment is put down below the top priority: survival.

    Au contraire, my guess is that it has something to do with culture and perspective. I assume (I’m not sure) that Ugandans look differently at issues such as erosion, pollution, etc. After all, you did say that the man who owns the compound next to you seems to own half the neighborhood.

  12. I too lived in Uganda for a time,though in a very small village about 4 hours from Kampala, and I think a lot of this has to do with what the urban Ugandans think about “modernization”. It seems to me from the time I spent there that they believe to be a truly “modern” city they must emulate the West. To them, I believe that means concrete jungles instead of real ones. Their response to you about “improving the look” of the neighborhood is probably one they thought you would appreciate and one that would make them seem more “modern.” It breaks my heart because the villages in Uganda are incomparably beautiful and parts of Kampala used to contain bits of that beauty as well. I hope they aren’t lost. Thanks for a great post!!!

  13. Tina Kling says:

    Mark….I’m with you. Living here in the Pacific NW I can’t imagine cutting down trees. They are so beautiful, majestic…and full of energy and life. They make me feel. Being surrounded by lots of trees is like sustanance for my weary bones. I don’t think I can ever go back to living somewhere where there aren’t trees….and lots of them. Makes me think of The Lorax. One day I’m gonna get a tattoo of him. “I speak for the trees, as the trees have no tongues.”

  14. katiejean says:

    This sounded really sad to me too. I know of other countries that have similar problems. They just don’t see the natural beauty and maybe strive too much for modernity and in this case neatness.

  15. Ben says:

    Bring in Wangari!

  16. So why don’t the Ugandans like trees? Why did the people want the trees cut down? What do they perceive is a problem with having trees?


  17. Lisa says:

    Yes, it’s the real-world version of The Lorax!!

  18. Bret says:

    My first thought was–Americans did pretty much the same clear-cutting during a similar point in our “development” and appreciation for what was lost is something that comes after several generations sometimes…
    The second thought is how we are continuing to do the same sort of thing without the chainsaws: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/16/forests-insects

    My car = their chainsaws…

    • Mark Jordahl says:

      I agree that we are now trying to get the rest of the world to stop doing what we got rich from. And even today, a larger percentage of forest is being cut in North America each year than any other part of the world. Thanks for sending the article link – I’ve seen the pine die-off firsthand in Colorado and it is sad to see miles of reddish-brown hills where once there were green trees. I thought the natural succession might be the aspens taking over those hillsides, but that article mentioned a die-off of aspens as well – something I hadn’t heard about. Big changes are afoot.

      Mark D. Jordahl Conservation Concepts 256 775 295 126 Blog: http://conserveuganda.wordpress.com Website: http://www.ConservationConcepts.net

  19. It’s sad when man starts denying his roots to nature, it’s sadder when he starts destroying it for his own benefit.

    Perhaps there is something you can do? I once heard a quote: “I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.” -Lily Tomlin

    I am not sure what it’s like in Uganda, so I’m not sure what exactly you can do. But if there is anything, talking to people, planting trees in empty lots, teaching children about the importance of nature, or anything else… I certainly recommend at least giving it a shot (:

  20. duckyinfo says:

    It reminds me of a discussion that took place during an ecology class in college. It was postulated that the reason why we love our fields of mowed grass in the U.S. is because of our ancestry from the African plains. It didn’t make much sense to me then, because it doesn’t explain the populations that live in the heavily forested areas of the world. Etc.

    Part of me thinks it’s just in our nature to control nature. Cut down and landscape to our preference, planting the trees we want where we want them.

    • Mark Jordahl says:

      That’s an interesting theory. I agree with you that it doesn’t explain our roots in the forest which, if you go back far enough, presumably that’s where we came from before we started walking upright. If it is a matter of wanting to control nature, is there a way for us to convince people to want to be surrounded by more wild nature and to “create” those spaces around us?

      Thanks for commenting.

      Mark D. Jordahl Conservation Concepts 256 775 295 126 Blog: http://conserveuganda.wordpress.com Website: http://www.ConservationConcepts.net

  21. Nevermoraven says:

    Thanks for posting about this issue… It’s sad that when our planet is environmentally unstable, people are chopping these trees down without a second thought.

    • Mark Jordahl says:

      It really is sad, and I don’t think people even think about the need to preserve “nature” within cities. It’s like they have written urban areas off and see them as fair game, and if there are any conservation efforts at all, they happen in the rural areas. We certainly do need to maintain those larger tracts of forests that exist outside cities, but we can’t completely ignore the urban ecosystems.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Mark D. Jordahl Conservation Concepts 256 775 295 126 Blog: http://conserveuganda.wordpress.com Website: http://www.ConservationConcepts.net

  22. Six_33 says:

    Why do they hate trees? Maybe they are becoming more modernized and see that that is what the rest of the world does, cuts down their trees to make way for glorious concrete.

  23. Why do they hate trees? Maybe they are becoming more modernized and see that that is what the rest of the world does, cuts down their trees to make way for glorious concrete.

  24. ldnphile says:

    I’m just about to go off to Grad School to study Urban Forestry and Arboriculture. I’m especially interested in the urban forest in African cities. Thanks for the post. It give me impetus to think more about it. Perhaps one day I will be able to work on the rebuilding of the urban forest in Africa. I’m going to bookmark your page and look forward to hearing more about it.

    Urban forests are the hardest to maintain with all the stresses of city life. They are such a crucial and critical part of a city and people seem to forget that. Let’s all work on rebuilding them and making them survive and thrive!

  25. JamesBrett says:

    i live just across the lake from you — in geita, tanzania. we’ve already lost most of our big trees. i run in a very nearby national “forest” that has been used for illegal charcoal production for quite some time. apparently there are some officials being paid to keep quiet about the underground charcoal industry. occasionally, someone will get caught producing and trying to sell charcoal. i’m not sure what happens to them — but i know what happens to their charcoal. it’s confiscated and stored in a particular place here in town, so that the government can then sell it. sad.

    if it’s any consolation, my landlord had builders fashion the columns on our fence to look like tree trunks…

    • Mark Jordahl says:

      Did they cut down trees to make room for the faux fenceposts? And I hear you on the corruption. The National Forestry Authority here in Uganda is known as one of the most corrupt institutions in the country. They issue timber permits for lands that have already been cut, then give the loggers access to the protected forests to get the older, larger trees. If there is ever an inspection, the timber company can then bring the inspectors to the previously logged area and say they got the trees from there.

      Mark D. Jordahl Conservation Concepts 256 775 295 126 Blog: http://conserveuganda.wordpress.com Website: http://www.ConservationConcepts.net

  26. We have already troubled environment to the extreme. Let there be other species too on the planet.

  27. boxset4less says:

    This sounded really sad to me too.


  28. Bill Lovett says:

    I lived two years in Kisiizi, Rukungiri, SW Uganda, and it was not apparant to me that Ugandan’s “hate trees”. But neither do they love them either. European cultures have a mythic perception of trees, based on folklore, and rekindled and reformed in the light of pressing climatic consideration. In SW Uganda, the pressure of “getting on in life” makes them think utilitarian about trees. Indeed, growing trees are big business. Farmers growing small stands of trees for commercail timber. I know people who grow trees as a form of pension – smoething ready and valuable in 20 years time. When we Westerners have plenty of life choices, as our parents do, then there’s time to look to the future and think – “trees are both beautiful and essential”. But both Rukungiri subsistant farmer and corulent Kampala business man think “what’s teh best use I can get out of that plot of land”.

  29. Your post deeply saddens me, I actually find it hard to believe that people would just cut down trees for no reason! But unfortunately I know it to be true. I live in South Africa and this year (with us hosting the Soccer World Cup) even the beautiful Jacarandas Pretoria is known for could not escape the chainsaw. I must admit though that most of the damage done lately was “in the name of development” before the tourists arrive, but ironically the road works the trees were cut down for are still unfinished at present, and all the tourists have already left!
    Next to my university a road was lined with HUGE palm trees (five people holding hands could not circumvent the trunk) these were bulldozed and leave us with a view of an ugly concrete wall, and no development to speak of.
    Africa is supposed be known for lush jungles and wild nature, why do they keep tearing it down all over the continent?

  30. StageIsSet says:

    cutting trees like this is sad…this post has made me feel bad…


  31. goodenblogs says:

    Yeah, we have to wake up to our neighbors, Riding there dirt bikes.

  32. erebusetnox says:

    It was certainly true here in my New Englandy environment – they cut down every tree that could be had for farmland (although, if you do enough reading, one finds that the tribes occupying these lands, before us European types moved in, often clear-cut as well for their own purposes). Today, through most of the state forests here in the northeast, if you walk through on a hike, you encounter the remnants: old stone walls, and the sunken remnants of houses and buildings. And if anyone tries to claim that the U.S. has not been just as guilty, one only need look into the troubled history of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.
    It is my observation that many less-industrialized nations go through these growing pains before eventually arriving at the right place. Perhaps the help would be in the form of native populations that are fighting to KEEP their land intact – have them come and speak and share their wisdom. There is a huge movement afoot here in the U.S. on the part of the Native American tribes to promote environmentalism. It was the centerpiece of the most recent National Geographic, actually.

  33. WordCrafter says:

    Amazing. It appears that our Western culture is spreading over to Africa now. Destroy, build, replant in other places to replace the loss. The cycle goes on.


  34. Over the past couple of weeks I have been trying to grapple with the difficult observation that so often the people who are suffering from ‘disadvantage’ actually are exacerbating their own situation and don’t seem to have any desire to make things better – it’s perplexing me, and I wish I could understand their mindset. This appears to be the case again here with your trees – it seems self-evident to me the value (not to mention the beauty) of keeping those trees… but clearly it’s not self-evident to everybody! I’m trying to learn how to understand other people’s thinking… and maybe then there’s something we can do to help illuminate the issues for them and help them be part of their own solution rather than the problem…

  35. Pingback: Uganda: città senz’alberi sinonimo di progresso? « Solleviamoci’s Weblog

  36. tumwijuke says:

    For the record, I’m Ugandan and I Love Trees!

  37. tumwijuke says:

    I’ve come back to this post so often that I thought it’s time I left a comment.

    Of course you know the title is offensive to me and the hundreds of Ugandans fighting to save, in our own little ways, what little forest cover remains in our country.

    And for you to quote that horrible book, Dark Star Safari … Well! Paul Theroux’s essential thesis is that the continent was better under the white man. I attended a meet-greet-and-chat with him at the US Embassy when he visited Kampala 8/9 years ago and I left with a bad taste in my mouth. His nostalgia for empire and expansionism was sickening and he refused enter into a debate about the dark side of colonialism.

    Theroux sounded just like VS Naipaul whom he loves to denigrate. He accused Isak Dinesen’s work as ‘self-important romanticizing’ and fell straight into the same trap.

    But this isn’t Theroux.

    I do enjoy reading your blog. In fact, I’m a big fan. I’ve just finished reading your informative piece on the hidden impact of oil exploration.

    Still, I can’t shake my frustration with this post. Of the 30 million+ people in Uganda, there are many who are doing what they can, with what they know, to save our beautiful country from further destruction.

    We are a country, like most, caught between the lure of ‘modernity’ and good old commonsense. We are still figuring out how to deal with an exploding population, housing demands, a growing economy, incompetent civic leaders, briefcase environmental organizations and a weak conservation lobby. However, we WILL figure it out.

    Kampala may go to the dogs, but we WILL figure it out.

    Thank you for highlighting Uganda’s plight, but please … please don’t turn into Paul Theroux …

    • Mark Jordahl says:

      I’m honored that you are reading, as I’m a big fan of your blogs as well and have always hoped I’d meet you somewhere along the way. Your Gardening Insomnia is new, though, right? Love the nature shots.

      And yes, I do know that the title is offensive. I have thought a lot about that, and find it interesting that the most provocative title I have ever used is the one that made it onto Freshly Pressed and has gotten read far more than any of my other posts (whether that is good or bad is a matter for debate…). It’s also the post where I have most allowed my emotions to have free reign, as it is painful to me every time I see a tree being cut down and I was full of frustration when I wrote it. And I come from one of the most intensively logged parts of the United States (the Pacific Northwest), so I am not in denial about the fact that we have cut down 98% of our original forests and gotten quite rich doing it.

      I totally agree with your feelings about Paul Theroux, although for me the main idea behind the book is a condemnation of the messed-up western Aid industry rather than a wistful look at colonial days. It’s been quite a few years since I read it, though, so my memory may be selective. My recollection was that he was saying it is the continued western presence, rather than its absence, that perpetuates the challenges. I might be blending it in my mind with Moyo’s “Dead Aid,” though.

      I spend my time here in the conservation world, so I do know many many Ugandans who are passionately fighting to save trees, fish, elephants, and everything else that crawls, flies or grows. Any generalization is obviously just that, and leaves out the complexities of human reality that I hope comes through in my other posts. I just decided to go ahead and ruffle some feathers with that post.

      I’m glad you decided to share your thoughts, and, frankly, I’m glad I frustrated you and hopefully I frustrated others as well. That’s what writing is about. Things happen when we get uncomfortable. And don’t worry – I’ll never believe that any people, anywhere, are better off under anybody’s control but their own.

      Thanks for reading, and I really do hope we meet sometime.


  38. Patrick Davey says:

    So many strands in this discussion. When I lived in Fort Portal, in sight of the snows on the Rwenzori mountains people were more concerned with day to day problems than looking at forests or beautiful views; as indeed are many in Europe and other ‘developed’ countries. But remember the instant and huge mobile phone campaign to stop the give away of part of Mabira Forest, Ugandans do care but need to be mobilised. One thing that might help would be to get a ‘monetary value’ put on trees, wild life and the environment in general through properly managed tourism. Ugada has a huge potential for specialist as well as general tourism with 1000 species of birds and 1300 of butterflies besides the big gam as well there is something for everyone. Another thing that might help would be if the big international NGOs would stop fighting their own little corners, share knowledge, coordinate their efforts and look at issues from a Ugandan point of view. About 3 years ago I was at a conference called by the Uganda Wildlife Authority to look at Conservation in the Rwenzori region, most of the two days was spent introducing the 32 organisations to eachother because not one was aware of or working with another, often duplicating and/or repeating work done by others. The University was there to offer expertise to assist in the coordination of the conservation effort and the collection of the non existent reports which should be deposited with the local authorites.

    On another occasion I was trying to get funding from a major international donor for Mountains of the Moon University to establish a course in the Conservation of Fragile Environments to train managers for the range of National Parks. The need is still there but we were turned down because we were not doing research in Climate Change…. Need I say more? Local people recognised the need for such a course with the increasing numbners of tourists, but no, people in the US knew better what was needed in the West of Uganda.

    My job, as a volunteer, was setting up the University for a local group with the idea of spear heading Regional Development in the broadest possible way, intelectual, practical, social, community. There I believe is the hope for the furure,

  39. q says:

    for the same reason europeans “hate” trees. don’t you know europe have devastated lots and lots of trees, where is now ‘urban areas’ – and also on their colonies?

    i’m from brazil, and i live near of a little remain of the atlantic forest – once a giant forest, that ranged from all brazilian coast, but was devastated by portuguese greed. (the name brazil itself comes from a plant that once were abundant on our coast, and now is near extinction, due to its economic value during colonial period)

    you can’t blame a specific nation for what is essentially human behavior =/

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