Progreso Network

Women in War torn Northern Uganda fight back to promote biodiversity

2009-07-01 / Bernie Hewett / Lira District in Northern Uganda

Biodiversity promotion through the responsible use of resources.

One way to promote biodiversity is to find ways to make a living from natural ecosystems which minimizes disturbance to the natural systems. A forest environment can yield many opportunities for income generation from products which do not involve cutting the trees down. Products from such activities are called non timber forest products. Some people refer to them as wild harvest products.

One project, based in Otuke County of Lira District in Northern Uganda, is helping to protect the environment by organizing groups of women to collect Shea nuts from the forest around their villages from which Shea butter is extracted to be used as an ingredient in natural cosmetics.

Called the North Uganda Shea Project (NUSP) it is built around a partnership of 3 key players in the value chain: KFP the exporter based in Kampala, Alcode an NGO which processes the nuts in Lira and a women’s association called Rwot Ber.

The region where the project is located was very insecure because of years of rebel activity and clashes between the Lord’s Resistance army rebels and Government forces. From the outset the women nut collectors had to live with the possibility of kidnapping and sexual assault, but they were determined to find a way to look after their families and collecting Shea nut provided one of the few income generating possibilities they could access. Initially all of the association’s members were living in refugee camps and to ensure their safety, nut collection had to be done under military protection. The nuts provided important income for the women and made life somewhat bearable in the camps.

An internal control system was developed for over 1500 women collectors and organic protocols put in place for the processing and export. In 2006 organic wild harvest certification was achieved. In 2007, the first 1.2t of butter and 17,6t of nuts was marketed. Since peace came to the area, the women and their families started to return to their village. Keen on extending the range of products, the women insisted that their farms became certified organic. Today, the families grow their own food and organic cotton and sesame. Initially the initiative was for and by the women but later, the men also became involved.

The families thus have a sustainable farming system and sustainable wild harvest export crop which provides the economic stimulus necessary to rebuild their lives, their homes and their villages.

Even though the export market has been slower to develop than was hoped some economic benefits have started materialising from the NUSP as the women are also supplying the local market opportunities. They feel that it is crucial, however, to increase exports significantly that the project has a major economic impact on the Rwot Ber members lives. Shea nut gatherers are currently strengthening their business skills and learning about new areas, like budgets, entrepreneurial skills, saving schemes, new product development etc.

A new threat

Whilst they have understood the value of protecting the natural environment, the return of numerous impoverished people who left the area because of the war, there is a new threat to the forest which they depend upon for part of their livelihoods in the form of tree felling for charcoal. The Rwot Ber members and other project beneficiaries are now involved in raising awareness within their communities about the value of the Shea trees and collaborating with local leaders on this issue.They have established of tree nurseries and tree planting activities. They are promoting species suitable for firewood in order to protect the future of the Shea trees.

With assistance from a SIDA funded program they were able to obtain organic wild harvest certification for their products, which allows them access to premium priced organic cosmetic markets.

The project has not yet had huge success marketing their products on the export markets, because the Shea butter from Uganda has a different consistency to the Shea butter from West Africa. This means that cosmetics manufacturers need to revise the formulae of their finished product

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