By Leonidas Hitimana
Forests are very important because they provide wood for construction, energy, food security, a natural habitat for animals, and help to reduce the effects of climate change. But between 1990 and 2015, Uganda lost an average of 90,000 hectares of forests annually, shrinking the forest cover from 24 to 10 per cent. However, according to the ministry of Water and Environment, only about 7,000 hectares of planted forests have been established yearly in the last 15 years.
This imbalance threatens Uganda’s ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially on sustainably managing forests to mitigate climate change, transformation of Uganda into a green and modern economy, and the contribution of forests to livelihoods of current generations and those is posterity.
I applaud the government of Uganda for supporting commercial forestry through innovative approaches, while at the same time creating jobs and increasing household incomes.
One such approach is the Sawlog Production Grant Scheme (SPGS) Phase III Project implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (FAO) on behalf of the government of Uganda with funding from the European Union (EU), for a period of five years, starting in 2016.
SPGS III seeks to encourage private sector investment in commercial timber plantations by providing grants and forestry technical advice to private sector investors involved in tree planting for production of timber and electricity transmission poles.
Through this model and recognizing favorable government policies such as Build Uganda, Buy Uganda that promotes local consumption of domestic products, FAO, supported by the UN Office for Project Service (UNOPS), offers the investor a conditional grant of about 30 per cent of the estimated total investment.
The retrospective disbursement is made after a field inspection confirms that the investor has carried out critical forest operations and has complied with the FAO/SPGS III recommended standards for quality forest plantations.
This model helps to guarantee that the investor will have sufficient funds to effectively establish and manage the forest plantations while also ensuring that the plantations benefit from the recommended silvicultural operations that will favour high quality timber and transmission poles. Neglecting some key operations results in poor forest plantations and, therefore, poor return on investment.
So far, 520 small, medium and large scale tree growers have been selected throughout Uganda.
These will receive grants to plant a combined area of about 23,000 hectares. Grant management is done by UNOPS, for transparency and efficiency of financial resources.
Another success factor in SPGS III Project is the voluntary certification of tree nurseries and forest plantation contractors as key service providers in commercial forestry. Certification is vital because many investors in commercial forestry in Uganda have limited skills in operations related to forest plantation establishment and maintenance.
FAO/SPGS III offers training and recommends acceptable standards to nursery operators and contractors, who thereafter receive one-year rating-based certification which empowers them to guarantee customer satisfaction.
Lists of certified nursery operators and contractors are shared with the investors to enable them identify where to buy good quality seedlings or access technical know-how for establishment and maintenance operations such as planting, weeding, pruning and thinning.
Currently, FAO has certified 66 tree nurseries and 40 contractors (pruning and thinning).
The demand for certification is a positive indicator of the relevance that private sector players attribute to providing quality planting material and forestry services to support a vibrant sector.
FAO/SPGS III project is supporting downstream processing – including plantation infrastructure, skills development, timber logging, access to finances, saw milling and timber market development along the commercial forestry value chain to help match Uganda’s wood processing capacity to the local demand for wood products.
The State of Uganda’s Forestry 2016 reports that the estimated sawn-wood market in Uganda is 369,000 cubic meters with an estimated value of Shs 101 billion. FAO forecasts consumption of industrial wood at 1.7 million cubic meters by 2030. As such, SPGS III will help to expand supply while ensuring high quality timber on the Uganda market.
Local communities and institutions that are highly dependent of wood for energy are also benefitting from the SPGS III project which targets establishment of 4,000 and 2,500 hectares by communities and institutions respectively, majorly for provision of wood fuel or bioenergy.
So far, FAO, through the SPGS III project, has distributed about two million seedlings to communities and institutions in the country. Grants are also provided to growers, up to a target of 5,000 hectares for pruning and thinning forest operations.
To promote ownership and sustainability of this unique approach, FAO is implementing the Project with support from private and public entities. These include Uganda Timber Growers’ Association (UTGA), Forestry Sector Support Department (FSSD) of the Ministry of Water and Environment, Nyabyeya Forestry College, Makerere University, National Forestry Resources Research Institute (NaFORRI) and the National Forestry Authority (NFA).
FAO has also trained 20 district forest officers and forest officers from NFA, in plantation establishment and in drafting Forest Investment Plans.
Finally, the SPGS III project is fast showing that a model of co-investment (public-private partnership) and retrospective payment of grants for commercial tree planting can greatly incentivize private sector players to invest in commercial forestry and contribute to a critical mass of high quality plantations.
The latter are envisaged to result in high quality forest products such as timber and create jobs along the commercial forestry continuum. But, efforts are required in downstream processing, research and development as well as policy formulation and implementation to propel the sector.
The author is the project coordinator, Sawlog Production Grant Scheme (SPGS III),
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.