However, a collaborative effort underway to rewild and restore the forest to its original natural state with local communities is realizing promising results.

The West Bugwe Forest Central Reserve is one of the three remaining natural forests in Eastern Uganda. This 3,064 ha forest reserve is home to a variety of flora and fauna species. It is also a source of fuel, food, and medicines for 14 villages and communities around it.

Located at the border between Uganda and Kenya in Busia county, the forest has in the last decade witnessed a sharp decline in native tree species caused by deforestation, charcoal burning, fuel wood collection, and farming. As the native tree species gave way, new invasive species took their spaces, leading to a decrease in biodiversity. Data show the forest had lost 82 per cent of tree cover between 1989 and 2016. This has hurt the ecosystem, as well as communities that rely on the forest for their livelihoods.

image of West Bugwe Forest Central reserve and community in Uganda = trees and some small houses

®FSC / Smith Oltega - The West Bugwe Central Forest Reserve lost an alarming 82 per cent of its tree cover between 1989 and 2016. The project works is working to restore the forest reserve.

A restoration project

A new ecosystem restoration project is working with local communities to restore native tree species and protect the forest and its resources.

“In the morning we assemble as a patrol team and plan which direction to take to protect the forest,” says forester Florence Nadunga, as she gears up to move to the forest.

Florence and her team work hard every day to safeguard the forest from illegal logging and poaching. They plant native tree species, monitor the forest, and engage with local communities about preserving the environment.

Florence is a forester and supervisor of the forest reserve at the National Forest Authority (NFA) of Uganda. NFA is the government agency that manages all central forest reserves in the country.

foresters walk through forest in Uganda

®FSC / Smith Oltega - The West Bugwe Central Forest Reserve Restoration project has trained 150 residents from nearby local communities, who are employed to plant trees and protect the forest.

In 2020, the Uganda Timber Growers Association (UTGA) signed a partnership agreement with NFA to restore and protect 1,000 ha of degraded forest landscapes in the West Bugwe Central Reserve. UTGA is an independent private sector association that brings together commercial timber growers from all over Uganda.

“Our goal is to restore the forest to its natural state,” says Peter Mulondo, Programme Officer at UTGA. UTGA and NFA are working together to ensure that this forest is managed sustainably and that communities draw increased benefit from its resources. 

The project trains and employs residents to help protect the forest. Between 2020 and 2023, the project held more than 10 training sessions with 150 people.

FSC® certification

Thanks to UTGA, the West Bugwe Central Reserve became FSC-certified as part of its group scheme. “Our aim was first to have the forest management certification for the forest under FSC,” says Peter. He adds that the certification ensures that the forest is managed responsibly and sustainably, and that local communities benefit from the resources. 

Because of the demands of the FSC standards, “we are working to handle illegal activities with the communities and local authorities.”

The FSC certification provides an incentive to protect and manage the forest, as it helps to ensure its sustainability and prosperity for future generations, adds Peter. In 2019, UTGA obtained the first FSC forest management group scheme certification in Uganda. The partnership made it possible for the West Bugwe Central Reserve to be included under its group scheme certification. The FSC forest management group certification was designed to help smaller forest owners to achieve FSC certification by reducing the audit burden and costs.

Ugandan man holds sapling in garden-gloved hands

®FSC / Smith Oltega - Villager employed by the West Bugwe Central Forest Reserve Restoration project in Eastern Uganda prepares indigenous tree species for planting in the forest.

“So far we’ve planted just over 180,000 trees and are still replanting,” says Peter. In less than three years the project has made remarkable progress in restoring native species and sequestering carbon. 

Some 13 native species have been planted in the degraded landscape. Selected by local communities and grown by UTGA and NFA, the species planted include Khaya Anthrotheca, Prunus Africana, and Markhamia lutea to name but a few.

Using NFA guidelines and inspired by the management plan developed and adapted to the FSC standard, the project trained local community members to work on tree nursing, planting, pruning, and maintenance.

This enabled the project to not only restore the forest, but also create jobs and generate income for the community. 

“What I earn from this project enables me to send children to school and feed my family,” says Ngolobe Deogratias, one of the local community members working on the project. He and another 150 community members serve the project as planters and patrol teams.

Besides community members implementing 100 per cent of the project-related activities, UTGA has provided training for community members on planting fast-growing tree species at their homes that they can use for construction and fuel. This has lifted huge pressure off the forest reserve as community members are growing the trees they need for domestic use.

Impact of restoration efforts 

After three years of planting, UTGA and NFA have succeeded in bringing the degraded forest to a satisfactory level of restoration with the new plants introduced.

Peter says that with the native species budding and the increased protection provided to the forest ecosystem, flora and fauna species are thriving.

“We think that we are recreating the natural environment,” he says proudly. Among the immediate fauna beneficiaries of this impact are species such as baboons, birds, and monkeys that call the forest home. They are thriving in their numbers and can find different varieties of fruits and vegetation that were in short supply in their natural habitat before.

In June 2023, the West Bugwe Central Forest Reserve gained its FSC Ecosystem Services claim verified under UTGA. Ecosystem services are all the benefits that nature provides to humans. Once an independent audit confirms a positive impact, a forest manager can make a verified claim on a given ecosystem service. This certification is a major milestone for the project and a testament to its sustainability impact.

primates in Ugandan forest - three of em

®FSC / Smith Oltega

The FSC Ecosystem Services Procedure allows for forests managed under FSC to quantify and demonstrate how they add value to the forests. The value-added services that can be verified under the procedure include carbon storage and sequestration, biodiversity conservation, and protection of soils and water quality.

The FSC Ecosystems Services Claim verifies that “we are contributing to change of reclaiming of both fauna and flora and restoring and replacing lost biodiversity,” says Peter Mulondo.

“This achievement reflects UTGA’s commitment to restoring and conserving forests in Eastern Uganda,” says Annah Agasha, FSC Eastern Africa Coordinator. She adds that UTGA plans to expand its efforts to other regions in the future.

Meeting a criterion

Criterion 6.5.5 of the FSC Principles and Criteria require a forest managed under the FSC standard to set aside 10 per cent of the area they manage for conservation.

To meet this requirement, UTGA sought to establish partnerships that would enable its members to contribute to the increase in national forest cover while strengthening the restoration and conservation of flora and fauna.

This enabled the association to collaborate with NGOs and other local organizations to create a network of protected areas. Peter says UTGA plans to leverage the partnership with NFA to help restore more degraded forests in Eastern Uganda and other parts of the country in the future.

Local community participation

Community engagement and participation is an important element of this project. Bulumbi and Busitema subcounties in the Busia district, where the West Bugwe Central Reserve is located, benefit greatly from the project. In Busitema subcounty Ben Okamar, the local chairperson, says the community is proud to participate in the project since it helps restore the forest to its natural state. Besides providing local medicine and food crops, Ben believes the forest is essential to the community.

Bulumbi subcounty chairperson Wesungabi Ismael has planted over 2,500 trees in his lifetime. He says that more than 100 members of his community are involved in the project in various capacities. In his view, the natural environment should be protected for posterity. UTGA and NFA work with both chiefs to identify and develop partnerships that would strengthen community conservation efforts and sensitize their respective communities about the vices of deforestation and illegal logging.

Ugandan man looks up at tree whilst holding a branch

®FSC / Smith Oltega

Partnerships for forest conservation and restoration

Key to the success of this project is that it is built on long-term collaborations and partnerships that support forest conservation and restoration. One such partnership is with the Hammerbacher family, a German furniture company. In 2022, Hammerbacher and FSC signed a partnership agreement to support the project to restore and conserve 250 ha of forest. The area selected for the project will allow the absorption of approximately 1,800 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) on a long-term average, equivalent to the company’s CO2 emissions.

Other restoration partners in the project include Danish Forestry Extension (DFE) and Grow For It.