Monday, October 3, 2011

ENVIRONMENT OR BUSINESS? A DUBIOUS CHOICE

The palm plantations of Kalangala Islands have been in production for about two years now.

This year Oil Palm Uganda Ltd (OPUL) intends to extract 10,000 tonnes of crude palm oil and expect this figure to jump further to 15,000 tonnes in 2012. This is up from 4,000 in 2009.

The icing on the cake is that more than 1,000 farmers too have started growing palm to supply OPUL, the suppliers of BIDCO’s raw oil.

However, we should not forget the stiff resistance OPUL came under from the environmental lobby. They charged that by converting forest to palm plantation they were destroying a valuable natural resource and threatening climate patterns not only in Kalangala but in the region as a whole.

OPUL currently has a nucleus plantation of 5,930 hectares, while small holders and out-grower fields cover an additional 2,100 hectares.

But in order to have the sh20b mill working at full potential it needs to be fed with at least 20,000 hectares of palm fields.

One can expect that the environmentalists will fight against every additional hectare of land that OPUL will claim but may find little support on the islands.

On the surface of it, it seems that such issues of development have to be a fight between the government and investors on one side and the environmentalists on the other, but that need not be the case.

In fact in countries like ours where governments lack the capacity to protect the environment business can provide the solution. What is needed is for environmentalists to think like businessmen and businessmen think environmentalists and both parties do this in the context of the needs of the people populating these natural endowments.

The businessman is seeking to minimise costs and maximize revenue. The serious businessman is seeking to do this over the long term.

The environmentalist is seeking to conserve the environment, ideally in its natural form but the serious ones realize they will have to be some tradeoffs to accommodate the march of development.
The local inhabitant just wants to make a living for himself, and the needs of survival are often short term and very pressing.

The businessman therefore needs to recognise that a few concessions the environmental may demand, maybe costly in the short term but may pay off in the long term in terms of the harmonious operations and regeneration of the resource they are exploiting.

The environmentalist fitting himself into the profit making frame of mind of the businessman, will need to think how he can leverage the investors resources to conserve the environment without making it an odious cost to his business. For example the investor could finance environmental research and sponsor conservation initiatives.

And both should be thinking how to uplift the locals lives in the short to long term while making their natural environment an asset to them too.

It is all very nice to preach how by preserving the environment we can guard against climatic shocks in the future, but that thinking dows not wash with the man who has a wife(s) and children to feed and has decided burning charcoal is the only means within his reach to do so. But if you get him employed he may not need to be engaged in the back breaking job of charcoal firing.

Empowering local communities is working well in the tourism sector already.

If we are serious about conserving environment we have to do this in the context of fighting poverty. Solve the poverty issue and the environment will be spared.

By illustration of this, Kololo and Naguru Hills are separated by the two kilometer tarmac strip of the Lugogo bypass. Kololo hill is virtually a forest – as is Nakasero hill, while the poorer side of Naguru hill is denuded of trees. People have built on every square inch while probably cutting down a lot of trees for firewood.

The rich housewives appreciate the aesthetics of trees because they can afford to cook on gas or electric cookers. If they too were pressed with looking for firewood there would be no trees in their compounds too and their kitchen walls would be covered with a sooty grime.

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