[ct]Decentralization and Forest Management in Uganda
Steve Amooti Nsita
Local governments in Uganda manage 5,000 ha of local forest reserves and oversee the
forests on private lands, which constitute 70 per cent of Uganda’s forests. Ten years
after the decentralization process was introduced in Uganda, it has not really embraced
forests. The problem was that it was not tried out long enough to generate confidence on
both sides (central government and local governments) and allow time for the local
governments to build their capacity. Friction between the central government’s Forestry
Department and local governments continues because the laws governing local
governments and those governing forestry have not clarified whether forests are
decentralized or not. The ensuing confusion has led to deterioration of forests through
illegal harvesting and encroachment for agriculture and settlement. Local forest reserves
created in 1998 were not transferred to local governments with corresponding resources
to manage them. Therefore, they did not take up the responsibility. These reserves also
became heavily encroached. Decentralization has inspired almost no public or private
investment at the forest level. However, definable individual financial benefits indicate
the beginnings of private capital investment in forestry.
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Uganda (population 24.7 million people) covers a total surface area of 241,038 km2.
Subsistence farmland covers 41 per cent of the land area; forests cover 24 per cent; and
bush land, 7 per cent. The remaining 28 per cent is grasslands, water, swamps and built
areas (Ministry of Water, Lands and Environment 2002). Forests cover 4.9 million ha
and consist primarily (81 per cent) of woodlands (4 m in height but less than 30 per cent
canopy cover), with tropical high forests (19 per cent) and plantations (less than 1 per
Thirty per cent of the forests are managed by government agencies (the Forestry
Department, which has been reconfigured as the National Forestry Authority), local
governments and the Uganda Wildlife Authority. The permanent forest estate is
composed of 1.9 million ha, representing about 9 per cent of the total land area of
Uganda (Ministry of Water, Lands and Environment 2001). It covers all forest reserves
(1.2 million ha) and forested areas in national parks (0.7 million ha). Seventy percent of
the forests are to be found on private lands.
Forestry agency reports show that 50 per cent of the tropical high forests on private
lands are degraded, and 17 per cent of those in protected areas are degraded. The main
reasons for the degradation include harvesting for timber, firewood and charcoal,
encroachment for agriculture and human settlement. Forest industries are small-scale
and owned almost entirely by Ugandans. Markets are also largely domestic, although
there are increasing exports of value-added forest products, especially within the region.
It has become apparent that efforts to promote responsible forest management should be
directed at owners of private lands with forests.
Forest management in Uganda has been decentralized and recentralized a number of
times since independence in 1962, as different governments adopted different policies.
Until the late 1990s, forest management in Uganda was mainly a public matter, more or
less confined to forest reserves.
Before 1967, there was a vibrant local forestry service, which ran local forest reserves,
especially under the kingdoms that had built strong, coherent government systems. At
that time, local governments had powers to decide on development priorities for their
areas. Nevertheless, the central government was still responsible for managing some of
the forest reserves.
In 1967, the Ugandan government adopted a republican constitution, which centralized
virtually all government decisionmaking powers. Consequently, all local forest reserves
became central forest reserves.
In 1993, the government adopted the policy of decentralization. But it soon became clear
that local governments were not yet ready to assume all forest management
responsibilities. Needing revenue to run more urgent activities like education, water and
health, which had also been decentralized, they set about harvesting the forests with little
consideration for planned management.
The forest reserves were therefore recentralized in 1995, but this time through subsidiary
legislation rather than the principal law. This turned out to be a rather unpopular move.
Local governments challenged the legal basis (albeit outside the law courts) for
recentralizing the forest reserves and maintained pressure on the central government to
decentralize them again.
In 1995, Uganda adopted a new constitution. The Constitution fully embraced the 1993
decentralization policy, but it remained ambivalent regarding management of forests.
Since then the local governments have been asking the central government to hand over
all forest reserves to them, arguing (probably correctly) that the law vested only policy
in the central government. The Forestry Department replied that the local governments
did not have the capacity and sufficient will to manage the reserves professionally.
The National Forestry and Tree Planting Act of 2003 maintained the 1998 state of affairs
but this time it created the semi-autonomous National Forestry Authority. Whereas the
Forestry Department had been responsible for all aspects of forestry in the country, the
new agency would manage only the central forest reserves. Indications are that local
governments may go along with this approach.
The results of all these changes have been mixed. Following independence, the local
forest reserves were run efficiently, as were all other government activities. Up to the
mid-1970s, the forest reserves were well managed even though they were centralized.
Thereafter, efficiency depended on available resources from the central government. The
forest reserves have never been decentralized long enough to permit judgments about the
impact of decentralization on sustainable forest management. Other decentralized
sectors – notably health, education and roads – still depend on grants from the central
government, which maintains a strong influence on how things are run at the local level.
Forestry is not likely to be different until local governments have built sufficient revenue
bases of their own.
[a]Decentralization in Uganda
The most widely understood form of decentralization in Uganda is devolution of
financial and decisionmaking powers to subnational structures at various levels. For
rural areas, the hierarchy of local governments descends from district (the main
subnational administrative level) to county, subcounty, parish and finally village. In
urban areas, the levels are city, city division, municipal council, town council, ward and
Article 176 (b) of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, 1995, states,
decentralization shall be a principle applying to all levels of local government and in
particular, from higher to lower local government units to ensure peoples’
participation and democratic control in decision making.
Consequently, the purpose of the Local Governments Act, 1997, is as follows:
…to give effect to the decentralization and devolution of functions, powers and
services; to provide for decentralization at all levels of Local Governments; to ensure
good governance and democratic participation in, and control of decision making by
Although deconcentration transfers most of the day-to-day activities from the central
government, all major decisions are still made there. The Forestry Department has been
operating along those lines for a long time. For example, district forest officers
undertake most operational responsibilities, like forest management planning, budgeting
and supervision of forest-level fieldwork, but the forest management plans and budgets
have to be approved by the head of the Forestry Department in Kampala.
The general objectives of decentralization in Uganda are as follows (Kato 1997):
** to transfer real power to the districts and thus reduce the load on remote and
underresourced central government officials;
** to bring political and administrative control over services to the point where they are
actually delivered, and thus reduce competition for power at the center and improve
accountability and effectiveness;
** to free local managers from central constraints and thus allow them to develop
organizational structures tailored to local circumstances;
** to improve financial accountability and responsibility by establishing a clear link
between payment of taxes and the provision of the services they finance;
** to restructure government machinery to make the administration of the country more
** to create a democracy that brings about more efficiency and productivity in the state
machinery by involving people at all levels.
[a]Legal Developments Shaping Decentralization
Until the late 1990s management of forests was largely a function of the central
government. Planned management has been practiced almost entirely only in the forest
reserves. There was virtually no planned management of forests on private lands until
private companies and individuals started to acquire permits to grow their own forest
plantations in grassland forest reserves in the mid-1990s.
Before 1967, when the government abolished the federal constitution written at
independence, most of the forest reserves were managed through decentralized
mechanisms. The mechanisms were mainly the deconcentration type, in which district
officials did most of the work without central oversight, provided the annual plans and
budgets were approved and adhered to. Financial allocations were done through
departmental warrants from the central government after the plans and budgets had been
approved. Barring significant variations in the annual work plan, districts usually
operated more or less independently. At that time there were vibrant local governments,
which had built coherent systems from the colonial days: they planned and executed all
the activities in the districts, they collected and disbursed revenue, they hired and fired
their own staff, and they even had their own salary structure, different from that of civil
servants in the central government.
In 1967, the government adopted a republican constitution, which centralized virtually
all government decisionmaking powers. All forest reserves were now managed by the
Forestry Department, and the local governments were stripped of all decisionmaking
powers in matters of forest management, including forests on public lands.
At this time, Uganda had one of the best forest management services in Africa. Though
management was centralized, the forest reserves were well run. Things started going
wrong when the government was overthrown by the military in 1971.
In 1993, the government fully embarked on the decentralization process through the
Local Governments (Resistance Councils) Statute 1993. This statute decentralized
forests. However, it soon became apparent that the local governments were not prepared
to engage in professional forest management. They saw forests as sources of revenue to
fund development activities in other sectors like health, education and roads that had
been decentralized (cf Indonesia, Chapter 7).
As a result, forests were recentralized in December 1995 under Statutory Instrument No.
52. By now, local officials had become fully aware of their powers, and the electorate
valued its power to influence government decisions. People began encroaching on forest
reserves with the tacit consent of their elected leaders, and illegal harvesters openly dealt
in forest products (especially timber and charcoal). Soon, some of the Forestry
Department staff, finding themselves working against political forces that force their
removal from office, quietly joined the elected leaders to collude with encroachers and
illegal forest products dealers.
Since then, the Forestry Department has never managed to reverse this state of affairs. In
fact, most of the serious cases of encroachment and illegal harvesting in Uganda today
started or expanded considerably during the election periods. The intractable
encroachment problems in South Busoga and Luwunga reserves grew. For example,
even after the government had won a court case against the encroachers in Luwunga, the
local political leaders made it impossible for court orders to be carried out, and thus
decentralized powers caused a miscarriage of justice.
That is probably why the Constitution of 1995 is ambivalent regarding management of
forests. One clause authorizes ‘…Government or local government as determined by
parliament by law…’ to hold forests in trust for the people of Uganda. Another leaves
forest and game reserve policy and the ‘environment’ with the central government but
without mentioning forests. Thus, forests are among ‘any other functions and services
not specified,’ whose management then falls to the district councils.
The legislators failed to take a decisive constitutional stand. They understood the need
for forest protection but they also could not openly stand against the people who had
elected them. The constitutional process failed to resolve the social aspects of
sustainable forest management.
Because the local governments never really accepted the recentralization that took place
just before the Constitution was promulgated, the Local Government Act, 1997,
specifically mentions forests as a function of local governments. This effectively
decentralized the forests again. The government then created central and local forest
reserves in an attempt to appease local governments and their tacit supporters at the
central level. But the areas involved were small: the 192 local reserves totaled just under
5,000 ha, compared with 542 central reserves totaling 1,455,130 ha. Thus the impasse
was not resolved and the social standoff between staff and people living near the forest
In July 1993, the Traditional Rulers (Restitution of Assets and Properties) Statute would
have paved the way for the traditional rulers to reclaim the forests that belonged to their
kingdoms before 1967. But the traditional rulers do not have legal authority to hold
forest reserves because the Local Government Act does not legally define traditional
institutions as local governments. Consequently, in 2001, an executive order under a
memorandum of understanding between the central government and authorities of
Bunyoro Kingdom providing for the return of some forest reserves to the king could not
be implemented. Although the head of the Forestry Department gave the kingdom
authorities written permission to take over management of a reserve, the government’s
Solicitor General advised that the kingdom could not hold any reserves in trust for the
people of Uganda. However, the Forestry Department did not have sufficient political
backing to reclaim the reserve. Taking advantage of the impasse, the kingdom simply
continued timber harvesting in an uncontrolled manner, resulting in the degradation of
the forest plantation to the financial advantage of a few individuals (cf conclusions in
Chapter 4, on this issue).
Not even the Forestry Policy, 2001, was decisive. For example, it says,
…efforts will be made to clarify the role of local governments in management of
forest resources…Any ambiguities and contradictions in the provisions of the
Constitution, the Local Governments Act and the Land Act with respect to the
role of districts in forest sector development will be addressed.
The National Forests and Tree Planting Act, 2003, attempted to clarify these ambiguities
by distinguishing among central forest reserves (to be managed by the National Forestry
Authority), local reserves and community forests (to be managed by local governments)
and private forests. Now the local governments can directly collect and use revenue that
used to go to the consolidated account of the central government.
It is still too early to tell how the new policy and law will affect forest management.
However, the parties involved seem to have been satisfied with these arrangements.
Heated discussions will arise when it comes to apportioning the reserves between the
local governments and the National forestry Authority, but when that is agreed, all
parties may start to cooperate on the path to sustainable forest management.
[a]Other Legal and Institutional Frameworks
[b]Land Act, 1998
Deriving from Article 237 of the 1995 Constitution, the Land Act vests ownership of
land in the citizens of Uganda, but as stated earlier, the central and local governments
can hold forest reserves and other natural resources on behalf of all Ugandans. Local
officials may ask the central government to manage any of their resources, but so far,
none have formally invoked this constitutional provision.
In exercising their right to manage these resources, the central and local governments
‘…shall not lease out or otherwise alienate any natural resource…’ they hold in trust for
the people. However, they may grant licenses, concessions or permits for use of the
The act empowers people to use the land they own in any way subject to other existing
laws. In terms of forestry, the laws most commonly referred to are those dealing with
forests, the environment and wildlife. People can also access forest reserves for user
rights, but the reserves cannot be degazzetted without approval of parliament.
The Act establishes land boards at the district level and land committees at parish levels
to deal with transfer of ownership, conflict resolution, allocation of land not owned by
anybody and review of compensation rates, among other issues. Most of the powers and
responsibilities formerly exercised at the center have now been decentralized.
Because of unanticipated financial implications, implementation of some aspects was
delayed. Therefore, it is still too early to gauge the impact of the Act on sustainable
forest management. However, what is clear is that many municipal and town councils
are putting considerable pressure on the Forestry Department to degazette reserves in
urban areas. The law allows this but requires approval by Parliament. No local
government has thus far asked Parliament for approval, but they have tacitly allowed the
urban reserves to be developed: built areas are more desirable than open lands in urban
[b]Environment Management Statute, 1995
The Environmental Management Statute creates the National Environment Management
Authority and makes it responsible for ensuring that activities are conducted in an
environmentally friendly manner. It provides for establishment of local government
environment committees to coordinate activities at various local levels.
The statute provides for voluntary tree growing for environmental purposes by
landowners. However, if an environment committee considers an area at risk of
environmental degradation, it may compel the owners to plant trees.
In effect, the statute decentralizes a lot of powers to local governments through the
environment committees. However, the National Environment Management Authority
can intervene should local institutions and individuals fail to fulfill their responsibilities.
The statute links into the Forests Act by providing for management of all forests in
accordance with the principle of sustainable development. It establishes a relationship
between the National Environment Management Authority and the lead agency in
forestry (currently the Forestry Department). This relationship is now not clear because
the new forest law establishes many ‘lead agencies’.
Although most of the local government levels have created environment committees in
place, they remain largely ineffective because members are not compensated. The
environment thus remains a popular subject only during public rallies: actually
preventing environmentally harmful timber harvesting or cultivation of wetlands is still
highly unpopular. Local political leaders find it appropriate to look the other way if their
constituents are violating the environmental laws.
[b]Uganda Wildlife Statute, 1996
The statute defines wildlife as ‘any wild plant or wild animal of a species native to
Uganda…’ and vests ‘…ownership of every wild animal and wild plant existing in its
wild habitat in Uganda…’ in the government for the benefit of the people of Uganda.
This seems to centralize management of all natural vegetation under the Uganda
Wildlife Authority. In practice, the Authority manages wild animals (even on private
lands) but manages only plants that are in national parks and wildlife reserves.
In essence, the responsibilities of wildlife management are centralized. However, the
statute also empowers local government to appoint committees to advise the Uganda
Wildlife Authority on the management and utilization of wildlife within the local
jurisdiction. Such committees play an advisory role, and getting them to advise a central
authority is often more easily said than done.
[b]Ambiguities in the Laws
The ambiguities in the laws have resulted in struggles between the Forestry Department
and the local governments to control the forest reserves. Relations between the central
government agency and some districts are strained, and cooperation in forest protection
remains at arm’s length. The Forestry Department is demonized at many political rallies,
especially during elections. Local political leaders often lend covert support to
unscrupulous individuals in their bid to assume personal ownership of reserves, and
there is persistent pressure, often from individuals, to degazette the reserves for other
[b]The Forest Sector Reform Process
The government decided to reform the forestry sector in 1998, although stakeholders had
been discussing the subject since 1995. A sector review was carried out followed by
participatory processes, which resulted in the Forest Policy of 2001 and the National
Forestry and Tree Planting Act of 2003. These instruments provided for institutional
reform, leading to institutionalization of responsibilities for managing forests to four
principal actors: the National Forestry Authority, the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the
local governments and private forest owners. The responsibilities of local officials and
private forest owners have been vested in the District Forest Services, the forest
management arm of the local governments.
The most difficult aspect of this reform process has been reaching agreement on the
institutional setup of the National Forestry Authority and the District Forest Service. As
a result, staff morale within the Forestry Department collapsed, and it became very
difficult to maintain discipline in forest management at field level. Opportunists in the
private and public sector took advantage of this state of flux to wreak havoc on the
forests. Local communities used their voting power to coerce politicians into supporting
their illegal encroachment on forest reserves. The forest resource suffered so heavily that
many people were asking whether the reform (which is far from complete) had been
worth the damage.
[b]Financing Sustainable Forest Management
[c]Public financing. Many forestry activities are being funded by the government and its
development partners. This kind of financing is now steadily being transferred to budget
support and will be spent through basket and sectorwide mechanisms. Unfortunately,
forestry is likely to lose out to education, health, roads, agriculture and other sectors that
have higher priority for the government. This state of affairs is likely to be similar at the
local levels when decentralization of forest management finally takes root.
Notwithstanding the autonomous decisionmaking powers of local governments, most of
their budget (up to 90 per cent in many districts) still comes from the central government
through grants and donor funds. Therefore, their priorities mirror those of the central
government, and even districts whose forests are a potential source of revenue are hardly
investing in the development of the resource.
In fact, many local officials complain that when the central government created local
forest reserves, it did not transfer a corresponding amount of resources (salaries and
operational funds) to enable effective management. Since there was little to harvest in
these reserves, they remained largely unmanaged, and worse, many suffered further
However, donor funding can now be channeled directly through the district
governments. Forestry has benefited, but this kind of funding is limited to a few districts
with special circumstances, such as refugees and susceptibility to natural disasters.
However, when the new District Forestry Service becomes fully operational, there is
more chance that more public funding will go to the districts. They will also be able to
collect more forestry revenues.
[c]Revenue sharing with local governments. In 1996 the government allowed the
Forestry Department to leave 40 per cent of the gross revenue collected from forest
products directly at the districts. It was hoped that this would encourage reinvestment of
forestry revenues directly in the local areas where it had been generated. And if properly
collected and reinvested, the share for the district governments could have a substantial
impact. For example, 40 per cent of the revenue from royalties on roundwood for timber
from pine plantations alone for July–December 2003 was Uganda Shs. 400 million (US$
1 = Ushs. 1960 in November 2003).
In districts with appreciable revenue from forests, the popularity of the local district
forest officer increased, but after complaints from the communities living near forests
that they were not seeing the money, district officials started to finance some forestry
activities – mainly vehicles for the officers and subsistence allowances for a few staff.
Some districts have started funding nurseries at local levels from development grants
that come from the central government. Progress is steady, although the pace could have
[c]Community investment. Where there were clear financial benefits for individuals,
they invested their own resources. In Bushenyi District, the local timber harvesting
association tracks down illegal timber dealers and reports them to Forestry Department
staff. They are motivated by the increase in timber prices, which means more profits for
their members on the sale of legally harvested timber.
The need for public financing remains, if the people are to see the long-term, less
tangible benefits and dig into their pockets to invest in forest management. Given their
poverty, the argument must be more than just the ‘greater good’ premise. Income-
generating and community projects (like school furniture or a local clinic) have been
tried, but there is no documented evidence that they inspire good forest management.
Decentralization as a principle and practice of managing society’s business has taken
hold in Uganda, but foresters are still apprehensive, and the local governments do not
trust the intentions of progressive transfer of forest reserves as the law provides. The
indisputable meeting point of all levels of government will be at the grassroots
community. Therefore, activities at this level are likely to gradually remove the mistrust,
particularly if the focus is on improving peoples’ lives.
Landownership seems to be closely intertwined with user rights. Most people do not
want to have only rights to use the forest; they also want to own the land and be able to
change land use at will. In pursuit of this objective, voters are taking advantage of their
powers to coerce politicians into supporting them in their quest for private ownership of
the lands on which forest reserves and other protected areas are located. Local officials
are more susceptible to this coercion than their colleagues at the center. Therefore, the
solution may lie in keeping critical forest ecosystems under central control, with the
National Forestry Authority (cf Chapter 6). However, more forest reserves should be
given to local governments to make it worth their while to plan and manage them. The
current sharing of 5,000 ha does not give the 56 district governments incentive to pursue
Responsibility for the local forest reserves was given to local governments in 1998, but
corresponding resources for their management did not follow. Technical staff remained
at the center, and the districts were to call on them for advice. But the districts wanted
their own staff from whom they could demand services. Although the Local
Government Act empowered them to hire staff, forestry was not a top priority in the face
of a financial squeeze. The District Forestry Service under the current law will make it
possible for the government to provide salaries to the basic forestry staff at the local
An incentive scheme is needed for private owners of forests. Estimates show that 50 per
cent of the natural forests are degraded. Investment is therefore needed in restoration
work and responsible management of what natural forest remains. Affirmative action in
providing forestry management grants to local governments is needed because forests
produce important public benefits like watershed protection and soil conservation.
Nevertheless, some districts are beginning to finance forestry for community
development. They are starting nurseries (albeit very small ones) to supply tree seedlings
to local people, often free of charge. If the central government is serious about
decentralizing forests, it will be necessary to condition some of its revenue sharing on
developments like these. This is how it started with the other sectors.
The decentralization process in Uganda is succeeding in education, health, roads and
agriculture – sectors that are top priority for the central government. Forestry is low on
the list for local governments as well. Unless the forests are decentralized together with
the resources to manage them, the local governments are not likely to pay attention to
them beyond harvesting them for revenue.
The process of decentralizing forest management should acknowledge that mistakes may
be made by governments at both levels. What the decentralization process should do is
to limit the extent (temporal and spatial) and concentrate on building confidence among
the major players. In due course, the local governments will build their capacity and
confidence, and the central government will come to appreciate the benefits of sharing
forest management responsibility.
In any case, forests in fragile ecosystems often do not yield sufficient profits to compete
favourably with land-use sectors like agriculture. Therefore, the central government will
have to target funding, whether through local governments or through semi-autonomous
bodies like the National Forestry Authority or the Uganda Wildlife Authority. That is
one of the reasons why the authority to hold forests in trust for the people of Uganda
was placed at the two levels of government.
The ongoing process of revising the Constitution may remove the current ambiguities in
the laws governing forests. This will then make it more plausible for the responsible
institutions to work diligently at capacity development for sustainable forest
Kato, D (1997) ‘Uganda’s Experience in the Use of Service Delivery Surveys’, paper
delivered to Eighth International Anti-Corruption Conference, Lima, Peru
Ministry of Water, Lands and Environment: Uganda Forestry Policy, Kampala
[au]Steve Amooti Nsita (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now a Coordinator, Natural Forest
Management, National Forestry Authority, P.O. Box 70863 Kampala, Uganda.