Unforced Errors Committed in the Struggle to Protect the Environment

By Okot Nyormoi

Unforced Error

Before 1986, Acholiland was well endowed with vegetation, and the people used it judiciously without causing any large-scale deforestation. However, in the last 50 years, especially during the 20-year war (1986-2006) between the National Resistance Army (NRA) led by Yoweri Museveni and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony, some military officers began to exploit the pristine forests for lucrative charcoal and timber businesses while the inhabitants were horded in the internally displaced people’s camps where movement outside the camps was strictly forbidden.

Since then, illegal deforestation has steadily worsened, especially with the discovery of new markets in neighboring countries including Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda. Yet, Uganda has consented to the Action Plans to protect the environment adopted at international Conventions. Moreover, Uganda has all the requisite institutions (National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), National Forest Authority (NFA) and other law enforcement agencies) to honor its international and national obligations  to protect the environment. Even more puzzling is the audacity of some of the people in the charcoal business who declare openly that the illegal charcoal business cannot be stopped.

Consequently, many people are wondering why it seems so difficult to stop the illegal charcoal business, arrogantly named the new black gold. Unfortunately, like the story of the seven men and the elephant, touching one part of the problem does not lead to a comprehensive understanding of the illegal charcoal business. Also, actions based on a limited understanding of the problem will most likely dampen the enthusiasm to work diligently to stop the charcoal business from degrading the environment.

Two critical historical events were cited as the most likely basis of the disgraceful apathy of the 37-year-old National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime towards efforts to stop the illegal charcoal business. To be fair, there are additional contributing factors this article will focus on, errors often committed by some of the most dedicated environmental activists. These errors are analogous to unforced errors in tennis. Basically, they are self-inflicted wounds. To make matters worse, instead of accepting responsibility and correcting them, some players ignore or blame them on something or somebody else, thus making it even more difficult, if not impossible to win.

So, how does the idea of unforced errors help us understand why it is difficult to stop the charcoal business despite the government ban on deforestation in northern Uganda? A few examples will help to illustrate the concept of unforced errors committed by some well-intentioned environmental vigilantes.

An important example of unforced error is over-generalization in which the illegal actions of individuals who own or work for the charcoal business are without evidence, treated as the acts of the whole ethnic group of the individuals. This error is similar to racism based on the color of the skin and not the character of a person who may be innocent but is convicted for someone else’s crime by association. A common refrain is, “Baganda are destroying our forests” without even considering or knowing that the charcoal business involves people of diverse ethnicity including Acholi as evidence has now shown.

Unforced errors committed by the use of ill-chosen words and phrases like “anyanya”, “biological substances”, “kasolo” or “A good Muganda is a dead Muganda”, “You can’t trust those people”, “Those people are killers”, etc. will make it harder to unite with other people, who might even be victims of environmental degradation. Additionally, it will fuel pre-existing animosity between people of different regions and ethnicity. To make matters worse, people who know better often do not bother to reject and refrain from using such toxic and derogatory words and phrases. Instead, they continue to use them as a quick and easy way to mobilize members of an ethnic group against the perceived ethnic enemy.

Another important unforced error is dismissiveness of potential allies outside the immediate problem area. For example, some activists are quick to reject potentially  helpful suggestions simply because they were allegedly developed in the comfort of the person’s home in the Diaspora. By so doing, they fail to realize that  it is the content and intent of the opinion which is important and not the locality of its origin.

Dismissing opinions from outside the theater of struggle is like rejecting information from a person who  sees individual trees in the immediate surroundings or from someone who can only see the general outline of the forest from a distance, none of which is a sufficient description of forests. Therefore, based on this forest scenario, it is counterproductive to dismiss any opinion or help based on its origin instead of its content.  

Unrealistic expectation of a quick victory based on highly exaggerated self-importance, physical and mental strength, while subjectively underrating the perceived enemy. Thus, upon encountering unexpected resistance, some activists become discouraged and give up the struggle. While it is desirable to stop the charcoal business as soon as possible, it is also important to be aware that the struggle will have  its ups and downs. Otherwise, resorting to the adage, if you cannot fight them, join them, will certainly make it easier for the illegal charcoal business to continue as usual.

Another common unforced error arises from the mistaken notion that all politics is bad based mainly on electoral politics. Consequently, many citizens do not want to engage in it. Unfortunately, even if they are right about politics being bad, they fail to realize that without participating in the various ways of the political process, they cannot influence the quality of the process, the behavior of elected officials or the policies they make for the people. Otherwise, withdrawing from participation in any form of politics amounts to conceding one’s power to influence decisions which, in this case, may make it harder to implement even the recent executive order banning deforestation for making charcoal.

Though it is difficult to participate in sports or politics without making some unforced errors, they can be largely avoided by thinking critically to determine whether any action we intend to take will advance or undermine the effort, in this case, to stop the illegal charcoal trade and save the environment. Equally important is the willingness to accept responsibilities for mistakes made and to correct them to avoid repeating them.