Climate Witness: Mbiwo Constantine Kusebahasa, Uganda
I am a farmer on the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. I started farming around 1954; we would plant our crops and get good harvest. We grow maize, beans, sweet potatoes, cassava, and vegetables. However, starting in the 1970’s, I started to notice gradual changes in our environment.
Changing our farming practices
We used to have two planting seasons. The first was in March-April and the second was in July-August. But now, planting our crops as we used to earlier is no more. Now we start planting in September, hoping that the rains would come and our crops would flourish. We have been forced to adapt to cope with the changing weather patterns.
Decline of snow on the mountains
We used to have white stuff (glaciers and snow) that was spreading all over the mountain tops. It was clearly visible from the foothills. That is where we thought the rains came from. However, all the glaciers have disappeared!
Rise of malaria
When I was young, this area was very cold. We needed heavy blankets to keep warm, especially during the night. Now the area is much warmer. Before the 1970’s, we did not know what malaria was. The mosquitoes that spread malaria are thriving due to the higher temperatures. At present, there are many cases of malaria in the Kasese area.
Stretching across an area 112km long and 48km wide along the borders of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the Rwenzori Mountains. The mountains’ glaciers and biodiversity are spectacular and a marvel to behold. Rivers emerging from the glaciers provide life-sustaining freshwater to wildlife, livestock and communities over an even larger area.
Agriculture has formed the principle livelihood of the Bakonjo–a tough and friendly people living in the mountains. The Bakonjo owe their existence to the Rwenzori Mountains. In fact, Rwenzori is derived from “Rwenzururu”; “people belonging to snow”.
For the community around here, they are noticing physical evident signs of change in the environment. The once clearly visible snow and glaciers on the peaks of the Rwenzori are slowly but surely receding, quite a distressing phenomenon for Constantine.
According to a scientific survey, the glaciers of the Rwenzori Mountains have reduced from 650 hectares in 1906 to about 105 hectares in 2005.
Below is a transcript from a speech Mbiwo gave at Greenaccord 2009
"I am Mbiwa Constantine Isebahasa, 73 years old, married and I have a family. My education level is primary. I am an environmentalist of goodwill. I am glad to have been invited to participate in this event.
I have lived in the Rwenzori region, at the foot of the mountains, since I was a child and I am very much aware of the changes that have taken place within the region. Rwenzori region is a range of mountains that harbours the National park, water sources, forests, settlements, cultural sites and is a source of rain. Rwenzori Mountains are the highest in Uganda and has glaciers at the peak. It covers 3 districts in Uganda and a small part crosses to Congo. In this region, the effects of climate change are evident.
As last as 1958, glaciers could cover 100% of the mountain peaks and could be seen every morning, after raining and whenever the sky was clear. Margherita, Stanley, Speke and other small peaks were always covered with glaciers. Rains were regular, longer and predictable. First season planting of crops used to start on 25th of February to 15th March, while the second season could start 25th of July to 15th August. No one feared to plant because seasons were not changing. In a year, 9 months could receive rains; December, February, March, April, May, August, September, October, and November.
Crop yields were high and there had never been famine, and no one could use fertilisers or sprays on any of the crops. Dry season were shorter; only 3 months in a year. Usually, January, June and July. Forests were only indigenous and used to cover 80% of the area and all ridges and river lines were forested. Exotic species of trees were not common. Rivers had such big volumes of water throughout the year that only adults could cross at a few points and only in a dry season. Mountain people never suffered from diseases like malaria.
Today, however, glaciers are rare to see. One must stand on one of a very few sites in order to see glaciers. Peaks are often seen bare. Its now by chance they can be seen maybe twice a year. Some people have spent 4 years in the region and have never got the chance of seeing the glaciers. Others see them only when they climb far up the mounts at about 4500m above sea level.
Rain seasons have reduced to 5 months in a year. It rains in April, May, September, October and November. Even there are little rains and seasons are not predictable, this year it comes in April, next year in may not come at all, or comes towards the end of May. Crops are failing every year due to prolonged dry seasons. Most crops are attacked by pests also. Dry season now takes 7 months in a year. In fact to us farmers drought is our big indicator of climate change because it affects us badly. Now we face lack of food and money because of too much drought.
Indigenous forests have all been cut down except the few in the park which the government protects. Now exotic trees like Eucalyptus cover 1% of the area. River volumes have reduced most of the year to a level that children of 5 years can cross them and some wells have dried. Malaria is everywhere.
Due to poverty, managing of this situation has become difficult, because most of the people in that region are jobless. We keep in advocating to the youth to take initiative in preserving our environment by planting trees along the water catchments areas and reclaim the deforested areas occupied by human settlement, by resettling them away from those areas. We also appeal to the local honey gatherers to keep away from the mountains and the forest areas surrounding because they are the major source of mountain and forest lives.
Farmers cope by planting drought tolerant crops like fruits and perennial crops, and using fertilisers and sprays. The planting of early maturing crops has helped, and we have diverted some rivers for irrigation.
We think the cause of these problems is global climate change due to gases from industrialised countries, from industries, vehicles, green house gases, testing of smoke from war areas, shells and all types of war activities.
Increased human activity in the mountain region is also having an impact, with people grazing cattle along the mountains and forested areas, as well as sporting activities such as racing, mountain climbing, creating much passage way towards the mountains. The draining of swamps and cutting all trees for uses such as firewood in lime factories, or simply to clear land for building in the region has also had an impact.
To combat these changes, we need to put a stop all the cutting of trees along with mountain and the forest surrounding it, and every effort should be done to educate the local to use local methods of preventing those areas. Planting all bare hills with trees and shifting away from using wood products to gas for firewood, or metal items could help save our forests.
The International community should come up with good programs to help the poor nations to manage the resources from the local to International level without exploitation. To look for technology that will match the gap between the civilised and the evolving civilisations of developing countries, e.g. motor vehicle industries should make vehicles which are not environment polluters. Industries should have mechanism to stop those smoke from getting into our atmosphere.
Malaria is the major killer in the region so as to curve this menace the preventive method should be put in place; e.g. eradication of mosquitoes.
I wish this meeting will save this problem of glacier melting of the sake of the future generations.
For God and my Country,
Mbiwa Constantine Isebahasa
From Kasese Rwenzori region, Uganda"