Uganda’s forests are disappearing. He’s fighting back.

Why We Wrote This

Around the world, environmental activists are often targeted for speaking out. Where does the courage to keep going come from? For some, it’s the idea that we don’t really own this earth; we take care of it for the next generation.

Liam Taylor
William Amanzuru looks at a felled Afzelia africana (African mahogany) tree in Adjumani district. The Ugandan government has banned the cutting of this species.

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Uganda has lost more than 60% of its forest cover in the last 30 years. Ask about why, and fingers often point to the little guy: a poor man with an ax clearing land for farming, or a refugee woman collecting firewood.

But much of deforestation, environmental workers say, is thanks to a lucrative, illegal logging trade. Speaking out can bring harassment – but William Amanzuru is undeterred.

Mr. Amanzuru’s network, Friends of Zoka, is determined to protect the Zoka Forest, near the border with South Sudan. In March, he and a handful of companions spent 14 days walking to raise awareness, visiting schools, churches, and mosques along the way. Deforestation has scrambled weather patterns here, where most people are farmers struggling with rains that come too soon, too late, or not at all. 

It can be dangerous work, but Mr. Amanzuru’s loved ones are his inspiration. “When I look into the faces of my children, I ask myself: Is this the world I will leave for them?” he says.

“Friends of Zoka is all of us,” says Stephen Drani, paramount chief of the main ethnic group in Adjumani District, where the forest lies. “We are just custodians. [The environment] belongs to the dead and it belongs to the unborn.”

When a tree falls in the woods, William Amanzuru hears it. 

Illegal logging is big business in northern Uganda, where clusters of trees dot the sunbaked grasslands. And Mr. Amanzuru listens for it all: every roar of a chain saw, every shady deal.

His network, which calls itself Friends of Zoka, stretches from his home district of Adjumani to villages on the far side of the Nile. They share news by phone and on WhatsApp, tracking a trade they say involves soldiers, officials, and tycoons. 

Roughly 63% of Uganda’s forest was cut down between 1990 and 2015, according to a report from Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment. Meanwhile, deforestation has added to climate change and scrambled local weather patterns. Most Ugandans are farmers, struggling with rains that come too soon, too late, or not at all.

The Zoka activists are all volunteers, and they face harassment for speaking out. Mr. Amanzuru, who also works as a policy officer for a small nongovernmental organization, gets death threats, and has moved his family hundreds of miles away for safety. 

His loved ones are his inspiration, he says. “When I look into the faces of my children, I ask myself: Is this the world I will leave for them? Because I inherited a better world from my dad. ... My entire life was dependent on the environment.”

Saving a forest

Ask about deforestation in Uganda, and fingers often point to the little guy: a poor man with an ax clearing land for farming, or a refugee woman collecting firewood. In Adjumani – where refugees from South Sudan almost outnumber Ugandan citizens – the competition for trees is intense. 

But Mr. Amanzuru encountered a more complex story in Zoka Forest, a state-managed reserve covering 24 square miles in Adjumani district. It was 2015, and he was trying to bridge community divides in the surrounding area, where the government was evicting people from a wildlife reserve.  

There was timber-cutting in the forest, he learned. But it was being led by work teams with machinery: bulldozers, crane loaders, power saws.  

“Now tell me,” he asks, “can a local person like me afford to hire equipment worth 2 billion shillings [$540,000] to be parked in the bush?”

And there was another puzzle. Although logging is prohibited in forest reserves, and although there are several roadblocks on the way to the capital, Kampala, his investigations revealed that much of the timber was making the journey unimpeded.

Mr. Amanzuru says the trade is controlled by army officers and businesspeople who use connections to buy off forestry officials, local functionaries, and the police.

His claims have some support. In 2016 the minister for the presidency, Esther Mbayo, told Parliament that 30% to 50% of the forest had been depleted, including by illegal lumbering that involved “security personnel, some politicians, [forest] officers, timber traders, charcoal dealers and the locals.” 

Stephen Galima, coordinator of natural forests management at the National Forestry Authority, says illegal logging in Zoka has been done “both by soldiers and the locals. ... There are those who use their positions for selfish gain.”

As they learned more, Mr. Amanzuru and his friends created Friends of Zoka to share news about the forest. They spoke on radio talk shows, visited local politicians, and campaigned against a rumored plan to sell off part of the forest to growers of sugar cane.

Last year a national television station came to Adjumani and interviewed Mr. Amanzuru. The reporters went undercover, tracked the journey of a log truck, and filmed the district police commander taking a bribe.

Mr. Amanzuru and Mr. Galima say that the destruction of Zoka has now been reduced, but illegal loggers have shifted to community lands outside the forest reserve, harvesting rare hardwoods that they export to China and Vietnam.

One morning, Mr. Amanzuru follows a tipoff, driving for an hour along ocher roads fringed with a hundred shades of green. 

A local man is scared to show him the logging site, but it is not hard to find the fallen tree. The government has banned the cutting of this species, Afzelia africana.

There is time for a few photographs, and then Mr. Amanzuru must leave. That evening men came to the village asking who had been looking at their trees, one of his informers tells him later.

“We are custodians”

Adjumani town, the district hub, is a small place: a few rows of shops that rapidly give way to maize fields. At restaurants, free bottles will appear at Mr. Amanzuru’s table, in attempts to coax him to give up his work. When cajolery fails, he says, loggers turn to hostile phone calls and physical threats.

Loggers become rich, explains James Anzo, a recent graduate who is part of the Friends of Zoka campaign. “Someone comes and tells you: ‘Why are you doing this. Don’t you want to get money? You are living in a grass-thatched house!’

“We believe it’s not living in a grass-thatched house but the values you subscribe to that matter.”

Mr. Amanzuru’s home has been broken into multiple times. Last year he pulled his children out of school after being warned of a plan to kidnap them, and his family made the painful decision to relocate to a distant part of the country.

Mr. Amanzuru is not alone, says Stephen Drani, paramount chief of the Madi, the main ethnic group in Adjumani. 

“Friends of Zoka is all of us,” he says. “It’s not just William and a few people, it’s all the Madi people. ... We are just custodians. [The environment] belongs to the dead and it belongs to the unborn.”

But Angelo Izama, a political analyst who knows Mr. Amanzuru well, warns of the challenge the activists face.

“I think their lasting legacy will be to make the ordinary person aware that the trees are important,” he says. “But it’s a whole kind of different activism to roll back these entrenched syndicates.

“This is not only about timber. The syndicates are doing other things: land grabbing, cattle theft, charcoal burning.”

Corrupt trade straddles the border with nearby South Sudan, he explains.

Mr. Amanzuru is undeterred. In March, with a handful of companions, he spent 14 days walking to Adjumani from Kampala, nearly 300 miles, to raise awareness of deforestation.

They planted a ceremonial tree at the environment ministry and then trod the dusty road north, holding meetings and visiting schools, churches, and mosques along the way. 

In May Mr. Amanzuru won a Human Rights Defenders’ Award, presented annually by the Norwegian ambassador and the European Union delegation in Uganda. Now, he is spending a few months in the Netherlands to get some respite from the threats, at the invitation of a Dutch nonprofit.

“The more I persist it may give courage for others to join,” he says. “I know it’s a fight I cannot finish, but my determination is that I can push it for somebody to come and start from where I’ll be leaving, and it continues. The environmental fight should not stop at this generation. It should be a mantle that we keep passing on.”

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