13 December 2019
  • environmental activism
  • uganda
  • Natural Resources

Environmental Activism for Wildlife Protection in Uganda

William Leslie Amanzuru​​​​
William Leslie Amanzuru​​​​, Environmental activist & founder of Friends of Zoka
Photocredits: DefendDefenders 

Planetary Security Initiative met with William Leslie Amanzuru, an environmental activist from Uganda, to learn more about how local civil society organizations can fight against the consequences of climate change while working on building peace within communities.

William is the founder of Friends of Zoka (FoZ), a social community group operating in the Zoka forest reserve. FoZ advocates for sustainable resource management. It works on building civil understanding, raising awareness and seeking accountability regarding the illegal exploitation of increasingly scarce natural resources in the region, especially forest products.


1. What are the natural risks present in Uganda which can be exacerbated by climate change?

Climate change is a reality in Uganda, it is happening. We are witnessing drastic changes in the weather, some that are unprecedented. These include droughts,  flooding, mud, and landslides.

As a child, I had never seen a drought in my district but they are now a hard reality of Ugandans’ lives. Our financial capacities do not allow us to afford efficient irrigation systems. As a result, we cannot afford to overcome these droughts, therefore the ecosystem cannot balance itself anymore.

Ironically, we are also confronted with excessive rains, which is also an issue as their inordinate quantities break down people’s houses and lead to floods.

These extreme weather events are making it difficult for us to pursue our agricultural work, and needless to say, it opens the door to many issues.


2. What kind of conflicts related to the environment exist in your area (natural resources overexploitation, land grabbing, deforestation, etc.)? Would you say that climate change exacerbates risks of conflict in your areas and if so, how?

An important issue is the illegal (over)exploitation of natural resources. In the Zoka forest, the region where we operate,  illegal logging leads to dramatic environmental consequences and social consequences. Not only does it damage the environment, but it also prevents inhabitants from cultivating the lands, which exacerbate tensions and conflicts within and between communities. The government fails at providing an efficient framework to fight against these illegal operations.

My region hosts the largest number of refugees in Uganda. Part of them migrates because they suffer from a lack of opportunities in their home countries, due to a lack of resources to exploit for example. As a result, there are increasing tensions between refugees and local communities, since everyone claims to have a right over the exploitation of natural resources.

Shortages increase, and our traditional knowledge is threatened. Traditional medicine, for instance, is threatened given that medicinal plants stopped blossoming the way they used. We are not given new drugs to compensate, which makes it difficult to cure diseases. There are more and more shortages and we are having difficulties healing our people… It further increases inequalities among the population, between those who will have access to healthcare and basic vital services and those who cannot afford that. Ultimately, tensions within the population and between the population and the government increase, and so do conflicts.

The inability to grow crops is affecting communities beyond their incapacity to heal or feed themselves. These extreme weather events have deeply affected the way of living of the Ugandan people. Our identity is deeply rooted in Nature, as it is based on our ability to tilt and harvest our land to feed ourselves and our families. In our culture, nature is the source of everything and we are profoundly connected to it. In Europe, unless you are a farmer, you could spend your entire life without cultivating your food. In Uganda, it is a duty and it is intrinsic to our identity. Cultural values around the land are therefore being destroyed.

It is also creating tensions within households, as the man is not able to provide food anymore. A part of his identity is being taken away from him. A man who used to be a farmer now has to sit down and wait… It is hard for him to redefine his identity, and he is likely to take it onto his wife. And we are indeed noticing a correlation between prolonged droughts and the rise of domestic violence across communities. The identity of the couple related to the land disappears and tensions increase.

There is also an overall increase in criminality, in theft and robberies. As a child, I had never witnessed robberies, and now we have to lock our houses to protect our properties from being stolen. Once again, this is a factor for more tensions and conflicts between communities but also within communities. Climate change affects the entire circle.


3. Which actors involved in the (over)exploitation of natural resources in Uganda (multinational companies, militias, armed groups, etc)?

There is a multitude of actors responsible for illegal logging. There is the military, the governmental police, but also multinational companies (MNCs). It is quite difficult to gather the names and trace the origin of such MNCs. But we know that logs and timber, for instance, are exported to China, traveling for over 500km and passing through checkpoints from Adjumani to Kampala (Uganda)… How can the government miss this, given that it is not a discrete kind of merchandise? I think this is good evidence of malfunctions in the system and testifies of signs of corruption within the higher spheres of power. 


4. What is the government doing for preventing/mitigating and responding to these risks?

There is some sort of will on behalf of the government to address the issue of climate change, but it seems to be more about keeping up appearances. Recently, the government came up with some policies and consultations on the topic. But in reality, although policies are being drafted, they are far from being enacted and implemented. In Uganda, there is a need for an implementing arm that is crucially missing at the moment.  There are discussions but no comprehensive response mechanisms. We cannot seem to get passed the observational level. There is a real mismatch in ideological thinking, which prevents a holistic answer from being formulated. The ambiguous position of the government does not help in taking steps forward.


5. What does your work consist in/how do you help in addressing these issues (i.e. act on the environment issues directly, education of people, activism, etc)?

Friends of Zoka believe in peaceful means of fighting. Our particularity I believe, resides in our will to denounce people involved in the illegal exploitation of natural resources. We are extremely vocal, our uniqueness lays in our focus on calling people’s wrongdoings out and pointing out issues. Therefore, part of the work focuses on research and gathering evidence to prosecute the responsible and hold them accountable, rather than putting the blame on collective guilt.

Raising awareness in communities constitutes the other major aspect of our work. The main tool we use for this is social media, particularly WhatsApp. We use it to connect to people, make announcements, share links, raise awareness and maintain our network. We also reach out to our audience through newsletters,  radio talk shows, community dialogues, or meetings. We also use educative tools, such as training on climate and mitigation that we organize for the population itself, given that they are hit the hardest by the issue. Emotion drives our work. I personally think that climate change should be understood at an individual capacity level before a societal level. To me, climate change is an issue of identity: since people are impacted differently and directly by climate change, they will have an emotional reaction, which can trigger their engagement for the cause. At FoZ, we strongly believe in connecting the realities of climate change to people’s emotions.

I would like to stress the importance of communicating emotions, particularly when it comes to climate change. As I mentioned previously, climate change in Uganda has consequences on the land and can ultimately lead to an identity crisis in pastoral societies. At FoZ, we aim at working on this identity crisis by organizing sessions for Ugandans to come, not to speak but rather to write their feelings towards their environment on a piece of paper, and then simply walk away. We try to free voices, release tensions and appease frustrations in an environment where it can be difficult to voice feelings. This way, we try to give some peace to communities and help in directing their actions towards more concrete measures for the protection of the environment.

There is a huge need for people to use their emotions to participate in the debate, it is how we can achieve something. Scientific discussions are not sufficient and proved to have a limited impact. Emotions, on the other hand, can be a real trigger for engagement.


6. What can the international community do to help in addressing these issues?

One important point is recognizing the value of the work of environmental activists, like ours. Recently, the EU gave recognition to Friends of Zoka’s work, by awarding me The Human Rights Defender of the Year 2019. This must be continued, not only because it gives us visibility and helps us further raise awareness, but also because it gives us the strength to pursue our work. More protection for activists to pursue their work while having a life of their own that is sustainable is also crucial.

I also believe that the notion of crime against humanity should evolve. This is connected to my previous point regarding recognition. The concept of crime against humanity emerged after WWII and designates deliberate acts to cause human suffering or death on a large scale and usually part of a systematic campaign.  I believe that climate change should be integrated into the definition. Some people are relying entirely and directly on the environment to survive, yet it is being taken away from them. There are some people responsible for it, and they should be prosecuted.

Once again linking back to the issue of recognition,  an important point is media coverage in the West. If we look at it critically, Africa has the most drastic over-exploitation of natural resources in the world, even more than that of Brazil. But there is a lack of media coverage on these issues. Raising awareness in the West is of crucial importance.

Another important point is consumer responsibility and EU market responsibility. The EU already has some policies regarding the traceability of products, but they are not sufficient yet. Regulations do not prevent China from exporting products issued from illegal logging in Uganda to the EU. More regulations should be enacted to allow European consumers to have all the information on fabrication before buying products. Moreover, I believe that climate change should be completely integrated into international exchange agreements, it is as important at the exportation of the democratic framework. There should not be one ‘environment’ chapter in international agreements and treaties; rather there should be one subtitle ‘environment’ in each chapter.

We also need an important donor response, to be able to continue our work but also for donors themselves. If climate change is hitting Uganda hard today, it will do so elsewhere tomorrow. Donations are not only for Ugandans but for the entire world to protect the environment.


Find out more about William's work here.


About Shelter City

William is currently in the Netherlands as part of the Shelter City program, which aims at providing a three-month stay to human rights defenders from all around the world. The latter can, therefore, benefit from training on security, advocacy and well-being to allow them to rest and develop new skills to pursue their work more efficiently and safely once back in their home communities. These programs are powered by Justice and Peace,  a Dutch organization that believes that the most effective way to promote universal human rights globally is through the support and protection of local and grassroots human rights defenders.


This interview was conducted by Apolline Rolland, PSI intern.

Photocredit: Flickr/Nina R.