Land use change in Uganda’s drylands, impacts, and opportunities for enhancing livelihood sustainability



  • Nature and Livelihoods


  • 28/05/2012

  • REGION :

  • Eastern Africa


  • Uganda


  • Drylands in Uganda occur as a strip of dry country stretching from the northeast to the southwestern borders of the country, commonly known as the “Cattle Corridor”. This belt is a major socio-ecological production landscape. The author’s own observations of land use change in this area within the last 5-10 years indicate shifts from low stocking to keeping greater numbers of cattle, retention of bushlands to intensive thinning for pasture, sustenance of native trees to their commercial extraction for wood, and retention of agriculturally marginal lands for livestock keeping, wood production, and collection of non-wood products to their clearing for cultivation. These are corroborated by evidence from literature review and results from a socioeconomic survey. This paper was prepared with a view towards understanding some of the issues that Nature and Livelihoods should be involved in within Uganda’s drylands. The paper presents evidence of land use changes at three locations within the corridor and their impacts, discusses their implications, and suggests some of the ways forward.


  • William Olupot has been involved in biodiversity conservation through studies of primate ecology, impacts of abrupt edges on habitat islands, socioeconomics of wild meat exploitation, threats to biodiversity on human-dominated landscapes and other research efforts. He holds a doctorate in Ecology from Purdue University and is currently Director of Nature and Livelihoods, a Ugandan NGO working for nature conservation primarily on settled lands but also in protected areas.


There are three major categories of drylands: Arid zones with rainfall of 200-500 mm/year, Semi-arid zones which receive 500-1000 mm of rainfall/year, and Dry sub-humid zones with 1000-1500 mm rainfall/year (UNDP, UNEP & UNCCD 2009). Many rural dryland dwellers make a living through livestock and grow crops where conditions allow and these practices have helped them cope with water scarcity and recurrent risks of weather-related shocks. Drylands provide much of the world’s grain and livestock, forming the habitat that supports many vegetable species, fruit trees and micro-organisms (Koohafkan & Stewart 2008).

High variability in both rainfall amounts and intensities are characteristics of dryland regions, as are the occurrence of prolonged periods of drought. Because the soils of drylands often cannot absorb all of the rain that falls in large storms, water is often lost as runoff . At other times, water from a rainfall of low intensity can be lost through evaporation when the rain falls on dry soil surfaces. As there is little deposition, accumulation or decomposition of organic material in dryland environments, the organic content of the soils is low and, therefore, natural soil fertility is also low. Conceptual models of effects of temperature and precipitation illustrate that sustainability is easier to achieve in cool wet environments than in hot and dry environments (Koohafkan & Stewart 2008). Dryland environments are typically windy, mainly because of the scarcity of vegetation or other obstacles that can reduce air movement. These characteristics altogether make dryland residents highly vulnerable to climate change and unsustainable land use practices.

Dryland populations are frequently some of the poorest in the world, many subsisting on less than US$1 per day (White et al., 2002). Because of high poverty rates, changing socio-economic and political circumstances and demographic growth, traditional coping strategies are being lost and unsustainable land management practices, including overgrazing, over-cultivation, and excessive wood collection among other practices have become prevalent (UNDP, UNEP & UNCCD 2009).

Uganda’s drylands are a dry belt stretching between the country’s northeastern and southwestern borders encompassing 84,000 km2 or 43% of the country’s total land area and more than 40 districts. Annual rainfall averages 1350mm. Popularly known in Uganda as the “Cattle Corridor”, the belt supports about 90% of the national cattle population, mainly kept by pastoral and agropastoral communities (UNDP 2009). The rainfall is irregular and the region experiences periodic drought and increasing frequency of floods. The belt is interspersed with water bodies, such as Lakes Kyoga, Bisina, Opeta, and Mburo. Sandwiched between the wetter areas to the west and south, the belt has some of the largest stands of indigenous woody biomass outside protected areas in Uganda (FD 2002). There is evidence that the cattle corridor has experienced large-scale land clearing and conversion over the past several decades and currently, it is estimated that 9% of the land is lost annually to land clearing (Lufafa 2006). Within the cattle corridor, poverty rates are highest in eastern and northeastern Uganda, with up to 80% of the population living below the poverty line in some areas (UBOS & ILRI 2004).

Pressures on resources in the cattle corridor are in part driven by population increase. Uganda’s population is one of the world’s fastest growing; rising at 3.2% per annum compared to the global average of 1.1%. These increases as well as greater quest for prosperity are leading to unsustainable land use practices. This study summarizes land use changes in the cattle corridor, their impacts, and opportunities for achieving greater sustainability at three points along the corridor through literature review, actual observations, and interviews with the local people.

The Lake Mburo Area of Southwestern Uganda

This area is adjacent to Lake Mburo National Park. People in the area have traditionally practiced a nomadic pastoral lifestyle. In recent years, however, there has been a move away from the pastoral lifestyle as pastoralists were settled starting around 1986 (Ococh et al. 2004).

Because of close proximity to the park and taboos against eating wild meat, wild animals are common in the area. However, until the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) instituted a program of sport hunting in 2001 in which the proceeds are shared with the local community, people were not happy about wild animals living on their lands (UWA 2010).

Bush clearing has been common in recent years, perhaps driven by the understanding that at least in the short term; it results in greater cattle yield. Increases in forage growth and improvement of body condition, reduction of age to maturity, higher milk yield, and higher calving rate have been reported for cattle on farms where bushes have been cleared as opposed to those in which bushes were left intact (Mugas et al. 2000).

In recent years however, negative consequences of overstocking and bush clearing have been observed. Overgrazing has been evident, leading to soil erosion, emergence of low value grass species, and reduced livestock productivity (UNEP&UNDP 1999). Both livestock trampling and loss of woody vegetation cover are believed to be leading to poor water infiltration in the soil. For example in May 2009, the New Vision (The New Vision 2009), one of Uganda’s Dailies, reported two lakes forming abruptly in Kiruhura District following heavy rains. That incidence has been explained by environmental experts as a result of overstocking and de-bushing. Settlement of pastoralists has also had its negative consequences. Sale of land by pastoralists to wealthy individuals and property fencing led, in early 2000s to the influx of the new landless into other parts of the corridor, sparking off conflicts about land ownership rights.

Central Uganda

The dry area of this part of the country is a wooded savanna dominated by ranches interspersed with small-sized crop fields. This part of the corridor, covering the current districts of Mubende, Nakaseke, Nakasongola, Masindi, Luwero, Kiboga and others, is one of the most naturally wooded outside protected areas in the country (FD 2002), and is rich in fauna, but has witnessed drastic changes in the last 5 years (e.g. Fig. 1).

Figure1: Bush-burnt to make way for cultivation on an otherwise infertile rocky hillside in Mubende district, Central Uganda. Practices like this, while not helping to increase agricultural output, are rendering lands useless.  

For example during a study of bushmeat socioeconomics in the area in 2007-2008, (Olupot et al. 2009a) observed drastic changes in land use between the beginning and the end of the study. Changes observed were increased rate of thinning bushes for pasture, increased land fencing (Fig. 2), increased hunting of animals, higher frequency of traffic ferrying charcoal, and a higher rate of conversion to agricultural fields. The researchers observed that when they conducted the pilot study inDecember 2006, there was low de-bushing in the area. But by the end of the study in January 2008, bush clearing and land fencing appeared to peak in the districts of Nakaseke Nakasola, and Masindi. Also, antelopes such as Oribi (Ourebia ourebi), Uganda Kob (Kobus kob), and Bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), and birds such as the Crested Guinea Fowl (Guttera pucherani) which were very common in the area in early 2007, were being hunted intensively in 2008 (Olupot et al. 2009a). Such was the intensity of hunting in this area, mainly for commercial trade in wild meat that large antelopes (Jackson’s Hartebeest Alcelaphus buselaphus jacksoni  or waterbuck Kobus ellipsiprymnus defassa)  that had been seen by a member of W. Olupot’s research team in 2006, were never again sighted and were presumed to have been very depleted by January 2008.

Figure 2: Bush clearing and land fencing in the woodlands of Nakaseke district, Central Uganda. Wild animals such as Oribi antelope, visible in the centre of the photo near fence poles to the right of the picture are common in wooded sites of this region but are being overhunted and losing habitat to bush clearing and fencing.

Charcoal production here has probably received the most attention by government bodies. According to the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA 2008) for example, the Kafu River Basin districts have been a major source of fuel wood and charcoal for urban centers in Uganda. According to NEMA, revenue from charcoal production was so high in the 1990s that for example by the time Nakasongola became a district, charcoal levies were said to contribute about 60% of the total district revenue.

This area is witnessing what is now regarded as “termite overburden” where termite destruction of property has reached levels previously not experienced (The New Vision 2008) and thought to be a result of bush clearing. It has also witnessed many incidences of sheet erosion (NEMA 2008) believed to be a result of both bush clearing and overgrazing.

The Teso sub-region of Eastern Uganda

Compared to other areas of the cattle corridor, little has been documented about land use changes and their impacts in the Teso sub-region. People in the area practice an agropastoral lifestyle, with most rural families both cultivating and keeping livestock. Pastures are restricted to the swamps and areas with shallow lateritic soils traditionally considered unsuitable for crop production.

Little has been reported about impacts of grazing and cropping, but over-cultivation is a problem as lands are cropped without fallowing and investment in soil conservation.  Overfishing has also been reported on Lakes Bisina and Opeta (Nalwanga et al. 2009), and digging for lung fish (Protopterus aethiopicus) is reported to be degrading some swamps in Soroti District (Soroti District Reports). Indiscriminate use of pesticides is believed to be killing-off ox-peckers and is thought to be impacting bees.

Perhaps more than other parts of the corridor, the area is experiencing the greatest impact of climate change with increasing frequency of droughts and floods (Uganda Red Cross Society 2007, Oxfam 2008). Crop productivity has in recent years been reduced by the high frequency of droughts and floods. The comparatively high frequencies of extreme climatic events in this sub-region make it a high priority area for collecting climate change evidence, impact monitoring and implementing adaptation programs.

The most naturally wooded areas in the sub-region are the current districts of Katakwi, Amuria, Serere, and Kaberemaido (FD 2002). However, the extent of woodland and savannas has reduced rapidly in recent years.
In the early 2000s, there was influx of pastoralists from other parts of the corridor into the expansive seasonal grass swamps of this sub-region. This did not go down well with the locals. Traditionally, people in the area grazed cattle in the swamps only during the dry season, and even then, with cattle returning to pens in homesteads for the night. As the new immigrants were to stay permanently in the swamps with their cattle, the locals perceived it as an attempt to grab their land. Friction between the pastoralists caused the locals to move their cattle permanently into some of the wetlands. Although most of the pastoralists were removed in 2004 (Uganda Human Rights Commission 2004), they had started up a new trend, and some of the locals have now adopted the habit of keeping cattle in the swamps permanently (Fig. 3), a practice that may be resulting in overgrazing and overtrampling.

Figure 3. Cattle grazing in a flooded swamp along the Soroti-Katakwi district border in Eastern Uganda. There is a growing trend of keeping cattle around the clock in swamps of the Teso sub-region, raising risk of overgrazing and reduction of wetland services.

As well as increasing clearing of agriculturally marginal lands and overgrazing of swamps, an emerging trend is wood overexploitation. Charcoal has become an increasingly traded commodity (Fig. 4), with trees such as Vitellaria paradoxa which were traditionally retained in cultivations and uncultivated areas for the high value of their fruit are being cut for charcoal. Like in other parts of the country, urban growth is also one of the leading causes of deforestation, with growth occurring without following up by afforestation.

Figure 4. Charcoal burning in the Parklands of Amuria district, Eastern Uganda. Trees such as V. paradoxa that are valued for fruit and other non-wood uses, are some of those most sought for charcoal production and other wood uses.

As a step towards a more detailed understanding of land use changes in this sub-region, their impacts, and opportunities for improved sustainability, Nature and Livelihoods in January 2012 conducted a socioeconomic survey in the districts of Katakwi, Amuria, and Bukedea (Olupot et al. in progress). The purpose was to establish the status of indigenous plant populations. Katakwi and Amuria districts (originally Katakwi district) have 36% of woodland cover in Teso, with 17,721 hectares in 2002 (FD 2002) and contain populations of plants valued highly as sources of both wood and non-wood products.

Questionnaires were administered to 74 adult respondents, selected to ensure representativeness of areal coverage and gender representation. Each respondent was asked to name plants of high socioeconomic value in their villages in each of the categories of fruit, leaf, flower, wood, and medicinal value. Then for each value, they were asked to name up 20 species, from the most to the least important. After that they were asked to mention up to 20 most abundant species in their villages and state for each whether their abundance was “decreasing”, “increasing”, or “remaining the same” over the last five years, and to give reasons for each answer. Finally, they were asked to state whether the extent of bushlands (uncultivated areas) had “increased”, “decreased”, or “remained the same” in their villages in the last five years.

Most of respondents (85%) reported that abundance of wild plants and the extent of bushes had declined in their villages over the five years preceding the study. They cited charcoal burning, and fuelwood extraction, agricultural clearing, building wood exploitation, and wild fires as the main causes of plant and bush loss.

Analyses of plant value and causes of decline are presented for 23 species for which the net number of scores (Scores for “Decreasing” – Scores for [“increasing” + Scores for “remaining the same”]) were ≥10. The majority of species belonging to this category were trees or woody shrubs (Table 1). Ranks were used to examine the relationships between plant value and cause of loss. Use value ranks are based on harmonic means of all ranks assigned to each species for each value. Ranks of causes of loss are based on the total number of returns for each species and cause, with the highest rank (no. 1) assigned to the cause with the highest number of returns for each species.

Tree harvesting for wood (primarily poles and timber), firewood, and charcoal ranked highly as the cited causes of loss, followed by bush fire and agricultural clearing. A number of species being lost ranked highly for both wood and non-wood values (See Table 1). For example, Vitellaria paradoxa which had the highest returns for “decreasing” ranked topmost for wood as well as fruit and flower value. Wild fire was most frequently cited as the cause for declines of species such as Ximenia americana, Zanthoxylum chalybeum, and Balanites aegyptiaca which occur in seasonally flooded uncultivated areas.

These results suggest that though plant species in this region are highly valued for various socioeconomic uses and have been traditionally retained for those values, they are being lost to new demands. Charcoal trade, sale of firewood, and harvesting for timber, established in this study as the main drivers of tree loss are new to Katakwi and Amuria districts and have only become established in the last few years. Opportunity for tree conservation in Teso lies in non-wood values. Available information from this sub-region suggests high potential of wild plants for fruit production (Okia et. al. 2008, Olupot et al. in progress). This potential is high, not only compared with other areas of the cattle corridor, but to the wetter regions as well where studies of non-timber forest products have not shown existence of wild plants highly valued for fruit (e.g. Olupot et al. 2009b).

Table 1: 23 The species most cited as declining*.

*Ranks of loss are based on the net number of scores for decreasing with the highest rank (no. 1) assigned to the highest number of scores. Ranks of use value are based on harmonic means of all species (>75) ranked for each use value, while ranks of cause of decline are based on returns per cause.

Potentials for achieving greater sustainability in Uganda’s drylands

Production of wild foods

Uganda’s national program of adaptation to climate change recognizes the need to promote production of traditional foods, including wild foods as a means of ensuring resilience in times of food scarcity (NAPA 2007). Potential foods include fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, roots, tubers, corms, edible insects such as termites, fish, and bushmeat. This study has identified potentials for wild food production at different points along the corridor. This understanding is needed to facilitate integration of wild food production (for both subsistence and commercial purposes) into local farming systems. For the Teso sub-region, wild plants, mushrooms, and termites have the highest potential, while wild animals have a high potential in the central and southwestern parts of the corridor and termites in the central region as well.

Animal-based wild food production is potentially complicated by several factors, including illegal hunting, cultural taboos, the perception that they compete with livestock for forage and transmit diseases to them, conflict in crop gardens, and by the fact that some threaten lives and property (Olupot et al. 2009a). Promotion of animal-based wild food production therefore depends on careful selection of species to match local potentials and sound management of wetlands. For plants, the challenges for many species, especially those used for fruit are the perception that they are food for children, are difficult to harvest, are slow growing, may not fruit abundantly, and have no market. Therefore, there is need to overcome these challenges and increase willingness to plant or retain them by developing ways of increasing production per unit plant, acquiring appropriate processing technologies, and establishing markets. Some work on propagation techniques (Akinnifesi et al. 2007) and processing has been conducted or is underway in some countries. But this is still limited in Uganda.

For all wild foods, a major attitudinal barrier is scarcity of information on nutritional value. Successful promotion for subsistence use and the market depends on understanding nutritional factors. Studies of fruit pulp, edible seeds, and nuts in some countries have shown a remarkably high nutritional value of wild fruits. For example, analyses of B. aegyptiaca seed (e.g. Elfeel 2010, Okia 2010) and V. paradoxa nuts (Maranz et al. 2004) (Fig. 5) have shown that they are rich in essential fatty acids and minerals.  In Tanzania, nutritional studies of edible seeds, nuts and fruit pulp of 18 indigenous fruit showed a remarkably high value of nutrients compared to exotic fruits (Ndabikunze et al, 2000). High values of ascorbic acid were for example found in Hyphaene compressae, and fruits of Adansonia digitata and Ximenia caffra were found to have a higher vitamin C content than mango (Mangifera indica) or orange (Citrus sinensis).

For animals, there is some information available on the nutritional composition of commonly consumed bushmeat species and insects. What is known suggests that bushmeat provides an equivalent and in some cases greater quality food than domestic meats (FAO 1996). For example, wild animals are good sources of carbohydrates compared with domesticated animals from similar environments and in some cases, the protein content of bushmeat is higher than that of domestic animals.

These results suggest that indigenous foods can be important in solving malnutrition to people that cannot afford to buy a variety of foods for their daily diets. However, anti-nutritive factors in wild foods also need to be identified so as to determine ways of deactivating them. For example, indigenous fruits can contain such factors as phytic acid, tannins, and trypsin inhibitors.

In the Teso sub-region and northern Uganda, there are ongoing efforts to promote B. aegyptiaca for both fruit and leaf and V. paradoxa but for fruit but their effectiveness is still undetermined.

Figure 5. Vitellaria paradoxa fruit. Fruits of the Shea Butter Tree are highly edible. The sweet pulp is rich in sugars and minerals, while the seeds yield edible oil also valued in the pharmaceutical industry. Photo taken from Katakwi district in Eastern Uganda.

Sustainable wood production

Many parts of the corridor have resilient fast growing indigenous plant species that are highly valued for firewood and charcoal production. Some of the potential species particularly for the central and eastern parts of the corridor include Combretum spp. and Terminalia sp. But communities need to be sensitized about these values if they are to actively retain and manage farmlands. This should go hand-in hand with support for acquisition and training in construction and use of wood saving cooking technologies.

Sustainable grazing  

Solutions to unsustainable farming practices are readily developed once impacts have been identified. In the central and southwestern parts of the corridor, the main impacts are soil compaction, soil erosion, and de-bushing. Targeted solutions can be developed to better integrate livestock keeping with crop farming and wildlife conservation. In the Teso sub-region however, evidence of overgrazing is still largely undocumented but negative impacts are likely in the wetlands due to permanent stay of cattle in some sites. Likely impacts include reduced ability of the swamps to soak up and retain water, reduced forage production, reduced ability to support fish production within the swamps and in the lakes downstream, and biodiversity sustenance. Return to traditional seasonal grazing regimes whereby cattle are grazed in wetlands only during the dry seasons and return to homesteads for the night is a potential remedy worth further consideration.

Sustainable crop production

Sustainable crop production is difficult to achieve in drylands as soil degradation processes are more rapid in hotter and drier climates compared to cooler climates, making it more difficult to sustain the soil-resource base. Studies have found that whenever an ecosystem such as grassland in a semi-arid region is transformed into an arable system for food and fibre production, several soil degradation processes are set in motion (Stewart et al. 1991). This is particularly the case where raindrops fall directly onto the bare soil surface, not protected by cover such as vegetation, crop residues, mulches, etc. Other effects are a decline in soil organic matter, increased wind and water erosion, deterioration of soil structure, salinization and acidification (Koohafkan and Stewart 2008).

Improved crop productivity due to loss of soil fertility can be realized through better crop-livestock integration (e.g. establishment of field borders and more effective use of manure) and soil management practices such as agroforestry, minimum tillage, cover-cropping, and so on. For the Kafu Basin, there is also need to ensure better integration of sugar-cane farming with wildlife management (Olupot et al. 2009a), and for the Teso sub-region high potential for production of both domesticated and undomesticated fruit crops. These measures can be further supported through use of climate-adapted high-yielding crop varieties and eco-friendly pest management.

Tourism development

Within the cattle corridor, tourism activities are well developed within the L. Mburo area and National Parks, but not in other areas of high potential. In the L. Mburo area, both wildlife viewing and sport hunting programmes have been running for many years. High potential areas where tourism is poorly developed are the Kafu River Basin where wild animals are common on private lands, in and around the Ramsar sites outside legislated protected areas (Lakes Bisina, Opeta, and Nakuwa with globally threatened species of plants, birds, and fish) as well as in Pian-Upe and Bokora-Matheniko Wildlife Reserves which have some of Uganda’s most threatened fauna, an example of which is the Roan antelope, Hippotragus equinus. Uganda Wildlife Authority plans to start-up sport hunting in the wildlife reserves and the Kafu Basin (UWA 2010). But the potential for game viewing needs to be developed for the wildlife reserves, and ecotourism for the Ramsar sites. Tourism development, based on both developing tourism infrastructure and providing for the needs of the communities, discouraging illegal hunting, and reducing land degradation can make a strong contribution to improving sustainability of livelihoods of people living within the cattle corridor.


As is evident from the land use changes outlined in this synthesis, there are many challenges to livelihood sustainability to people in Uganda’s cattle corridor. These include overgrazing, land clearing, resource overexploitation, and wild fires. Therefore, solutions to these should be developed and applied by locality. Many possibilities exist to support relevant actions, but effort to understand the nature of impacts and implement corrective actions depends on availability of resources.


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