Conservation in a crowded place : forest and people on Mount Elgon Uganda

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Key words: tropical forest, conservation management, local livelihoods, forest cover change, disturbance, fuelwood, forest structure, species richness, biomass, Mount Elgon


A growing world population has important consequences for forests. In this study I investigate how conflicting goals by different actors under different historical contexts impacted the protected area of Mt Elgon, Uganda, and I consider what this means for conservation. Mt Elgon is an important water catchment area for Uganda and Kenya with important biodiversity values. The forest on Mt Elgon is also a source of agricultural land, timber, fuel wood and other forest resources for local communities. In this study I explore the factors that influenced local people’s motivations for forest clearing, the impacts of local forest use, including as a source of fuelwood, on Mt Elgon, Uganda. I also evaluate the use of radar satellite data to estimate above ground biomass on Mt Elgon. Finally I discuss the implications for the design of interventions that seek to reconcile the needs of local people and forest conservation.


A major wave of deforestation on Mt Elgon, Uganda took place in the 1970s and 1980s and by 2009, 25% of the forest on Mt Elgon was lost. However, locally, there were areas of recovery. This study demonstrated that agricultural expansion on Mt Elgon cannot simply be linked to individual drivers such as population or high crop prices, and these were not always associated with increased deforestation. By analysing local variations, I found that it is the context (institutional, social, political) under which drivers such as population, wealth or commodity prices operate, rather than the drivers per se, that influences outcomes for forest cover.


I found that local forest uses strongly influenced forest structure, even where people had a collaborative management agreement with the park authorities. The type of resources collected varied with the land use systems around the park: small stem-harvesting affected regeneration in areas where people grew crops that require supports such as bananas and climbing beans, and seedlings were almost absent where in-forest cattle grazing was important. Studying the characteristics and impacts of fuelwood harvesting revealed high levels of fuelwood collection and depletion of dead wood on the edge of the park. Human impacts affected highly preferred and used tree species. Allowing the collection of fuelwood or other non-timber products creates opportunities for more destructive activities such as timber harvesting or charcoal making. On the other hand it helps to improve relations between local people and park staff, which this study showed helps limit agricultural encroachment. I also found indications that trees on people’s own land can provide alternative sources of fuel.


Mt Elgon has a history of conservation and development projects in an attempt to better reconcile local livelihood improvement and forest conservation. The most recent include pilot REDD+ schemes both inside and outside the protected area. Such schemes need consistent biomass estimations. I used a cost-effective field method for direct basal area estimation that yielded consistent estimates of above ground biomass (AGB), which reached above 800Mg/ ha on Mt Elgon’s northern slopes. Radar (ALOS PALSAR) data produced realistic classifications of the different vegetation types. However, using radar backscatter values in combination with field estimated AGB data to produce a biomass map had limited success. This was likely linked to the sampling strategy and topography.


Our study showed that simple theoretical models based on single drivers of deforestation cannot explain local variation, nor can simple models that lead to “simplified institutional prescriptions” lead to sustainable solutions, as they do not reflect complex local social and ecological realities. This has important implications for the design of more locally adapted and ecologically and socially sustainable management arrangements on Mt Elgon and elsewhere. These are necessary because current practices appear to lead to forest degradation and resource depletion. Building trust between stakeholders and developing alternative resources are vital to support more sustainable forest management. Both international conservation actors, as well as forest management authorities need to recognise that incentives that influence people’s motivation for action vary locally and can therefore not be designed globally.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Giller, Ken, Promotor
  • Sheil, D., Co-promotor
Award date21 Feb 2014
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789461737847
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • forests
  • agriculture
  • fuelwood
  • timbers
  • nature conservation
  • nature management
  • canopy
  • disturbed forests
  • biomass
  • biodiversity
  • east africa
  • uganda

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