The St Andrews Prize for the Environment

University of St Andrews


2005 Finalist

Tree Talk

Tree Talk

Protecting our Tropical Forests

Tropical forests are disappearing at a rapid rate worldwide. Often the solution is to send out seedlings from a central source or to painstakingly work with farmers’ groups. But in Uganda a project is tackling tree loss nationwide simply by sending out tens of thousands of small sachets of carefully selected tree species.

The project, called Tree Talk, now reaches 18,000 communities twice a year with an eco-newspaper and tree seed through the Ugandan postal system. Recipients include 15,000 schools, 1500 churches and mosques, 1500 women and environment groups and 300 police posts, prisons, and health centres.

As a result of Tree Talk, at least 8000 new tree nurseries have been set up, important 'mother tree' seed sources have suddenly assumed a value in their communities, and a whole generation of school children have been shown how to grow trees.

Like many African countries, Uganda is in the throes of a severe energy crisis: 97% of the population cooks on firewood and over 75% of houses are semi-permanent and must be rebuilt frequently using poles. School children are failing to complete even the first seven years of primary school, partly due to hunger which in turn is due to lack of firewood at school. Much of the timber used for construction in Uganda now comes from Congo. Loss of tree cover around the entire Lake Victoria basin is causing levels of that lake, the second largest in the world, to fall.

Signs of the impact of deforestation are everywhere. A 200 km radius of trees around the capital, Kampala, is being cleared by charcoal burners for fuel for city dwellers. Even hard won advances in preventing mother to baby transmission of HIV are threatened by women's inability to buy firewood to boil water to prepare clean breast milk substitutes.

Yet Uganda has great tree growing potential: relatively high rainfall and still fairly low land pressure, although the population is the third fastest growing in the world. Tree Talk is a unique catalyst to encourage tree growing through distribution of seeds and information.

Tree Talk has been endorsed by Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni and become an integral part of teaching and learning. In Uganda's overstretched schools, it has provided much needed reading material and helped teachers to bring science alive and move away from chalk and talk to interactive sessions in school gardens.

In seven issues Tree Talk has distributed 1135 kilos of indigenous tree seed including three rounds of mahogany, two of a fast growing African timber tree called musizi, and one large round of podocarpus, a non-deciduous hardwood. Tree Talk has also distributed, for the first time since early colonial days, seed for the rare and endangered tropical hardwood milicia excelsia, which in the wild is normally only dispersed by bats.

Tree Talk has also sent out 600 kilos of seed of eucalyptus, calliandra and senna. Eucalyptus is widely supported by Ugandan foresters as a fast growing fuel and timber tree that takes pressure off tropical forest and bush. Calliandra is an agroforestry species that fixes nitrogen into the soil, provides fodder for livestock and forage for bees, and can be trimmed to supply firewood. Senna was introduced into Uganda at the time of the building of the Uganda railroad and survives in arid areas.

Tree Talk's seed purchases have sustained the National Tree Seed Centre through its lean early years, spurred the centre into collecting seed for rare tree species, and brought thousands of dollars into communities supplying seed. Tree Talk costs less than one UK pound per school or community group reached. Staff of the eco-newspaper say it is a model replicable in any country with a tree seed centre and a postal service and could be duplicated in at least 10 other African countries.

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