Ugandan grassroot activist receives top environmental award

​Ugandan forestry activist Gertrude Kenyangi Kabusimbi has been awarded the 2015 Wangari Maathai ‘Forest Champions’ Award in recognition of her efforts to promote the conservation and sustainable use of forest resources in Uganda.

The awardee receives a cash prize of USD 20 000. Gertrude Kenyangi founded in 1998 the NGO Support for Women and Agriculture (SWAGEN) and she has together with other women in the organization planted over one million trees in the Rwoho Forest reserve area. The women of SWAGEN work also with sustainability and raising awareness on environmental issues.

“They gather all the waste, put it one place, sort it and then the recyclable materials are taken out and we compost the rest. We give the recycled items to the city council to dispose of and we grow small vegetables and fruits in soil packs made out of the compost. This helps to take care of the micro-nutrient needs of the slum dwellers who are mainly poor people and cannot afford to buy fruits and vegetables from markets to supplement their diets. These people were growing flowers on their verandas, but now instead of flowers they grow food,” said Gertrude Kenyangi.

Women sowing the seed

For her work she is now credited. The award was presented in a ceremony at the 14th World Forestry Congress that is held in Durban, South Africa. It is the first time the congress is hosted by an African country. The prize, The Wangari Maathai Award, was launched in 2012 in memory of the Kenyan environmentalist who deceased in 2011. The prize has since been given to like-minded environment fighters.

"We are pleased to recognize Ms. Kenyangi's application of collaborative forest management in her work with the National Forest Authority, which has helped sustain a large portion of Uganda's tropical forests as well as the forest-dependent people within them", said Eva Muller, Director of Forest Economics, Policy and Products at FAO. "We need more community leaders like Kenyangi, who take a grassroots approach to natural resources management that benefit local livelihoods," she added.

Kenyangi herself stresses on the need of women in environmental work. She believes that women are “setting an example in the community and setting the pace for future change” and think that women “will very much be at the forefront of development in these communities, particularly as it relates to climate change mitigation and adaptation as they have a direct effect on the resources they need to perform their household roles, like keeping soils fertile and collecting fuel wood and water.”

From white collar to green thumbs

Kenyangi graduated with Bachelor of Science Agriculture and has a Master in Integrated Rural Development Planning. She held for a short period after her studies a white-collar job as a credit officer at a bank but changed field very soon she explained in an interview with the NGO Women in Europe for a Common Future.

“I got started in this work out of a feeling of need. I saw that the rural communities were being evicted from the forest. All the communities that were dependent on forests lost having access to the forest, after the first Sustainable Development conference.”

Gertrude Kenyangi has worked with Uganda’s National Forest Authority since 1994 to protect and develop a more sustainable use of the tropical forest in the Mbarara and Ntungamo districs. The organization has signed an agreement with Uganda’s National Forest Authority and represents also communities in Uganda that work together with the U.N agenda on reducing defrostration and forest degradation.

“When I saw that the communities were very vulnerable, for instance they did not have the capacity to be resilient, they were becoming destitute, they lacked food since they had been dependent on hunting and gathering and they did not have resources, I went back to the rural area. I wanted to mobilize the community, put together short-term solutions to ameliorate the situation and put in place stop–gap measures to provide food. We then decided, since we knew what we were doing wasn’t sustainable, to put in place a program focused on long-term solutions.”

Text by...

Sumbu Temo

27 years old journalist student and dreamer from Stockholm