Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre Internship Program :: Center for Science and Technology Policy Research

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notes from the field

These field notes are personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre

Arielle Tozier de la Poterie

Soroti, Uganda
May 22 – August 11

June 5, 2013

a manyata from the airplaneMy arrival in Uganda was so eventful that it is difficult to believe I have only been here for two weeks. Within 72 hours I had met with representatives of the German and Ugandan National Societies in Kampala, flown to Kotido in a 10-seat missionary airplane, visited several karamajong villages, and driven through Kidepo National Park.

Flying across the country in such a small plane was an incredible way to see the landscape transition from the lush green around Kampala to the dry savannah farther north. I was most impressed by the aerial view of the Manyatas, karamajong settlements constructed from branches, brambles, and mud gathered from the savannah. Each settlement is surrounded by one to three walls of sticks at least one-foot thick. These walls protect inhabitants from cattle-raiders from other tribes. Women bear the responsibility for annual renewal of these fortifications, which takes up to two months and requires extensive cutting of trees and shrubs. Although I didn’t test them, several people told me that the walls are dense enough to shield families from bullets. Because regular cutting of trees has the potential to degrade the environment, the Red Cross project I am assisting with will pilot living-fences as an alternative. If successful and adopted by other families, the new fences could reduce upkeep and pressure on the environment.

food storage in one of the manyatasAs I mentioned in my previous post, the Karamajong are traditionally pastoralists; cows are their primary source of food, livelihood, and status. Over the last few decades, there have been extensive efforts to settle the Karamajong in part because cattle-raiding and banditry made the region inhospitable to traditional forms of development. The region has become significantly calmer in the last few years, in part because of disarmament policies and the creation of military outposts throughout the region. In the evenings families now take their cows to one of many military stations to be guarded overnight. As a consequence, every morning hundreds of cows start grazing from the same place. This protects people’s livelihoods and reduces conflict for the time being but could be problematic in the long-run.

This scenario reminds me of stories Michael Glantz told me about installing bore-holes in the west african Sahel during the multiyear drought of the early 1970s. At first, the constant source of water benefitted cows and people, but as the cows depleted the grazing resources around the hole. The cows had to go farther and farther for food, exhausting the forage around the water beyond its capacity to regenerate. Eventually the food and water were too far apart and the cows suffered from both hunger and thirst. I wonder whether, in the long-run, the changes imposed by the Ugandan government might have a similar effect in Karamoja.

a zebraAfter choosing a site for the living-fence pilot, a few colleagues invited me to join them on a trip to Kidepo National Park, the most remote and least frequented of Uganda’s many wildlife sanctuaries. I got my first look at wild zebras, elephants, baboons, and antelope of all sizes (including the adorable dik dik). The drive to the park raised further questions about interactions between pastoralists and the environment in northern Ugandan. The landscape changed noticeably as we entered protected savannah: the grasses were taller, there were more trees, and the cows dotting the landscape were replaced by wild animals. What did landscapes outside the park look like several decades ago? How long ago did armed conflicts between different groups start? How, if at all, did those conflicts escalate (I was told that initially people only stole cows, but that later, women and other valuables entered the mix - is this true?)? To what extent were travelers and people in other regions (Teso) the victims of karamajong raids? How long ago did the Karamajong begin to settle and “dig” (farm)? What was their previous range as pastoralists and how has the landscape changed since they have settled? Have they always built manyatas or did they begin in response to conflict or government settlement?

People here have many opinions of how, why, and whether Karamajong “warriors”, as they are commonly called, choose their current lifestyle. It was therefore difficult for me to separate the lore from reality and get satisfactory answers to many of my questions. I hope to begin collecting answers when I return to Kotido next week (and perhaps from the academic literature, if I can get my VPN working). Understanding such interactions and how they are affected by social, political, and economic pressures will be essential to mitigating environmental impacts and to successful climate adaptation measures.

landscape in KidepoAfter my adventures in Kotido and Kidepo we made the long drive to Soroti where I have spend the last week working in the Ugandan Red Cross Society (URCS) branch office. We are preparing to train volunteers to conduct Vulnerability and Capacity Assessments (VCA) next week. Once trained, URCS volunteers will begin the VCAs, which will culminate in community-based disaster risk reduction plans to be carried out over the next six years. Data from the VCA will inform action plans and serve as an important baseline for the project. I spent last week revising URCS tools and developing excel databases for the information we will collect in the coming weeks. Much of the data from past VCAs (in other locations) has been lost because it is never translated from flip-charts, drawings, and notes into a usable format. My first job will be to help train and supervise volunteers on the use of the tools and databases to ensure that the data collected is recorded in a standard format. In addition to being an excellent opportunity for me to learn the Red Cross’ VCA methodology, it’s been great to have a concrete project and to alleviate some of the stress in the URCS office. There is a lot to do before next week!

First photo: a manyata from the airplane
Second photo: food storage in one of the manyatas
Third photo: a zebra
Fourth photo: the landscape in Kidepo