Narratives of Conflict, Climate, and Development: Re-envisioning Sustainability from Post-War Northern Uganda

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Politics and International Studies


What is the relation between conflict, development, and climate change? This question has taken center stage in policymaking in Africa, as climate change is considered the greatest threat to development as well as a major risk for future conflict. Massive donor funding is being mobilized towards climate change adaptation in the name of averting environmental crisis and promoting development and peace. In this mainstream framework, climate change is to be dealt with through technical fixes to enable African communities to adapt to climatic hazards. These top-down policies are just beginning to be implemented in much of Africa, including in northern Uganda, a highly vulnerable region and the site of this proposed research.
But this mainstream, technical approach has not gone unchallenged. For, as many scholars have pointed out, without a history of economic and political deprivation and marginalization that renders certain African communities vulnerable to climate change, it would not present the dramatic threat it does. The implication is that, since climate change adaptation policies seek to help existing social structures adapt to future climatic changes, if those structures are characterized by injustice, inequality, and violence, adaptation policies may be building locking in the very structural inequalities that make African communities vulnerable to climate change in the first place.
In northern Uganda, like many post-conflict situations, today's injustice, deprivation, and inequality is largely a legacy of war, which has left the region far behind the rest of the country in all development indicators. The conflict saw the mass forced displacement of over a million rural people into internment camps by the government, leading to environmental devastation and a legacy that continues today in forceful land dispossession, massive deforestation, pollution from expanding oil extraction, and displacement by infrastructure, all enforced by the Ugandan military. This has led to large inequalities in land access, loss of livelihoods, and a growing, precarious semi-urban population as the resources needed for sustainable development are being stripped away. In the midst of this ongoing environmental devastation, expansive climate change adaptation policies are being inaugurated - but, if they ignore the ongoing violent legacy of conflict and focus on technical fixes, they risk worsening that legacy, setting the stage for future conflict, and foreclosing inclusive and sustainable development.
This leads to the project's primary question: how can climate change policy for post-conflict northern Uganda - and, by extension, for other post-conflict contexts - be re-envisioned so that it enables peace and development? The project will explore how two different disciplinary frameworks understand the relation between conflict, development, and environmental crisis and how they can be put them into conversation with each other in order to produce highly innovative results both academically and for climate change policy. First, we will employ a political ecology framework to look at the post-conflict situation in northern Uganda. Political ecology understands the relation between conflict, development, and environmental crisis as largely representing struggles over resources between state and capital on one side and the community on the other. Second, we will employ history and literary and cultural studies to explore the community of northern Uganda's own understanding of conflict, development, and climate change, representing very different bases for dealing with the threat it poses. The community's visions are accessible only through intensive knowledge of language and culture and through extended engagement with the northern Ugandan community. It is the creative dialogue between these disciplinary paradigms as they are employed in research in northern Uganda that will produce our innovative answers.

Planned Impact

The project will arrive at highly innovative recommendations for climate change adaptation policies that do justice to legacies of conflict and provide a foundation for sustainable development. These recommendations can provide guidance for northern Uganda specifically but also for other post-conflict contexts that are facing a severe threat from climate change. Developing such recommendations is essential today, given the rapidity with which climate change adaptation and mitigation policies are being developed for and imposed upon the continent of Africa, including post-conflict contexts.
These findings will achieve impact through several routes. First, at the grassroots level, the project partner, Human Rights Focus, will host community dialogues in which the ideas and proposals developed through the research are presented and discussed. We will utilize the networks of human rights activists and monitors that Human Rights Focus has developed, who will carry out the dialogues and spread and discuss the findings of the project.

Second, at the local and regional government level, the concluding international conference will enable a critical discussion of these themes among key political actors and policy makers. To achieve impact with national and international organizations and government, we will develop an impact network in Uganda, which will be based in Human Rights Focus and already involves, inter alia, Refugee Law Project (Uganda); Acholi Parliamentary Group; Gulu Local Government; Makerere University Climate Change Research and Innovations Centre; Climate Change Department of Uganda Ministry of Water and Environment; Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism - Intergovernmental Authority on Development (East Africa). Third, at the international level, the publications, working papers, and website, together with the project team's engagement with policy makers will help shape the debate on the climate, peace, and development in northern Uganda.

The impact will be sustained through developing the research network and through developing a research capacity in Northern Uganda. This will be achieved by building the research capacity at Human Rights Focus, the project partner, and training young researchers as part of the research team and as part of the advisory group. There is no such research institution or network working in northern Uganda at present on these issues, in particular spanning the disciplines in this way, so the project's network and project partner will be able to have a strong voice in ongoing and future debates. The Ugandan researchers will be supported in future pursuit of graduate degrees, building local research capacity in northern Uganda around these issues. The project will also contribute to building a solid research capacity at Human Rights Focus, filling a significant gap in locally based research in the north of Uganda. The project is thus the first towards building a research and advocacy institute in northern Uganda to work on issues of climate, conflict, and development, as well as transitional justice.


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Description Charcoal production has been leading to massive and devastating deforestation throughout the post-war region of northern Uganda. However, until recently, understanding has been lacking on drivers of deforestation and how ecologically and economically sustainable production might be achieved. This project has illuminated two previously unnoticed aspects of the charcoal industry in Uganda.

Linking specific charcoal production practices to environmental devastation
First, it identified that the blame for environmental devastation on small household producers is misplaced, and identified a link between large-scale production and unsustainable practices. There are two distinct charcoal commodity chains in Northern Uganda, one made up of small household producers and the other of large-scale, semi-industrialized production teams. The latter form of production has been leading to massive and devastating deforestation throughout the post-war region; however, because of certain blind spots in the dominant literature on charcoal in Africa, and also because of the involvement of powerful state and business elites, this industrial charcoal production in Uganda has been almost totally ignored in academic literature and policy-making. Instead, the blame for environmental devastation has been placed on small household producers, who in fact appear to be following generally sustainable charcoal production practices. Thus, misguided policies have been introduced to address the supposedly unsustainable and destructive charcoal production by the rural poor, when it is large-scale production that requires immediate intervention.

Identifying the technical and political dimensions of the problem
This finding fed into the second important intervention into existing knowledge from this research project. If small rural producers are going to scale-up their production so as to meet the growing national demand, they will need technological support, such as improved kilns, stoves, and forestry practices, and there will need to be a supportive regulatory environment. However, these technical solutions to the problems of charcoal, whether regulatory or technological, will not be able to address the real problem at present, which is large-scale production, and will almost certainly prove ineffective if large-scale production continues. Therefore, the research found that political intervention is required alongside technical in order to channel widespread popular concern around large-scale production into political pressure for an end to this destructive industry.
Exploitation Route The findings are already being taken forward by others. An Acholi Technical Working Committee on Charcoal has been formed of academics, environmentalists, local government, civil society, and forestry officials, which has been basing their work upon our findings. They are currently undertaking stakeholder dialogues and public forums so as to draft legislation to regulate the charcoal industry. We have formed an East African network of researchers and activists who have come together for two major international conferences in Gulu, Uganda, and we are working with them on further funding. A new environmental activist group has formed in Uganda called "Our Trees - We Need Answers," which has been using the research we undertook to build a national advocacy campaign. Our research is cited in the national media and by cultural and political leaders. We have been in discussions with several large international donors, including the World Bank, about funding projects suggested by our research. Our project partner, Human Rights Focus, has launched a new community-level environmental monitors network to undertake community research on the environmental problems we uncovered.
Sectors Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The translation of this research project's findings - about the type of production responsible for environmental degradation, and the political and technical dimensions to change in regulatory policy and practice - was built into the research itself. Through an ESRC IAA award, a GCRF-GIAA award, and a GCRF-QR award, I have led a project designed at realising a change towards more sustainable charcoal production that mirrored the research findings. It took a two pronged approach to facilitating impact. To bring about real change in policy, we set out a plan to encourage buy-in from district level governments and develop appropriate policies to regulate production and formalise small scale production. District policy matters in this area because of the allocation of government responsibilities with decentralization in Uganda. District level government is the level responsible for forestry and local economic policy making are based in Uganda. These efforts began with a charcoal policy conference that brought together 150 people from throughout Uganda, and resulted in the formation of a Technical Working Committee on charcoal assembled from Ugandan policy-makers, environmentalists and academics. The Committee became the body spearheading policy and regulatory change. They have held a series of meetings with District Local Governments to develop a Charcoal Production and Marketing Act. Building public understanding to build pressure for more sustainable practice While district government buy-in and leadership is central to the formalisation and implementation of regulation, the research revealed also that it is insufficient for sustained and effective change. Overcoming wider political and business interests benefiting from large scale production are being addressed through a civil-society campaign and public forums to pressure officials to end industrial production. This campaign has been carried out through a series of public forums on charcoal and the environment throughout the north, in conjunction with Makerere researchers, human rights organizations, media, and with the recently formed organization "Our Trees - We Need Answers," which was created by young people involved in our original research project. The advocacy campaign has had a lot of public involvement, local media involvement, and a drama troupe that goes around to build awareness. They are also doing media training workshops. Public forums have proven instrumental in building a receptive environment for policy change. The significant public interest they have sparked shows an appetite for even more extensive meetings and public forum interventions. This has resulted in attention nationally and indications of receptivity among the national government, which is crucial for addressing large scale (illegal) actors. There has been interest from the Prime Minister's office and the Northern Uganda Reconstruction programme, as well as an editorial in the New Vision (main national newspaper, government 'aligned') saying 'all of Uganda should emulate' this initiative. We foresee change in practice and environmental impact through the inception of a sustainable charcoal industry. District level government interest as well as the public advocacy campaign have created a supportive environment for changes to practice, we feel. This has yet to be realised or measured. However, funding has been requested to conduct surveys with charcoal transporters in order to determine the degree to which sustainable household production is replacing large-scale industrial production. Funding has also been requested to monitor the number of charcoal producers' associations arising in communities and monitor increased donor support for sustainable production. Ultimately, we hope to see a decline in deforestation, which can be measured through satellite data. Capacity building in environmental knowledge, research and evaluation The collaborative research process, with close involvement of local collaborators in planning, implementation, analysis and impact-facilitation, has led to the creation of communities of knowledge among researchers, policy-makers, advocates, and donors that directly benefit Ugandan partners, specifically researchers at Makerere University and Gulu University, and local human rights activists. The involvement of Ugandan researchers in research and knowledge translation activities supports learning and capacity building in research and evaluation, supporting the ability to monitor, learn, and improve policy and practice around charcoal beyond the current project. Ugandan partners are also providing crucial knowledge about the local community, practices and networks, necessary for building community trust and buy-in and producing new policies. These multi-directional pathways for knowledge exchange are crucial for ensuring relevant, feasible and sustainable changes in policy and practice. They also resulted in capacity building of local researchers in evaluation and learning around livelihood and local economic activity, as well as facilitation and policy engagement. Local leadership and capacity building through the application of research findings to improve local production practices is evident in the ongoing formation of a monitoring and evaluation system by Human Rights Focus, our original project partner. This monitoring will feed back into District Governments and the Technical Working Group to enable the interventions to be modified in real-time. This can help ensure that new inequalities and conflicts do not arise from the interventions to threaten community cohesion and justice, as well as that interventions are brought into the community and communication networks established among all the stakeholders.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Energy,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Charcoal Policy Process - Formed a Technical Working Committee on Charcoal and helped lead it to produce a northern Uganda Charcoal Policy to stop deforestation.
Geographic Reach Africa 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Description ESRC Impact Acceleration Account Award
Amount £19,950 (GBP)
Funding ID RG76702 
Organisation University of Cambridge 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2018 
End 03/2019
Description GCRF Global Impact Acceleration Account Impact Fund
Amount £29,800 (GBP)
Organisation University of Cambridge 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2018 
End 03/2019
Description GCRF QR Funding
Amount £70,400 (GBP)
Organisation University of Cambridge 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 07/2019
Description Isaac Newton Trust
Amount £208,172 (GBP)
Organisation University of Cambridge 
Department Isaac Newton Trust
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2018 
End 08/2023
Description Makerere University - Department of Political Science and Public Administration 
Organisation Makerere University
Department Department of Political Science and Public Administration
Country Uganda 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We co-hosted a large international conference together in Gulu, Uganda in July, 2018. We will be hosting another large international conference in April 2019.
Collaborator Contribution We co-hosted a large international conference together, in particular with the Co-I from the initial research, Dr. Paul Omach. We will be hosting another large international conference in April 2019.
Impact International conference.
Start Year 2017
Description Energy Group Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk on charcoal as energy source for energy group at Cambridge.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description International Conference: Environmental Politics - Environmental Justice in Northern Uganda & the East Africa Region 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact In July, 2018, we held a major international conference in Gulu, Uganda, on Environmental Politics - Environmental Justice in Northern Uganda & the East Africa Region. We had 40 presentations over two days, with about 150-200 people attending. It received national media coverage in Uganda. I would like to submit the programme of the event, but don't seem to be able to upload documents. It has had a significant impact on environmental activism in northern Uganda in the months since.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Talk to Makerere University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I gave a talk to a group of about 40 academics and postgraduate students at Makerere University.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018