By Karin Felzmann
The cool breeze ushers you into the sprawling but serene Kihingami wetlands. A beautiful natural forest, settled between tea plantations in the Kabarole district. A natural reserve, where birds can be sighted by the hundreds -and monkeys can be spotted jumping from tree to tree. You could also, if you are lucky enough, see an elephant wandering off the Kibale National Park to dig some wells and leave some footprints for the not-quite-so-lucky. It’s a peaceful place, but it would have not been, if it wasn’t for Richard Tooro, 59 and head of the ecotouristic Kabarole Tours
Let us draw the alternative picture, where Richard Tooro wasn’t forced to action by his devotion to nature:The surrounding tea companies would have succeeded in cutting down the forest and planted eucalyptus trees all over the wetlands, which is illegal by law. Those eucalyptus trees would have dried out the wetlands, like it happened in other places. They would have driven off the inhabitants, with no interest in the environmental damage they are causing, nor matters of biodiversity. Let’s not forget this picture, it happens elsewhere. But let us also now turn to the actions Richard Tooro amongst others took to prevent the ignorant parties to win on this well known battlefield of activists and economists.
It was in 2005 when Richard Tooro, passed those wetlands on a business trip from Fort Portal to Kampala. He says, it was a lucky coincidence that he was sitting on the right side of the bus to look out the window. Or was it fate? Anyway, the sight left him in distress. There were workers cutting down the forest and monkeys fleeing the scenery. Richard couldn’t continue his trip and got off the bus not even half way, to get into action. He would later seek advice and support from some local friends, including a forester and a journalist, to run a campaign against the degradation of the spotted forest. They would talk to those workers, try to make them stop, try to make them see; not a simple thing to do!
Indeed the workers wouldn’t listen. They accused Richard and his friends of interference. Richard had to find means to make them listen. He and his friends would air the issues on local radio shows and even invite national newspapers to raise awareness and build up some pressure.
Finally, after a good deal of effort a representative of the tea company contacted Richard to make him abandon the campaign, since he would render very many people un-employed, as they derived their livelihoods from the wetland. Implying Richard would be responsible for their future misery, if successful. But Richard wouldn’t let himself be bought off the scheme. He devoted himself to the wetlands, because it’s in his blood, as he explains.
Just like his son, Richard’s father took care of trees and flowers, maintaining and protecting nature – this was his legacy. He later gave his cause, a befitting motto: Nature rewards his Protector. So, with the hard won support of the local community, he founded an association to henceforth protect the Kihingami Wetlands. And the area prospered from the success despite the tea companies dark forecast.
Under the Mother Company and financier Kabarole Tours, a vocational school has been founded, giving the rural youth perspective and knowledge. Kihingami Wetlands are now offering various activities from bird watching to tree planting to raise awareness on environmental issues and maintain the 4,5-sq-km reserve. Additionally Kihingami Wetlands is trying to support the community for example with facilities to do handcraft and coming up with a community library.
The project was set up to educate the people around and make them spend their time in a more prosperous way. The fight Richard Tooro did fight to maintain the wetlands, we, as tourists and citizens, do as well benefit from as nature and inhabitants do, isn’t over. It’s an ongoing struggle to maintain the area, to maintain the school and to give contribute to environment itself. It is a noble cause, but it’s the tea that is selling and Kihingami Wetlands same as Richard is dependent on donors and a higher scale of tourist to keep going.
We are lucky to see the picture as it is today- A beautiful natural forest-, but let’s not forget it’s a fragile one. It’s dependent on brave characters like Richard Tooro, who will not take a nap but protect what’s dearest to him – nature.