Re-envisioning Sustainability from Post-War Northern Uganda
In February 2021, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Dr Adam Branch, a Reader in International Politics and the Director of the Centre of African Studies at the University of Cambridge to discuss his work on Narratives of Conflict, Climate, and Development: Re-envisioning Sustainability from Post-War Northern Uganda. This project received funding through the GCRF / PaCCS Interdisciplinary Innovation Awards on Conflict and International Development.
Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about how you ended up working on Narratives of Conflict, Climate, and Development: Re-envisioning Sustainability from Post-War Northern Uganda?
Dr Adam Branch: This research project emerged from some of my earlier work on the politics of humanitarian intervention and human rights interventions during episodes of armed conflict and in post-conflict periods. I had done a lot of work on this set of topics in Northern Uganda, and as the war there began to fade into the background, it became clear to me that environmental issues were becoming prevalent. There were several environmental issues at play, including issues around land, deforestation and forest degradation through timber extraction and charcoal extraction. In the post-war period, these environmental issues became front and centre, and the violence of environmental problems was in some ways a continuation of the violence of the war. During this period, the leading edge of international intervention in Uganda shifted from humanitarianism, to post-conflict reconstruction, to climate change and climate mitigation interventions. I wanted to understand these challenges from the ground up, and in terms of the changing forms of international intervention in the region. That interest formed the basis of a broad project which looked at environmental issues and environmental violence in the region, with the goal of providing an overview of what was happening.
What did the project entail?
This project drew upon my broader experiences of fieldwork in Uganda – until travel restrictions came into place, I spent a lot of time in the region, including three months of fieldwork which was devoted specifically to this project. This project has benefitted from contributions from a team of interdisciplinary researchers, including several based in Kampala and elsewhere in East Africa. The project was also supported by a human rights organization that does research and is interested in issues of environmental justice. Throughout the project, we spent a lot of time visiting villages that were facing environmental problems – including timber extraction, charcoal extraction, conflicts with wildlife, and the expansion of commercial farms, plantations, and oil production. As we visited villages, we conducted interviews with locals. Different members of the team were interested in different methodological approaches – so a range of methods including group discussions, oral histories and life storytelling, formal interviews, and transect walks were used. What we ended up with was a significant set of interviews, focus group discussions, and transcripts.
What were some of the key themes that emerged from this research?
One thing we were able to trace was the ways that what is thought of as being environmental problems were actually political problems. Though these issues were not being framed in those terms, these were political issues and were the direct legacies of the war and to the continuation of state violence in the post-war period. The other thing that we came to realize through our research was that the most pressing problem people were facing was charcoal production and the environmental violence around deforestation and the extraction of wood for charcoal. Over time, that second development became the centrepiece of our work.
What type of impacts have resulted from these findings?
The human rights group we collaborated with throughout this project ended up building an entire environmental research and environmental rights aspect to their work, which they have been able to develop because of the research we are doing together. They have ended up setting up a whole network of human rights and environmental rights monitors and have taken on a big role in environmental work since the start of this project. We’re continuing to work with this human rights organization.
We also have taken our findings on charcoal in several directions, and I have since received a series of other grants around charcoal and impact funding from my university. With several other researchers, I contributed to the work of a regional technical committee to develop charcoal regulations, with the goal of stopping destructive extractive charcoal production. We worked with community organizations, civil society organizations, policymakers and environmental activists doing advocacy and awareness raising. In December 2020, the charcoal legislation which emerged from that advocacy passed and became law. So, after two or three years of working on reframing charcoal as inherently unjust environmental violence, it has become a prominent issue that people are doing something about.
There were a long series of grants which followed from our initial grant which helped us to develop the impact of the initial project. We also, through funding from a foundation, put on two big international conferences which brought together civil society actors and government researchers, and which lead to the development of new networks and more grant proposals. We also have received funding to work on charcoal from the British Academy, and we have a network of researchers working together from fields including politics, forest ecology, bioenergy, geography, history, and gender studies.
Based on our work thus far, we ended up putting together a Global Challenges Research Fund impact case study, which is available here.
What is next for you in your research?
If it had not been for the pandemic, I would be looking for grant funding again at this point. However, because of the pandemic I am waiting to be able to continue disrupted fieldwork. In the interim, we are working on a series of articles and literature reviews around energy and climate, sustainable development, deforestation, and the politics of charcoal energy. In terms of next steps for project, we are also watching with anticipation to see what happens with the charcoal bill that has now become law. We will keep track of whether if it is enforced, if it is counterproductive, etc. Monitoring the law will be an interesting next step, and we are also working on a series of articles which should help set the agenda and provide a basis for moving more research in the future.
Photo Credit: https://www.polis.cam.ac.uk/Staff_and_Students/dr-adam-branch