Uganda: A Country Rich in Biodiversity

Slow Food vice-president Edie Mukiibi tells us about his country…

SF0097635A young Ugandan agronomist, Edie Mukiibi saw first-hand the negative consequences of introducing monocultures. Working with the University of Makerere, he helped to promote a commercial maize hybrid, which should have guaranteed an excellent yield and better profits to farmers. But when drought hit many parts of the country, Edie saw men in tears because they did not have enough biodiversity in their fields to combat the arid climate and who were now going into debt to buy hybrid seeds and fertilizers.

After this experience, Edie radically changed his ideas about the best agricultural model for feeding African communities. He soon found out he was not alone. Slow Food and the Terra Madre network were fighting the same battle: to defend local agrobiodiversity, to give the people of Africa control over their own food and their destiny, to give greater value to African family farming and to involve as many young people as possible in agriculture. It was not long before he was working on Slow Food’s biodiversity-protection projects.

Edie has come a long way since then. These days, he is a vice-president of Slow Food and coordinates the activities of the Slow Food network in his country. We interviewed him recently.

What is the situation with biodiversity in Uganda? What are the most important products, what are the main threats and what are the possible solutions?
Within the African continent, Uganda is one of the countries with the richest biodiversity, even if this wealth is hard to quantify. Each region and each tribal community or ethnic group has different staple foods: traditional vegetables and edible insects, not to mention the many breeds of chicken and other livestock.
The main threat is undoubtedly the externally imposed introduction of new commercial breeds of livestock (including Kuroiler chickens and exotic cattle) and plant hybrids. The other serious problem is the spread of monoculture systems—maize in eastern and central Uganda, palm oil on the Lake Victoria islands or sugar cane in the central and northern parts of the country—and, as a result, the increase of synthetic chemicals being used. The monocultures threaten the natural habitats of many edible insects and take up land that would otherwise be used for the cultivation of traditional products by small-scale producers. Instead, the producers are forced to move away.

What do you think about the experiments being carried out in Uganda on genetically modified bananas?
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has assigned $10 million to a project being carried out by the Australian University of Queensland. The so-called “Super Banana” has been produced in research labs and, like all the other genetically modified products, has been patented and cannot be reproduced by growers. This means the producers will be increasingly dependent. Currently they can cultivate dozens of different varieties, autonomously, without having to buy anything. The Slow Food Uganda network has already documented 51 different traditional banana varieties from around the country, and many have already boarded the Ark of Taste.
Despite the population’s opposition and fear, some scientists are seeking to force the government to approve a law that will allow the cultivation of genetically modified bananas in open fields. To obtain this approval, they are even circulating incorrect and manipulated figures about malnutrition and the incidence of certain diseases that affect banana trees.

Slow Food Uganda was officially registered on October 1 as a non-profit organization. But the Slow Food network has been active in the country for several years. Tell us about its story here. How did it start and where and how did it develop?
Slow Food was started in Uganda in 2004 when a Ugandan delegation took part in the first Terra Madre. The first convivia were set up between 2006 and 2008 and ever since the Slow Food network has been growing and spreading. In 2012, after Carlo Petrini’s visit to the robusta coffee plantations in the Luwero district, the country’s first Presidium was established. Currently there are 135 Slow Food gardens around Uganda and we are working with over 30 food communities and a network of supporters on important campaigns, like those against land grabbing and GMOs. During our national meeting, which was held in February 2014, we decided to found an association so that we could more easily coordinate the growing network. It was officially founded this year, on October 1, and launched on November 27 by Beatrice Akello, the director of the Mukono Zonal Agriculture and Development Research Institute (Muzardi).

vacca_ankoleTwo Presidia, a nascent Earth Market, a network of chefs about to be launched and more than hundred active food gardens. What is the political significance of these projects for the country?
Each Presidium created with the communities, each community or school food garden and each market is a strong political signal that we send to our leaders about the food system we want for our country. Slow Food’s strength is based on the fact that we communicate our politics with concrete, positive actions, carried out with the local communities. The creation of the Ankole Cattle Presidium, for example, allowed the cattle-farming families to take part in discussions and educational activities, as well as meeting with the local government to discuss the future of the breed and how to protect it. The same thing happened with the Luwero Robusta Coffee Presidium, which led to institutions and researchers paying greater attention to the traditional Kisansa coffee variety. The launch of the Earth Market, in collaboration with the local food and agriculture authorities, is helping local and regional governments recognize the value of indigenous crops and other traditional products.

If you had to choose a symbolic food for Uganda, what would it be?
It’s hard to choose just one product because each region has different foods that represent their culture and traditions. Personally I would choose the banana as the most symbolic food, because it is our staple, a bit like rice or maize in other parts of the world. But I also would like to remember sorghum, the potato, the Ankole cow, coffee (particularly the robusta variety), nuts, sesame, millet, rice and bamboo canes.

And what if you had to choose the most unusual?
I would definitely say an insect known as masiinya, oil palm larvae, a real delicacy from the Kalangala islands.

Slow Food’s activities in Uganda are funded thanks to a contribution from Intesa San Paolo.

Discover the photogallery with Edie!

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