The Sustainable Tropical Forestry (SUTROFOR) program Joint Summer Module took place in western Uganda, on the outskirts of the Budongo Forest Reserve (BFR). I am Heath Peter Jorgenson and I am happy to share my experience as one of the students participating in the program.
SUTROFOR is an Erasmus Mundus Masters Course which is organized within a consortium of the following five universities: University of Copenhagen (Denmark), Technische Universität Dresden (Germany), AgroParis Tech (France), Bangor University (UK) and the University of Padova (Italy).
The experience was designed to take place from March 8 to March 22, 2020. We were 25 students, representing countries from throughout the world and had been organized into four research groups: Agroforestry, Biodiversity/Fragmentation, Governance/Community Forest Management and Human-Wildlife Conflict. Our supervisors included Dr. Maxi Domke (Germany), Dr. Simone Lacopino (Italy), Dr. Eefke Mollee (UK), Dr. Mark Ramount (UK) and Dr. Thorsten Treue (Denmark). In preparation, we had participated in a seven-week online prep course, where we formulated our research proposals.
The best laid plans do not always come to fruition, however and our team was reduced in numbers before we even began. COVID-19 flexed its muscles early on, prompting Bangor University to cancel travel for its staff and students, just a couple days prior to departure. A dark cloud hung over our team as we realized the loss of eight students and two staff members from Bangor University. It was determined that we would continue with our excursion and forge ahead with our UK cohorts joining us at least in spirit. Once again, however, a new wrench was thrown into our plans. Maxi and I had arrived on earlier flights, followed by the majority of our Copenhagen crew. While the nine remaining Dresden students were in the air, the Ugandan government placed a new restriction on non-residents entering the country. One student, Robin, was asked to deplane in Rwanda during a short layover, while five more were detained by immigration in Uganda, with all six being returned to Germany. Incredibly, three of the nine Dresden students somehow squeaked through immigration and arrived, shaken with disbelief and shock, to join us at the hotel in Kampala. Once the last Copenhagen student arrived, we were a new research team of only 11 students and two supervisors!
When called upon, the human spirit is capable of positive and constructive qualities in the midst of difficulty and disappointment. With thoughts of our friends divided by a pandemic, we pulled together and directed our attention toward our purpose for the next two weeks. Maxi and Thorsten, joined by the local team from Makerere University (Professor Philip Nyeko, Professor John B.L. Okullo, Dr. Enock Ssekuubwa and Dr. Gerald Eilu), creatively condensed our four research teams into three, removing the Biodiversity research subject. To complete the research team, we were joined by Philip Kihumuro, our local mentor for the Agroforestry group who is a distance graduate student at Bangor University. The plan included one week based at Nyebyeya Forest School where we would conduct our modified research, collecting data and observations in villages on the south border of BFR and just east of Lake Albert and the border of Democratic Republic of the Congo.
I was part of the Agroforestry group, where we focused on “Gender and Agroforestry”. We sought to obtain information on various agroforestry components, uses, management, gender relations and decision making within the two parishes of Nyabyeya and Kabango. As we were preparing our methods and refining our process, we were informed that we may need to shorten our research collection period, as COVID-19 was rapidly progressing, requiring the member universities to recommend potential travel adjustments at short notice.
Armed with this new information, we tested our survey questionnaire and set out the following day to collect data as efficiently as possible. Within two days, we were able to administer semi-structured interviews with 20 female and 20 male farmers from two villages, Nyabyeya I and Kadukulu II, as well as two focus group discussions on the morning of our departure day, consisting of 13 men in the first and 17 women in the second group.
Copenhagen University had made the decision to call its students and faculty back early, so we left BFR on Wednesday, March 18 – three days ahead of schedule. Each of the three research groups had succeeded in collecting sufficient data for analysis, with exceptional assistance from local students and our faculty advisors. Key findings of the agroforestry group included a significant difference between male and female farmers and their uses of components, the strongest differences reflected in trees used for fruit (female preference) vs those used for timber (male preference). These findings were in agreement with previous literature on gender preferences in the BFR area.
Aside from our field work, we enjoyed the equatorial climate and participated in some memorable touring of Uganda’s thriving wilderness including Mabira Central Forest Reserve, Murchinson Falls National Park and of course Budongo Forest Reserve. We were privileged to see Elephants, Giraffes, Water Buffalo, Hippopotamus, numerous primates, countless bird species and so much more, while on safari and a Nile River boat tour.
Not to end our adventure on a mundane note, we continued to experience even more sudden changes, with four of us, myself and the other three from Dresden (Gebretsadik, Mariela and Itzel) being turned away at Entebbe airport, due to a flight cancellation on the final day of air traffic allowed by the Ugandan government (March 22)! The other seven students and two supervisors were on other flights which were fortunately not cancelled.
On March 25, two seats became available on an emergency flight by KLM to Amsterdam, which by some stroke of luck, were able to be booked by Mariela and Itzel. We four were at once excited for their departure and saddened by this new separation. Now there were only two students left, myself and Gebretsadik, stranded by the confines of restrictions that were intended to curtail the spread of the virus.
We remained for two weeks, in a comfortable apartment in Kampala, run by B.SOUG, where we were treated with true Ugandan hospitality amidst the intersection of local and global uncertainty. As viral cases climbed at an astounding rate worldwide, the two of us searched and hoped for that eventual departure from this warm, friendly country. Finally, exemplifying the German government’s efficiency, on April 4, 13 days after our cancelled flight, we were invited to join a repatriation flight negotiated for German nationals and residents. Our final adventure was traveling to the airport, which required us to be escorted to the airport by a member of the Kampala police.
By 2:00pm, April 5, 2020, we were in our respective homes in Dresden. All 11 students and 2 faculty were finally safe in their social distancing isolation, rich with experiential wisdom and memories to last a lifetime.
By Heath Peter Jorgenson