I’m writing this in the Budongo Forest Reserve, central Uganda. Until now we’ve been travelling through a parched landscape, scarred by fires and deforestation. It’s been three months of drought, yet last night I fell asleep to the sound of rain on the tin roof, as it is green and lush here even at this driest time of year. The forest canopy and leaf litter protect the soil and provide the organic matter that enables it to absorb even the most intense rain, providing water to the trees above. The microclimate this creates seeds the rain that fell on my roof, while the drought continues in the surrounding land where farmers and hunters have, to a considerable extent, created the drought by their bush burning and bad farming.
Checking the news back home I see the debate starting on how we live with the weather we’ve created. Our farmers have not made the rain but we’ve caused some of the run-off and erosion that has contributed to the floods, mainly through poor agricultural practice. While many British farmers respect and indeed treasure their soil, the recent trend towards autumn sown cereals leaves it exposed to run-off at the wettest time of the year. Meanwhile the general degradation of soil structure that accompanies intensive cultivation of maize (up 24% in 2013, boosted by a relaxation in government regulations) and the widespread abandonment of traditional rotations also reduce percolation of rain.
So how do we improve agricultural practice? In war-torn Uganda I have more sympathy with the farmers, especially those working with the charity Send a Cow, who, armed only with a mattock and machete, are turning their back on burning to plant trees, mulch, control run-off and improve soils through composting and livestock management. The areas are small but the techniques are so evidently successful that neighbours are copying them, no thanks to their government.
Back in the UK one could blame the farmers but the real culprit is our government and their ideology of scrapping environmental regulations in the absurd belief that a free market will hold back the waters. Whether through corruption, ideological dogma or an obsession with self-serving headlines rather than finding lasting solutions, both governments fail their people.