Mount Elgon is a unique cross-border afro-montane ecosystem between Uganda and Kenya that provides a variety of goods and services essential to human livelihoods. It is not only an important biodiversity hotspot but also a major water tower for both Uganda and Kenya, serving as a catchment area for the drainage systems of many lakes and rivers. The Mt. Elgon region supports a high population density (about 1000 people/km2), and the people are heavily dependent on both subsistence farming and the forest ecosystem for their livelihoods. It is thus an important ecosystem that needs to be conserved. However, the ability of forest managers, policy analysts, and scholars to understand the nature of the human-forest nexus and how to sustainably manage forest resources is severely hindered by the lack of clear and
systematic time series social and biological data.
The International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) Research Program began at Indiana University in 1992 with the aim of devising a rigorous way to collect, store and analyze data regarding communities (institutions) and their forests. IFRI differs from other research programs in three distinct ways:
(i) IFRI is a network of Collaborating Research Centers (CRCs) that use the same methods and database to collect environmental and social data. There are about 13 CRCs globally and these are located in Africa, Asia, Latin America and North America. Uganda Forestry Resources and Institutions Center (UFRIC) at Makerere University, which is involved in monitoring Mt. Elgon, is one of the CRCs.
(ii) IFRI methods use the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework, which allows researchers to transcend the boundaries of typical academic disciplines by focusing on a variety of elements that influence individual choice in complex environments such as the human-forest nexus.
(iii) The IFRI database contains both environmental and social data, thus facilitating rapid and sophisticated analyses concerning how humans interact with their forests.
It is because of IFRI’s uniqueness from other research programs that it was deemed appropriate for understanding the humanforest nexus on Mt. Elgon as it utilizes an interdisciplinary approach in addition to enabling the collection and integrated analysis of both environmental and social data necessary for
understanding the human-forest connection.
The IFRI Methodology (Nagendra 2007) is thus being employed by Uganda Forestry Resources and Institutions Center (UFRIC), Makerere University, to monitor forest resources and institutions on Mt. Elgon. Two study sites, Kapkwai in Kapchorwa District and Bufuma in Bududa District in eastern Uganda, were established on Mt. Elgon in 1997 for the monitoring studies.
An additional two sites were established by the Kenya Forestry Research Institute, another CRC in the region, on the Kenyan side of Mt. Elgon. These sites are also employing the IFRI methodology. Each site consists of a tropical high forest and a neighboring settlement that is known to be utilizing the forest.
The IFRI methodology consists of a set of 9-10 protocols (questionnaires) that are used to collect biological data about the forest and socio-economic data about the settlements and their people.
The Forest Inventory utilizes a minimum of 30 randomly established sample plots in which data about the ground cover are captured. These data include the identification and size of all vegetation present, as well as plot-level assessments of canopy cover, slope orientation, elevation, soil characteristics
and evidence of human use/disturbance. On the other hand, the social economic (livelihoods) survey focuses on site description, history of the settlements, demographics, economic activities, forest products and their valuation, rules associated with access to forest resources and forest governance, among other variables.
It is worth noting that the IFRI protocols offer the flexibility of collecting additional user-defined data concerning any issue of interest, such as climate change. As such, each site is truly a socio-ecological laboratory for data and knowledge generation. Data collection is repeated every 2-4 years at each site as a way of creating a monitoring dataset. All of the data collected (biological and socio-economic) are kept in a single database.
Since 1997, these two sites have been revisited at least three times and the data in a Microsoft Access Database are available to the public, especially researchers, free of charge by contacting the Database Manager. In addition to the data, the other outputs of the monitoring research program include:
(i) Baseline information about forest conditions (including biodiversity and rates of deforestation) and social measures (including rules communities have with regard to forest use);
(ii) Reports on important changes in forests and their conditions;
(iii) History of communities and their forests;
(iv) Analysis and publications of how socio-economic, demographic, political and legal factors affect the
sustainability of a forest’s ecological system;
(v) Policy reports and briefs of immediate relevance to forest users, government officials, nongovernment organisations, donors and policy analysts;
(vi) Trained interdisciplinary teams able to conduct rigorous and policy-relevant research.
It should, however, be noted that further monitoring activities are on hold due to lack of funding. Yet, the research program has the potential to build on the existing data to address emerging issues on mountain ecosystems such as landslides, climate change and its impacts, adaptation and mitigation approaches, and the promotion of the sustainable management of mountainous ecosystems. For example, questions like:
(i) How can forest resources contribute more to the well-being of local communities in mountainous areas as they grapple with climate change impacts?
(ii) What roles can the existing datasets play in addressing emerging issues like socio-economic declines in mountainous areas?
(iii) How can sustainable management be ensured in mountainous areas where deforestation and forest degradation are on the increase?
(iv) How can mountain ecosystems in developing countries be managed sustainably in the face of inadequate or no funding?
As such, we are seeking partners who are interested in working with us to build on this long-term dataset and to lend their expertise to research efforts that contribute to the well-being of mountain ecosystems and their inhabitants. This includes defining new research themes in areas of forestry, institutions, climate change and livelihoods, among others.
If you are interested, please contact me at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org!
Photos by Daniel Waiswa.
Nagendra, H. 2007. Drivers of reforestation in human-dominated forests. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104:15218-15223.