Artists Promote Conservation as Expanding Population Squeezes Uganda’s Resources

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KAMPALA, UGANDA – A gorilla with a furry coat stands in a thicket, next to a large tree. His big brown eyes pierce those who stare at him as he refuses to look away first.

And as the main subject of one of artist Taga Nuwagaba’s paintings, the gorilla always wins the staring contest. In his studio in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, Nuwagaba puts his finishing touches on another painting nearby.

Nuwagaba, 43, was born in Mbarara in southwestern Uganda. But these days he can be found in his bright and airy studio, wearing an apron and surrounded by an array of brushes and paint colors. Soft-spoken and passionate about his work, he keenly studies the object of his painting, a crested crane.

He also carries out his work in different locations that interest him, such as bustling cities, national parks, game reserves, sites where nature has not been disturbed and his home in Kyanja, one of Kampala’s suburbs. His work focuses on wildlife and human figures.

Although Nuwagaba is a trained professional in different forms of art, he is a self-taught watercolor artist and started art even before going to school. He says he believes that every child is an artist, although some children continue drawing long after others have lost interest in art. His childhood inspiration was his grandmother, Maria Goretti Burakuza, who was an abstract artist before she died in 1994.

“She never told a story without using her own specimen,” Nuwagaba says.

She often used the symbols of clouds to tell her stories. Nuwagaba says she used to pour paint onto a wall, allow it to take shape and then bring out something not visible to the noncritical eye.

But Nuwagaba says he thought abstract art was too ambiguous so he made a decision at an early age to concentrate on a form of art that was clearer. Still, he kept his grandmother’s penchant for using nature in art. He says he sold his first painting when he was 10.

His vivid paintings are easy to understand. His major thrust is conservation.

“We have a poor preservation culture,” he says. “I decided to use my skill as an avenue for conserving our environment.”

He says he believes that his paintings help to preserve culture, the heritage of different subgroups in his community and all living things.

“If you do not love animals, you cannot pass laws to defend them,” he says. “Many Ugandans are not drawn to animals. Having a painting of an animal in their homes might be a starting point for raising awareness on the need to conserve them.”

Nuwagaba says he watches animals in their habitats and takes photos of them at specific angles in order to help him bring them to life with his paintbrush and watercolors. By incorporating totems, symbols that represent groups of people with common ancestral origins, he aims to show that Ugandans have been conserving their culture without even realizing it.

“Culture does not allow one to harm or eat one’s totem,” he says.

Nuwagaba says that what he does is a calling. He says he is so passionate about conservation because he believes that everything in nature is important to maintain balance in the ecosystem.

“Everything created has a purpose,” he says. “Why do you stand under the shade of a tree on a sunny day? It’s because the shade offers a cool area to rest, which is rich in oxygen needed to breathe.”

Like any other artist, Nuwagaba says his success hasn’t come without challenges. He says it has required dedication and patience at every stage because of the difficulty of breaking into the market. He says locals didn’t appreciate his work at the start of his career, although a number of foreigners took keen interest in his paintings. He says that watercolor paintings are also prone to accidents, and that it’s easy to run out of inspiration.

He says he is fortunate because his work is now in high demand and on display in prestigious public locations and homes. Good African Coffee, a coffee shop in Lugogo Mall, located a few kilometers from the city center, is one public place that features his work.

Nuwagaba intends to continue learning and experimenting in order to enhance environmental conservation efforts in the next generation through his art. He also mentors art students from Uganda and abroad. He says he’s also passionate about tree planting because of the benefits that trees bring.

“The previous generation did their duty,” he says. “What have we done for the generations to come?”

Environmental experts say that Uganda’s rapidly expanding population is putting pressure on the country’s natural resources and that more needs to be done to counteract the toll on the environment. The government and nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, have been implementing various programs, but government officials admit that the challenges are many and the budget is insufficient. Meanwhile, artists are inspiring their fellow citizens to do what they can to conserve the environment for future generations.

Uganda is endowed with many national parks, fresh water lakes, forests and game reserves. But the rapidly growing population – one of the fastest-growing in the world – has been increasingly placing pressure on the land and resources here. The projected 2011 midyear population is nearly 33 million, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics.

Fred Babweteera, regional coordinator for Africa research and conservation under the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, a Scottish conservation, education and research charity, says the growing population creates environmental risks.

“Population growth puts pressure on resources,” he says. “You cannot stop people from collecting firewood.”

Babweteera coordinates a project that carries out conservation activities and research with NGOs and local communities to influence policy on good conservation practices, particularly in regard to tropical rain forest resources.

“There is the growing concern of climate change,” he says. “We are concerned about how the ecosystem will be affected by climate change.”

He says that conservation activities are currently struggling because of economic development goals.

“The desire for economic development drives decision-making,” he says. “Local leaders make decisions less inclined to social and cultural rights. This is because conservation has long-term benefit, not short-time gain.”

He says many politicians blame the lack of conservation on a lack of funding.

“Limited funds are often an excuse,” he says. “Something can be done with limited resources.”

He says corruption also thwarts efforts.

“There is also an element of corruption,” he says. “Even when there is a need to protect a particular ecosystem, like wetlands, these areas are developed for settlement driven by corrupt government officials.”

He says political instability in the region is also an issue.

“There is also the issue of instability in some countries in Africa,” he says. “Look at Democratic Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast. Instability hinders the implementation of meaningful conservation strategies.”

He encourages the government to prioritize the environment.

“Governments in Africa should put in more resources to conserve natural systems,” he says. “True value needs to be attached to our natural resources.”

If some changes are made, it is possible for Uganda to meet goal seven – to ensure environmental sustainability – of the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, a U.N. initiative agreed to by countries worldwide to achieve eight anti-poverty goals by 2015, according to the MDG Monitor. The government has increased access to safe water, but progress has been slow regarding environmental management and biodiversity loss, according to its 2010 MDG progress report.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority is responsible for conservation here. Throughout the years, it has participated in community awareness programs in areas surrounding natural sites.

Maria Mutagamba, minister for water and environment, writes in the Ministerial Policy Statement for the 2011-2012 fiscal year that the ministry has had many successes, such as the implementation of various projects and programs to improve water supply and sanitation, natural resources management and climate change responses. Still, she acknowledges that the country faces many environmental concerns.

“The rapid population growth is threatening to outstrip incremental water supply coverage, rehabilitation of over-age facilities is increasingly drawing away funds which would otherwise have been used for accelerated provision of new facilities to the un-served population and the effects of climate change are compelling a shift away from abstracting water from cheaper options (such as springs and shallow wells) to rather more costly technologies, including deep boreholes and surface water treatment infrastructure,” she writes.

Mutagamba writes that progress in developing public-private partnerships for the management of water, sanitation and the environment is still in its infancy. The budget is also far below what’s required to meet national development targets.

According to Mutagamba, the ministry plans to demarcate boundaries of wetlands and restore degraded ecosystems nationwide. It also plans to improve solid waste management. It has also been emphasizing tree planting as a way to enhance income, improve soil fertility and meet the demand for domestic wood used for fuel.

Moses Kihumuro, a young information technology specialist in Kampala, says that planting trees can simultaneously benefit the environment and the economy.

“I want to plant more trees because it conserves the environment,” he says. “It keeps land, and then when I cut down the mature trees in two or three years’ time, I will be a very rich man.”

He says he hasn’t planted many but plans to.

“I planted one tree six years ago,” he says. “I intend to utilize the family land in the village to plant more trees.”

Like Nuwagaba, other artists also continue to provide a strong voice when it comes to conservation.

Sarah Tamba, who goes by the stage name Tamba, is one of Uganda’s young budding artists. She has made a niche for herself in the music industry by combining ethnic and contemporary styles of music to produce a unique sound – and to promote environmental conservation.

She says her mother encouraged her to start singing when she was a child, and she has been singing ever since. She says her grandmother used to pass on messages to her through song and that she believes that it’s important to sing in the local languages, a rich part of people’s culture, so they don’t lose them.

“Culture is part of our identity,” she says. “It says a lot about where people are – the good and the bad.”

She says she uses her music to address social issues and has performed at private and corporate events.

“I sing about social issues that affect our daily lives as a people,” she says.

This includes environmental issues, she says, mentioning one song in particular.

“For example, in ‘Kampala,’ [in] the bridge I sing about the dust, the heat, traffic jams and car fumes and how the stench of corruption will someday be gone,” she says.

She says she hopes this will inspire the younger generation to take care of its environment.

“Through the song, I call out to the younger people to rise and stand and do something about these challenges – to get up and make things better,” she says.