GULU, UGANDA — During last November’s harvest season, farmers in Gulu district in northern Uganda had little to celebrate.
Alice Aber, who runs a small food business in Gulu district’s Palaro town, says she was expecting a big harvest. But one morning in September just after she’d opened her shop, her grandson came rushing in with news. About 60 cows were ravaging the 70-year-old woman’s crops.
They belonged to the Balaalo, a collective name for cattle-keeping tribes such as Bahima, Batooro and Batutsi, among others, that migrate with their herds into northern Uganda from other parts of the country during the wet and dry seasons, looking for better grazing and watering areas.
Their presence in northern Uganda — mostly occupied by farmers — has spawned long-standing tensions with communities in this region. Locals have accused the nomadic pastoralists of occupying land illegally, allowing their cattle to roam freely and, in the process, destroying crops.
APOPHIA AGIRESAASI, GPJ UGANDA
When Aber made it home that September day, she found a trail of destruction. An entire acre of simsim, or sesame, was gone, as well as an acre of rice and about an acre of peas. It wasn’t the first time. “They have been destroying my crops about four times,” she says. It happened to Mary Oketch, too. “See here, the cows ate it all,” says the single mother of two, as she points to a large field of sorghum filled with half-eaten stems. “About 100 of them [cattle] slept in the garden.”
Farmers are now raising the alarm about the continued presence of the cattle herders in this region, saying the destruction of crops is threatening their livelihoods, as well as food security in the region at a time of growing concerns about access to food due to the pandemic, increasingly prolonged droughts and the war between Russia and Ukraine.
A 2022 report by Famine Early Warning Systems Network — a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development — has raised alarm over “below-average agricultural production and income earning” in 2021, which might prevent farmers from restoring livelihoods for the next farming season in northern Uganda and the Karamoja region, given the increasing cost of food and non-food commodities in the country.
“Here we are in tears. People are crying too much,” says Grace Arach, a crop farmer in the area whose acre of soya beans and sunflowers was destroyed.
Francis Wokorach, local council chairman, says that between September and November, he received reports from farmers of destruction totaling about 50 acres of crops.
The Balaalo migrate seasonally — for long- or short-term periods — along the “cattle corridor” that stretches from the northeast to the southwest of the country, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Tensions between them and local communities aren’t new. According to the Supporting Access to Justice, Fostering Peace and Equity program, which the U.S. development agency funded in Uganda, tension with locals in 2016 forced Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, then-chairman of the district local council, to issue an ultimatum requiring the Balaalo to leave in two days or risk confiscation of their cows. In 2017, the same program also reported that locals in Moyo and Yumbe districts in northern Uganda evicted the Balaalo, saying they had destroyed crops and blocked access to water.
The issue also has attracted the attention of the state government, which has several times tried to mitigate the situation. In November, President Yoweri Museveni, in a letter addressed to the prime minister, asked that the pastoralists be evicted in two months unless they fulfilled a number of conditions such as buying or leasing land from locals, fencing it and ensuring that their animals had access to water on their land.
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In February, Rwamirama Bright Kanyontore, minister of state for agriculture, animal industry and fisheries, published temporary guidelines for the movement of livestock in northern and northeastern Uganda. The guidelines required the Balaalo to, among other things, follow designated routes, acquire movement permits and move their animals during the day. These measures were intended to limit the spread of disease, curb the illegal movement of animals and reinstate normalcy in the region.
Sometimes the Balaalo have no choice, says Nathan Kamukama, a nomadic pastoralist who moved from western Uganda in 2020 during the dry season. “Our cattle were dying because they didn’t have enough to eat,” he says, adding that he moved into northern Uganda after receiving a tip from a friend about pasture on government land. But Kamukama says he made sure to have the necessary documentation, such as a letter from his local council and the veterinary officer.
Not everyone can afford to meet the government requirements for the movement of livestock. Kanakulya, who prefers to go by his first name for fear of being reprimanded, says he couldn’t afford to have all 80 cows cleared by the veterinary official. Each cow would attract a fee, which he couldn’t pay.
“I have been here for two years,” he says. “I am in government land, and my cows are doing well because they have enough grass to feed on.” He admits that his cows strayed and destroyed crops when he left them with his children, and he regrets it.
The culture of communal land ownership in northern Uganda poses a unique challenge to some Balaalo who have fulfilled the requirements outlined by authorities, says Yowasi Mugundu, chairman of the Balaalo in Palaro subcounty. He says he would like to do the right thing and install water. But family disputes have frustrated his attempts.
He paid 1 million Ugandan shillings (about $270) to someone to construct a dam, but landowners disagreed on how to proceed. “One accepted, and the other refused,” he says.
APOPHIA AGIRESAASI, GPJ UGANDA
Lack of water during the dry season in northern Uganda is another challenge, Mugundu says. Some cattle keepers who have already constructed dams sometimes have to let their cows out in search of water. In the process, their cattle destroy crops.
He implores the government not to evict herders who have moved into the region legally. “Some locals want government to chase us from here, yet we have bought land here or are hiring land here and the period of hire has not expired,” he says. He has cautioned herders against crop destruction.
Meanwhile, Palaro, which was once the food basket of Gulu district, is already experiencing food shortage, says Wokorach, the local council chairman. This part of Uganda already faces high poverty levels. In 2017, nearly 33% of the region’s population lived below the national poverty line, according to government data.
Stephen Latek Odong, resident district commissioner in Gulu, says his office is carrying out investigations to ensure that all cattle keepers living in the area are there legally. He says the president ordered the amendment of existing laws to provide for sanctions such as five years of imprisonment or the confiscation and auctioning of cattle that destroy crops.
Aber, who lost her crops, says the Balaalo should pay for damages caused to farmers, even if it means selling some of their cattle. “We should share the losses,” she says. Although she reported her case to the local council, the herders never paid her.
Odong says that when farmers report, they need to have evidence for authorities to act. “We get these reports on hearsay, and that is not the basis on which we operate,” he says. But Aber says it’s difficult to collect evidence, as most of the herders leave during the night after their cows destroy crops.
“Their cows are spoiling our land,” she says. She worries that if nothing is done, her next harvest will be gone, too.