Healthy wetlands: people and cranes in Uganda

Dr. Adalbert Aine-omucunguzi, International Crane Foundation/Endangered Wildlife Trust Partnership, adalberta@ewt.org.za

Kathryn Lloyd, Margaret Pyke Trust, kathryn@margaretpyke.org 

The wetlands of Rukiga in south-west Uganda are home to Uganda’s National Bird, the Grey Crowned Crane, and they are vital to their human neighbours, who rely on the wetlands for their food, water, and livelihoods. But increasing human activity is putting pressure on the wetlands and their cranes. A new project between the International Crane Foundation (ICF) / Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) Partnership, Rugarama Hospital, the Margaret Pyke Trust, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is working to respond to these pressures for the benefit of Rukiga’s wetlands, its cranes, and its people.

The population of Grey Crowned Cranes in East Africa has declined by over 80% in the last twenty-five years, largely due to increasing pressure on wetlands. As cranes are pushed into smaller and more marginal wetlands to care for their eggs and young, they are increasingly disturbed by people, domestic dogs, and livestock and are unable to breed successfully. Chicks raised on fragmented and degraded wetlands are easily captured for traditional medicine use, domestication within Africa, or exported to captive facilities at zoos and safari parks. The population of Grey Crowned Cranes in Uganda (a stronghold for the species) is now believed to consist of only 10,000-20,000 individuals.

As a first stage, the project team spent six months undertaking ethnographic research in Rukiga to properly understand the communities’ health, livelihood, social, and environmental challenges and views, and how they saw the connections between them. They reported a diversity of challenges, not least of which was inadequate healthcare provision, poor soil and water quality, and increasing sub-division and fragmentation of land on which to farm their crops.

For these reasons, project partners are implementing a Population, Health and Environment, or PHE, project that aims to empower communities to conserve their cranes and manage wetlands while also meeting the health and livelihood needs of Rukiga’s communities. The project research highlighted that the people of Rukiga District wanted better health services, including family planning, to promote strong and sustainable families. The project also keeps women involved in local livelihood activities to support their families and reduce pressure on local natural resources, benefiting people, cranes, and the wetlands we all depend on.

Population Health and Environment, or PHE, is a conservation model defined by the Conservation Measures Partnership as “a multi-sectoral partnership approach to biodiversity conservation, human health, and sustainable livelihoods. PHE approaches are developed inclusively and equitably in response to local situations and the expressed needs of the people most closely linked to biodiversity conservation. PHE is intended to improve human health, particularly reproductive health, while empowering communities to achieve sustainable livelihoods, manage natural resources, conserve biodiversity, and maintain ecosystem services.”

Family planning allows couples and individuals to plan if and when to have children and how many. Making our own decisions about our health, bodies, and family size is a fundamental human right. But there remain many parts of the world where exercising this right is much more challenging due to barriers to family planning. One such place is Rukiga, where, prior to the launch of this project, accessing family planning was largely impossible due to the scarcity of local healthcare providers and other local challenges.

As those in the health sector know all too well, “healthy timing and spacing of pregnancy” is critical to improving health outcomes for women and infants. For instance, becoming pregnant too soon after a previous pregnancy puts mothers and their newborns at a higher risk of illness and even death. As well as the health impacts of not being able to choose if and when to have children, unintended pregnancies can lead to women withdrawing from the livelihood activities critical to supporting their families. The ethnographic research highlighted that the people of Rukiga District want better health services, including family planning, and that one of the reasons is because larger families place further pressures on them as parents at home and in the longer term, on the finite amount of agricultural land to sub-divide among children.

Wetland converted into crop fields

Given that the people of Rukiga understand the connections between their own health and that of their local environment and their desire for adequate health services, the ICF/EWT Partnership’s habitat restoration, alternative and sustainable livelihood interventions, and crane monitoring actions are integrated with the work of the Margaret Pyke Trust and Rugarama Hospital, to ensure the people of Rukiga receive the health services they want and need. Outreach clinics are now providing health services, clinicians are being trained to provide better services, and “service improvement” measures are being implemented.

The project team engages community members in various ways to raise awareness about wetland and crane conservation, sustainable livelihoods, and family planning. For instance, in the same session, the ICF/EWT conservation experts and Rugarama Hospital nurses raise awareness about the importance of wetlands for health, livelihoods, and cranes, and the benefits of family planning. This integrated approach means that men and women hear messages that they might not have heard before. This approach has wide-reaching benefits as frequently in Rukiga; men stop their female family members from using family planning services as they hold myths and misconceptions, such as family planning causes women to be promiscuous or causes cancer. Similarly, even though both men and women are involved in livelihoods, men are more likely to attend livelihood training, meaning that women often miss these important messages.

Family planning male engagement session (left)

Community members themselves are also raising awareness about sustainable farming techniques, sound waste disposal methods, and healthcare. Leading this approach are the Conservation and Health Mobilizers, volunteers who engage their neighbours with messages around crane and wetland conservation and healthcare, in addition to monitoring cranes and reporting crane incidents, such as poisoning and capture, monitoring wetland water quality, and referring people for healthcare services.

Project staff conducting an awareness meeting in one of the project sites

Community members themselves are also raising awareness about sustainable farming techniques, sound waste disposal methods, and healthcare. Leading this approach are the Conservation and Health Mobilizers, volunteers who engage their neighbours with messages around crane and wetland conservation and healthcare, in addition to monitoring cranes and reporting crane incidents, such as poisoning and capture, monitoring wetland water quality, and referring people for healthcare services.

Conservation and health mobilisers being trained to conduct wetland water clarity tests

Project interventions include activities designed to increase community capacity for sustainable land use planning and management, such as soil and water conservation, to meet food security and conservation objectives. These interventions aim to prevent soil erosion and restore the soil fertility and productivity of hillslopes exhausted through unsustainable farming practices. This intervention aims to reduce the expansion of agriculture into wetlands.

Family planning community outreach

The project’s alternative sustainable livelihood provision enables communities to generate additional income to meet their families’ needs. Community members selected the livelihoods they wanted, and ICF/EWT provided them with materials, training, and mentoring to benefit their income generation and access to local markets.

Project staff and community members visiting a field of climbing beans

By integrating actions across multiple sectors, PHE can reach more people linked to biodiversity outcomes, engage more men in reproductive health, and more women in livelihood and natural resource management. PHE can, ultimately, achieve more significant and longer-lasting conservation outcomes than would likely occur without integration. There is a further benefit of PHE, which the project team already sees. It is known as the “goodwill effect”. The ethnographic research highlighted the challenges that the people of Rukiga see in their everyday lives, and health services were a key priority. By listening to the community, ICF/EWT has built a partnership with the deeply respected local hospital. In the minds of the community, ICF/EWT is now associated with Rugarama Hospital and the provision of healthcare services. Conservation messages are broadcast at Rugarama Hospital’s health centres and by Rugarama Hospital’s staff. The people of Rukiga see that ICF/EWT cares about them and their health and wellbeing, not only cranes and wetlands. That can only be a good thing in a project so deeply embedded within the community.