An important new victory from the high court in Uganda stresses the crucial role that courts can play in ensuring environmental rights. It also follows the trend in that country of courts writing decisions that respect environmental protections. Just as significant, it highlights how critical it is for dedicated organisations – and members of the public – to become activists for the environment. It all has to do with protecting an avenue of very special trees in Jinja City. When a Chinese development company was given the go-ahead to chop them down, it sparked public-spirited protests to save these mature Milicia excelsa giants, known locally as mvule trees. The resulting court case not only saved the trees for now, but led to an order securing their future. The judge, Winifred Nabisinde, said that if, in years to come, there were ever a plan to cut any of them for a ‘valid reason’, there must first be consultations with the relevant official institutions that protect the environment, as well as with ‘concerned human rights NGOs’ working on environmental issues, before they get the chop.

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Uganda’s Jinja City is often thought of as the ‘adrenaline capital’ of East Africa. That’s because it’s the starting point for many exhilarating adventures. The Nile rises here, and tourist outfits punt all kinds of nature-based adventures including white-water rafting, kayaking, horse riding and birding. But the city, just 80 km from the capital Kampala, is itself a tourist’s delight, even before you set off on your adventures. An obvious reason for this is Jinja City’s lush green heritage.

One of the special green spots in the city for residents and visitors alike is an avenue of Milicia excelsa trees on the way to the source of the Nile. These giants, locally called mvule trees, and also known as African teak, reach maturity after 50 to 80 years. They can grow to enormous heights, and pictures of felled trees show their diameter being way higher than a tall man.

Mvule trees, particularly mature specimens, are much sought after for their timber, and because they have been so vigorously harvested, their conservation status is now a cause for concern. All of this meant that that when Jinja City residents heard the authorities had approved an application to cut down eight of the trees, it sparked an uproar.

The clamour grew so loud that the council withdrew its approval. But by then, an application had already been made to the high court for the trees to be protected.

Trees ‘still standing, beautiful and strong’

The first applicant was The Environment Shield, a nonprofit organisation aimed at ‘protecting nature and working for a just and green society’. Thomas Gawaya Tegulle, a regular columnist in the media and a human rights lawyer, was the second applicant. Their application was brought against the Jinja City council as well as the Zhongmei Engineering Group, the company that had asked for, and been granted, permission to chop down the trees.

In his founding affidavit, Tegulle said he grew up near the trees and studied at a school close by these giants, now targeted for removal, and had a ‘legal, personal, emotional and environmental interest in and attachment to’ them.

One of the features that made his life in Jinja as a youngster so good was the group of mvule trees on Nile Avenue. ‘These streets were a lovely place to take long evening walks with friends, providing countless fond memories of this ecological treasure,’ he said. But while these trees were ‘still standing, beautiful and strong’, they faced imminent danger from the council and the company.

A few had already been chopped down in previous development work, and this was the third time a group of mvule trees in the area had faced the threat of destruction.

Maintaining ecological balance and diversity

The original notice that alerted the community to the situation invited people to a ‘community engagement’, with nine items for discussion. It’s a bizarre agenda, with a mix of topics, including ‘cutting of 8Nos of Mvule trees’, listed among eight other issues for discussion, all the rest being related either to aspects of sex education or to ‘safety awareness, training and sensitisation’.

That notice, in turn, led to an uproar, and to a petition urging the council to spare the trees. In legal argument for the case subsequently brought to halt the planned felling, the council replied that it had already cancelled its original decision to chop the trees. For this reason, the court should not issue the order, the council said.

The applicants provided many references for the court, citing relevant provisions of Ugandan law and previous judgments, foreign law and Ugandan constitutional and statute law. They argued the order was needed for protection of the environment, given that trees play such a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance and biodiversity. Among their other arguments they said trees were essential to mitigate the impact of climate change and helped in the fight against global warming. They also had aesthetic and recreational value, were important for public health and had high cultural and historical significance.

Cutting trees would ‘devastate’ right to a healthy environment

The judge hearing the matter, Winifred Nabisinde, said there had been ‘a real threat’ to cut down the trees. After a meeting by Environmental Shield, a demand that no tree should be removed was communicated to the resident engineer. That in turn led to a site meeting between representatives of the project, the town clerk and other officials. They had decided that no tree would be removed and formed an alternative plan in terms of which the trees would not be cut down but the proposed construction work could still go ahead.

What emerged from these facts was that any order she might make would be temporary and if it wasn’t stopped ‘in no uncertain terms’, the threat might emerge again. These specific trees, along with other ‘natural protected trees and the environment generally’ were ‘threatened by modern development’, and could ‘lead to the devastating effect of denying society the right to a clean and healthy environment,’ she said.

The court couldn’t take the application lightly, the judge added, even though the immediate threat seemed to have been overtaken by events. ‘The lasting solution to achieve safety of the environment requires more effective remedies … than administrative letters to prevent ongoing or future infringement or violations on the natural environment.’

Need to ‘protect the trees throughout their lives’

She said that while there was a need to make an order that would protect the trees throughout their lives, she also was aware that Jinja needed to have modern infrastructure and that the trees might become a problem ‘if not managed and trimmed’.

She thus directed that, while the trees should be ‘regularly trimmed and pruned to remove obstructive and dead branches, ONLY those that have been proved to have become old and a danger to other city structures should be entirely cut down’, and if that happened, plans had to be ready to replace them with similar young trees ‘to maintain the status quo’.

Further, if any of the trees needed to be cut down, the city authorities should first consult with ‘responsible institutions like the Uganda Forest Authority, National Environment Management Authority and human rights NGOs with an interest in preserving the environment, to ensure that this exercise is carried out without endangering the environment.’

Court’s decision ‘boosts morale of Uganda’s environmental activists’

I asked the lawyer who handled the case for the applicants, Eron Kiiza, what he thought was the particular significance of the decision. He said:  ‘The judicial win for urban trees is great as a jurisprudential basis for protection of many threatened urban trees on public property across Uganda. Trees are carbon sinks and natural allies in the battle against heat waves, pollution and ill-health. It shows the role of courts and public interest litigation in protecting the environment and facing the climate crisis. It has boosted the morale of environmental activists in Uganda.’

Tegulle, the second applicant, agreed. He said this case was just the beginning. ‘We have big plans for strategic litigation to save our environment.’ He added that while it was expensive to litigate, with few funds to do so, it was simply not possible to stand by idly when a ‘rapacious elite’ was ‘ravaging the environment’.