Tooro Botanical Gardens for prosperity and well-being
Volume 6 Number 2 - July 2009
Lee Ingelbrecht and Rudy Lemmens
On the lower hills of the East-African Rwenzori mountains, in the small Ugandan town of Fort Portal, lies the young Tooro Botanical Gardens (TBG). Since its establishment in 2001, the gardens have grown to become an ambitious organisation showing how the benefits of conserving nature and plants can have a positive effect on the local community.
The organisation maintains a 100 acre (40.45 ha) piece of land, dominated by a central swamp and planted with eucalyptus trees. Much of this land has already been cleared in order to develop a structured botanical garden. The garden’s main goals lay in conservation, scientific research, education, sustainable horticulture and agriculture, medicine, recreation and demonstrating the culinary and aesthetic uses of plants. It aims to specialise in protecting and growing living plant collections from the Albertine Rift Region which until now, had no specialised or local botanical conservation institution. Through these goals, it aims to link botanical activities with sustainable development for the local community. Ornamental gardens, educational habitat display gardens, demonstration gardens, a nursery and herbal production fields will eventually cover most of the TBG’s lands.
A centre for sustainable development
The East-African Albertine Rift is rich in biodiversity. It harbours a large number of plant and animal species living in many different habitats. But this is also a region where in the recent past, wars were fought out and humanitarian disasters took place. Although normal life has returned, still much needs to be done. Currently the lack of basic infrastructure is one of the biggest problems of the Fort Portal area. Many NGO’s and projects are however working to improve this.
The subject of development aid generally conjures thoughts of education, health care, basic economic development and the availability of food. Nature, conservation and even sustainable development are often not linked to the basic needs of a community. But the Tooro Botanical Gardens proves that this is not the case and that biodiversity conservation is essential for sustainable development in the long term.
There are different areas within its botanical activities that TBG uses to combine conservation and development objectives. First of all, education about sustainable agriculture and horticulture has become one of the garden’s main activities. TBG wants to encourage farmers to produce their crops in a sustainable way, with respect for nature and the environment. Other organisations may have similar goals, but a real centre where demonstration and examples of good agricultural practice can be shown was not previously available. TBG cooperates with several organisations, of which SATNET (Sustainable Agriculture Trainers Network) is very important. Currently SATNET is one of the leading organisations that encourages good agricultural practices and provides training for this purpose. Through demonstration gardens, farmers can be educated about sustainable practices which benefit both the community and the environment. As well as this, TBG maintains collections of crop varieties, hybrids and useful alternative species.
The TBG grows and displays a wide range of medicinal plants and is creating a database of local medicinal plants in order to offer natural and less expensive alternative medicines to the community. An example of this is the growing and processing of Artemisia annua, an anti-malaria plant which is becoming increasingly well known by the local inhabitants.
The nursery also produces and collects a wide range of other indigenous and exotic species that can be used by the local community for fuel, timber, dye production, ornamental purposes and for food, as well as producing the plants that are used for display and demonstration in the garden.
TBG’s infrastructure and facilities contain many features that contribute to sustainability and in this respect, the demonstration and educational gardens play an important role. They show examples of sustainable farms, crop collections, demonstration buildings and several kinds of fields and orchards.
An interesting example of how new ideas can be shown and displayed to the public are the rabbit houses. They can easily been erected anywhere and the display shows farmers how to breed rabbits in a profitable and sustainable way. Each ‘house’ is built on poles holding it above the ground and constructed with wood. The roof of these houses is made with grasses and its walls are covered with clay. The rabbits can walk on an outside area and their droppings are gathered in a plastic cloth as the floor is made of slatted poles. The droppings can be used as manure on the fields and the rabbits can be kept for their meat.
Ecological composting toilets are also being built and new buildings are being constructed to hold the offices, herbaria, drying chambers for herbs and botanical facilities. The buildings are constructed using clay and concrete bricks which are not baked or poured, but manually pressed with special equipment. Only the columns are made out of concrete, to provide more support. This way of building is more environmentally friendly than using traditional bricks which require fuel wood for baking.
Several projects are supported within and outside the gardens, all with the aim of supporting and educating the local community. Workshops and demonstrations serve to promote new products and methods and guided tours are available through the gardens. For example, educational paths through the central swamp lands are laid out and projects like ‘conservation through cultivation’ are displayed. TBG also cooperates with other local NGO’s and has agreements with several governmental institutions. These NGO’s and institutions include SATNET, the National Forest Authority, Kabarole District Farmers Organisation, several advisory and research institutions, the National Agricultural Advisory Services and the Mountains of the Moon University located in Fort Portal. International partnerships have been made, of which those with the North Carolina Zoo and BGCI are the most important.
Beside these programs, TBG also carries out regular botanical programmes and activities. It collects local and indigenous plants to create its own unique collection of Albertine Rift flora. Endangered and special plants like orchids are collected and conserved in seed banks and information compiled in databases. Eventually the gardens will contain examples of all the major ecological systems surrounding the Fort Portal region including tropical forests, savannahs, bush land and afromontane vegetation.
An example of external projects that TBG encourages for the protection of the environment is promoting the Mpanga Falls site to become a protected area. The Mpanga Falls lie near Lake George and Queen Elizabeth National Park, in the southern part of Uganda. The falls, formed by the Mpanga river tumbling over a 50m high rim, are enclosed by a steep gorge and support a lush cover of spray forest. The isolation of the area and its particular climatic conditions have resulted in the creation of a unique ecosystem, a remarkable feature of which is the cycad Encephalartos whitelockii, endemic to this single location. TBG aims to protect this endangered species in the face of plans to build a dam which would destroy this unique habitat.
The future of the TBG is promising as, although it mostly depends on donations, it lies in a region rich in vegetation variety and the climatic and physical conditions of the gardens are good. It will continue to focus on conserving the local flora, while at the same time promoting local community development. Its collections, demonstration plots and educational programmes will help to build capacity locally and will support sustainable development initiatives amongst local groups.