The Butterfly Effect

We’re stuck in traffic in Mabira Forest again, on the trip between Jinja and Kampala. I was stuck going out and now I am stuck again going home. Why? Because it has been decided that the trees and shrubs closest to the road must be trimmed. And it must be done in the middle of the working day.

People say it is because the road is finally about to be built in a real highway. From the number of trucks being neatly lined with wood, I think the only beneficiary is whoever gets to sell the smaller pieces for firewood, the medium ones to charcoal makers and the largest bits for timber.

I’m stuck here and I’m thinking about butterflies. It used to be, only a few decades ago, that your drive from Kampala to Jinja could be interrupted by a swarm of butterflies. They flew so thick and beautiful that people stopped, or drove really slowly to get through them. I haven’t seen it happen since I was a child.

Butterfly 2
A swarm of butterflies in the Tucavaca Valley Municipal Reserve in Bolivia
         Steffen Reichle

The term Butterfly Effect, coined by Edward Lorenz, is derived from the metaphorical example of a tornado being influenced by something as small as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier. The butterfly effect is the idea that small things can have non-linear impacts on a complex system, and it has been applied to physics, economics and the weather.

Small things in a complex system may have no effect or may have a massive one, and it is virtually impossible to know which will turn out to be the case. However, human beings are predictable in this regard. We always have HUGE impact and we very often KNOW EXACTLY what DAMAGE we’ll be causing.

Like in Mabira Forest, for example. Approximately 300 square kilometres of natural rainforest has been protected as Mabira Forest Reserve since 1932. Despite this protected status, the forest continues to disappear at an alarming rate.  The forest has been home to many endangered species, some of which probably go extinct each day. And I am not just talking animals. Plants and medicinal herbs and all knowledge of them is disappearing.

Gone, like the butterflies. While we hack and chop and shape our so called ‘Vision 2020’ like crazy blind fools.

I’m stuck in Mabira, but instead of a cool, breathtaking view of nature, I can feel the sun heating up the roof of my car. Instead of the sound of birds or crickets, there is a cacophony of cholera-merchants trying to sell me roast chicken, gonja and soda. Instead of butterflies, there is the occasional buzzing of a bluebottle fly, feeding lazy from the hands of the cholera merchants.

I’d give anything right now to be able to sit in this car and show my son a swarm of butterflies. I’m beginning to think he may never see one.

Butterfly 1
A swarm of monarch butterflies,

Here we are, the most clever species ever to have lived. So how is it we can destroy the only planet we have? – Jane Goodall


The Butterfly Effect

Conservation. Chimpanzees. Habitat.

So, picture this.

You have a family. A spouse, some children, some cousins next door in the village with their own mummies and daddies. Maybe a Jajja or two. You’ve lived in this sweet spot for years, nay, decades – the Jajjas moved here because the original sweet spot was crowded, overcrowded. So now, this is your family spot. The earth is good to you in this spot. All the fruit your children can eat, plenty of foliage to take a stroll in. Enough private spaces for you and your spouse to take a matrimonial siesta in. A nice rocky patch for the Jajjas to sun themselves in. Birdsong to wake you in the morning and a bubbling stream to soothe you to sleep after nightfall.

It’s basically all gravy. Until it isn’t.

You’ve been hearing rumours on the forest grapevine of land grabbing. Reports that your neighbours have been forced out of their homes by an ‘investor’ and have been forced to take refuge with their relatives in far-flung places. Except that unlike any investor you know, these ones don’t act like the usual ones.

See the usual investors don’t take away your homes. No, they’ve been content to come by and pass through, taking photographs of themselves posing by your homestead or if they’re lucky, taking a selfie with one of the Jajjas in the background. The more daring ones will plant and tend a shamba in one of the shady spots in the vicinity of your home. Or they’ll hang up a few cylindrical boxes, in a tree branch, for wild bees to turn into a hive. You’re content to look on as all this happens because you don’t eat what they plant – most of the time anyway – and as for the wild honey, there’s usually plenty to go round.

Well, now the rumours are accompanied with the high pitched whine of machinery, followed by a sound you have come to dread. Even if you didn’t know what it was the first time you heard it – the sound of a great big creaking crash – you instinctively knew it wasn’t anything good … and gathered your children round you protectively. Some days the whining and crashes go on from dawn to dusk and other days, there is the blessed sound of silence.

But where before the silence was merely a quiet tapestry of forest sights and sounds – the flash of a birds’ wing as it catches flight, the scurrying of a rodent, the swish of a leaf laden tree branch, the cry of a far-off canine, and the dull thud of a falling wild fruit – now, the silence is pregnant. With dreadful anticipation and fear. The children can feel it, the Jajjas are no longer eating because of the stress. There is talk that your family, you, will have to leave.

But, to go where?

This is your home. It is all you know.


18.4% – or about 3,627,000 hectares – of Uganda is forested.

Between 1990 and 2000, Uganda lost an average of 86,500 hectares of forest per year. That amounts to an average annual deforestation rate of 1.76%.

Between 2000 and 2005, the rate of forest change increased by 21.2% to 2.13% per annum. In total, between 1990 and 2005, Uganda lost 26.3% of its forest cover or around 1,297,000 hectares.

Measuring the total rate of habitat conversion (defined as change in forest area plus change in woodland area minus net plantation expansion) for the 1990-2005 interval, Uganda lost 24.7% of its forest and woodland habitat.


Where do we expect the animals to go?


Conservation. Chimpanzees. Habitat.