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Strategic litigation propelled by civil society’s environmental concerns: rescuing Uganda’s Mvule Trees

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Strategic litigation propelled by civil society’s environmental concerns: rescuing Uganda’s Mvule Trees

By Alessia Agostelli, University of Florence

Mobilizations to protect the environment are common all around the Planet, not exclusively when environment degradation is strictly connected with mankind health, well-being, socio-economic development. Fighting for the environment in the name of biodiversity and culture is gaining momentum. Africa is not lagging behind, and Courts are relevant actors in these struggles.

On the 30th of April 2024, the High Court of Jinja, Uganda, released a judgment concerning the preservation of Mvule trees and generally regarding the need of combining development and environmental needs.

Mvule trees (which is the common name for Milicia Excelsa used in Uganda) are diffused in Western and Eastern Africa. In Ghana is known as Odum, as Iroko in Nigeria, and in English is often referred to as African teak. No matter its diffusion, the species has been reported at risk of extinction, due to its high exploitation, legal and illegal deforestation and inadequate regeneration, since these trees require from 50 to 80 years to fully develop. The Mvule trees have a high economic and cultural relevance in all States where they grow. Their usage is important for economic purposes since they are used in infrastructure and furniture constructions and are also widely exported. On the other hand, the species has a deep cultural value for many communities that consider it sacred, it’s used for traditional medicine, and it has been proven to be an efficient helper in reducing carbon emissions.

 

Okouneva olga, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The case relating to the Mvule trees in Jinja was brought to the Court by the Environment Shield LTD, a local environmental rights-based NGO, and Gawaya Tugule, journalist and human rights activist. The two applicants were able to mobilize the civil society against the decision of the city council to cut down 9 Mvule trees in one of the most important streets of the city in order to let the Zhongmei Engineering Group to start a new construction site. The applicants specifically required to stop the removal of the trees and the judge backed their inquiry by agreeing that the case was grounded in the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, the National Environment Act and the Human Rights (Enforcement) Act. The applicants showcased how the Mvule trees are a part of the environmental and cultural heritage of the city and how their presence is fundamental for the protection of biodiversity. Furthermore, they stressed the importance of the trees for the reduction of pollution in the city, while also affirming that their beauty contributed to promote tourism, one of the major economic activities on the territory. All the benefits of the presence of the trees were considered important also for future generations, that otherwise would be deprived of them. The applicants made sure to also highlight the fact that they cared about environmental human rights, according to which the environment “(…) is not just a commodity for exploitation but an essential element for human dignity and quality of life”;[1] therefore, Governments must be considered responsible for the preservation of the environment.

In the court’s judgment, the judge highlighted the need for a sound balance between economic development and environmental rights, when they clash. While recognizing the duty of the Jinja City Council to develop new infrastructures for the city, the judge affirmed that this aim can’t be reached with uncontrolled effects on the environment and on the people’s wellbeing, similarly to what was decided in the Nyakaana case in 2015, when the Constitutional court had to counterpose environment protection to property rights. In that occasion, it was recognized that the State must encourage development while minimizing the collateral effects of land destruction and pollution of air, water and other natural resources, since present and future generations have interest in both those aspects.

Therefore, the Court stated that Jinja City Council has the responsibility of taking care of the Mvule trees, since if not properly treated they can become a danger, and only those trees that are proven to be too old or dangerous shall be cut down. Moreover, decisions on the Mvule must be taken after a proper consultation process with NGOs involved in environment protection. Such principle should be applied also in case a decision upon embarking on a new development project needs to be taken. Thus, the Court seems to impose a participated process of environmental impact evaluation prior to decisions opening the way to industrial projects. An interesting novelty, and an important step ahead in environmental protection.

If considered in comparison with more audacious judgments in the world where courts have started to recognize Nature as a subject of rights, the Ugandan court’s decision may appear minor, but the struggle against environmental degradation and for Nature subjectivity is carried step by step.

The reasonings of the appellants, of the civil society and the judges, supported by constitutional values adopted by the Republic of Uganda, manifest the need to reconsider the concept of contemporary development. People seem to be more interested in a “controlled” model of development that encompasses their different needs, which can be determined by historical, cultural and value-based considerations, and, as affirmed by the judge itself, participatory instruments are crucial to ensure that the States to fulfill their duties towards both the citizens and the environment.

 

[1] The Environment Shield Limited & Another v Jinja City Council & Another (Miscellaneous Cause 21 of 2023) [2024] UGHC 345 (30 April 2024), p. 15.

 

 

 

References:

BSR, Emerging Issues. Nature’s Rights Go to Court, https://www.bsr.org/en/emerging-issues/natures-rights-go-to-court, accessed on 04/07/2024.

Diana Quiroz, Protecting Endagered Plants, On Taboo at a time: traditional practices and conservation, Landscapes for People, Food and Nature, July 2, 2015, https://peoplefoodandnature.org/blog/protecting-endangered-plants-one-taboo-at-a-time-traditional-practices-and-conservation/, accessed on 02/07/2024.

Shaban Omar, KFS concerned over destruction of indigenous trees in Kwale, “The Star”, august 15, 2023,  https://www.the-star.co.ke/counties/coast/2023-08-15-kfs-concerned-over-destruction-of-indigenous-trees-in-kwale/, accessed on 02/07/2024.

The Environment Shield Limited & Another v Jinja City Council & Another (Miscellaneous Cause 21 of 2023) [2024] UGHC 345 (30 April 2024).

Tim Wanyonyi, Mvule, the sacred tree used in making yachts, faces extinction, “Nation”, august 21, 2020, https://nation.africa/kenya/business/seeds-of-gold/mvule-the-sacred-tree-used-in-making-yachts-faces-extinction-1923362, accessed on 02/07/2024.