Explore Magazine Volume 3 Issue 1


Polishing the Pearl
Uganda is a living laboratory for University of Florida research in law and environmental conservation

By Joseph Kays

The University of Florida and Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, are separated by 8,000 miles of ocean and rain forest, and deep cultural and historical differences.

But a long history of cooperation between these two prestigious institutions has bridged those gaps to help promote democracy and environmental conservation in Uganda.

In return, Makerere faculty and students provide their UF counterparts with an international perspective on how democracy evolves. On the environmental front, East Africa may provide important insights into similar ecosystems in Florida and other subtropical environments.

Human Rights and Peace

Winston Churchill once described Uganda as the "Pearl of Africa," but for much of its 35 years of independence, the tiny country straddling the Equator has known little but strife.

Numerous failed constitutions, the brutal military dictatorship of Idi Amin and subsequent regimes, and dismal economic conditions conspired to eliminate almost all hope of peaceful, democratic rule in Uganda.

Now, a commitment to human rights and the rule of law is beginning to flourish in Uganda, with the help of a group of dedicated academics at Makerere University and the University of Florida.

Proof of that commitment came last December, when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, UF Vice President for Research Karen Holbrook, U.S. Rep. Cary Meek of Florida, state Rep. Cynthia Chestnut of Gainesville and a host of Makerere University and UF dignitaries gathered in the capital city of Kampala to dedicate the Human Rights and Peace Center (HURIPEC) on the Makerere campus.

The center, which has come to be known as the Florida House, is a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary experiment to change the ideas and hopes of Ugandans and other Africans regarding human rights.

"This partnership has produced a success story that overcomes the negative publicity about human rights in Africa," says UF law Professor Winston Nagan, co-founder of the center. "It is a success story that illustrates that positive interventions in human rights are possible and effective."

"Today, a small building on this campus symbolizes a lifetime of human aspiration for the African people," Chestnut said at the dedication ceremony. "These bricks and mortar, lovingly constructed, represent the business of new beginnings, of a Ugandan renaissance and, more importantly, an African renaissance."

The genesis of HURIPEC was a 1988 workshop conducted by Nagan, UF law Professor Fletcher Baldwin, anthropology Professor Ronald Cohen and political science Professor Goren Hyden at the University of Nairobi, Kenya. The conference was titled "Governance and Human Rights In East Africa."

"At that time, Uganda was going through an extremely difficult period with an ongoing guerrilla war," says Nagan, former chair of the American Section of Amnesty International. "No one had any inkling we would ever be going down there."

During the workshop, several Makerere University faculty members approached the UF delegation about the prospect of developing a human rights program in Uganda.

"It was almost Quixotic to try to establish a human rights program in a country where the people have gone through every conceivable vestige of hell," Nagan says. "These people have looked over the brink and caught a glimpse of Armageddon."

But in 1991, with a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Nagan, Baldwin and UF anthropology associate Professor Peter Schmidt began a five-year project to develop a human rights institute with Makerere.

During those five years, numerous UF faculty and students from diverse disciplines lectured at Makerere and faculty and students from Makerere came to UF for training. Along the way, they started the East African Journal for Peace and Human Rights, and helped Makerere University create an independent academic department of peace and human rights.

"We undertook the hard business of developing a culture of human rights in every field of endeavor," Nagan says. "We sought to strengthen the rule of law by strengthening legal education."

UF continues to host Makerere University law faculty and graduate students as part of the program. Typically, law faculty "team teach" specially designed classes with Nagan on such subjects as human rights and the rights of women, and civil and political rights under Uganda's new constitution.

One of the faculty members to visit Gainesville is Joe Oloka-Onyango, dean designate of the Makerere law school and director of HURIPEC.

Samuel Tindifa, another member of the law faculty at Makerere, spent three weeks at the UF law school last fall teaching a course in human rights and constitutional development. Tindifa, 42, was born in Uganda and witnessed the destruction wrought by Amin. Having worked with the center since its inception, he also has seen the positive changes it has brought to the country.

Beyond its efforts in legal education, the center strives to make a difference in the lives of all Ugandans, many of whom have no concept of human rights or their implications.

"The problem we have in Africa is disempowerment of the community because they're ignorant about their rights," Tindifa said. "You can have human rights spelled out in the constitution, but as long as people are ignorant about them, they are useless. So, knowledge is very important."

Another important mission of the program is to build the academic infrastructure of the Makerere law school so its programs will be fully accredited and recognized by the international law community.

"USAID calls this 'capacity building,'" Nagan says, "and I think this is a terrific example. In HURIPEC, we have a facility that offers its law students, and eventually ours, an opportunity to study African law in a modern environment."

Kibale Crusade

Colin and Lauren Chapman do not have what you would call a "typical" married life. Both assistant professors in the UF zoology department, they spend as much time as possible in the jungles and swamps of Uganda. Although their primary research interests are in primates (Colin) and fishes (Lauren), their field research is much broader.

Thomas Crisman, a UF professor in the Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences and director of the university's Center for Wetlands, has spent several summers in Uganda with the Chapmans, joining them in conducting research and teaching a field course in tropical ecology and conservation.

Their base camp is the Makerere University Biological Field Station in the Kibale National Park. The field station is recognized in the tropical research community as the premier tropical field station in Africa, Crisman says.

The 760-square-kilometer Kibale National Park, situated in the foothills of the Ruwenzori Mountains in western Uganda, is home to more than 325 species of birds (half the number found in the entire United States), and the 12 species of primates that live there make it one of the richest collections of primates in Africa.

"The primates are found at one of the highest densities ever recorded," says Colin Chapman, "and, unlike many areas of Africa, they are not hunted."

Situated near more than 40 crater lakes and fed by two major rivers, Kibale is an equally attractive base for Lauren Chapman, whose research focuses on the ecology of tropical freshwater fishes. Her research also takes the Chapmans on long expeditions to the Lake Victoria basin and other remote regions of Uganda.

"East Africa boasts the greatest geographical concentration of freshwater fishes on Earth," Lauren Chapman says. "By the time they are all catalogued, total fish diversity in the East African lakes will probably top 2,000 species, or about 8 percent of all the fish species in the world."

But, like so many species in developing countries, the primates and fish of Uganda are threatened by the demands of civilization.

"Tropical forests and the animals they support are threatened by accelerating rates of forest conversion and degradation," Colin Chapman says. "The forests often have been converted to other uses, and animal populations have been severely reduced. Unfortunately, little is known about the process of regeneration and the recovery of endangered species in these regenerating lands."

Instead of focusing solely on how changes in the environment impact the primates, however, Colin Chapman studies how primates interact with their environment and what those interactions could mean for the future of the forests.

"Kibale illustrates the future of many forests in Africa, Asia and South-Central America. It is an isolated forest surrounded by humanized landscapes," Chapman says. "As a result, Kibale acts as a window through which people can easily see the conflict between wildlife and human demands."

Chapman is currently concentrating on the role fruit-eating primates have in the dispersal of seeds and regeneration of the forests. Chapman's research has documented how fruit-eating primates carry a tree's seeds far afield, either in their feces or by spitting them out as they eat. This process has extensive conservation implications, he says.

"Our research leads us to conclude that 60 percent of the 25 species of trees we sampled could be lost if all the fruit-eating animals were removed from the Kibale Forest," Chapman says.

The lakes of East Africa are similarly threatened, by overfishing, introduction of non-native fish species, poor land-use practices and pollution.

"The diversity of the small, brightly colored perch-like fishes called cichlids in Lake Victoria is unrivaled among vertebrates," Lauren Chapman says, "but more than 50 percent of these fish species disappeared between 1980 and 1986. Hundreds of species abruptly became extinct or vanished, disappearing faster than they could be identified and catalogued."

Lauren Chapman and her colleagues believe many of these native fish species have been consumed or pushed down into deeper water with too little oxygen by the voracious, predatory Nile perch, a species introduced to the lake beginning in the early 1960s as a food source.

Chapman's current research focuses on how some species of fish have survived by inhabiting the low-oxygen wetlands that border Lake Victoria and its satellite, Lake Nabugabo.

"In addition to providing refuge for some of these fishes, the wetlands may serve as a barrier to the dispersal of Nile perch because the perch cannot tolerate the low oxygen levels that are common in the wetlands water," she says.

Chapman and her students have found that some cichlids from Lake Victoria can withstand extremely low levels of oxygen through a diversity of adaptations, like large gills and a low metabolic rate.

Some non-cichlids in the basin are air breathers like the lungfish and clariid catfishes. These species have an air-breathing organ that permits them to breathe atmospheric air.

The tiny electric mormyrid fish, Petrocephalus catostoma, disappeared from Lake Nabugabo following the introduction of the Nile perch, but survives in the lagoons within the fringing swamp through a unique adaptation.

"When it finds itself in water that is too low in oxygen, it flips upside down, rolling its tiny, underslung mouth up from beneath its body, and into close proximity with the oxygen-rich surface film," Chapman says.

Lauren Chapman says Uganda's experience with introduced species like the Nile perch can serve as a lesson for Florida, which has had its own problems with exotic fish, introduced species and low oxygen levels.

"Florida now has more than 50 species of exotic fish introduced from Africa and South America," Crisman says. "Uganda's experiences with Lake Victoria can provide us some guidance on their impact."

Crisman adds that there are many other elements of the Ugandan research effort that are relevant to the Florida ecology.

For example, UF researchers are currently applying their experience using wetlands to filter wastewater on a unique project in Uganda.

"We are looking at ways to employ papyrus plants to filter wastewater, then see if we can use the plants to make such things as building materials like particle board," Crisman says.

UF also is helping African officials deal with an explosion of water hyacinth in Lake Victoria. Floridians have been managing the lake-clogging plant for years.

Crisman and the Chapmans want to ensure Kibale's preeminence by building an endowment for the station that will provide a steady source of revenue.

"Such an endowment would help us secure the long-term future of this field station," Crisman says. "In the process, it would elevate UF to a leading position in African ecology."

UF and Harvard University are the two U.S. institutions with the closest ties to Kibale, along with a consortium of European universities and numerous other public and government agencies.

"We see Kibale as the nucleus of our tropical research program in Africa," Crisman says. "It offers the opportunity for us to develop 'cross-tropical linkages,' that apply to Florida and to South America."

Colin Chapman, Assistant Professor, Department of Zoology, (352) 392-1196, cachapman@zoo.ufl.edu

Lauren Chapman, Assistant Professor, Department of Zoology, (352) 392-7474, ljchapman@zoo.ufl.edu

Thomas Crisman, Professor, Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences, (352) 392-2424, tcris@eng.ufl.edu

Winston Nagan, Professor, College of Law, (352) 392-2211, nagan@law.ufl.edu

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