On Friday the 12th of July my Ugandan colleague from Kalangala Municipal Council invited me and my colleague from the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) for a tour around the island. We had finished the midline measurement for the IDEAL programme the day before. In a WhatsApp message my colleague announced we would visit the palm tree plantations. In all my excitement and perhaps ignorance, I had little idea what I would see that afternoon.

In over 10 years the Ugandan government has planted over 10,000 hectares of oil palm trees, with 6,500 hectares operated by Oil Palm Uganda Limited (OPUL). The remaining 3,500 hectares belong to 1,800 individual smallholders, who sell their fresh fruit bunches to OPUL. According to a 2018 Local Economy-wide Impact Evaluation of the Kalangala Oil Palm Project report, there has been a reduction in fishing activities and an increase in household income through oil palm production and business linkages[1].

This impact evaluation shows positive results whilst my own observation – though subjective off course – gave me a different perspective. 10.000 hectares is half of the island. Half of the island that used to be jungle with canopies climbing and trailing lianas, and many monkeys and birds, that had to make room for perfectly lined palm trees. I am not a biologist, but such a change in the nature must have an impact at the ecological system of the island.

Furthermore, my colleague told me, during the monotone ride along the palm trees, that at the beginning of the plantations the Ugandan government bought land from local owners and tribes for very little money. At first local people harvested the palm tree seeds, but they earned too little money to make a living. At the moment cheap labourers from the North and East of Uganda go to Kalangala to fulfil the though job. Therefore, the economic development for locals is little. Kalangala District nor Kalangala Town profits from any of the economic benefits from the palm oil industry, since it is all centrally owned and governed. Finally, since the ‘cheap’ labourers have little to spend and fishing activities went down, my colleague argued the palm tree plantations do little to support local economic development.

Uganda aims to transform from a peasant-based economy to a modern and prosperous society. This ambitious transformation brings challenges to the country’s local governments. Local governments are underfunded, both due to insufficient funds from central government and limited own source revenues. Local governments, such as Kalangala, feel overwhelmed and thus constrained to facilitate these challenges, leading to higher dependency on national government. Meaning citizens are further removed from decisions affecting them, resulting in local services which fail to respond to the real needs of local communities. We help to align actions and services to the needs of citizens, but also to make optimum use of the space that the national government leaves for local policy. At the same time, this enhances the resiliency of local governments to ensure locally driven development.