The 1st International GORILLA Conferences opens at Makerere University

Assoc. Prof. Babweteera, Dr. Frank Mugagga,Dr. Tom Okurut, Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe, Prof. Micheal Meadows and Prof. Bernard Bashaasha during the opening session

The Inaugural International Conference on Geographical Science for Resilient Communities, Ecosystems and Livelihoods under Global Environmental Change (GORILLA) has been opened at Makerere University Uganda. This conference had earlier been planned for May, but was postponed due to the COVID Pandemic.

The two day GORILLA conference (3rd-5th December, 2020) targets sharing knowledge and research on emerging science, technology, tools and innovations around resilient communities, ecosystems and livelihoods.

The conference brought together distinguished scholars, students from a range of geographically aligned disciplines and Community of Practice as well as policy and decision makers from across the World. 200 people from 43 countries worldwide submitted the abstracts organized around the topics which generally inform the global resilience and sustainability agenda.

The conference was officially opened by the Vice Chancellor Makerere University Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe on 4th December, 2020 at Protea Hotel in Kampala. The function was also joined by the President International Geographical Union (IGU)- Prof Michael Meadows and the Executive Director the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) Dr. Tom Okurut. It was graced by  the Principal  College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Makerere University (CAES)  Prof. Bernard Bashaasha and his Deputy Assoc. Prof. Gorettie Nabanoga and,  the Dean, School of Forestry, Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Assoc. Professor Fred Babweteera.

Prof Michael Meadow of the IGU, Prof. Noble Banadda of Makerere University and Prof Wenwu Zhao presented the keynote addresses during the official opening session.

The conference was organised by the International Geographical Union (IGU), International Association of Landscape Ecology (IALE), IGU Commision on African Studies, IGU Commission on Bio geography and Biodiversity, IGU Commission on Geography of Future Earth and the Uganda Geographical Association (UGA).

It was sponsored by the Government of Uganda, Makerere University, the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), Africa IALE, Brac, ARUA Water for communities, the Embassy of Sweden and the UK Research and Innovation among others.

Mak Vice Chancellor Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe officially opening the conference

While officially opening the conference, the Vice Chancellor Makerere University Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe welcomed participants to Makerere noting that this was the first international conference organized at the University after the outbreak of COVID 19.

Prof.  Nawangwe congratulated the organizers for the resilience and boldness in organizing the conference.  He also thanked the international delegates for being enthusiastic enough to come for this conference.

“I thank NEMA for collaborating with us and sponsoring this very important conference. I also thank the Co-Chairs for the work that they have done in making this a reality. Ladies and gentlemen, COVID 19 had brought a new normal and probably we would have very many people attending physically but I am happy that we are all learning to leave with the new normal and despite these challenges, we have participants from all over the world and I congratulate you for being able to organize a conference where we got abstracts from 43 countries that is no mere achievement in these circumstances”, The Vice Chancellor appreciated.

Prof. Nawangwe decried the low level of Africa’s research output despite the huge population.  He observed that with Africa’s population of over 1.3 billion now, contributing 13.5% of the global population, the continent’s research output is less than 1%. And that, Africa produced as much as the Netherlands which has a population of 17 million – a third of Uganda’s population but they are producing more than the whole of Africa.

Prof. Noble Banadda presenting on water and health and other projects done

“I think that should make us angry, very angry and that’s why at Makerere University we have a new strategic plan which seeks to make Makerere a more research intensive and a research led university. Even within Africa it is just a handful of universities that are actually contributing to this 1% currently being led by the University of Cape Town, who I promised when I was at a conference in Cape Town to displace them and we are trying our best to achieve that”, The Makerere Vice Chancellor stated and   thanked the University of Cape town for providing the leadership behind which African Universities can rally and compete.

The Vice Chancellor said, Makerere University’s aspiration to be a research led university is not because it is producing less than the world, but would want to increase research because the more research done, the faster the continent will develop.

The professor said, increasingly Makerere researchers were doing collaborative research with researchers from other universities within Uganda and internationally and also researchers from government and private sectors.

“Makerere University is efficient in collaborative research. The Times High Education Index shows that Makerere University beats every other university in the world in collaborative research. We beat even the University of Cape Town in that aspect because we have the highest numbers in publications done by a Makerere researcher with another researcher at another university. We have the highest number in the whole world. And I must thank the researchers at Makerere and those that are collaborating with us.” Prof. Nawangwe appreciated.

The Vice Chancellor described the GORILLA   conference as timely and maybe long overdue. He explained that the issues of climate change are real and people in the Great lakes region should be concerned because the region will be the worst affected with a cycle of drought and famine, floods.

Prof. Nawangwe said  Climate change is going to cause unprecedented strive for the  already impoverished population as already manifested by hazards, landslides , erratic rains and  floods in Uganda adding that researchers must take the lead in finding solutions.

The Vice Chancellor commended the college of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences for producing at least 30% of all  the university research output. He implored the college to do more research and even double on grounds that government was investing in research at Makerere University.

NEMA ED Dr. Tom Okurut speaking during the opening

The Executive Director NEMA Dr. Tom Okurut said as a regulatory authority that also facilitates research, they make decisions on managing the environment based on researched information and therefore, NEMA’s participation in Co -organizing this conference was strategic to inform their work.

“Having this academic conferences is something that is very important because it offers opportunity for scientists to think through and to hear what others are coming to say or their positions on specific topics. The ability of the organizing capacity of the geography department and all the colleagues to bring this conference is recommended because academics relies on exchange of ideas and debating them and listening to colleagues,” Dr. Okurut said and congratulated Makerere University   for organizing this conference amidst the tight COVID environment .

The NEMA ED told participants that what was happening in Uganda today was Humanity fighting Nature describing this as suicidal, and warning that when nature responds it comes back in a different manner.

He said the science of geography, the associated courses trainings and partnerships the university has,  should be one of the pillars to inform the suicidal walk through that human is walking through.

Dr. Okurut reported that the authority is confronted with issues of managing the environment on hourly basis because humanity of Uganda is demanding survival.

A section of participants listening to Prof. Micheal Meadows

“The population is increasing as the land surface area has remained the same. The employment which was supposed to absorb a lot of people has not done so at the same level. And so, we have a challenge a very high population, fixed land surface, fixed environment and therefore the fragile eco systems are under attack.

So those competitions between human needs and also the competition between human needs and the need to sustain where we live is a quantinum and I think what will help us is, to go through research and because geography is a branch between natural science and social sciences, you can provide that bridge.

In last year’s environment day, we had a theme, “Nature is speaking, and then we added a word, Listen” Nature is speaking, please listen”, The ED advised.

Dr.  Okurut appreciated the effect of the university in organizing such a high level conference of science. He however implored researchers to organize a low level conference which can bring people not of high calibre like practitioners.

“There are many practitioners out there who have passed through your hands they go to work, when they work they experience so many things but have nowhere to share those experiences that can form what you teach and reserach. So I would propose that we organize discussion groups to get people back to understand what geography is and what  it means to life to human beings and I think that will be useful”, the ED advised.

Dr. Okurut said, NEMA has established a research grant of five million shillings under the authority’s research components to support students doing research, but can only sponsor about six students every year.

“We have had students from Makerere, Kyambogo and also Nkozi University benefiting from these grants.  It is five million and those who have taken it have solved the problem of going through the research.

Students have to research what NEMA is interested in. We have issues that we want to be solved and so we float them out there and we want students who will come to do the research to answer the problem then we can do, use the outcome of the results for our own purposes and the student fills the requirements for a degree at the university.” Dr. Okurut implored students to apply.

CAES Principal, Prof. Bernard Bashaasha making his welcome remarks

The Principal College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Makerere University Prof. Bernard Bashaasha thanked the local organizing committee for being brave not to cancel the conference.

He said Geography is a bridge between the social and physical sciences which is missed sometimes.

“I believe the conference underscores the importance of Geography in that respect and the contribution it makes in the face of the global challenges.” He said.

Prof. Bashaasha underscored the importance of the meeting and sharing information saying, conferences offer that opportunity. He said the fact that the organizers were brave enough to call participants to meet over the two days means, they are confident over what was generated.

He said the department of Geography, Geo informatics and Climatic Sciences is a key component of the CAES and could not have had a better one. The Principal   implored the head to blow up the trumpet of Geography saying, Geography is not very well understood, and thought to be about drawing maps and cartography.

Prof. Bashaasha also said the conference organized was  consistent with the university dream of turning Makerere into a research led university noting that all abstracts are high level science and the book was in the making .

He said many more things were coming and assured the Vice Chancellor that CAES was rallying behind him in this journey and will be leaders in making Makerere, a graduate and research led.

Prof. Bashaasha also conveyed the lobbying from members from the School of Forestry against the proposal of marrying the Bachelor of Geographical Sciences, The BSc. Environmental Sciences and the BSc. Meteorology.

Assoc. Prof. Fred Babweteera making his welcome remarks

The Dean – School of Forestry, Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Makerere University Assoc. Prof. Fred Babeteera in a special way thanked participants who braved the risk to fly to Uganda and attend the conference in person.

The Dean said, as a school, they pride in diversity as represented in the conference abstracts.

He also said the school prides in the strategy that the university has developed in making Makerere a research led university adding that, that is the ambition to contribute to.

“We have concerns to the effect of merging Geography with other programs. The issue resurrecting is that Prof. Fredrick Tumwine and team worked so hard to start the Bachelor of Geographical sciences and it would be a shame to see that that profession or career is lost along the way before we see the fruits of it.It is a program that started less than three years ago. It would be a pleasure to see it continue and see it contribute to the diversity that we saw cherish in the school.” The Dean requested.

Prof. Babweteera described the conference as an opportunity to address the fast changing environment and landscape. He decried the declining landscape that cannot be relied on to predict the future saying, this was the challenge for participants as they dialogue to see how they can be resilient in this fast changing environment. 

He thanked the Co-Chairs for the resilient shown saying, it rhymes with the conference that they cannot give up but sustain whatever should be done in order to make the planet a better place.

Prof. Micheal Meadows speaking

The President – International Geographical Union – Prof Michael Meadows thanked the hosting institutions particularly Makerere University and NEMA for hosting the conference

Prof. Meadows said the role of the union is to promote teaching research and outreach in the discipline of Geography globally. The union he said was slated to celebrate 100 years of its existence in 2022 in Paris.

He also  said the role of Geography has become more important than before especially in this times of COVID and more broadly in relation to environmental and climate  crisis.

Prof. Meadow also said that the discipline of Geography integrates both the natural and social sciences and is essential in addressing many global challenges addressed by the themes of the conference.

Chair Organising Committee Makerere Assoc. Prof. Yazidhi Bamutaze making his remarks

Makerere University Chair Organizing Committee Assoc. Prof. Yazidhi Bamutaze said the university looked at the potential of Geographical science in addressing  the contemporary issues and the desire to increase the scientific outputs from Africa and globally.

Dr. Bamutaze expressed happiness that  the conference has become a reality after the disruption ignited by COVID 19 pandemic pledging that the ideal is that every two years, the university hosts the GORILLA Conference in Kampala and grow it for people understand it.

“The conference provides a great opportunity for inter alia, conceptual, empirical and Theoretical discussions, which address the conference theme from many perspectives and it is anticipated that, by these means, both established, emerging and young researchers would immensely benefit.

For these reasons, the conference is truly multi and inter-disciplinary and has accepted submissions from both natural and social sciences. The conference will also entail some special sessions and panel discussions” Dr. Bamutaze said.

Dr. Bamutaze said 200 people from 43 countries worldwide submitted the abstracts organized around the topics which generally inform the global resilience and sustainability agenda. The conference topics are; Sustainable agricultural landscape; Biogeography, Biodiversity and Ecosystem change; Sustainable Land Use Management and Livelihoods; Local knowledge against environmental and climate change and Waterscapes and pollution.

Other topics are; Technology and innovations for resilient ecosystems and livelihoods; Closing the loop: Water-energy-food Nexus; Sustainable Migration Spaces and Communities; Urban space and urban ecosystems and; Risk management- Hazards and disasters. 

He said the GORILLA conference thematic areas are strongly anchored in the United Nations Development Agenda 2030 with the attendant Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Dr. Bamutaze explained that although recent reports indicate mixed results globally on the countries performance in meeting the SDGS, the performance of developing countries especially African countries in meeting the SDGs is minimal.

He said, an investigation of the causative factors to the dismal  performance on the SDGs implicates many but paucity of science to support effective implementation at national level occupies a significant proportion.

Cognizant of some of existing challenges in this arena, Dr. Bamutaze reported that the GORILLA conference was conceived as an opportunity to make a contribution to realizing Global Development  Agenda  through science, technology creation and co-learning from diversity of participants.

“The discipline of geography has arguably experienced the most rapid growth over the last 30 years especially with development of spatial science technology tools and innovations. The map in all its forms but especially digitalized is becoming the most fundamental asset of our lives

The utility of digital maps can be seen through precision agriculture, citation of location, real time weather or distance and direction in a boda boda or taxi”, Part of his message reads.

Dr.  Bamutaze explained that Geographical science if well harnessed has a huge potential in enabling social transformation to realize the Global Development Agenda and the National Development visions tackling tenets of both natural and social sciences.

“The GORILLA Conference platform  is envisioned to catalyze partnerships, networking, innovations and provide an opportunity to bridge the science-policy divide for societal benefits. Notwithstanding knowledge sharing among peers, GORILLA, will also build competencies of young scientists and early career researchers through mentorship”, Dr. Bamutaze said.

He reported that there are many potential outputs from the conference. Some of the presentations made during the GORILLA conference will come out in a special issue. The conference will be closed with   Book Launch titled, “Agriculture and Ecosystems Resilience in sub-Saharan Africa”.

Co-Chairs Organising Committee Dr. Yazidi Bamutaze (Mak) and Dr. Jerome Lugumira (NEMA)

The Conference Co-Chair Organising Committee Dr. Jerome Lugumira, Natural Resources Manager( Soils and Land Use) NEMA Uganda  said that this the first  conferences of its kind in Uganda which attempts to bring together scholars, practitioners and policy makers to deliberate on resilience of livelihoods and cultural landscapes in a changing environment.

“This is necessary if we are to avoid the problems of recent past when locusts invaded and damaged crops in Eastern Uganda, when floods ravaged lakeshores, riverbanks and wetlands, when landslides swept gardens and homes in hilly and mountainous areas and, when COVID  19 seems  to have capitalised on our  unpreparedness to stall commerce in many ways and has quickly impacted behaviours and lifestyles”. Dr. Lugumira  noted.

He said, science alone   will go a long way to prepare the nation respond to changes in the environment because it allows modelling and prediction of events.

“Yes, it is extremely essential but only if we are able to make use of it. This is exactly what this conference is all about- policy to listen to science and vice versa, as we attempt to understand our position and what is at stake in these changing environment conditions”. Dr. Jerome Lugumira asserted.

UGA President and head DGGCS Assoc. Prof. Frank Mugagga speaking

The President Uganda Geographical Association (UGA) and Head – Department of Geography, Geo informatics and Climatic Sciences, Makerere University Assoc. Prof. Frank Mugagga welcomed participants  and thanked them for the commitment that has led to this conference despite the dangers initially paused by COVID 19.

Dr. Mugagga also thanked,  Makerere University and the CAES leadership for supporting the department activities, all the sponsors that have made it possible to have this Conference and members of the organizing Committee (both local and international) as well as the conference participants .

Dr. Mugagga explained that UGA is an umbrella organization that brings together all Geographical Scientists and related disciplines in Uganda and, is affiliated to the International Geographical Union (IGU), currently headed by Prof Michael Meadows with a  vision of  developing Professional Geographers that meet present and future challenges.

He said, the association conducts a number of activities including; Carrying out research on important and pertinent issues affecting our communities, writing articles, publication of books, newsletters etc in the Association’s Journal; Organizing fieldwork activities and outreach programs; Organizing academic conferences, seminars, public lectures and dialogues on pertinent issues affecting humanity such as climate change adaptation and mitigation, landslides, floods, soil erosion and sedimentation, land degradation; and Organizing periodic retooling/ training courses for Geography teachers as well as other public servants.

Assoc. Prof. Babweteera, Dr. Tom Okurut and Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe during the opening session

“For instance, we recently conducted an excursion in Murchison Falls NP to ascertain the socio-ecological as well economic implications of the planned development of a hydropower dam. We appreciate Government efforts to modernize the country but are also deeply concerned about the ensuing environmental degradation. Our observations and recommendations are contained in a policy brief/report “. Dr. Mugagga said.

The Mak don  also said, the association was working towards digitalizing the teaching and online delivery of Geography subject in Secondary Schools as a response to the new normal under COVID 19.

He however expressed concern over the proposed merger of the Bachelor of Geographical Sciences with the Bachelor of Environmental Sciences and Bachelor of Science in  Meteorology just three years of the program implementation at Makerere University.

He said, plans were under way to petition the University Council.

“Mr. VC, the UGA and indeed IGU are concerned about the proposed merger of BGS, BEVS and MET at Makerere University & have petitioned the University Council to reconsider this position.

A section of participants attending the conference

We acknowledge the International Geographical Union, through Professor Michael Meadows for supporting our petition regarding the planned merger of Geographical Sciences with Meteorology and Environmental Sciences at Makerere University”, Dr. Mugagga submitted.

In the year 2019 the university embarked on program restructuring to reduce duplications.

He implored participants to join the association adding that they stand to benefit as members through accreditation and professional recognition as a Geographer by both UGA and IGU;

Opportunities for networking with members of the association in Uganda and the rest of the world; Participation in fieldwork and outreach programs organised by the Association; Taking advantage of our rich research mentorship programme; Being able to publish scholarly materials in the Association’s Journal and; Support to participate in seminars, workshops and conferences in local and international.

Report compiled by:
Jane Anyango,
Principal Communication Officer, CAES



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