Landscape image of landslide with greenery surrounding

Time in the Bududa District of Uganda: Climate Change + Population Growth= Landslides?

After receiving the Changemaker Catalyst Award, Devin Wright served as a research assistant on a qualitative interviewing project with Tulane Environmental Sociology professor, Dr. Laura McKinney. In June of 2019, Wright traveled with Dr. McKinney to the remote Bududa District of Uganda to conduct interviews with residents about their experiences with recent landslides, particularly as they potentially relate to larger issues of climate change, population growth, and climate resettlement/migration. Wright will use her experience in Uganda to inform her PhD studies/dissertation work in the City, Culture, and Community program. Her research agenda focuses on urban agriculture, gender, and food sovereignty.

The job of a Ph.D. student is to become a researcher and produce knowledge. As part of the training to become a researcher, it is critically important to engage in the research practice as an apprentice, of sorts. The Changemaker Catalyst Award gave me precisely this opportunity. The award allowed me to participate in the fieldwork portion of Dr. Laura McKinney’s new research project focusing on the impacts of climate change and population growth in the Bududa district of Uganda. In June of 2019, we traveled to the region to begin conducting qualitative interviews with area residents. Dr. McKinney had previously traveled to the region and set up research relationships and developed a network, of sorts. It was my first time in Uganda, let alone Africa. As a research assistant, I spent the majority of the time in the background, aiding Dr. McKinney and learning as much as possible. I whittled it down to 3 major learning points that I will go into further below. But first, three things about the Bududa.

First, the population in Uganda is exploding. The population growth in Bududa is even greater. While we have not yet completed the full data analysis, preliminary findings from our study suggest that these pressures are already impacting life in the district. In particular, land is becoming scarcer and scarcer. This manifests in two ways: 1) in already populated areas, family land holdings get divided up among sons in progressively smaller plots and 2) unpopulated areas on the outskirts of populated villages are subject to development. These undeveloped plots are generally on precarious pieces of land unsuitable for agriculture or habitation due to their vulnerability to disaster. In Bududa, landslides present the greatest risk, which leads me to my second point.

Landscape image of landslide with greenery surrounding
An image of one of the more severe landslides that occurred during my short time in the Bududa district. There is a destroyed home in the middle of the landslide with a group of people standing atop it, presumably assessing the damage and looking for survivors or bodies.


Climate change is affecting Bududa. The landslides are happening more frequently and are more devastating as a result of population pressure on the steeply sloped hills that are under cultivation and, thus, have “soft soil” as area residents called it. But the landslides are also likely an outcome of climate change, as area residents also frequently spoke of the shifting rainy season and how problematic it had been for the last couple of years. A landslide occurred in October of 2018, just two weeks prior to Dr. McKinney first visit to the region. The next landslide occurred in June of this year, during our stay. These landslides are devastating to homes, crops, and lives. They leave entire harvests spoiled, clean water inaccessible, and lives lost beneath the raging flooded river waters and the shifted land. Interestingly, it is not as though farmers in the region use agricultural practices that many Americans would consider unsustainable. They intercrop (see photo below). They appear to use limited synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, if any. They feed waste to their animals. It appears as though the pressure on the soil, due to the population demands, are outstripping the ecological capacity and, thus, climate change is having a pronounced impact on an increasingly vulnerable and precariously positioned population. This phenomena is well known: climate change is going to disproportionately impact poor, rural populations in underdeveloped and developing nations.

Landscape photo of an intercropped field. Banana trees are clearly visible, the rest appears as verdant green brush mainly.
Almost all crops are intercropped in the Bududa district, meaning that a variety of crops are planted amongst each other. In this image there are a variety of crops visible; banana trees most clearly, beans, corn, elephant grass, and most likely sweet potatoes, too!

Third, the street address system in Uganda is extremely new, meaning that there are almost no addresses in the entire country. While addresses certainly are not essential for a government to run efficiently, they are one important way many national governments keep track of their citizens and the national geospatial arrangement. For example, without street addresses, the U.S. Census would be even more difficult to conduct than it already is. The lack of an address system points to the lack of government involvement in the lives of many Ugandan people, for better or worse. The current government, whose president has been in office for 33 years following the overthrow of a tyrannical and genocidal regime, developed a plan to resettle people from the areas most vulnerable to landslides. Some of the housing has been completed, but the resettlement of residents has been slow and our research’s preliminary findings suggest a lack of government transparency about who will be resettled and when.

New resettlement house. Latrine barely visible in background.
This is an image of one of the government-funded resettlement homes. The latrine is vaguely visible in the back, detached from the footprint of the home. Each family resettled also receives an acre of land, for agriculture.


As a research assistant on the project, I learned a great many things, but for brevity I will focus on 3.

Be flexible in the field. Things changed very quickly once in the field, so it was imperative to stay flexible with our schedule, our questions, and our learning. The interview guide that Dr. McKinney prepared prior to our arrival changed with each interview. Each bit of new information that we received altered the course of the project and introduced new lines of inquiry that we were eager to understand and pursue. For example, prior to entering the field I was unaware of the resettlement project in the region. Upon learning about that program, it became an integral part of the investigation; so much so that we took the time (~4 hour trip) to travel to the resettlement site.

I love interviewingPrior to this trip I certainly had an appreciation for interviewing but the opportunity to collaboratively conduct interviews offered a new insight into the kind of researcher I want to be and how I want to conduct interviews in my work. For this project, Dr. McKinney led the questioning, often reciting the questions from memory and appearing to make strong eye contact and maintain a thoughtful and engaged look on her face. A translator always accompanied us, to ensure proper consent process and also to make sure that nothing was ever lost in translation or confused, as there were times when participants that spoke English had an easier time conveying themselves in the local language (Lugandan). I was tasked with note-taking and offering follow-up questions that Dr. McKinney did not already ask. This kind of team approach has the potential to overwhelm or intimidate participants and that is important to consider, but speaking from the other side of the exchange, it was immensely fun and each interview felt dynamic and complete. Each part of the team contributed differently and engaged with the participant differently. It also became clear how important quick thinking and deep engagement with the participant’s words are. If your nerves are too high, as an interviewer, you might miss the nuances of what the participant is saying and fail to ask necessary or even just exciting follow-up questions. All of this to say that the interview exchange is a dynamic one, and while the story of the participant is the appropriately the focus, there are other factors that significantly contributeto the quality of each and every interview conducted.

Lastly, and most importantly for me, the ethics of conducting international social science research are intensely difficult to navigate and manage. Questions of ethical conduct are ongoing. I believe that all researchers should constantly be wracking themselves about the ethics of their work, no matter who the subject might be. Ultimately, this kind of ethical engagement means that the work of social science is never easy or simple. This is perhaps the greatest takeaway that I had from this experience. People are sharing their stories with you. I heard stories of immense loss and fear and the thought of mishandling or misrepresenting those stories is nauseating to me. Not only that, engaging with populations whose social locations are far afield from my own as a highly-educated, white, middle-class woman from the United States in ways that do not exacerbate global relations of inequality and imperialism is a highly demanding task. It is work that the research community has frequently mishandled or avoided altogether in the past and it is work that I, as a young scholar, am responsible for taking on. I am thankful to Dr. McKinney for providing support and mentorship to navigate these ethical conundrums and giving me the space to do the necessary mental and emotional work during the fieldwork period.

I am grateful for the opportunity and I look forward to bringing this global lens to bear on my local agricultural research.