World Environment Day in Uganda overshadowed by Mabira saga


(Posted 06th June 2013)

Uganda’s Member of Parliament for the Environment, as he is often referred to, Hon. Ken Lukyamuzi, held a press briefing yesterday announcing that he will not attend the World Environment Day celebrations in Kampala to manifest his opposition against the ongoing uncertainty of the future of Mabira Forest.

While the Environment State Minister Hon. Flavia Munaaba launched a tree planting campaign in Mabira last week, with the NFA and Libya Oil Uganda Ltd. as key partners, she stated that government would want to partner with civil society organizations, the corporate sector and conservation groups to restore degraded and encroached sections of Mabira Forest, which has since 2007 been in the cross hairs of the conservation fraternity after plans became known that a quarter of this unique rainforest was to be converted into sugar plantations for the Mehta Group.

The news at the time prompted public protests which ended in the death of people but forced government to back off, for a while at least. Last year the same minister attempted to show the media sections of the forest which were earmarked for the giveaway as a result of ‘degradation’ but the attempt failed miserably when no degraded areas could be found, nipping that attempt to justify a conversion into a sugar plantation firmly in the bud.

Lawyers for the ‘Save Mabira’ movement point to government’s legal inability to touch the forest, as it agreed with the World Bank to preserve Mabira for eternity in an offset deal, which saw the bank co-finance the Bujagali Hydro Electric Plant, which also included to leave Kalagala Falls further downstream alone and not build another power station there. One legal advisor to the ‘Save Mabira’ campaign, on condition of anonymity, had this to say: ‘The Government of Uganda committed to retain Mabira Forest as a crucial water tower and Kalagala Falls as a site of exceptional natural beauty for tourism purposes. Mzee [reference to President Museveni] might have forgotten that when he promised to give Mehta that land. Meanwhile have many other options been floated how SCOUL [Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited] can lease land from the Buganda Kingdom or engage with outgrowers who are willing to grow sugar cane for them on their own land. None of these options have been seriously explored however. The sentiments were rekindled when Mzee at Kyankwanzi [during a ruling party retreat earlier this year] again made reference that he still wanted to give a quarter of the forest away. I do not know who advises him but the legal situation has not changed. Additionally has our Constitutional Court recently ruled in a similar case of Nyakana vs. NEMA, that the lease granted for land reserved for protection was null and void. This ruling was based on Article 237 of the Constitution of Uganda, which is the supreme law of the country. Any attempt to dissect Mabira will end in the same court and the precedent has now been set with this ruling which has not been appealed and therefore stands like a law itself. Perhaps it is time to once and for all close that chapter about giving part of Mabira away’.

Uganda has been suffering from forest degradation, forest invasions – often encouraged by local politicians seeking to garner favours with voters – and illegal cutting down of mature hard wood tree for timber, a trend which has become increasingly unsustainable and which even government experts now say needs to be halted and reversed.

However, unlike in neighbouring Rwanda, where re-forestation is high on the government agenda and enjoys the thumbs up from the highest office in that land, in Uganda no such measures have been taken as yet. In Rwanda, which as the time of the genocide saw forest cover reduced to around 18 percent, has as a result of sustained efforts to restore and protect forests, the country’s forest cover returned to around 24 percent over the past years and is due to reach a target of 30 percent by 2020. President Paul Kagame, a few months ago, answered a specific question by this correspondent over his government’s forestry policy and why Rwanda is not making a stronger point to tell fellow heads of state in the EAC to equally embrace the groundbreaking policies of environmental protection and re-forestation introduced and implemented by Rwanda. While beaming over the recognition of his own country’s exemplary efforts in this field, he nevertheless passed the buck on to his colleagues to do the right thing in their own backyard, though it has since become known that Rwanda’s officials working on environmental issues on the EAC platform, are indeed strongly promoting the adoption of their own policies by other member states of the East African Community.

Meanwhile at home though have environmental groups and conservationists raised serious doubts on the State Minister’s statements, doubting the sincerity of treeplanting efforts until the Mabira giveaway has not been firmly put to rest. ‘Of course we participate in tree planting. This is what we believe in. Even if we have doubts about the sincerity of such activities when government is involved, we will participate. If only government could recognize that Mabira is part of the offset agreed with the World Bank and leave it finally alone. We appreciate how you draw parallels with Rwanda and highlight how Nyungwe Forest or Gishwati Forest are protected and turned into a sustainable tourism resource. We have a good example in Uganda. Kibaale Forest is now very popular with tourists visiting the chimpanzees or just hike across the forest. Mabira, which is so much closer to Kampala and has a first class lodge [Geolodges Africa’s RainForest
Lodge] can become a weekend retreat for Kampala residents. There are cycling routes, hiking routes and a great biodiversity of flora and fauna. I remember when you floated the idea 10 or more years ago to put up a canopy walk. I think it is still a viable idea and maybe National Forest Authority should either do it alone or together with a development partner and then concession it out or run it themselves. It would be a huge attraction for foreign tourists. They would appreciate our forests even more and those forests could earn a steady stream of income. We would reinforce our global standing as a green eco-friendly destination and draw even more tourists here. But first, let there be clarity on government’s position about Mabira. They cannot always profess one thing and then do another when it comes to Mabira. No sugar plantations for Mabira and while I am at it, no golf courses in our national parks either’ contributed another regular source, who, what else, insisted on anonymity.

Meanwhile has Lukyamuzi and other like minded legislators claimed to be aware of ongoing encroachment and illegal logging, suggesting complicity in these activities and inferring ulterior motives, when justifying their proposed absence from the national celebrations of UNEP’s World Environment Day.

Let there be action following the good words adds this correspondent, action of the right kind, action to preserve and protect our environment for future generation that they still have a Uganda to live in we can all be proud of.

Links to a few other articles about Mabira with more found through the search function on my blog

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