Uganda conservation news – Mt. Elgon remains a hotspot for illegal squatters and encroachment

Following an article yesterday over the massive loss of forest cover in Uganda, over past years and more importantly projected to continue in the future, it is worrying to learn that rogue politicians are again inciting people around Mt. Elgon to maintain and increase their encroachment while making demands for the park boundaries to be changed to give free land to their constituents. The trend is in fact alarming considering the potential for landslides inside the park, caused by reckless cutting of trees, seismic events and human habitat spreading at the bottom of steep slopes now used for cultivating crops without terracing. Hundreds of people died in a major landslide not long ago and inspite of the increasing risked, those removed to safety by UWA and other government bodies often sneak back to their illegal little farms, ignoring the widening chasm higher up on the mountain which now spans over 40 kilometres in length. Changing boundaries of protected areas requires an act of parliament here in Uganda but wannabe leaders have often been prodding wananchi on to enter forests and parks, with cattle and for cultivation, bringing instant conflict between law enforcement and those misled. Mt. Elgon in fact is notorious for park rangers as several of them were killed when ambushed by squatters, with at least one tourist on a mountain hike met a similar fate some years ago.
Notorious, amongst many, is one Titus Wakooba, a self styled chairperson who recently strongly reject(s) the 2003 park boundaries to regain land unfairly grabbed by Uganda Wildlife Authority. Incitement of such nature has been spreading since the troubles began for UWA prompted by personality clashes and illegal appointments between former tourism minister Kahinda Otafire, aka minister for crocodiles in his own words, and the then top echelon of UWA. Otafire had appointed a cash grabbing and totally unfit chairperson who was eventually dismissed through a court order for being patently unqualified under the Wildlife Act to hold any such position. Wild mouthing offs at the time have since given way to embarrassed silence, but nevertheless are thought by many to be one of the reasons why encroachment and land grabbing at Mt. Elgon continues unabated, as UWA was structurally weakened and has not had either a board appointed nor a substantive Executive Director named ever since.
Conservationists point to the crucial role of Mt. Elgon as a national water tower, besides being a transboundary protected area shared with Kenya, which makes any changes in Uganda a matter of concern for Kenya Wildlife Service too.
None of the regular sources within the corridors of the ministry nor at UWA were ready to comment, one citing the sensitivity of the matter which made it prudent to remain silent, but it is understood that both UWA and the ministry of tourism are watching these development with increasing concern and that other security organs in the country have been alerted to this turning into another potential hotspot of illegal demonstrations and activities once again. One thing is clear though, if UWA and government fail to stand firm on this issue, it would open the floodgates for similar invasions and demands elsewhere in the country, critically endangering conservation efforts and potentially spoiling, through negative publicity, the impact of #VisitUganda2012 when the country has been named as top destination by Lonely Planet. Watch this space.