DOES ASSAULTING THE ENVIRONMENT CREATE POPULARITY AND POLITICAL CAPITAL
Mount Elgon National Park, already constantly in the bad news over encroachment, illegal logging and poaching, killing of park rangers and the increasing danger of yet more major landslides, has been given another back stab recently, when of all people president Museveni appears to have directed the Uganda Wildlife Authority to return part of the park land to ‘its owners’, suggesting that errors were made during the lengthy and consultative demarcation of the park boundaries a few years back and that ‘people’s land was made part of the park when it should have remained outside the boundaries’. The ‘displaced’, numbering reportedly hundreds of families, are said to be living in ‘deplorable conditions’ and have been part of the groups to whom politicians vying for votes had promised ‘resettlement’ before the elections.
The presidential directive of course opens the door to more such demands and there is a growing danger that this key national water tower in the East of the country will sooner than later be dissected notwithstanding that across the border with Kenya the mountain is and remains a national park with no indication of similar troubles and problems.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority seems to be fighting a losing battle here, considering that the organisation is weakened through the upheavals of the past several months, when leading conservation minded senior executives – regularly standing in the way of such attempts to ‘carve out’ settlement areas from park land – were sacked, and in subsequent court cases UWA was then left without a board and a management team on ‘acting’ appointments caught between a rock and a hard place of just how far to follow political directives, especially if outside the law or borderline cases, while hoping to secure permanent appointments from exactly those. Standing up to such directives takes backbone and personal integrity, and this correspondent, while mostly in strong support of the president, in this case has to disagree in the interest of conservation and the long term future of the environment, especially when there is a possibility that the president was not given the true facts about locations and ‘entitlements’ and his office is being used to ‘give back to the voters’.
The information leaked to the public over the weekend and made its way into the media and indicates that the president wrote to the prime minister a month ago, asking for the land in question to be degazetted, which however is a lengthy process and requires parliamentary approval, as it was parliament which sanctioned the boundaries of ALL protected areas in the country, including Mt. Elgon.
The very same section of the park however poses also a deadly threat to encroachers and ‘resettlees’ as a deep fissure has started to open further up the mountain, caused by suspected seismic activity, deforestation and massive rain last year, which softened the underground and led to an entire village, Bududa, being swept away and buried under tens of feet of mud and rock.
Only last month were attacks on rangers reported again from this ‘hotbed of a park’ as one regular source put it, hopefully not a harbinger of things to come, should the confrontation, now that the president’s demand has been made public, take a turn to the worse should emboldened agitators incite more violence to press for their case.
UWA had in past weeks repeatedly warned of the dangers of more rock and mudslides, but was promptly blamed for ‘negative publicity’ and using this as a ’pretext to evict people from the park’, yet according to a regular and reliable source from within UWA, the problem now is worse than before and allowing people into the area could court yet more disasters.
Across Eastern Africa have promises, made during elections campaigns, been taking aim at protected areas, a cheap and often defenceless target, especially when those in the know are cowed and at times threatened to shut up and look the other way while international conservation societies and groups – while most welcome when they raise crucially needed funds – are reduced to ‘foreigners wanting to deny us development’ after politicians had spoken out in favour of mining, roads and major other infrastructural projects, many of which, with just a little extra thought, could be relocated to less vulnerable parts of the country. Yet, as always it is votes which count, and wildlife and nature do only have advocates but cannot cast votes. It is noteworthy though to point out that Rwanda has an exemplary record amongst the five East African Community member states and conservation and upholding biodiversity enjoys the personal attention of none other than President Kagame.
The conservation fraternity, concerned with keeping the parks, game and forest reserves in Eastern Africa intact and preserved for future generations, better prepares for the onslaught to intensify and get worse in coming years, and no one should say the writing was not visible on the wall.
Watch this space.