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Ugandan Lawyers, Civic Groups to Challenge Plan to Clear Cut Forest

Many people in Uganda are up in arms (very upset) about a government plan approved by the cabinet this week to clear cut about one-third of a national forest reserve for sugar cane growing. Lawyers and civic groups say they intend to file legal action to stop the plan from proceeding. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Nairobi.

BirdLife International, a conservation group, says the Mabira Forest Reserve is home to more than 300 species of birds.

The 32,000 hectare forest also supports nine species of primate and serves as a reservoir for many of the region's rivers, providing fresh water to an estimated 1 million people. The forest has been protected since 1932.

Uganda's cabinet this week approved a proposal by President Yoweri Museveni to allocate more than 7,000 hectares of the forest to Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited, owned by the Mehta Group. The company plans to clear cut the area for sugar plantations.

Presidential spokesman John Nagenda tells VOA that, according to Mr. Museveni, low-income Ugandans will benefit from a decrease in the price of sugar, the project will create many new jobs, and Uganda will be able to export sugar in large quantities, thus bringing in badly needed revenue.

"The rationale is very simple," he said. "He [Museveni] says we must develop, we must industrialize. Lots and lots of people in the world haven't got forests. There are no forests inside London, there are no forests in New York, and people cleared these things to industrialize and therefore to develop."

But environmentalists and others oppose the government's plan, saying that such large-scale deforestation will harm Uganda.

Many scientists maintain there is a link between deforestation and climate change.

They say forests trap moisture, keep temperatures cool and supply rainfall to the area by creating cloud cover. They also absorb excess carbon dioxide and other harmful gasses linked to global warming.

Many scientists also say that cutting down forests results in less rainfall, decreased lake and river levels and warmer temperatures.

Lawyers and civic groups intend to file legal action against the Ugandan government to try and stop the Mabira deforestation.

The past president of the Uganda Law Society, Moses Adriko, says that many members of parliament are privately concerned about the plan and that, in his words, there is "a lot of public disquiet" over the issue.

The clear cutting plan still needs to be approved by parliament, but Adriko says he and his colleagues are not confident parliament will stop the plan, as the majority of MPs are from the ruling party.

"It may well go through because there will definitely be intimidation, there will be some blackmail, that's what's going to happen," he said. "We are very apprehensive, and that's why we are contemplating civil society action as well."

At the end of November, more than 2,000 protesters from Uganda, the United States, Israel and other places signed a petition urging President Museveni not to parcel out land from the Mabira Forest Reserve.

Environmentalists are concerned about the plan's impact on Uganda's environment.

In a previous interview with VOA, Arthur Bainomugisha, research director with the Advocates Coalition for Development and the Environment, said that forest covered 20 percent of Uganda 40 years ago, and now covers just seven percent.

He said he believes that droughts and power shortages contributed significantly to Uganda's inability to meet its national development objectives in the 2005-2006 fiscal year.