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Environmentalists Blast Ugandan President For Plans To Clear-Cut Forests

Environmental groups and others are upset with the Ugandan president's plans to clear-cut some of the country's remaining forests to make room for plantations that he says will boost the economy. Cathy Majtenyi reports from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi.

President Yoweri Museveni's plans target two forested areas: the island of Bugala on Lake Victoria; and Mabira Forest Reserve, which has been protected since 1932.

A local palm oil company, called Bidco, has been seeking a license to remove forests on Bugala Island to set up a plantation there.

Meanwhile, the Mehta Group of companies wants to clear-cut about 7,000 hectares, almost one-third, of the Mabira Forest Reserve to expand its sugar operations.

In parliament this week, Museveni defended the clear-cutting plans. He said Uganda is, "a very backward country", and the reason for that, he said, is because Uganda is not industrialized.

The president's push for the two projects angers environmentalists, such as Arthur Bainomugisha, research director with the Advocates Coalition for Development and the Environment.

"We are shocked and alarmed that the president has consistently undermined the integrity of our environment," he said, " in spite of the pressure from both within and from without, and also empirical evidence that the forests and the natural resources have a direct relationship with what is happening on the environmental crisis that we are facing, which has to do with the declining levels of waters in Lake Victoria, River Nile and other rivers."

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

Environmentalist Bainomugisha tells VOA that forest covered 20 percent of Uganda 40 years ago, and now covers just seven percent.

He says environmental mismanagement is costly for his country.

"His [Museveni] minister of finance, this year, in June, when they were reading the budget, gave two reasons why the national development objectives could not be met last year, 2005-2006," he said.

"One, because of persistent drought; and two, because of the power shortage, or the energy crisis, all of which have an implication on the way we have managed the environment and natural resources," he continued.

When contacted by VOA, the senior presidential advisor would not comment on the issue, saying only that Ugandans have mixed opinions on the plans.

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.

And, regarding Bugala Island, in early December, the executive director of the National Forestry Authority (NFA), Olav Bjella, resigned over his refusal to give Bidco a license to remove forests there.

According to the Uganda Tourism Board, eco-tourism generated some $300 million for Uganda last year.