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Ugandan Environmentalists Protest Plan to Lease Forest Reserve to Developers


In Uganda, the government’s bid to transform a forest reserve into a sugar plantation is raising controversy. Under the proposed plan, a sugar company would be allowed to clear nearly 10,000 hectares of tropical rainforest of the Mabira Reserve, 52 kilometers east of the capital. From Kampala, reporter Peterson Ssendi has the story.

In 2005, the government announced a plan to lease some of the country’s forest reserves to private investors.

Under the plan, the Mehta Sugar Corporation would gain a third of Mabira Forest Reserve. The area includes a research centre for students and global researchers, as well as the headquarters for the Eco-tourism centre for tourism and environmental education.

This is not the first time the government has approved long-term leases to private developers to build in national forests.

In 2003, amidst protests by local conservationists, government leased 10,000 hectares of Bugala Forest Reserve for palm oil producers.

Two years earlier, Kakira Sugar Works was awarded the rights to another reserve, Butamira forest. The soft drink manufacturer Coca Cola too has been received part of Namanve Central Forest Reserve, 11km east of Kampala, to build a bottling plant.

Environmentalists are proposing a campaign against the new proposed deal with the Asian-owned Mehta Sugar Corporation. It would include an international boycott of the corporation’s Lugazi Sugar subsidiary.

Environmentalist and former presidential candidate Dr. Abed Bwanika is leading the campaign:

"We should not only boycott the consumption of Lugazi Sugar [domestically]," he said, "but we should also call for world wide sanctions against Lugazi Sugar and related products from this factory. We know very well that Lugazi exports the sugar [under] the name of 'organic' sugar. We have launched a campaign which we have code named 'Bloody Sugar,' and we are going to reach out to the international community and market informing that whoever consumes Lugazi sugar, consumes the blood of many Ugandans and animals that will soon die of hunger due to the drought as a result of [the deal].”

However, senior presidential aid Aisha Kabanda assures critics that the government plan includes several provisions to protect the environment.

“The big part of it [the land leased to Mehta Sugar] has actually no trees on it but also we should encourage our people to go on and plant trees any where else to plant over 5,000,000 trees and the government shall be providing seedlings for free to people and others with soft loans payable after a very long period of time,” he said.

Conservationists predict that if the rainforest disappears, the ecosystem will be altered. Uganda will lose rare plant and animal species, while Lake Victoria water levels will drop, and rainfall patterns will be affected.

Kabanda defends the government against criticisms that it is sacrificing the environment for development.

“Developed countries which we depend on, which are helping us to finance our budgets, actually compromised their (own) environment for the sake of development and now," he said.

"They are looking forward to improving the environment after they have achieved development. So we think it’s actually very difficult to enhance development at the same pace as we preserve the environment. (However), we shall go in for sustainable development, improve the environment hand in hand as we work on development.”

In April, President Yoweri Museveni said Mabira should be developed – and that environmentalists would not block such projects. The government says the plan would ensure the production of sugar cane – and help to fight poverty and unemployment within the surrounding area.

The Minister of Water and Environment, Maria Mutagamba, said she will present the clearing plan to the cabinet.

"The cabinet paper will be discussed, and once it has been discussed the government will come out with a position. Of course we have taken care of all the concerns of everybody, which is okay because that’s democracy. So we are only waiting for the cabinet to sit and take a decision,” she said.

In a bid to save Mabira forest, the Kabaka of Buganda Ronald Muwenda Mutebi offered over 7000 hectares of his own land near the forest for sugarcane production. However, the sugar company has rejected the offer.

The Kingdom minister for information, Medad Lubega, says the Buganda Kingdom is set to challenge the government in the constitutional court.

“As a Kingdom, we are opposed to the sale and total destruction or any partial destruction of Mabira Forest not only Mabira but also other forests in Uganda and we have made our stand very clear that we are taking the Central Government to Court .. which is planning to destroy Mabira. Ours is not a political struggle; it is simply a struggle for nature,” he said.

The European Union and other donors have protested the plan. But Museveni's spokesman, Tamale Mirundi, told the German Press Agency, “We can grow trees anywhere but we cannot establish a factory anywhere. We cannot relocate a factory but we can relocate a forest by planting trees elsewhere."

Some of the communities affected by the Mabira deal are threatening violence against any one who encroaches on the forest. Other residents welcome the move, saying it will help to create jobs.

The cabinet often approves government plans. The cabinet’s decision is expected within weeks. Observers say they will be surprised if it is rejected.