In Uganda, there is widespread opposition over a proposal to allow part of the Mabira Forest Reserve to be clear-cut for sugar cane growing. Opponents say the move will destroy a delicate and unique African ecosystem and cause economic hardship to those who rely on the forest for their livelihoods. Proponents argue that the plan will boost Uganda's economic and social development. Cathy Majtenyi recently visited Mabira Forest and files this report for VOA.

At the heart of the controversy is the 30,000-hectare Mabira Forest, located about 45 minutes east of the capital, Kampala.

First made a reserve in 1932, Mabira Forest has several important features. It is home to 30 percent of Uganda's birds, consisting of 315 species, including three globally-threatened ones such as the Nahan's Francolin.

The tropical rain forest contains 312 tree and shrub species, including Prunus Africana, which is used to treat prostrate cancer. There are also 23 species of small mammals.

Mabira Forest is a vital catchment area for Africa's largest fresh water body, Lake Victoria; Africa's longest river, the Nile; and other rivers and lakes that experts say serve thousands of people in the immediate area and millions downstream.

Ibrahim Senfuma is a nature guide at Mabira Forest. He says the diversity and uniqueness of the forest have helped him and his fellow Ugandans.

"I grew up not knowing how actually the inside of a hospital looks like," he said. "[When I] get malaria, Mum goes to the bush, to the forest. At home we share a boundary [with Mabira Forest], so she could just move into the forest, come back with a few leaves, a few roots, and then malaria is gone,? he says. ?Today, people who are bedridden with HIV/AIDS normally go to the forest [and] debark some trees, not killing them, but for medicine."

But what has Senfuma and others worried is a proposal by the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited to clear-cut 7,100 hectares of what the company says is degraded land on the forest's edges. The company is a joint venture of the India-based Mehta Group and the Ugandan government.

The sugarcane-growing operations cover 9,500 hectares near Mabira Forest. The company produces up to 50,000 tons of sugar per year and employs 6,000 people. The company says it needs the Mabira land to meet a projected sugar shortage of 170,000 tons a year in Uganda.

Suresh Sharma is regional director of African operations for the Mehta Group. He says the Mabira plan calls for employing 4,000 more people, and that his company in general has benefited Ugandans for the past 85 years.

"We provide employment to 6,000 people - 30,000 family members are living [on our estate]. We take care of all their medical requirements. We take care of their children's education,? says Sharma. ?When the man who works for us retires, we employ his son or daughter. Besides this, we are also taking care of the environment by growing trees ourselves. In addition to that, we also distribute seedlings free of costs to the people around our areas."

But environmentalists and many local politicians say reducing the forest in any way will alter or destroy the whole forest's delicate ecosystem. And they also reject the company's economic arguments.

James Kunobwa-Kezaala is the speaker of the Mukono District Local Government. He says the company could help raise the living standards of many more residents of Mukono District by paying farmers directly for sugarcane grown on their farms rather than at the company's site.

"We have people already whom we have registered at the district, who number to 30,000 farmers. And if you take an estimate, each one maybe growing three acres per person -- three acres times 30,000 -- you have 90,000 acres of sugarcane ready by the people, not by the company,? he said.

Company regional director Sharma says he wrote to local government officials about hiring those farmers or procuring that land but did not receive a response.

There are also an estimated 20,000 people who directly or indirectly live off the forest.

Through agreements with the National Forestry Authority, individuals and groups such as the Mabira Forest Tendolye Women's Crafts and Farmers Group can go into certain areas of the forest and collect materials that they can use to make or process things. Members of the Tendolye Women's Group say they depend heavily on Mabira Forest to support their families.

Uganda has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Many Ugandans hope this trend does not continue in the widely-loved Mabira Forest as they wait for Uganda's parliament to vote on the proposed clear-cutting.