Bugoma forest vanishes in political games, NFA puzzled

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Mr George Owoyesigyire, Deputy Director for Community Conservation at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) during the European Union (EU) visit to Bugoma forest. (Photo: Kazi-njema News).

Bugoma Central Forest Reserve is back to high risk of massive degradation despite recent interventions of national and international, state and non-state actors speaking in favour of the forest against the planned replacement of the 22 square miles of land with sugarcane plantation.

Local leaders are bitter with the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development over allegedly cutting them off information about the forest boundary opening exercise that the ministry halted halted abruptly.

The National Forestry Authority (NFA) is anguished by the incessant forest clearing that it says is being done by Hoima Sugar Limited on the disputed forest land evidenced through Geographic Information System (GIS) satellite images from their headquarters in Kampala.

Members of the civil society fraternity discredited the boundary opening exercise that had started on November 15, 2020 with a meeting.

Fears and positions

The Kikuube District LC 5 Chairman, Mr Francis Kazini, wonders why the survey hoped to resolve the dispute was called off with no clear reason given to the relevant leaders.

To his opinion, the exercise is essential towards restoring hope for land security amongst residents and all parties in the conflict.

Audio: Kazini on boundary opening (English)

The Kikuube Resident District Commissioner (RDC), Mr Richard Tabaaro, told Kazi-njema News that he last spoke to Ms Pacis Namuganza, State Minister for Lands, Housing and Urban Development on Monday, November 23, 2020, but could not supply clear information about the survey resumption date.

He is in favour of a transparent survey and boundary opening to defuse the longstanding tension that puts security and social stability at risk.

Audio: Tabaaro on boundary opening (English)

Mr Daniel Muhairwe Mpamizo, the Buhaguzi County Member of Parliament in Kikuube district, urges the ministry of lands to implement the cabinet directive of surveying the forest as soon as possible and avoid any form of politics because this is a thorny issue.

Audio: Muhairwe on boundary opening (English)

Asked about the abrupt halting of the Bugoma forest boundary opening exercise on November 25, 2020, at 3pm in a phone call, Mr Denis Obbo, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, told Kazi-njema News that Bugoma forest boundary opening exercise was continuing as scheduled.

He said this during a non-recorded return call to our reporter who had consistently sought the ministry’s comment about the exercise.

“I have double confirmed with our staff in charge of that exercise and now I can confirm to you that the exercise is going on. People should just wait for the survey report,” said Mr Obbo said without divulging how and with what stakeholders the survey is being conducted.

Ms Aisha Alibhai, the NFA spokesperson, denies knowledge of the survey resumption after the abrupt halt on November 15, 2020.

According to her, the ministry of lands had called off the exercise citing security threats to the survey team during this political campaign season.

Ms Alibhai says the NFA is heart-broken by the decision made by the lead agency in the boundary opening exercise arguing that it kills all the progressive steps towards resolving the conflict reached by various stakeholders aside from exposing the forest to historical degradation.

“Our surveyors were returned to the office because they said the possible time for the boundary opening is after elections of which we are worried that the forest will be already cleared basing on the speed of tree feeling being done by Hoima Sugar Limited,” she said.

Audio: Alibhai on boundary opening (English)

When contacted, the management of Hoima Sugar Limited was not able to make a timely comment about allegations that they are taking advantage of the silence to intensify tree felling.

Meanwhile, Mr Bashir Twesigye, the Executive Director for the Civic Response on Environment and Development (CRED), says they never expected any positive results even if the exercise had continued because it initially lacked transparency.

According to him, environmental activists want the survey urgently resumed with full involvement of all stakeholders or else they will not respect the results which will absolutely protract the struggle to save Bugoma central forest reserve.

As of October 28, 2020, 20 hectares of forest cover had been illegally cleared on the forested land that Hoima Sugar Limited claims to have acquired from Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom, according to the NFA Executive Director, Mr Tom Okello.

If it is true that tree cutting is continuing in Bugoma central forest reserve, the cabinet directive to halt tree felling until the boundaries were defined has been trashed.

Same applies to the recommendations made by a delegation of European Union (EU) Ambassadors who visited the forest on November 2, 2020.

The EU Ambassador to Uganda, H.E Attilio Pacifici, vowed they could not accept to watch as efforts to replace Bugoma forest with sugarcane plantations transpire.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA’s) position is to see the forest conserved because its presence means a lot to wildlife and tourism.

It has remained difficult for both journalists and local leaders to access the parts of the forest that NFA believes are under serious degradation being cleared due to the military presence guarding the forest.

On November 24, 2020, four journalists survived shooting when they were attacked by the soldiers while filming the trees felled; a day after community vigilantes reported the entry of more than 300 men into the forest with bush clearing tools.

A truck of timber was impounded a day after the shoot-out at journalists and the resultant suspension of any activities inside the forest by local security leaders.

The progress of the court case filed by the NFA against Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom relating to the disputed forested land is also in suspense after one of the three judges pulled out citing conflict of interest.

Members of different civil society organisations under the Save Bugoma Campaigners umbrella sued the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to the East African Court of Justice over issuing a certificate to Hoima Sugar Limited allowing it to clear the part of the forest challenging that there was no consultation of key stakeholders.

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