Sixteen Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) including tourism associations and tour operators in Uganda have petitioned Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom over the destruction of Bugoma Central Forest Reserve.
Under their umbrella Save Bugoma Forest Campaign (SBC), the coalition seeks to explore options available including dialogue and other engagements to save the forest from destruction following the conflicts between the National Forestry Authority (NFA), Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom and Hoima Sugar Ltd after part of it was leased to the latter for sugarcane growing.
“There is fear that the ongoing contradictions around Bugoma forest, if not urgently discussed and resolved through dialogue with all the relevant stakeholders, may lead to mistrust and suspicion. This will consequently undermine conservation of critical biodiversity resources such as Bugoma forest,” the memorandum reads.
“The Save Bugoma Forest Campaign team wishes to work with Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom to address the threat. The campaign members are also seeking to address the governance challenges related to land grabbing especially those associated with oil developments in the Albertine region to generally ensure that no negative activities are carried out in delicate ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, rivers, lakes, national parks, game reserves in addition to sacred natural sites and territories among others,” it adds.
The organisations are concerned that part of the forest that was leased to grow sugarcane coupled with oil activities will increase climate change through increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions both in Bunyoro and Uganda in general.
“Forests such as Bugoma are needed to act as carbon sinks of the GHG emissions to avoid or mitigate the negative impacts of climate change. Water access in Bunyoro is constrained with water flows in the region becoming intermittent. It is only rivers from within Bugoma, such as Wambabya, that continue to supply water for hydro-power production and other uses. The river is also expected to supply water to the proposed industrial park and airport at Kabaale, Buseruka. Conservation of Bugoma forest is therefore critical in consideration of the water provisioning role it plays,” the environmentalists continue.
Two years ago, Bunyoro kingdom leased 22 square miles of land to Hoima Sugar Ltd to grow sugarcane for 99 years at a paltry Shs3b.
The organisations therefore recommend that the kingdom should make a public commitment that Hoima Sugar Ltd or any other person or company will not convert any part of Bugoma forest into a sugarcane plantation adding that the forest should not be converted to serve any other purpose that is incompatible with forest conservation, irrespective of whether Bugoma is a central or private forest reserve.
The environmental campaigners say Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom should work with other stakeholders including NFA, NEMA and others to organise a regional dialogue to discuss how the interests of all those claiming interests on Bugoma forest land can be settled without destroying any part of the forest, central reserve and private reserve.
They want the kingdom to dialogue with government to support the cultural institution’s efforts to refund the money that Hoima Sugar Ltd paid to it and other claimants suggesting that the amount to be refunded should be based on the agreements signed between the kingdom and the relevant claimants to avoid inflating the figures.
The organisations also urge Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom to ask NEMA to stop the ongoing Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) conducted by Hoima Sugar Ltd until the specified stakeholder dialogues are concluded.
To deepen their fight against the destruction of Bugoma forest, AFIEGO and WEMNET conducted a media tea for inclusive participation in environmental conservation.
CSOs and associations involved in fighting for Bugoma forest include Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), Civic Response on Environment and Development (CRED), Citizens Concern Africa, Water and Environment Media Network (WEMNET), Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust, National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), ECOTRUST and Tree Talk Plus.
Others are Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO), ACODE, Tourism Association, Association for the Conservation of Bugoma Forest, Joint Energy and Environment Projects (JEEP), Association of the Scouts of Uganda, Environmental Alert and Inter-Generational Agenda On Climate Change (IGACC).
In response to the petitioners led by Mr Dickens Kamugisha, the Executive Director of Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), the Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom Prime Minister, Mr Andrew Kirungi Byakutaaga, urged the CSOs to spread their campaign further than Bugoma forest to other features including Lake Albert that is being overfished and polluted.
Speaking in his office at Rukurato Hall in Hoima City at the weekend, Mr Byakutaaga reprimanded such environmental conservation ombudsmen as NEMA and NFA for looking on as the environment is being degraded at a soaring rate.
“We wonder the capacity that NFA and NEMA have. NFA has taken over forests which had been preserved for long and leased them to private people for tree planting but instead are being cut under their watch. A lot needs to be done including going into the laws, look at what each is mandated to do and if there is a dragging-feet on their mandate, changes be made,” said Mr Byakutaaga.
Regarding refunding the money that the sugar firm paid to the kingdom, the premier said that their hands were tied because the transaction is still legally binding hastening to add that officials in the cultural institution have began negotiations with Hoima Sugar Ltd.
Mr Byakutaaga also said that he cannot talk about the refund prior to agreeing over what the sugar company wants.
“It is like after selling something and you start convincing someone to bring it back. You cannot tell whether he will accept or not,” the Prime Minister said.
However, Mr Byakutaaga added that he hopes the negotiations will come up with the best deal that does not injure the interests of both parties.
Ms Joan Akiza, NAPE’s legal officer, expressed happiness that the kingdom has opened up to negotiations and promised their commitment in environmental conservation.
She said that environmental degradation has affected habitats for wild animals resulting into human-wildlife conflict in addition to causing rainfall failure or global warming.
Conversion of Bugoma forest into a sugarcane plantation or any other land use that does not promote conservation undermines the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and international conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) among others which Uganda has ratified.
This will also undermine Uganda’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gases through commitments made under Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) and also undermines Uganda’s commitments under the Paris Climate Change Agreement. Failure to respect international commitments must be avoided.
Bunyoro region is losing 3.3% of its forest cover, above the national average of 1.5%, which has since declined by 134 square kilometers, according to NFA.
Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom hosts and conserves Uganda’s critical biodiversity resources in the Albertine Graben including in Bunyoro. Resources in the Albertine Graben include over 70% of Uganda’s national parks, 12 wildlife (game) reserves, 13 wildlife sanctuaries, five wildlife community areas, eight out of the 15 forest reserves in Uganda, wetlands, lakes, rivers, sacred natural sites and territories and other tourism assets.
These assets currently earn Uganda over $1.6 billion per year. The tourism resources also contributed to the over 660,000 jobs that were available in the tourism and travel sector during the 2018/2019 financial year.
Bugoma Central Forest Reserve, which covers 41,144 hectares, is the largest remaining block of natural tropical rainforest along the Albertine Rift Valley. The forest lies between Budongo forest and Semliki, thereby playing an enormous role in preserving wildlife migratory corridors. It is also home to about 500 chimpanzees, which is 10% of the Ugandan chimpanzee population, making the forest a chimpanzee sanctuary.
Bugoma forest hosts a population of Ugandan mangabeys, which are endemic to this forest.
Over 221 bird species have been recorded in Bugoma forest and it is also the single-most important tourist destination, outside the known national parks and wildlife reserves.