More than 25,000 hectares of Kei Central Forest Reserve in Yumbe District have reportedly been destroyed causing anger among some leaders in the area.
Mr Al-adil Andama, the Kei Sub-county Chairman for Production and Natural Resources Committee told Kazi-njema News reporter that it has been established that several people have encroached on the forest while some top leaders are allegedly trading in its products.
He said after realising that the forest is being depleted, Kei sub-county council was coerced to convene, ultimately resolving to stage a peaceful demonstration with intent to send a message of their dissatisfaction against the National Forestry Authority (NFA) officials for the continued destruction of the woodland.
“We have been constrained from solving this matter as a sub-county. But we needed the interventions of the district because NFA officials are behind this business and they cannot take any action. NFA has no working relationship with the sub-county, thus, no community sensitisation about their roles in protecting the environment”, he said.
The politician alleged that the NFA officials use eviction as a cover to protect their interests of destroying the forest cover for logs, timber and charcoal as they trade on these forest products.
However, as some of the Kei sub-county leaders prepared messages about the environment on the placards waiting for the demonstration to start, they realised that the team that was expected to join them led by the Resident District Commissioner (RDC) took long to arrive at the venue in what seemed to be a misconception of the event.
This, according to the Mr Andama, raised suspicion that something could have gone wrong with their planned demonstration.
At that time, the District Police Commander (DPC), Charles Okoto, arrived at the scene saying security got information of the planned demonstration but the documentation they received did not indicate who they were protesting against.
The DPC said since the vehicles that enter and leave Kei forest use the road, it would be good if the mobilisation strategy used for this demonstration is done to coordinate issues of transporting the forest products and impounding them.
“We had an intelligence report that the community had bought petrol to go and burn ready charcoal in the forest in their planned demonstration. But as police in Uganda, we are mandated to protect life and property. So, we have come here to stop you from organising this demonstration, but we should rather come up with a better way of handling the problem,” he said.
In another twist of events, the DPC accused the planned demonstrators of indulging in the destruction of the forest.
“Charcoal burning undergoes a long process for a person to get the final product (charcoal) but people keep quiet over it which means some of you are involved in the business,” Mr Okoto said.
Mr Ashraf Ajobe, the District Internal Security Officer, said the act that the leaders of Kei sub-county intended to do differs from what is contained in the letter they wrote to the Inspector General of Police (IGP).
“The sub-county leaders planned to go for monitoring activity in the forest reserve and we accepted to join them including the NFA officials but our efforts were frustrated by the letter which was written to the IGP requesting for permission to go for a peaceful demonstration. When someone writes to the IGP for demonstration, you have to wait for clearance. So, the two different communications distorted everything which needs another planning”, he said.
Mr Ajobe said the issue of Kei forest reserve, needs a collective effort since the woodland borders the sub-counties of Ludara in Koboko district, and Kei, Midigo and Kerwa in Yumbe district.
Ms Marta Tiko, a woman activist said the issue of Kei forest reserve is a serious matter since historical trees are being cut down, wondering that despite how crucial the matter is, some officials take it lightly.
“People come all the way from Kampala with their documents to cut the trees here in Kei forest reserve. Our historical trees have all gone. When the community intervenes to impound trucks loaded with the forest products, they end up being threatened. Efforts of the community in fighting the illegal forest product business have been frustrated. A number of trucks impounded with charcoal have been released with the orders from higher authority,” said Ms Tiko.
The Yumbe RDC, Caroline Angolere, criticised the leaders for the action they took to write to the IGP ignoring the district leaders disclosing that on March 12, 2021, a meeting was convened with the NFA officials over the matter and the management of the general environment.
“Since March 12 to date, my team has been handling the issues of the forest management in this district. I want to tell you that the people of Kei have failed to manage the forest and the community who gives us information is a people from outside Kei but people within keep watching the trucks moving with the forest products”, she said.
However, she called for teamwork to save the entire environment from destruction, accusing NFA of inefficiency.
“We need to protect the environment because it benefits us all and I think there is a need to overhaul the entire leadership of NFA because I am seeing gaps. How can we identify a problem and we are not able to solve it? So, there are gaps in the leadership of NFA.” Ms Angolere said.
During a recent meeting, the district leadership and the NFA agreed that people should begin leaving the forest reserve voluntarily starting on April, 12.
It remains unclear if the agreement has come to pass.