The Daily Monitor of June 17 published an article mentioning that the Benet community of Mt Elgon National Park had petitioned the government to halt their eviction from the park.
Apparently, the community accuses Uganda Wildlife Authority of evicting them without giving them alternative land. It is very unfortunate that respectable people should tell lies against an established government agency, which is striving amidst a lot of antagonism, to protect the fragile ecosystems of Mt Elgon for the sake of the millions of people whose agricultural activities depend on the water from the mountain.
A total of 6,000 hectares (the size of about 20 villages) were set aside from Mt Elgon Forest Reserve in 1983 by the Government of Uganda in order to resettle the Benet-Ndorobo people who had lived in the forest all their lives. The idea was to protect the forest reserve from destruction but also to ensure that landless people are not abandoned.
In 2002, the Parliament of Uganda officially degazetted the 6,000 hectares in line with an earlier decision (of 1983) to set aside this land for the landless Benet people. By this time, the government had upgraded Mt Elgon Forest Reserve to the status of a national park to further ensure that its ecosystems are preserved for the sake of the tens of millions of people in eastern Uganda and western Kenya who depend on the mountain directly or indirectly for their livelihoods and incomes.
Unfortunately, the civil servants and district leaders who were in charge of distributing the 6,000 hectares among the landless Benet-Ndorobo people instead parceled out the land to themselves and their friends. Other Benet who were lucky enough to benefit from this land ended up selling their allotment to the rich civil servants, and then chose to encroach on the national park. The decision by the Benet to sell their land allotment and encroach on the remaining part of the park caused a further 1,500 hectares of land to be lost.
Thus, although the initial decision was to set aside 6,000 hectares for the Benet, in actual fact, 7,500 hectares were taken by the communities.
This heightened the process of degradation of the mountain ecosystem, and resulted in the drying up and silting of major rivers such as River Siti, River Kere and River Kaplegep. Any further degazettement of land from Mt Elgon National Park will worsen the already bad situation.
In February 2011, President Museveni was misinformed that 400 families of the Benet from the Sebei region had been forcefully evicted from Mt Elgon National Park and were living on a rock. The truth is that the people living on the rock are not Benet but are former workers of the saw mills, which the Forest Department had given concessions to carry out operations within Mt Elgon Forest Reserve before it was upgraded to a national park.
The saw mill workers had been staying in a 5-hectare camp within the forest, which had also attracted people from nearby villages who were fleeing from the insecurity in the Ngenge plains. After the saw mills were closed, the workers were advised to return to their homes in the Bugisu and Sebei areas but some of them declined to leave and chose to settle on the rocks.
In 2010, the Minister of Tourism Trade and Industry, was given a list of 352 landless families, but a survey later discovered that many of them already owned land outside the park.
In conclusion, the people clamouring for more land to be degazetted from Mt Elgon National Park are doing it for selfish reasons. They are neither landless nor poor. The landless people were already allocated large chunks of land. The district officials and civil servants who illegally allocated themselves land from the 6,000 hectares that the government degazetted in 2002, should be punished and forced to return the land to the intended beneficiaries.
In striving to protect Mt Elgon from destruction, Uganda Wildlife Authority is only interested in safeguarding the livelihoods of the numerous families in areas as far as Teso, Bukedea and Karamoja whose agricultural activities are supported by water from the mountain.
Ms Nsubuga is the public relations manager (spokesperson) of Uganda Wildlife Authority