In June 2008, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) released a report which showed that Uganda had more than five million hectares of forest cover in 1990. By 2005, only 3.5 million hectares (8.6 million acres) had remained.
The report warned that if deforestation continues at that rate, Uganda will have lost all its forested land by 2050.
As Uganda joins the rest of the world to mark World Forestry Day today, there is need to reflect on whether there has been any improvement to stop the trend of forest destruction or if the country is still on its way to clear all its forested area within the next 30 years.
Visits to selected central forest reserves show destruction of large covers of forest area. At Kitubulu central forest reserve in Entebbe, illegal sand miners are clearing the forest at an alarming rate. Worse still, unscrupulous people are busy getting titles in the forest.
The fight to stop some of these activities is not an easy one. On April 10, 2013, the National Forestry Authority lost 13.6 hectares of Kyewaga forest reserve after the Supreme Court threw out its appeal for wrongfully evicting businessman Sam Kiwanuka, the director of Seven Kings Estates Company.
The 13.6 hectares of this forest land had been excised from the forest reserve some years back without the then forest body updating its records on the development.
In other cases, although the forestry authority is willing to permit people to mine sand, the miners are doing so before getting the licences, a process that is harming the forests. For example, Mr Michael Mugisa, the National Forestry Authority boss, says NFA offered leases to three people in Kyewaga Central Forest Reserve to mine sand but before they could even give them the licences, the people started getting the sand.
The problem with this is that the miners do not follow the guidelines in the license that talk about how to mine sand and how to ensure recovery plans are made. As such, they destroy the lakeshore forest.
At Kajjansi and Namanve forest reserves, in Wakiso, the situation isn’t any better as people have obtained titles illegally and fenced off plots in these forest reserves for development.
The situation is not any better away from the urban forest reserves.
Matiri forest sector comprises six central forest reserves, namely Matiri, Ibambaro, Kitechura, Buhungiro, Rwensambya and Nkera in the districts of Kyegegwa and Kyenjonjo. When you take a walk through these forests, it is captivating to see the overhead canopy of knitted tree branches.
The air is fresh and the place serene.
The people who live near the forests do know that they are crucial. They have an idea that the trees make up 3.4 per cent of the GDP, and provide employment and ecosystem services.
Trading centres in forests
But despite that, it is estimated that the forest cover is being lost at an alarming rate of 92,000 hectares per annum. The 2010 Biomass Report, shows that forest cover loss was highest in Kyenjojo District.
Other than Nkera and Kitechura central forest reserves, the rest have been badly encroached on. Kilometres into the forest, you will find acres of plantations that eventually lead to semi-permanent homesteads and later trading centres. The centres have fully furnished shops, maize mills, salons, lodges and bars. You would be hard-pressed to believe you are in the belly of a forest reserve.
At Itwara Central Forest Reserve in Bugaaki Sub-county, Kyenjojo District, there is an actual road, well-marked by car treads, that leads into spots of massive encroachment. A forest walk of about half a kilometer via Kisangi village Nyamabuga parish in Bugaaki, shows how many trees have been cut, even though National Forest Authority teams say they always patrol the place to evict encroachers.
Logs laid to be cut into timber can be spotted at different points with encroachers camping with all their utensils and power saws ready to clear the tree cover.
At Kabego Central Forest Reserve, various encroachers are busy destroying the forest with protection from neighbouring homesteads who alert them whenever they see supervisors or any unknown people entering the forest.
Mr Phillip Kyomuhendo, the Mirambi village chairman in Kyenjonjo District, claims they see different forestry people entering the forests, sometimes with cars loaded with timber. His concern is that they, as leaders, are not told about what these people are doing.
“They are charged with looking after the forest, but bypass us when entering and yet encroachment has never been brought down,” he says.
His remarks are echoed by Bugaaki Sub-county Chairman William Bisanga Mugambwe who says that there is need for collaborative forest management as stipulated in the NFA Act.
“Tooro people need to take care of their own forests because they have them at heart, not people who connive with encroachers,” he says.
In other cases though, the problems are more complex, with locals being duped and conned into buying acres of the forest.
Duped into buying forest land
Ms Anna Mbabazi, a resident at Kyabanengo trading centre in Matiri forest reserve, says her family sold their land in Kanungu to buy two acres of land from people who said they had land in the reserve at Shs1m.
“As we are farmers, we cleared the area and engaged in agriculture which we were successful in,” she says. “But now, we are worried that NFA is going to evict us from the forest and we have nowhere to go.”