Chinese investors who set up rice fields in Lwera swamp on the Kampala-Masaka highway are counting losses after floods destroyed a section of their gardens.
Environmental activists and the public have consistently questioned the viability of sand mining and growing rice in a wetland which filters water that pours into Lake Victoria.
They have also warned of devastating effects of environmental degradation.
The Chinese had dug trenches in the rice fields that connect directly to Lake Victoria.
According to residents in this area, the lake burst its banks at the weekend due to increased water levels, sweeping away rice fields at Bulingo Village, Lukaya Town Council.
Mr Kassim Ssempala, the Bulingo Village chairperson, said about 350 out of 1,000 acres of the rice farm was destroyed.
“Our fear is that the floods may extend into residents’ houses and displace them too,” he said.
The affected rice farm is owned by Chinese investors trading under Zhong Industries Ltd.
Last year, the investors expanded the rice fields near their factory, Lukaya Natural Rice factory on the Kampala-Masaka highway.
Lwera swamp stretches about 20kms on the Kampala–Masaka highway, and is a major water catchment area that connects several rivers and wetlands in Gomba, Mpigi and Kalungu districts and drains directly into Lake Victoria.
Some employees on the rice fields fear that if the water levels increase, they might lose their jobs.
“My work is to whistle, shout and flap to scare away swarms of birds that come to feed on the rice and if the rice we were about to harvest gets soaked in water, I will be out of employment,” Samuel Bwiri, one the youth employed at the rice fields, said on Monday.
He said they attempted to save some rice ready to harvest, but they failed due to high water levels. The farm employs more than 1,500 locals.
Mr Peter Li Gan, the managing director of the farm, declined to comment on the damage.
Mr Gan had told Daily Monitor in an earlier interview that their rice fields are not in a wetland.
He said they had decided to extend their fields along the Kampala-Masaka highway to save the fragile part of the wetland on the shores of Lake Victoria.
“Our land stretches to the lake shores, but we decided to abandon that part closer to the lake over environmental concerns and got new land along the highway. If we were not environmentally sensitive, we couldn’t have done that,” Gan said in an in earlier interview.
He said the project had not only created employment for the youth but also boosted food security in Masaka sub-region.
Mr Vincent Ssempijja, the minister for Agriculture, who also doubles as the area MP, helped in the initiation of the rice project in Lwera. He has on several occasions supported the conversion of part of Lwera into an industrial park to create jobs for jobless youth in the area.
Due to its strategic location on the Kampala–Masaka highway, Lwera swamp has in the past decade attracted many investment companies and individuals who are engaging in sand mining, fish farming and crop growing.
Despite environmentalists warning of a serious ecological disaster as a result of destroying Lwera swamp, people have obdurately refused to vacate.
While addressing local leaders in Masaka District on July 23 last year during his countrywide wealth creation tour, President Museveni warned rice growers in Lwera against destroying the wetland, saying rice growing in swamps is ‘kisirani’ (misfortune).
He said wetlands are part of public land, which should not be owned by individuals.
However, two days after Mr Museveni left Masaka, the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) issued a permit to managers of Lukaya Natural Rice Farm to use part of Lwera wetland to expand their rice fields.
Environmentalists speak out
Eminent disaster. The Kalungu District environment officer, Mr Richard Vvube, described the current situation in Bulingo Village as an effect of ecological disaster that was bound to happen and warned of more severe disasters.
“We have always told them [Chinese investors] that they tampered with nature and it is now fighting back. Let them now know that they did not only encroach on a swamp, but a lake which wants to reclaim its lost part,” he said.
He advised the investors to resort to upland rice farming instead destroying wetlands.
Mr David Kureeba, an environmentalist and programme coordinator at National Association of Professional Environmentalists (Nape), warned of more catastrophic ecological disasters.
“They [Chinese] should have vacated yesterday. You cannot play with nature. It always reiterates. They should leave because the agrochemicals they use while planting rice end up in the lake, which is a big catchment for the region,” he said
Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest fresh water lake by surface area, after Lake Superior in North America.