Kampala- Mabira Central Forest Reserve has been known to Ugandans for so long since its gazetting in 1932 by the colonialists, but it is one of the natural forests that are fast disappearing if no deliberate effort is made to restore it.
Inside the Mugule Village that lies inside the forest in Buikwe District, evidence comes to sight that the persistent reports of its depletion are real.
The view of rotting tree stumps and open expanse stamp years of destruction the trees through illegal logging, cultivation and charcoal burning.
A boundary demarcation pillar planted by the National Forestry Authority (NFA), the statutory body responsible for protection of central forest reserves, stands about 15 metres inside a sugarcane plantation. There is a thicket of shrubs, but no trees.
According to the Lake Shore Range Manager, Mr Benjamin Kamukama, at least 4,000 hectares of trees have been depleted over the years. This is an equivalent of 13 per cent of the 29,974 hectares forest reserve.
On Friday, Daily Monitor joined government officials led by Local Government State minister Jeniffer Namuyangu, who represented her Environment counterpart Mary Kitutu, for a forest restoration programmme.
The significant tree cover is on the stretch close to and along the Kampala-Jinja Highway and towards the Griffin Falls area.
Known for more than 312 species of indigenous trees, the depleted area has also lost the fruit trees that are supposed to be food for the primates that include Grey Checked Monkeys, Red Tail Monkeys and Valvet Monkeys.
Mabira being one of the few remaining natural forests in Uganda, was at the centre of controversy in 2007 when lawmakers led by the then Kitgum Woman MP, Ms Beatrice Anywar, teamed up with environmentalists to oppose a government plan to dole out 7,100 hectares of it to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (SCOUL) for sugarcane plantation.
During the deadly protests, one person, of Indian origin, was lynched as unscrupulous people targeted Indians.
Colonising the already depleted area in the forest is the Paper Mulberry trees, which has been described as a deadly weed. It stands tall among the shrubs and amidst scattered trees stretching adjacent to the sugarcane plantation owned by SCOUL.
A resident, who preferred anonymity for fear of retribution, attributed the destruction of the forest to illegal logging by people who used to cut down trees at night and walk away with timber.
“When this forest used to be a plantation areas where the community cultivated under trees and taking care of them here in Mugule, there was no problem. But when government chased them in 1987, what followed slowly was illegal cutting of trees for timber at night,” the resident noted.
Loggers beat NFA
The Buikwe District LC5 chairman, Mr Mathias Kigongo, said the illegal logging eating up Mabira is commanded by some “invisible” authorities within the central government, something that has made it difficult for the local government and the NFA forest rangers to stop the illicit activities.
“At times when enforcement officers impound lorries carrying timber, they get telephone calls from high government authorities to let them go. When we ask the NFA staff, they say ‘these issues are hot’. For sure, this hotness is becoming a problem to us as a local government,” he said.
Mr Kigongo was on Friday speaking during the launch of a massive restoration exercises for Mabira Forest.
He said NFA needs to be empowered in finances and manpower to be able to curb the forest depletion.
He said much as the illegal logging is persistent, the community of Buikwe has engaged in planting new trees, starting on the land belonging to absentee landlords.
Minister Namuyangu said there is need for the government to encourage a name-and-shame strategy so that its complicit officials are publicly exposed.
“It is high time Ugandans took conservation issues serious. We need to come up with a name-and-shame strategy so that those invisible government officers failing enforcement are known. As a country, we are grappling with issues of climate change because we suffer when it rains and when it shines,” Ms Namuyangu said.
The NFA executive director, Mr Tom Obong Okello acknowledged the illegal logging problem and said his staff are “overstretched”.
“We want to plant 10m trees under this programme [re-launched restoration campaign]. We must reverse this forest depletion trend if we must enjoy the Pearl of Africa (Uganda). We are also working hard to stop the export of charcoal to Kenya ...,” he said.
The restoration of Mabira forest idea was mooted by the Government Communications Officers Forum (GCOF) as part of the activities preceding the Tax Payers Appreciation Week organised by Uganda Revenue Authority (URA).
NFA’s Okello attributed encroachment on Mabira forest land, especially by sugarcane growers, to unmarked boundaries.
He said the boundaries are now being opened and that the Authority is in talks with the sugarcane growers to vacate after harvest.
Mr Patrick Mukiibi who represented URA Commissioner General, Ms Doris Akol, said the tax collectors decided to venture into environmental matters as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility ahead of the Tax Payers Appreciation Week.
He said they decided to partner with NFA to ensure that ecosystem is protected and to campaign against “irresponsible” cutting of trees which makes the land unproductive.
Dr William Olupot, the executive director of Nature and Livelihoods, a research institution, told this newspaper that Mabira once restored has a tourism potential that would boost the revenue base for the country.
“There are many tourists that go to the source of the Nile in Jinja. Why not tap into that opportunity by making Mabira another tourism attraction? Mabira has a huge tourism potential but to a larger extend has been suppressed by people,” Dr Olupot said.