A minister has said the government is to dole out the 6,000-hectare Zoka Central Forest reserve in Adjumani District to an investor to grow sugarcane and boost the country’s sugar production.
Ms Persis Namuganza, the State minister for Lands, said they are already in talks with sugar producers, whom she did not name, to acquire Zoka Forest land.
This, she said, will “relieve Busoga region” reeling with food insecurity and poverty after most of the sub-region’s land was committed for sugarcane growing.
“We see Busoga land turned into sugarcane growing for the entire country yet when you look at public land, there is a lot of land taken by individuals,” the minister said at the 66th State of the Nation (STON) meeting in Kampala last Friday.
She added: “Sugarcane growing needs one huge piece of land unlike what is being done on small pieces in Busoga.”
Her revelation, which sparked immediate public outrage, prompted a damage control by her senior Betty Amongi, who denied the scheme during an impromptu meeting convened by First Deputy Premier Moses Ali.
“We shall ensure that Zoka Forest and others are protected from whoever would want to deplete [them] for sugar cane growing,” said Mr James Leku, the Adjumani District chairman, after the Friday proclamation.
Gen Ali represents a constituency of Adjumani District in Parliament.
At yesterday’s emergency meeting at Christ the King Church in Kampala, Lands minister Amongi, said: “What we are negotiating for is the land in Amuru in an area called Kololo and we are negotiating for it on behalf of Madhivani Group of Companies. What is at hand for Zoka Forest is the question of illegalities and encroachment which we need to sort out.”
Madhvani Group spokesman Paracuraman Eswar said he was out of the country and unable to comment.
Barely a month ago, Amuru District leaders and land owners disagreed over a proposal to give up their land to Madhvani Group of Companies for sugarcane growing.
Madhvani wants 40,000 hectares of land. Acholi leaders and residents have since 2007 opposed a government-supported plan for Madhvani Group to acquire 40,000 hectares of land in the area.
In April 2011, President Museveni who visited the area accused Amuru politicians of frustrating development by inciting the population against investors.
The latest plot to lease out Zoka Forest land has resurrected memories of the 2007 government attempt to parcel out one-third of Mabira rainforest to Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (Scoul), owned by the Mehta Group of companies, to grow sugarcane.
The deal sparked public protests in the city led by now Kitgum Municipality Member of Parliament Beatrice Anywar, nicknamed afterward as Mama Mabira. Three people died in the violent clashes, forcing government to shelve the giveaway.
On Friday, minister Namuganza had said Brazil increased its sugar exports after degazetting part of its natural forests for sugarcane growing and Uganda should do the same to avoid a future sugar shortage.
“We want to save the people of Busoga to enable them grow food because even sometimes they do not drink that sugar because they do not have the capacity to buy it,” she said. Busoga is one of the county’s poorest sub-regions, according to official statistics.
Environmentalists, however, criticised the government plot and National Forest Authority (NFA) said it had been taken by surprise.
“I was in that (STON) meeting, but as NFA we heard about it for the first time and we do not know where it is coming from. Officially, we are not aware of it (forest give-away) and, therefore, cannot substantively comment on it,” said Spokesman Gilbert Kadilo.
The government’s disparate pronouncements follow internal investigations by the Uganda People’s Defence Forces or UPDF into allegations that some of its officers were profiteering through illegal lumbering, ongoing in Zoka central forest reserve for the past 18 months.
Activists say the forest reserve is a critical for biodiversity conservation in Uganda and a water catchment area for Zoka, Itiriwa, Esia, Lidwi and Dangani streams, which are River Nile tributaries.
This newspaper understands that Adjumani District officials licenced part of the forest, located in East Madi Wildlife Reserve, to individuals and private companies to harvest timber from mvule and mahogany trees.
Additional reporting by Martin Okudi & Felix Warom Okello