The footpaths in the jungles of Bugoma Central Forest Reserve seem to never to end. They wind on and on, you cannot help but wonder where they lead up to. Such is the vastness of the forest. Overhead is a canopy of knitted tree branches and an umbrella of dancing leaves, 40 feet up, which provides one shade from the scorching sun. They also seem to reduce on the noise of the saws used to cut the trees.
The air is fresh and the serenity enviable. The trees seem speak to themselves, while small animals and birds live their lives in here. The various sounds are actually pleasant to the ear. Deeper inside though, there is a different story. Trees for kilometres on, have been cut down. There are no sounds of birds or cool breezes. One cannot help but wonder that carpentry shops in their thousands are budding.
If nothing is done soon, the forest will soon succumb to the human activities such as settlement and agriculture, as well as the illicit logging and thriving timber business catapulted by corruption in the police and district authorities, political interference, and the increasing influx of bedraggled and war-beaten Congolese refugees looking for new homes.
The forest is also threatened by burgeoning large-scale farms of tea and tobacco on the outskirts, owned by some wily individuals who claim the boundary lines were poorly drawn, and thus it’s part of their land.
In fact, some parts of the forest have become dangerous to walk through alone, for tourists and any other person, without any security. I was even warned by one of our guides that anyone poking their nose in the ongoing murky businesses is not appreciated here.
One of Uganda’s largest central forest reserves, Bugoma according to data from the forestry body, National Forestry Authority (NFA) used to sit on an area the size of 41,1420 hectares. But the data doesn’t acknowledge that more than 10 square miles have been cleared and encroached on. Michael Mugisa, the NFA boss, says the forest, positioned south west of Hoima and Kyenjonjo, and east of Lake Albert, officially came under their mandate in 2003, but had been demarcated as a forest reserve by a legal notice of the 1930s.
NFA to blame?
On our journey to find out where the problems stems, we make our first stop at the Kisindi NFA station and it is quite the experience. We are practically not welcome at this isolated station, manned by Mr Fred Kisira and two other aides. Some locals questioned, point fingers at him for abetting the rampant tree falling, something he vehemently denies.
The station manager and his two accomplices man forest area that covers up to three villages but are confident nothing unwarranted takes place. It is such a small staff overseeing a very big area but Kisira insists that manage. “It’s practically impossible to cut trees and harvest timber in my area. I know the area is extremely big but we strive to make regular patrols in and out, at all times.”
Although he refuses to give us guides to take us around his area, he stresses that he has, “no need for new staff because the few around are fully committed.” At the Nsozi NFA station, management had been reshuffled months earlier and there was practically no one present to oversee activities. According to the Environment Police Protection Unit (EPPU) boss at Hoima Central Police station, Moses Okwir, this has accelerated illegal tree falling and timber dealing, day and night.
At the Kyangwali NFA station, war-beaten refugees from Congo fleeing the raging gunfire are equally doing an extended disservice to the forest, clearing large tracts for a place to settle, but interventions are in place. Mugisa acknowledges the environmental atrocities committed by the refugees, but says these will be substantially relocated to other places to mitigate the harm.
It’s hard to imagine a job more demanding than that of a police environment officer. A huge task embedded in their job description is to patrol the forest in its entirety. The workday starts at sunrise and ends at sunset, broken up by little breaks, with no days off, for the eight officers employed under EPPU and the five NFA supervisors and 30 patrol men.
Okwir largely pins the ongoing mess on the non-commitment of NFA to recruit the patrol staff, equip them and to facilitate forest protection operations. “We have to use the little resources provided by the police to supervise what goes on in the forest. The increasing political interference from local authorities is also accelerating the evils going on,” he says.
Sgt Vincent Kwesiga a UPDF officer, and his colleague supervise the Kabwoyo NFA station. The officer says he survived death by a whisker a few weeks back. The area is manned by only these two officers.
One night the duo was tipped off about some loggers who had felled trees days earlier and were now harvesting timber. “In the scuffle to arrest them, little did we know they are helped by one of our officers; they grabbed one of our guns and started firing randomly at us,” he narrated. “That incident wouldn’t have happened if there were more officers around,” Kwesiga states.
Animals vs humans fight for survival
The logging in this area is not just about trees. As humans continue to clear expanses of the forest for use, they endanger the wildlife inhabited. Animals such as chimpanzees and gibbons, in turn have attacked the human settlements. Sgt. Kwesiga acknowledges that such incidents have escalated in the area, with more than three cases reported in a week. “If people continue poking the animals, what do they expect?” Kwesiga asks. “I know the local authorities are aware of it and they will have to look for a lasting solution – if it’s not launching an attack on the animals.”
However, a few residents of Kabwoyo believe that some elements of the rebel group – Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) based in the Congo jungles – regularly cross over to the Ugandan side into the forest, and scare away the animals, which constantly attack them.
Thriving timber business
Perhaps the biggest reason the logging continues is because those with the most authority are aiding the illegal activities. Individuals purporting to be veterans, local authorities, police officials and NFA officials, are assisting in felling trees and harvesting timber on a large scale.
One police officer who requested anonymity, narrated how, sometimes officials in the Hoima District Authority, give permission to the ruthless and illegal tree falling. He said: “They claim to have sole authority over the forest; so they sometimes send us, or other people, armed with power saws to cut and reap timber, which is usually fetched in the dark of the night. In the authority you will only find a few good men, otherwise the rest of us are engaged. Our salaries take long to come, the working conditions are poor, what do you expect to happen?”
Okwir adds that, the forest is also surrounded by several people who own tree farms who continue to cut trees (in the forest), but when approached they claim are cutting down their own trees.”
The forest sector manager, Stuart Maniraguha, however, puts blame on the sloppiness of environment laws in place. “Soft timber from Bugoma is highly demanded in South Sudan…yet timber exports were banned in the 1980s, but the laws don’t mention it anywhere which poses a serious challenge,” he notes. Maniraguha says: “To some extent some of our NFA officers are backing some of the timber dealers, and actually we have begun cracking the whip on whoever is pinned with evidence.”
Wildlife/tourism at risk
Bugoma is one of the most biologically diverse forests in the country. It is home to several animal and bird species, which means there are implications for the tourism industry and climate.
It is believed that there is a total of 225 bird species, 23 animal kinds, and 260 tree classes, whose conservation depends on intensive efforts to save the forest. The need to keep the tourism candle burning made Constantin Tessarinc, owner of tours and travel company, Great Lakes Safaris, champion the struggle to fight any impunity in the forest. “Without the forest, businesses like mine cannot survive, and tourism in this country is completely dead,” he notes.
Tessarinc pays salaries for 18 patrol officers out of the 30 grounded in Bugoma, to carry out regular surveys. He has established individual intelligence officers in and around Hoima to monitor activities in the forest and actually notifies the NFA offices and police about any illegal activity happening, but says this is not enough.
Given the weak laws in place, delayed payment of staff salaries and the understaffing, a multi-stakeholder approach is paramount in conservation efforts of Bugoma. However, north of forest are the bustling oil exploration activities and construction of an oil refinery complex, activities that have made this a really tough problem to deal with.