What you need to know:
It is a case of spill over effects, an issue in one country becoming a challenge in another. As the population grows, and the resources become scarce, many come looking for land and their first port of call are the forests.
KIBAALE: It is a sunny morning in a freshly opened up patch of land in Kanaga Central Forest Reserve, Kibaale District. The clearing is about 500 square meters, with gardens of beans, maize and cassava. In between the gardens, stand huge burnt-out stumps and logs.
Close by are newly constructed makeshift structures, scattered all over. Most of them are thatched with grass or covered with old tarpaulins.
In front of one, lies a young girl, Trifonia Tumuramye, 13. She is lying on a mat and covers herself with a cloth. Dirty sauce pans and jerrycans are scattered around the compound.
The mother, Mediathese Ntamuhera, 34, sits beside her with a sorrowful look. They are part of hundreds of Rwandese, who found refuge in Uganda after fleeing land pressure in Rwanda. And that is in the forests of Uganda, especially those in Bunyoro region, particularly Kibaale District. The area is home to 16 gazetted forest reserves.
“I was born in Rwanda in Birungi, Nyamarundi, where our family settled on a small piece of land and we were told that there is land in Uganda,” Ntamuhera says. “We came here in Kibaale about 18 years ago. At the time, the locals were selling a big chunk of land between Shs150,000 and Shs 200,000. We bought a piece of land not knowing that this was a government forest reserve”.
“Since then we have had run-ins with [National Forest Authority— NFA] over evictions. We can neither trace the people who sold the land to us nor is there anyone who can compensate us,” she narrates. “I lost my husband in February; he got sick and died without any medication. In March, we were evicted from the forest reserve by NFA, I have nowhere to go, I am resigned to my fate.”
Despite other challenges faced by NFA to manage forests in Uganda, the country has weak systems that have failed to stem illegal migration, coupled with the refugee settlements around the country, where refugees mingle easily with the nationals.
Over the years, they have come to own property and some are Local Council leaders who at times abet illegal settlement in Uganda’s forest reserves.
Uganda has porous borders that foreigners find it easy to cross and settle in Uganda unlike in any other country in the Great Lakes region.
Between 1995 and 2005, Hoima had a total of 61,170 hectares of forests. Statistics from the district forest office indicate that 38,000 hectares of forests were depleted by 2011.
According to the 2009 National Environmental Management Authority (Nema), in 1990, Uganda had more than five million hectares of forest cover. But by 2005, only 3.5 million hectares (8.6 million acres) remained.
Conservationists estimate that Bunyoro loses about 7,000 hectares of forests annually. So, Nema warns that if deforestation continues at the present rate, Uganda will have lost all its forested land by 2050.
Fredrick Atugonza, the NFA supervisor attached to Kangombe in Kibaale District, points out that deforestation has led to the extinction of important medicinal tree species.
“For instance, the Lovore tree, which we no longer see. It is a medicinal tree and there are many others,” he says.
“The rains have reduced; the seasons have changed in the last 15 years of encroachment”.
The NFA Kagadi Sector Manager, Charles Ariani says, “This sector has 16 forests, but we found all forests were encroached on and cultivated with bananas, maize, sugar cane, tobacco and beans”.
He remarks that he is not convinced about the excuses he gets. “People say that they are hungry and have nowhere to farm. But we tell them they must return to where they were before 1994. So far, more than 1,000 people have left the forests.”
He adds, “We told them that whether you have 20 children or came from Rwanda or Kabale many years ago, and you no longer know where you came from, you must move out of the forests.”
Deforestation cuts across the Albertine basin. As a way to deal with the problem, the Rwenzori Anti-corruption Coalition (RAC) and Joint Effort to Save the Environment (JESE), NGOs based in Fort Portal, have joined hands to help in the management of environment and natural resources particularly forest resources.
“This is been attributed to the manner in which these resources are managed at national, district and sub county levels. This has caused immense destruction of these vital ecosystems especially in the Albertine region,” reads their joint report released in June.
The NGOs have formed an inter-district (Kyenjojo, Kyegegwa and Mubende) multi-stakeholder forestry and environment forum.
It is a coordinating mechanism to promote the sustainable use of environment and forests, proper accountability and advocating for increased investment in the natural resources sector in the three districts.
The forum brings together all key players in environment and natural resources for increased planning and voices in sustainable natural resources management.
In the last decade, civil wars in the neighbouring Rwanda and DR Congo have led to a steady stream of refugees in Uganda.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees has settled hundreds at Rwamwanja, Kyangwali and at Kyaka in Kamwenge, Hoima and Kyegegwa districts, respectively.
Lately, hundreds of refugees especially from Burundi have flocked into Uganda and have easily mingled with Ugandans and settled anywhere they find hospitable.
What others say about forest encroachment in Uganda
“Our preliminary investigations show that the victims were burnt without attempting to escape from the room which rises questions whether the fire started when the occupants were conscious,”’
Elijah Kashija, airtime vendor
“The issue is that people of Rwanda origin who came here for land were duped by the locals who sold to them part of the government’s gazetted forests, some of them have been evicted by NFA and are now landless. Among the forests encroachers, the Banyarwanda are about 45 percent, then the rest are the Bakiga, Bakonjo and the indigenous Banyoro”
George William Bizibu
Speaker, Kibaale District.