2007 memo warned Museveni, Cabinet to stay off Mabira

Members of National Association of Professional Environmentalists and students of Kyambogo University tour the forest on April 2, 2007. FILE PHOTO

What you need to know:

When Mehta Group, the owners of Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (Scoul) first requested for 7,297 hectares of Mabira Forest land for sugarcane growing, President Museveni sought advice and he was warned to stay off the forest, John Njoroge writes:-

President Museveni and his Cabinet were in 2006 advised against any move to give away part of Mabira Forest to Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (Scoul), new details available to Daily Monitor shows.

Scoul in 2006 approached the President seeking to be allocated 7,297 hectares of land within the central forest reserve. By then, it was estimated that the Mehta Group-owned sugar firm in Lugazi was producing close to 55,000 tonnes of sugar annually.

Through his then Principal Private Secretary, Ms Amelia Kyambadde (now Trade Minister), Mr Museveni is said to have then asked the National Forestry Authority (NFA) for a brief on the environmental implications of the proposed giveaway.
The President got his answer in a 12-page Cabinet memo prepared by the Water and Environment Ministry dated April 10, 2007, a copy of which this newspaper has seen.

Legal provisions
Mr Museveni was advised not to give-away the forest land as he would be acting against Article 237(2) of the Constitution and Section 44(1) of the Land Act cap. 227. Such action would furthermore undermine Uganda’s regional and international obligations to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Cabinet was informed that Uganda would lose a ‘unique ecosystem’, leading to increased soil erosion, unpredictable changes in temperatures and a significant loss of foreign exchange from eco-tourism.

Cabinet was also told that a significant reduction of water retention capacity of the forest soil would be experienced.
“This will contribute to the already declining water levels in the [country’s] lakes and rivers,” the memo reads, adding that any activity that affects the watersheds and catchments has wider trans-boundary effects due to the shared nature of these ecosystems.

Scoul directors had argued that by increasing sugar production, Uganda would save between at least $20 (about Shs56 billion) annually in for portation. Scoul also promised to produce an additional 10-12 MW of electricity to be added to the national grid generated as a by-product of its processes.

Scoul’s proposals
The sugar firm also claimed it would create 3,500 jobs and build schools, houses and dispensaries for their workers, in addition to a constructing a 300-kilometre road at a cost of Shs2 billion (this was in 2006). They also promised not to develop areas close to the Nile and Lake Victoria and that they would continue to plant trees.

The Water and Environment Ministry, however, thought otherwise.

“It will not be possible to maintain the designated Strict Nature Reserves because they will be exposed to human use. Thus one critical biodiversity site will be lost forever; encroachment on the remaining part of the forest will be difficult to control since the government will be seen to be allowing some groups but denying the local people access to the forest for cultivation,” the memo adds.

“It is going to be extremely difficult for the government to keep local people from entering into forest reserves elsewhere in the country. It is already difficult enough today to keep them out. For example, South Busoga Forest Reserve.”

Statistics show Uganda loses two per cent of its severely degraded forest cover nationally each year, a situation experts attribute to illegal encroachment and lack of political will to deal with the environmental catastrophe.

By the end of 2006 alone, 72,000 hectares of forest cover had been lost to human activity, the memo added. According to research done in 2008 by Mr Morrison Rwakakamba, the Uganda programme manager for Twaweza East Africa, 11 per cent of wetlands, five per cent of forests, and four per cent of the rivers and streams in Uganda had been completely depleted. In addition, 89 per cent of the wetlands and 94 per cent of the rivers and streams had been encroached upon, while only 10 per cent of the lakes and 5 per cent of the forests have remained intact.

Several foreign governments and NGOs have in the past funded tree planting programmes in numerous forest reserve areas, Mabira being one of them, in a desperate bid to roll back the deforestation.

There was also concern over the security of SCOUL’s officials, a threat that eventually spread to the general Asian community during the 2007 Save Mabira protests.

“Given the magnitude of the public outcry and discontent, there is a possibility that there could be insecurity to the investor over the Mabira Central Forest Reserve allocation. For example, already two fires have been reported to have broken out in the sugarcane plantation,” the cabinet memo said.

By law, to change the land use of the 7,100ha of Mabira from forest reserve to a sugarcane plantation, government is required to give notice of the proposed change of land use in the media for public attention. A consultative process should have then been conducted with the local communities and district leadership over the matter.

Historical perspective
Mabira was first gazetted as a Central Forest Reserve under legal notice No. 87 of 1932 as an area of 29,592 hectares.
In legal notice No. 41 of 1948, the forest reserve was re-gazetted, expanding to an area of 30,003 hectares. By the mid-80’s Mabira was heavily encroached, and large parts of the forest were severely degraded. By 1992, there was partial eviction of encroachers.

In this case, the Environment ministry proposed that alternative land be identified of at least equivalent size; and of greater environmental value to be reforested.

Parliament was also to be involved in this matter since it involves provisions of the Constitution, the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act, the Land Act and the National Environment Act.

Understanding the forest

The NFA records show Mabira Central Forest Reserve as located along the Kampala-Jinja highway at about 54 kilometres from Kampala and 26 kilometres from Jinja.

The forest lies 20 kilometres north of the Lake Victoria shoreline in Central Uganda, between 0°24-0° 35 N and 32° 52"-33° 07 E. It occupies Ntenjeru, Nakifuma and Buikwe counties, all located in Mukono District. It covers 29,964 hectares of tropical moist forest and a total boundary length 347.4 kilometres, all adjoining community lands.

It is a lakeshore forest reserve between lakes Kyoga and Victoria. It is an important water catchment ecosystem for both lakes and River Nile. It also helps in stabilising the micro-climate of the Kampala-Jinja metropolitan area.

Ninety-five per cent of the area is occupied by Celtis-Chrysophyllum medium altitude moist semi-deciduous forest and 5 per cent by Piptadeniastrum-Albizia-Celtis medium altitude moist evergreen forest (Langdale - Brown et al., 1964).

Sub-types of vegetation now present are young or colonising mixed forest, dominated by Maesopsis eminii (25 per cent), young mixed celtis holoptelea (60 per cent), and mixed forest of wet valley bottoms dominated by Baikeae insignis.

According to the Nature Conservation Masterplan, Mabira is categorised as a protected area of core conservation value. Of the 65 forest reserves investigated for biodiversity, Mabira ranks 19th in terms of the rarity value of species represented. The forest supports nine species found in no other Ugandan forest and one species endemic to Uganda.

It represents the only block of medium altitude moist semi-deciduous forest type D1 (Langdale-Brown et al., 1964) in the protected area system, a vegetation type that does not occur in any of the country's national parks or wildlife reserves.

It is situated in one of the most densely populated parts of the country (255 people per square-kilometre in 2002).
In 2007, NFA granted a permit to Mabira Forest Lodge (the Alarm Group together with the Mauroo chain) to operate a high-level, five-star eco-lodge. The initial investment is $1.5 million.

The tourist lodge will be an all-year-round 30 bed high-market tourist lodge offering comfortable accommodation, meals and other facilities and activities in a unique natural environment.

This is the first of several potential eco-tourism establishments in or directly adjacent Mabira Forest.

*Compiled by John Njoroge