Is creation of new forest reserves route for land grabbing?

Under dispute. Mr Hussein Ssentongo (right), the spokesperson of the affected residents, explains a map of Buvuma District showing the land that is claimed by the National Forestry Authority during a meeting on March 22. PHOTO BY DERICK KISSA.

What you need to know:

  • The conflict: Land conflicts have risen because new central forest reserves are being created under unclear circumstances and without being gazetted by Parliament.
  • Jennifer Nyeko –Jones argues that this has led to illegal evictions of people from their land under the guise of protecting forest reserves.

The recent forcible eviction of residents of Buvuma in Buvuma District and Apyetta in Palabek Ogili, Lamwo District, have brought the activities of the National Forest Authority (NFA) and their external donors into sharp focus.
Between 1998 and 2001, government, donor support coordinated by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), carried out a Forestry Sector Review, which led to the formulation of a new Uganda Forestry Policy of 2001, the National Forest Plan of 2002, and the Forestry and Tree Planting Act of 2003.

At around the same time, government’s decentralisation policy came into effect when the government undertook to restructure several of its ministries, including the ministries of Water, that of Lands and that of Environment, under which the forestry department found itself.
Further changes occurred as new institutions were established to replace the forestry department. These included the NFA, a semi-autonomous agency tasked with managing central forest reserves (CFR), the district forest services (DFS) tasked with managing local forest reserves (LFR), and to provide forest extension services to local communities and private forest owners.

Other actors in forestry sector
The reforms in the forestry sector also recognised actors in the forestry sector, such as the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), which in the past managed five former CFRs, but which it has now turned into national parks. It also recognises key international obligations which affect the forestry sector and to which Uganda is a signatory.
Therefore, the NFA was established by an Act of Parliament in 2003. Its mandate is to administer CFRs on a sustainable basis and to supply high quality forestry -related products and services. Its work is under the supervision of the minister of Water and Environment, in this case Mr Sam Cheptoris.

Directly under the minster is the recently appointed executive director Tom Obong Okello, who from the onset, emphasised his intolerance to illegalities, and vowed that he would not sit back and watch the country’s precious forest resources destroyed by a few individuals involved in illegalities. He reiterated that “as NFA, we need to be more accountable to the general public in implementing our mandate”. Indeed, land in Uganda belongs to the citizens, thus, any creation of forests whether by the central or local government must comply with the requirement of Article 26 of the Constitution.
More than 110 years ago, the colonial administration set aside 1.9 million hectares as permanent forest land and established the forest department to manage it. These were managed so well that it earned Uganda an international acclaim for one of the best practices in forest management in tropical forestry (MWLE, 2001). And by the early 1950s, most of the forest reserves had been gazetted and demarcated.

Destroyed. Some of the crops that were allegedly destroyed by NFA officials and soldiers during an attempt to evict people from land at Apyetta in Palabek Ogili, Lamwo District on September 18. Right are some of the UPDF soldiers said to have accompanied the NFA officials during the exercise. COURTESY PHOTOS.

However, today, conflict has arisen, because new CFRs are being created under unclear circumstances and without being gazetted by Parliament. There is no clear demarcation between the existing CFR and community forest reserve. Even within the CFRs, there is a tendency for the NFA to evict an entire community, when the idea is for them to show the community how to enhance their livelihood through the preservation of those forests. Some of our communities survive on forests and similarly, these forests have survived because of the community.

The case of Acholi
Whilst the Land Act of 1998 provides for the formation of community land associations for any purposes connected with communal ownership of forests, the people have not been sensitised to this fact. For any forest to be legally recognised, they must have been gazetted and demarcated by Parliament. This situation has been made worse in Acholi sub-region, where land is communally owned and there is no free land that does not belong to one clan or the other.
Just as the residents of Buvuma have sued the NFA over forceful eviction, as the latter had claimed that they had occupied the land illegally because it was part of Kakoma Central Forest Reserve, the Residents of Apyetta have vowed to take the same route, should they be forced to do so.

The latest skirmishes between the NFA officials from Palaro in Gulu District and the residents of Apyetta in Palabek Ogili, Lamwo District, took place on September 18. On this day, NFA officers, with surveyors, took it upon themselves to come to the village of Apyetta in the company of UPDF soldiers carrying machine guns on Mambas and started demarcating community land, claiming that the land was part of Achwa Central Forest Reserve.

This was done without the knowledge of either the sub-county officials or the chairman of the district, and in the process, the NFA officials and team destroyed people’s crops. When the area Local Council chairperson protested and asked them to follow the right channel, by first informing the local authority, they instead turned on him, and beat him to a pulp. The people quickly mobilised themselves and chased them away.
It emerged that some time back, these same NFA officials were told by the district chairperson to first write a letter with a map authorising them to open the boundary.
However, instead of doing what was requested of them, they contacted the Resident District Commissioner rather than the chairman of the district.

The back story is that these NFA officers had obtained funding from the World Bank, presumably under the pretext that they have land to grow bamboo for sale to the South Sudanese refugees, to whom the same people of Palabek, have given up their own land to host. This would have covered a total distance of 47.7km, which would in effect take a huge chunk of settled and productive land away from the communities of Apyetta, Padwat and Paracelle.
This is the reason the residents of Palabek are very bitter with government because much as they have given a large chunk of their land to host the refugees, they are now facing eviction from the little land they have left.

In any event, the community has confirmed that their village is too far from the main Achwa Central Forest Reserve to be part of that forest. Most of them have lived there all their lives, including those who have already passed on and have never heard of any forest reserve.

Jennifer Nyeko –Jones

Before the recent conflict, there have been other villages in Palabek affected by the activities of the NFA such as Padwat West and Padwat North West, Alali, Apyetta West and Apyetta North, with the claim that this is part of Achwa River Central Forest Reserve.
The total mass area covering these villages is 32.66 square miles.

Way forward
Apart from the urgent need for gazettement of community and central forest reserves by Parliament, there is need to sensitise the people of the benefits that forest preservation provides. Both the minister and the NFA executive director have emphasised the environmental benefits, sustainable economic development, and improving the quality of life of people across the country. This should include people within the protected areas in the CFRs, as well as community forest reserves. This task cannot be left to the local governments alone since they are always poorly funded and find themselves too constrained to even provide the basic services.

Unless the community can see the opportunities that forest preservation provides in terms of alleviating poverty through enhanced income, housing, basic goods, education and alternative livelihood, the only beneficiaries of the Forest Policy 2001, will be the NFA.
Even now, the NFA have already earmarked scores of forests for ecotourism, which is set to earn them a lot of money. But unless the community is empowered in terms of governance mechanism, community participation, benefits to women, access and rights, understanding of their priorities, capacities, practices and values, the only beneficiaries of the National Forest Plan of 2002 will be the NFA. Unless, the community can have some level of security in terms of health, social cohesion and strengthening of cultural traditions, whatever the minister and the NFA executive director have vowed to do for the public, will remain, but just words.

Today, wherever the NFA have been, illegal logging has increased. Surely, this is not what the funders want to hear, that the poor communities near the forest that this exercise is meant for, are instead being evicted from their homes, and exploited for the benefit of the wealthy. Ultimately, there is urgent need for the NFA to clean up its own house.