An estimated 30 acres of rice were last week cut down in drought-ravaged Otuke District under unclear circumstances.
Whereas local authorities suspect the crop could have been destroyed as part of an effort by the government to restore wetlands in the country, the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) denied responsibility.
“There is information circulating on social media alleging that Nema has slashed down rice in Otuke. We wish to clarify that Nema has not carried out such an operation in Otuke. We are establishing facts on ground and will update the public on the same,” Nema tweeted on Sunday.
Mr John Owani, a farmer in Anep Moroto in Orum Sub-county, lost 20 acres while Mr Aldo Otim of Oget ward in Otuke Town Council lost 10 acres.
According to the LC3 chairman of Barjobi Sub-county, Mr Daniel Ojok Aruca, Nema targets rice illegally planted in wetlands, but the one slashed was planted in low-land areas.
“The environmental police came from Kampala, proceeded to the gardens and destroyed the crops,” Mr Ojoke told Daily Monitor on Sunday.
“Most of our cultivable land is low-land and so, it is very difficult to distinguish between wetland and low-land. And even if they had illegally planted the rice, the farmers should have first been allowed to harvest their crops and later warned,” he added.
Mr Ojoke claimed that farmers in other districts like Mbale are allowed to grow rice in wetlands.
“I passed Mbale last week and I saw rice planted in wetlands and nobody is destroying their crops,” he said.
The Otuke County MP, Mr Paul Omara, condemned the act, saying they were yet to establish the people behind it.
“We are still trying to establish where they got the authority from to do that kind of abomination. But I am taking the matter before the floor of Parliament on Tuesday,” he said.
The Otuke chairman, Mr Francis Abola, said the team should not have waited for the rice to mature and then cut it.
He added that the government should have stopped the farmers from planting the rice in the wetland at the beginning.
“They did not write any letter to the district stating their intended operation, and when they came, they did not even report to any district official. So, what they did is illegal,” Mr Abola said.
“I told them that if you want to continue with your operation, you must arrest me first because I am ready to die for my people who are dying of hunger,” he added.
Ms Proscovia Acham, the Kwania deputy Resident District Commissioner (RDC), said residents have destroyed all the wetlands in the area.
“We don’t have any wetland to the extent that they have gone ahead to cultivate in the night. You can imagine at 2am somebody is in the garden. Whatever has been planted in the wetlands is going to be slashed down,” she said,” Ms Acham said.
Rice growing in wetlands banned
The government in July last year banned the growing of rice and other crops in wetlands across the country.
In a resolution passed by the Cabinet chaired by President Museveni, and communicated by the Minister of State for Environment, Ms Beatrice Anywar, the government said the move aimed at restoring the environment.
President Museveni in February warned Ugandans against encroaching on wetlands, saying the government will cancel their titles.
“You will lose your money and we shall not compensate anyone. Your titles will be cancelled. Tampering with wetlands is not a good practice for our environment,” he tweeted on February 7.
The President also warned farmers against planting rice in the wetlands.
“You would rather do fish farming, which brings the same amount of money while saving the swamps and using the swamp grass for mulching your gardens,” he said.
Around that time, the government destroyed more than 10 hectares of rice planted in Okole wetland, Lira City.
Mr Mbarak Muhindo, an environment police officer at the Ministry of Water and Environment, said they resorted to cutting down rice to discourage people from cultivating in the wetlands.
“In June last year, we had a community engagement where people who were cultivating in Okole wetland signed an agreement with us clearly stating that after harvesting their rice by December, they would be out of the place,” he said.
Lango hunger crisis
Just like other districts in Lango Sub-region, Otuke is currently experiencing hunger due to crop failure caused by the prolonged dry spell. The district is the worst hit because it borders semi-arid Karamoja Sub-region.
The disaster is coupled with the skyrocketing prices of commodities. For instance, a kilo of maize flour costs Shs4,000 up from Shs2,000 while one of beans goes for Shs3,500 up from Shs2,800.
“We import beans from Mutukula in Tanzania, but it is getting out of stock. So, we are about to experience famine in Lango Sub-region, and next year is going to be worse because there is no rain for planting crops this year,” Mr Patrick Ogwang, the chairman of Lira Produce Dealers Association, said.