Municipalities and cities have been locked up in a fight with the National Forestry Authority (NFA) over ownership and location of the urban central forest reserves that have been heavily encroached upon.
Urban authorities have since 2010 applied to the Ministry of Water and Environment to have 13 forest reserves degazetted for development but government is opposed to the move.
However, this has not stopped encroachers from destroying the forests at the watch of municipality and city leaders, who are accused of allocating plots of land to private individuals.
Some of the forest reserves encroached on are in Ntungamo, Mbarara, Masaka, Jinja, Fort Portal, Hoima, Mbale, Gulu, Lira, Soroti, Rukungiri, Masindi, and Mpigi districts.
The forest reserves were created by an Act of Parliament between 1932 and 1965 after the government negotiated for land with the respective district administrations and kingdoms.
The NFA spokesperson, Ms Juliet Mubi, told Daily Monitor at the weekend that whereas several municipalities and cities had applied to the Ministry of Water and Environment for degazettment of the forest reserves, an assessment at the beginning of 2019 in the areas found that the issues raised were either unconservationist, selfish or did not meet the required legal and procedural concerns.
“It is very challenging when the local authorities aid the population in the destruction of these forests. The local authorities had earlier on anticipated that these urban forests would be degazetted but the ministry rejected all the applications,” Ms Mubi said.
She accused district land boards of issuing certificate of land titles on forest reserves.
A November 4, 2019 NFA report on the urban central forest reserves gives procedures for degazatting forests.
Among the procedures, the municipalities have to buy land and plant trees of equivalent acreage where the reserve should be reallocated and gazetted again. The new land must also have a maintenance plan.
“None of the forest reserves proposed for degazettment and the exchange land proposed for gazettement met most of the legal and procedural requirements...We request you to take the necessary actions to continue managing all local forest reserves and to cooperate with NFA in the management of all central forest reserves for the purposes of promoting forestry development in the country,” the report reads in part.
Mr Johnson Atusimireyo, the Mbarara planner, said only 8 per cent of the 20 per cent forest cover in the district is available.
The district chairman, Mr Didas Tabaro, said lack of political will to protect the environment has destroyed forest cover.
“We have laws but the challenge has been lack of political will to implement them, they can influence and direct on the implementation of these laws but they are always compromised to save their votes. Unless there is a strong political will to save the environment, they will continue depleting them,” Mr Tabaro said.
“But we are now going to work with key stakeholders, including NFA to embark on a forestation, especially on government land,” he added.
Mr Felix Turyajunwa, the Ntungamo municipality natural resources officer, blames NFA for the state of the central forest reserves.
He said whereas the municipality hosts13 hectares of central forest reserves, they do not have direct responsibility to conserve them.
“We only play a watchdog role. The forests are managed by NFA, we just report to NFA in case there is encroachment,” Mr Turyajunwa said.
He also attributes the depletion of Ntungamo forest reserve to political interferance.
“We are overwhelmed by political decisions, which are against the reserve. The council decision was to shift the reserve to a procured land in Kizaara, however, the land acreage was not enough and the NFA standards for gazettement were not met,” Mr Turyajunwa said.
Municipal authorities divided the reserve into plots and put up a road that snakes through the reserve.
During campaigns, municipality MP, Mr Yona Musinguzi Bikwasizehi, pledged to raze down the remaining reserves to put up a steel rolling factory.
“I don’t see a reason why a forest should continue being located in the centre of town. This is just a host to thieves and other bad elements in town, people are complaining. We have to put it to good use,” Mr Musinguzi said.
Mr Jacob Kafureka, the municipality mayor, agrees with Mr Musinguzi, saying the forest must be transferred to expand the town and weed out bad criminals who hide in the forest to terrorise citizens.
The NFA spokesperson, Ms Juliet Mubi, said they are working with the Environment ministry to cancel some illegal land titles in urban reserves. They also recently submitted more than 400 land titles to the Ministry of Lands, requesting for their cancellation to enable NFA take full control of the reserves.
Ms Mubi said NFA is suing people claiming ownership of these reserves. “Opening and demarcation (with permanent pillars) of forest boundaries is also ongoing to ensure the integrity of the reserves reduce boundary conflicts with the neighbouring communities,” she said.