The politics of kaveera and government failure to ban it

Kaveera and plastic bottles are the leading cause of blocked sewers in Kampala suburbs. PHOTO BY STEPHEN WANDERA.

What you need to know:

In March 2002, Bangladesh slapped an outright ban on all polythene bags. It was the first nationwide ban on plastic bags in the world.


According to Plastic Free Times, an online news portal, the decision to ban (kaveera) in Bangladesh was taken after the plastic bags were found to have been the major cause of the 1988 and 1998 floods that submerged two-thirds of the country with knee deep water for nearly two months. The clogging of city drains by polyethylene bags delayed the drainage of flood water out of Dhaka City.

Less than a decade later, the ban has successfully cleaned up the streets and drains of the country, while stimulating a re-birth of the jute bag industry that produces alternative carrier bags. But in Uganda, the situation is grimly different even after her neighbours successfully implemented the ban to the bags.

On July 11 2009, the then minister for Finance, Ms Syda Bbumba, during her budget speech, imposed a total ban on plastic bags “for conveyance of goods and liquid in order to protect our environment”. Meaning that its importation had now become illegal and its use phased out.

An excise duty of 120 per cent was also imposed on other plastic materials and a moratorium of six months was given to the general public as transition period during which persons will make arrangements to find alternative packing materials that are environment friendly.

Government argued that the polythene bags were blocking drainage systems as well as degrading the soil. It then announced the ban and prohibited the importation, local manufacture, sale or use of polyethylene and bags. However, three years down the road, the ban has failed to be effected. Where did the rain start drenching us? And why has the implementation failed?

The debate on the ban of the use of the kaveera has been mixed with sections of the public opposing the ban while others applauding it. The private and business sectors have expressed concern, saying the ban will push them out of business. Environmental activists on the other hand are strongly supporting the move, arguing it will protect and create a clean environment for the future generations.

“There are officials from government who collaborated with the kaveera manufacturing people to fail the implementation of the ban,” says shadow minister for environment John K. Lukyamuzi. “Some of them (government officials] are key players in the kaveera industry and they cannot allow the ban to be implemented.”

The parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources in its report to the House last week, said Water and Environment Minister Maria Mutagamba had failed to enforce the ban as required by the financial act.

Ms Mutagamba, however, had in 2008, even before the six month grace period had elapsed to effect the ban, come out saying there was need for a clear work plan before the ban is enforced. However, the work plan is yet to be put in place. This, according to environmental activists, shows lack of coordination among government departments and it should be “charged with noncompliance.”

National Association of Professional Environmentalists’ Executive Director Frank Muramuzi says that failure by the government to implement the ban, even amid the city floods and blocked water channels due to the plastic bags is a sign of a breakage in the performance of government environment bodies.

“There is not much that you should expect to happen. Nema is useless because it is doing nothing as far as protecting the environment is concerned,” he said, adding that unless Ugandans come up to clean their environment at the local level, “the kaveera is still on the loose degrading the farms and blocking water channels”.

The blame game and passing the buck
In countries where the ban has been successful like Bangladesh and Rwanda, it was NGOs, ministries of environment and line government authorities that led the agitation for the ban to be passed and implemented. In Bangladesh, Cabinet even brought a Bill specifically for the banning of plastic bags. But in Uganda, the case is different; a situation of conflict of interest, blame games and passing the buck.

With an egg on their face, the different responsible government bodies have now resorted to blame game, all pointing fingers at the ministry of Environment. “There was a Cabinet committee, headed by Minister Mutagamba which was supposed to deal with that issue but there was a big debate and I do not know the final position that was taken,” says Ambassador Julius Onen, the permanent secretary in the ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives, on whether the ministry has put in place measures to curb the trade in the banned item.

Nema Spokesperson Naomi Karekaho says the regulatory body passed the garbage regulations “immediately the finance act directive was pronounced” but there are issues that came up at the policy implementation level in the ministry of environment “that made it difficult to enforce the laws that were passed.”

After the environment ministry failed to be explicit on when the ban will be implemented as they appeared before MPs, the chairman of the parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources, Mr Michael Werikhe, who was also a junior Minister of Environment, by the time the ban was announced, threatened to put sanctions on the ministers if the ban is not implemented. “It is the ministers of Finance and Environment that are failing the implementation of the ban,” he says.

But the Ministry of Finance says while passing the ban, there was an underlying objective of preserving the environment and ensuring that “Uganda gets a green environment for Ugandans to live in” but the mandate is not theirs to implement and ensure that the ban is effected.

“We are, of course, committed to the undertakings we made about plastic bags but we are also hopeful that the relevant departments or ministries will take up their mandate to implement the decision and also operationalise government policy commitments,” said Mr Jim Mugunga, the spokesperson in the Privatisation Unit of Ministry of Finance.

Is banning kavera the solution?
One of the earlier voices opposing the ban was that of the then Trade Minister Gen. Kahinda Otafiire, who argued that users of the bags are a problem and not the product as it has been portrayed.

The private sector and those against the ban have argued that there is need for government; Nema and Kampala Capital City Authority to first implement the waste management policy that gives guidance to the public on how to manage the disposal of kaveera, including the need for collection points, and related activities.

Last year, the private sector players presented a waste management proposal to government and requested for a meeting to discuss it but despite several attempts by the private sector calling for such a meeting, it has never taken place.

“We all know the negative effects of the kaveera but banning it was and is not the best move because Uganda cannot afford a total ban at the moment,” says Mr Kigozi Ssebagala, the executive director Uganda Manufacturers Association. “When you say you are going to ban, you need to have an immediate alternative otherwise you will fail to effect the ban,” he said.

At the onset of the ban, there was no alternative option for people to carry commodities and even the paper bags on the market then were too weak to be used for shopping. One had to buy a kaveera which could be put inside the paper bag.

Private Sector Foundation Uganda Executive Director Gideon Badagawa says banning plastic bags will never solve the garbage problem in Uganda. “What is lacking is the waste management policy so that we address all those issues of waste, including bottles in totality,” he says.

Pro-plastic bags activists argue that the solution is not tackling kaveera at the production side, because, the world over people are using plastics, but giving the consumers who determine the rate of production and importation, a viable option. “The challenge of waste in Kampala is far beyond kaveera garbage and it can only be solved through a waste management policy,” says Mr Badagawa. “The challenge is now with Nema, the Ministry of Environment and all the government agencies to come up with the policies and we are ready to partner and support them.”

Nema in various presentations to MPs and other stakeholders last year had proposed that Uganda adopts the Rwanda model but players in the industry say that Nema’s argument ignores the fact that there are huge differences between Uganda and Rwanda, such as population size, level of economic development and level of industrialisation. While Uganda’s vision is to become an industrialised country, Rwanda plans to become the ICT hub of the region.

Critics also ask whether Uganda has got the capacity and if it will also unwrap sensitive items, such as inside linings of imported cars, television sets, computers, and many more at the border just like Rwanda. “If we unwrap these, shall we still be a viable trading partner and competitive, while anticipating even bigger volumes of trade come the Common Market (EAC then COMESA)?” Bruno Emwanu, the then director of business affairs at UMA, wrote in an opinion last year. “What about the huge quantities of kaveera collected at the border points? How do we manage this if we have built no capacity to manage internally?”

The East African picture
According to Mr Badagawa, who was the executive director of Uganda Manufacturers Association by the time the ban was passed, most of the plastic bags in Uganda are imported from Kenya.
“As we tried to respect the ban plastic bags of 30 micros, our neighbours in Kenya continued producing and everything was being brought here and up to now that is the case.”

However, early this year, the Kenya government imposed a ban on plastic bag manufacturers. Nema-Kenya has already instructed the Kenya Bureau of Standards to raise its gauge on plastic bags from 30 to 60 microns, setting the stage for a fresh round of negotiations with private sector players who argue that the demand for flimsy plastics is driven by high cost of paper alternatives.

Although they ignored the 2007 ban on the 30 micro plastic bags, traders and supermarket operators are fully complying with the new directive. “Nakumatt Holdings is fully supportive of any measures taken to protect the environment and we have in our own space, been at the forefront of ensuring our customers embrace the use of reusable bags since 2007 when we first introduced such bags and set the bar to use 30 micron bags,” Mr Atul Shah the managing director was, early this year, quoted in Kenya’s Daily Nation. Kenya’s Nema is now in consultations with producers and consumers to come up with a plastic management policy and a Waste Management Policy.

In Rwanda, the best success story in the region as far as imposing the ban is concerned, government met resistance from the citizens over the ban but the continued civic education by the relevant ministries made people appreciate the positive aspects of the ban.

Banned in Rwanda
But amidst all the complaints, shops in Rwanda have been banned from giving plastic bags to their customers and police are, reportedly, stopping plastic-bag users in the street. A number supermarkets have even been closed down for flouting the ban.

In Zanzibar, government last month also moved to ban the imports, manufacturing and use of the plastic bags and encouraged the use of bio-degradable materials for carrying shopping. Imposed under the Environment Protection Act, plastic ban No.49, 2008, penalises anyone who breaches it with a six month jail sentence or a fine of Shs2.5m.

Before this month’s ban, Zanzibar, like Uganda, had also tried to impose a ban on plastic bags of 30 micros but it was ignored by both the producers and the users. Mutagamba is expected back in Parliament sometime this month to answer queries arising from the failure to implement the kaveera ban.


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