Will gazetting forests as national parks save them?

Part of Kalinzu central forest reserve in Bushenyi District. PHOTO | ZADOCK AMANYISA

What you need to know:

  • Ms Christine Nakimwero Kaaya, a climate change activist and Woman Member of Parliament for Kiboga District, says managing carbon emissions will be difficult given the current rate of deforestation in the country.

Uganda intends to start commercial oil exploration in April 2025. While there is excitement over how the oil could uplift the country’s fledgling economy, there is concern over the environmental degradation that will come as a result of oil drilling in the Albertine Rift.

Ms Christine Nakimwero Kaaya, a climate change activist and Woman Member of Parliament for Kiboga District, says managing carbon emissions will be difficult given the current rate of deforestation in the country.

Currently, Uganda’s forest cover stands at 12.4 per cent. This is up from nine per cent in 2017. Between 1990 and 2010, the country lost 37.1 percent of its forest cover, or around 1,763,000 hectares.

“No ecosystem performs better than natural forests in managing carbon emissions. We anticipate that five years after the oil drilling starts, the heat will make that place (Uganda’s Albertine Rift) inhabitable, if the rate at which trees are being lost to the pressures of cultivation, logging, charcoal burning, and sugarcane growing, continues,” she says.

The Albertine Rift is endowed with natural forests, such as, Budongo, Bwindi, Kalinzu and Bugoma Forests. However, it is estimated that since the mid 1980s the amount of natural forest loss is about 860 square kilometres.  Using estimates of one tree every two metres, this means the Rift has lost over 215 million trees since the mid1980s.

In 2016, Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom leased 22 square miles of Bugoma Forest Reserve to Hoima Sugar Limited for sugarcane growing, for 99 years. Following a court case and protests from residents and environmentalists, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) issued an Environmental Impact Assessment certificate to the company to use only 13 square miles of the forest.    

Eron Kiiza, the CEO of The Environment Shield, estimates that at least an acre of Bugoma Forest is consumed everyday by encroachers.

“Last year, NEMA ordered Hoima Sugar Limited to restore parts of the forest it had destroyed. However, the company has, with characteristic impunity, ignored NEMA. These are foreign investors who are connected to the State and the military protects their encroachment. They are not accountable to any government institution,” he says.

Uganda’s forest cover stands at 2,729,159 hectares. The National Forestry Authority (NFA) has the mandate over 506 central forest reserves, which is a total of slightly over 1.2 million hectares. The remaining hectares are plantation forests managed by individuals. However, over the years, under NFA’s watch, Uganda’s forestry cover has been steadily reducing as encroachers – who include sugar companies, loggers, timber and charcoal dealers - take root inside the forests.

Our efforts to speak with the NFA were unsuccessful, however, a source inside the Authority, who spoke to this newspaper on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak for NFA, says the government has deliberately frustrated the organisation’s efforts to boost security around Uganda’s forests.

“Government deliberately refused to give us an armed enforcement unit. We requested for a 600-strong unit to be recruited and paid for by NFA and NEMA. We made the request to the former Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, but he insisted that they could not have a paramilitary force. He, instead, gave us the Environmental Police,” the source says.

The Environmental Protection Police Unit (EPPU) does the policing role to ensure that the environment, specifically forests and wetlands, is not degraded. However, according to the source, the EPPU is not performing its role, which explains the continuing deforestation and degradation of wetlands.

“The Environmental Police is understaffed. If they were under NFA and NEMA’s control, we would have control over their mandate, their numbers and how they carry out their work. However, they are under Uganda Police Force, and as a result, we are losing natural forests at an alarming rate.”

Kiiza agrees that NFA is being deliberately undermined by people who benefit for grabbing forest land. 

“The NFA is thin on the ground and out gunned. Of course, like in any other government agency, it is plagued by corruption, but the core problem is that the people who are destroying the forests are too powerful for the NFA to handle,” he says.

Gazetting forests to national parks

It is against this background, that district councils in the Albertine Rift have consented to a proposal that will see forests gazetted as national game parks, under Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). UWA depends on armed rangers directly under its employ and the army to sustain its conservation efforts.

Patrick Rusoke, a district councillor for Buraru Sub-County, in Hoima District, said that turning the forests to national parks is the only way to stop encroachers. Part of Bugoma Forest lies in Hoima District.

“We could not sit back and helplessly watch this historical forest being cut down. When UWA puts its rangers on the ground, we can save it. The proposal will also offer employment to the community living near the forest because UWA agreed to identify and train youths to be tour guides and game rangers. Besides, tourists who come to visit the forests will create a market for the crafts the community makes,” he says.

By virtue of its position as the leading organisation on wildlife conservation, and the fact that it is under more international scrutiny, environmentalists agree that UWA is in a better position to protect Uganda’s forests.

“It is a great proposal because the only forests in Uganda that are safe from deforestation are those found inside national parks. UWA seems to have enough armed rangers to protect the areas they are in charge of and is more creative in ensuring the relevance of the areas they protect, to the community,” Kiiza says.

Bashir Hangi, UWA’s communications manager, says the organisation has found creative ways to preserve nature because it is better at educating people about conservation and generating revenue for the communities living near the conservation spaces.

“As a conservation agency, we are ready for the job. And the job I am talking about is not only about law enforcement to ensure that the forest reserves are not encroached on, but also to ensure that the habitat is protected and the ecosystem is not compromised in any way.  We have a very strong commitment to conservation that you will not easily come across in other entities,” he says.

Hangi adds that once the mandate of managing forests passes from NFA to UWA, a number of changes will take place with immediate effect.

“We have rules and regulations on how to access protected areas to ensure that these forests do not get completely wiped out and to ensure that they are able to regenerate over time. Unlike with NFA where the community can enter a forest any time they wish to, there is no free entry and exit in national parks, regardless of who you are.  However, we enter into regulated resource agreement initiatives with the communities where we agree on how and when they can access the resources inside the national park, such as firewood and medicinal herbs,” Hangi says.

However, according to the source, a war is brewing behind the scenes between NFA and UWA, with NFA ready to put up a fight to retain its mandate over Uganda’s forests.

“Whenever we start an ecotourism activity in a forest and it picks up, UWA, realising that it may lose tourists, jumps onto our projects and owns them. It has done this in Rwenzori, Mgahinga, and Bwindi National Parks. Now that we are starting ecotourism again in Bugoma, Budongo and Kalinzu Forests, UWA is going behind our back, drumming up support in the district councils so that these forests can be gazetted to national parks,” the source says. 

Ecotourism in forests is a key contributor to NFA’s revenue generation, and activities include, forest walks, research, birding, chimp tracking, sightseeing, conservation education, and camping.

“The proposal to gazette forests as national parks is not in good faith because UWA is bribing district councils to pass it. UWA is succeeding because it is telling the councillors it will share the tourism revenue with the district. In this way, the district benefits but not the communities living on the fringes of the forests. This is contrary to NFA’s policy, which has always been to allow communities to enter the forests at will and use its resources,” the source says.

Daily Monitor could not confirm the bribery allegations. However, some community members living near Bugoma Forest welcome the proposal.

“If the proposal is in the interests of protecting the natural resources, then let it be. UWA has not depleted the resources under its control like NFA has done. Almost 50 per cent of the Bugoma Forest has already been replaced with sugarcane. However, I highly doubt the mafia system that has encroached on the forest under NFA will allow it to go to UWA,” Ali Baba, a resident, says.

Another resident, Matia Kajjura, adds, “Look at how well UWA has managed the forest in Kibaale National Park. NFA workers are poorly paid so it is easy for them to connive with investors to destroy our forests. I hope the resolution is passed by Parliament.”

Dissenting views

However, other environmentalists, like Kaaya, are strongly opposed to the proposal of gazetting forest reserves as national parks, especially near the oil exploration sites.

“The motivation for this proposal is all about investment. Some people are interested in particular investments. If forests are turned into national parks, UWA will bring big game into the forests. The demand will be for the population of animals to be increased to attract tourists. This means cutting down more trees – trees which would have assisted us with the clearance of carbon emissions,” she says.

Kaaya adds that an increase in the number of tourists will mean a high demand for social amenities.

“Tourists need roads and hotels, and the construction of such amenities will automatically call for felling of trees. A high population of tourists means flora will be trampled on. In other countries, areas near oil fields would attract heavy planting of trees but in our case, we are doing the opposite,” she says.

In 2020, NFA unearthed over 450 illegal land titles in different forest reserves. In a report presented to Parliament by Kaaya at the beginning of the year, it was noted that the land titles had risen to 1,000. The Authority is now using courts of law to cancel the land titles in the hands of the forest encroachers. Kaaya believes gazetting forests as national parks will encourage land grabbing.

“Investors will acquire land in forests for development. If they are given licences to manage some parts of the forest, we will not be sure of the ownership of that land. These are people who will acquire leases of 30 or 49 years, but after settling on the land for five years, they will turn such land titles into freehold. We have seen this happen in Lake Victoria where investors own plots in the lake,” she says.

Kaaya adds that once the investor has acquired a freehold title, no one can dictate to them what to do with the trees in that particular section of the forest.

“Some of these investors replace natural forests with eucalyptus and pine plantations. Maybe that proposal can work in other parts of the country, but not in the Albertine Rift where we anticipate the release of 10 million tons of carbon, yet the available forest cover today is not enough to absorb it,” she says.

Way forward

Currently, NFA and UWA co-manage some protected areas, such as Maramagambo, Budongo and Bugoma Forests. The NFA source believes the two entities can co-exist.

“They can manage the big game, while we look after the small animals in the forest. Instead, they are trying to kick us out and take over the protected areas that we co-manage. The government can even merge the two organisations. I don’t see why they want to close NFA and return it to the mother ministry,” the source says.

The source adds that as a way of encouraging reforestation, the government should compensate people who are conserving natural forests.

“Government policy should value whoever is conserving a natural forest because forests are public goods. On the other hand, UWA’s animals are not public goods. In 2003, the European Union and Norway funded a commercial tree planting exercise to try and protect natural forests but the program failed. Now, the EU is funding the growing of compensatory plantations – plantations for timber, poles, and charcoal burning – to stop people from felling natural forests. The EU gives the planter Shs950,000 per hectare,” the source says.

Kaaya calls for regular surveys and opening of forest boundaries to keep informing the public about the forest cover we have as a country.

“Gazetted forest maps are available for everyone to see where a forest starts and stops. We are informing staff from the Ministry of Lands that those who release land titles in forests will be taken to court individually. Action needs to be taken to cancel those land titles in forests,” she says.

While all efforts are being made to restore degraded parts of central forest reserves, perhaps, the Climate Change Department needs to inform the public on what types of trees to plant to mitigate climate change. Because, while natural forests are decreasing, plantation forests (sugarcane, eucalyptus and pine) are on the rise. Plantation forests may not be able to offset large amounts of carbon emissions once oil exploration begins.

This article was produced as part of the Aftershocks Data Fellowship (22-23) with support from the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with The ONE Campaign and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).