In July this year, when sugar prices tripled, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni took the opportunity to try to convince the public that the only way to bring down prices was to increase sugar production.
To do this, Ugandans would give away 7,100 hectares of Mabira Central Forest Reserve to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (SCOUL) to produce more sugar.
If SCOUL got the land it would increase sugar production and save the country foreign exchange to the tune of $20-$25m per annum and create 3,500 jobs with annual earnings of UGX 3 billion ($400,000).
Add to that, Uganda's economy is in crisis, with the highest inflation in 20 years and a weak shilling. So Museveni probably never anticipated the strong resistance from stakeholders around the country.
But history may repeat itself. In 2007, the government attempted to give away Mabira but backed down after facing strong resistance from civil society organizations and the public. Three people died and there was hostility to the Indian community because the owner of SCOUL, Mr. Mahendra Mehta, 75, is Indian.
Mabira: an African tropical forest
Mabira forest is a core conservation area for critical biodiversity, a hub for ecological and environmental conservation, a habitat to many animal and plant species, a water-catchment protector for the many rivers and streams that feed the lakes in East Africa, a recharger for underground aquifers, a crucial component of micro-climate moderation in the region (which aids agricultural production), a necessary catalyst for carbon sequestration in the region, and an economic boon to Uganda's eco-tourism industry.
‘Mabira is not like any other forest. It is a tropical, natural forest with rich biodiversity. It is irreplaceable. Its value is incomparable to sugar cane growing,' said Beatrice Anywar, member of parliament for Kitgum aka ‘Mama Mabira'.
‘We have an alternative, start a bee project and have honey instead of sugar. After all it is a luxury and not healthy. The bees will act as security to the trees in the forest,' said Anywar.
Mabira Central Forest Reserve covers an area of 306sqkm or 30,000 hectares and has a natural habitat of 312 indigenous tree species, 218 butterfly species and 97 moth species. It is home to 315 bird species, which is equivalent to 30 percent of all the bird species found in Uganda. Among these are two endemic species to Mabira, the Papyrus Gonolek and Nahan's Francolin.
It is one of the last remaining portions of the natural, great tropical forest belt of Africa that once stretched from Uganda to DRC - Congo, a part of the great Amazon forest that was separated by earth's movements.
Its location between Lakes Victoria and Kyoga as well as between Rivers Nile and Sezibwa gives it an important role in water distribution, and the control of deposition of silt and erosion in these rivers.
And as a water catchment area, it controls the water levels and flow of Lake Victoria and the River Nile, which give a livelihood to millions of people in not only the East African region but also in countries that share the Nile downstream- Sudan and Egypt.
Conservationists have warned that in the event that the ecology of Mabira is disrupted, the future of Ugandan dams like Bujagali and Nalubaale would equally be at stake.
They say a change in land use of 7,100 hectares of natural forests to sugarcane may reduce the water retention capacity of the watershed and eventually affect water flow and water levels to the lakes and rivers in the East African region.
‘A rainforest like Mabira is simply too intricate and delicate a body to slice apart. It will be unable to perform these functions amputated,' said Tony Otoa, a researcher with Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment Uganda (ACODE-U).
Mabira also acts as a carbon sink to the capital city of Uganda, Kampala, and one of its major industrial towns, Jinja.
What remains a puzzle to Ugandans living near Mabira is the government u-turn, a deviation from what it stood for when it came to power in 1986.
After ten years into power, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), now the ruling party, thought it prudent to conserve Mabira and started reforestation efforts, including evicting many of the families who had come to live in it. The forest did begin to recover.
With evidence of rainfall records at weather stations around Mabira, indications are that the rainfall amounts dropped some 5-10 years after people were allowed to cut down the forest during the mid-1970s.
When the people left the forest in 1989, again the effect on rainfall was experienced 5-10 years later when the fast growing paper mulberry trees restored forest cover, which started to impact on rainfall positively. Rainfall amounts shot up.
Other entities also played a role in the restoration of the forest. The European Union (EU) has sunk about $2,500 million in conservation of forest reserves in Mabira and other reserves all over the country including commercial tree planting by the private sector under the sawlog production grant scheme.
Eco tourism hotspot
Robert Kungugye, a leader with Mabira Integrated Community Organisation, said the forest which has 1,400 people grouped into 70 community based organisations also provides clean water, wild foods, fruits, herbs, mushrooms and ‘chicken sticks' on which they roast meats and sell on the road side.
The forest is also a cultural site for some tribes, such as the Baganda. It is believed that spirits still live in Mabira and people go there to worship.
It is one of the reasons a young athlete Martin Muddu Sinabulya 19, ran from Kampala to Mabira, a 50 km stretch with a poster reading ‘Mabira for life'.
‘This place has our spirits. Our grandparents go there to worship. But also as a youth I do not want to see bloodshed because of Mabira,' said Sinabulya.
The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), the environment watchdog was also opposed to deforesting part of Mabira.
Politics as usual
Under Ugandan law, ownership of forests and what can be done to them is a prerogative of the citizens of the Republic of Uganda.
According to Article 237 (2)(b) of the Constitution, the Government of Uganda is only a custodian or trustee of these resources. It cannot destroy, alienate, or even appropriate such resources without adequate due diligence.
Giving away part of Mabira Forest would also contravene international conventions to which Uganda is a signatory, such as the United Nations Convention to Combat Diversification, the RAMSAR Convention, the United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change, and the Kyoto Protocol, among others.
President Museveni recently invited some conservationists and members of parliament to his estate to discuss the issue. At the meeting, Museveni said the decision to give away Mabira lies with the Parliament.
‘This is not an executive order; it will be a parliamentary decision. If they don't accept my proposal, at least I will be on the record, because now you are intimidating me,' said Museveni at the meeting.
I can't be part of a historical mistake not showing Ugandans the way forward. We can't preserve the environment when we are a poor country" said Museveni.
At the moment, the fate of Mabira Forest seems to lie in a book introduced last week at the Parliament entrance for MPs to sign to show whether or not they support Mabira conservation.
Esther Nakkazi is a freelance journalist
TAKE ACTION to save the Mabira Forest. Sign Friends of the Earth International's petition to demand the Ugandan government reverse its plan to turn parts of the forest into a sugarcane plantation.
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