The scene at Bukasa police station on Monday last week painted a vivid picture of the extent of forest land grabbing in Uganda.
Located on Kirinya road in Wakiso district, just behind Bweyogerere, the police station was playing host to a heated negotiation between trespassers on government land and government officials. In another place and another time, the encroachers would be hiding from the police; but here was a group of ‘illegal’ occupants arguing with victims of their actions.
They were engaging officials from NEK Consults Ltd, a company commissioned by Uganda Electricity Transmission Company Ltd (UETCL) to establish a 132kV power transmission line to serve Mukono, Iganga and Luzira industrial parks.
The transmission line is meant to pass through a fairly extensive swamp neighbouring a contentious piece of land belonging to the National Forestry Authority (NFA), which the locals have forcefully occupied.
Bricks and sand
“We are not yet into the swamp, but some of us are planning to use it for making bricks and extracting sand. So, how are you planning to compensate us,” one of the residents asked in Luganda.
Now, under normal circumstances, a wetland is supposed to belong to the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) or, since it is part of a forest reserve, NFA should have been in charge. But instead, a government project was negotiating with trespassers over a wetland. These encroachers, according Panos Eastern Africa’s technical advisor on natural resources, Hassan Muloopa, first trickled in in a simple way –by engaging in stone quarrying. They were ignored, seen as poor people honestly trying to eke out a living.
However, after they sold the stones and got money, they began putting up permanent structures. And today, they are fully entrenched as owners of land that was formerly part of Namanve central forest reserve.
The encroachers have organised themselves into associations to defend ‘their’ land. According to Sowedi Ssemakadde, the speaker of Bukasa People’s Development Association, their group alone has 417 people occupying 73 acres of the forest reserve land.
“We are the people who were chased from Naguru estates,” Ssemakadde told The Observer, adding: “We were given this land by Minister Maria Mutagamba in 2010.”
Interestingly, Ssemakadde acknowledges that this land is for NFA, but hastens to add: “It is no longer theirs because it was given to us by government.”
“NFA land is too big. It stretches from Kito to Namataba, Kirinya, Bukasa up to Namanve. For Kito, Namataba and Kirinya, the president gave it out to the veterans. Ours in Bukasa was given to us by the minister,” he says.
Asked for documentation to that effect, Ssemakadde is quick to say: “They are safely kept at home”.
The only documentation that he moved with that day is an interim order from Justice Wilson Masalu Musene of Nakawa court, prohibiting NFA from evicting the encroachers, in a case where his association sued NFA.
With the court backing, the encroachers have quickly put up more permanent structures everywhere. They are now slowly moving into the swamp, with activities such as sand excavation already underway.
Forest land grabbing is on the rise in Uganda – because of the exploding human population and activities such as agricultural development, where vast lands are cleared without conservation considerations, large-scale peri-urban housing projects development, fuel wood generation, uncontrolled forest harvesting including poaching for logs and poles, and urbanisation.
The destruction of Namanve forest reserve started with the de-gazetting of part of the forest for the establishment of Namanve industrial park. This, according to Panos’s Hassan Muloopa, was against the purpose for this forest reserve was established, as a strategic resource for Kampala city.
“This forest reserve came as a result of a survey... that found out that we would continue using wood for a long time,” Muloopa says.
Official records show that Namanve Central forest reserve was gazetted in 1932, covering 2,300 hectares. It was recommended that Namanve forest reserve be established to cater for Kampala’s demand for fuel. But with death of this forest reserve, Kampala continues to grapple with overwhelming demand for fuel for cooking.
The 2009/10 national household survey shows that 95 per cent of the households still use firewood and charcoal as the main source of energy for cooking. Even in Kampala, where the majority have access to hydropower, 75 per cent of households mainly use charcoal for cooking. This has created a booming charcoal business, which is devouring Uganda’s forest cover.
According to a World Forestry day report released by Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (Acode) recently, Uganda loses 90,000 hectares of its forest cover every year due to activities such as charcoal burning and forest land giveaways. If this continues, it is feared that Uganda could lose all its forests by 2050.
Muloopa says that previously, each town had land gazetted for a peri-urban wood plantation in anticipation of future growing demand for fuel. However, most – if not all – of these peri-urban forests have been given away.
Mbarara central reserve, for example, lost 168 hectares that was degazetted in 2007 for urban development. Today, Ankole sub-region is one of the highly-deforested sub-regions, with almost all the rolling hills cleared of their forests and water bodies such as River Rwizi carrying dirty water.
Tooro sub-region is also gradually following in the same footsteps. Fort Portal central forest reserve, meant to serve this green and quiet town, was given away to a private developer who instead changed its use to a dairy farm.
The 2001 Uganda Forestry Policy provides for establishment of urban forests because of their significance not only in reducing energy costs, but acting as windbreakers, and reducing air pollution by actively removing pollutants.
“In future, people may demand rejuvenation of these forest reserves. Presently, there is one man who thinks for us; he doesn’t listen to anyone including his wife, not even the technical staff. Once that powerful person goes, city mayors and people will demand peri-urban wood plantations,” Muloopa says.
“It is a very bad precedent that whoever changes the land use of a forest reserve should be left. It is fueling encroachment.”
According to fuelling on forest reserves is happening at two levels: first, is where politically-connected groups, for example veterans, illegally enter a forest –like what happened in Namanve and what is happening in Bugoma central forest reserve. The other is where government deliberately uses its powers to allocate forest land to private developers.
A 2012 study on land grabbing in Uganda carried out by the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (Nape), says that the government, keen to attract investment, has allowed foreign companies to move onto large areas of land for a range of projects, including the development of a large-scale oil palm plantations, carbon offset tree plantations and, following the recent discovery of oil, for drilling.
“Forests have been cleared to make way for the plantations and wetlands have been drained, damaging the rich natural biodiversity…Governments and private companies are both keen to gain access to fertile land at a low cost,” the report reads.
Oil palm growing on Bugala island in Kalangala district, for example, claimed 10,000 hectares of natural forest. Because large areas of forest have been cleared to make way for oil palm plantations, there is pressure on the remaining forest resources, which traditionally provide wood for building materials, boat-making, food and importantly, fuel for the local population.
An environmental impact study had earlier indicated that the project would not have significant climate or hydrological impacts on the island, but that it was likely to reduce forest cover, resulting in a loss of endemic species, and that it would reduce windbreaks, increase siltation in Lake Victoria, increase logging, and reduce the potential for ecotourism.
Previously, government gave out Butamira to Madhvani family’s Kakira sugar works, and recently, it attempted to degazette part of Mabira forest for use by Mehta’s Lugazi sugar factory.
“The issue of government consultation and consensus building is still wanting,” says Care Uganda’s Technical Manager Annet Kandole Balewa.
“For all the forest land that has been given away, has there been consensus with the different players in the sector?”
At the answer to that question lies the heart of the problem.
This Observer feature was sourced with support from Panos Eastern Africa