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Ugandan judge okays destruction of natural forest for sugarcane plantation

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In December of last year, Judge Albert Rugadya Atwooki stepped down from the case between Natinal Forestry Authority (NFA) and the Omukama of Bunyoro Kingdom, Mr Solomon Iguru Gafabusa, regarding the long disputed section of land in Bugoma Forest located in Hoima district in Uganda.

Justice Atwooki withdrew from the case after hearing evidence from all the parties and the case was only awaiting judgment for this reserve that was gazetted in 1932. The reasons why he did so remain unspecified to us.

Earlier this year, Justice Wilson Masalu Musene took over the case.

According to a New Vision story, one of the lawyers who sits on the Commission of Inquiry into land matters, headed by Justice Catherine Bamugemereire; Justice Musene was expected to visit the disputed land in Bugoma Forest in March this year; in the presence of all parties in the suit.

Sources also reveal that he indeed visited the contested section in the Bugoma Central Forest Reserve.

However, last week, on 25th April 201, 9Masindi High Court Judge, Mr. Wilson Masalu Musene ruled to allow the destruction of over 22 square miles of natural forest cover by Hoima Sugar Works for a sugarcane plantation. Justice Musene however is reported to have made no mention of his visit to the contested land when reading his adjudication.

This ruling also implied that he indirectly (though quite explicitly) ruled in support of the degazettement of a forest reserve that is also home to rare species of wildlife including over 500 Chimpanzees, Mangabeys, rare bird species and a diverse plant life.

On 1st May 2019 it was reported that the destruction of Bugoma Forest had started with at least one hectare of natural forest being cleared. This operation was led by the Manager of Hoima Sugar Works (not yet identified by name). He was accompanied by 15 Police Officers from Field Force Unit (FFU) who on that morning had a standoff with Environment Protection Police and officers from the Uganda Police Defence Forces (UPDF) attached to NFA.

Civil society from conservation, tourism and the legal fraternity have since come our to launch the “SAVE BUGOMA FOREST CAMPAIGN” in a joint press conference held at Hotel Africana this week on Thursday 2nd May 2019. They have decided to petition several government offices including the President of Uganda, the Speaker of Parliament, and the Chief Justice.

Here are a few other verdicts which the same Justice has passed, and showed Ugandans some form of direct antagonism with the principles of environmental conservation and in so doing displayed a sense of utter disregard towards the country and the world’s sensitive natural places.

1. In 2013, Justice Wilson Masalu Musene ruled that Uganda Revenue Authority should hand 832 confiscated pieces of Ivory which had been discovered at Ken freight Inland Container Deposit (ICD) Bweyogerere to their owners (criminal suspects who were on the run and had arrest warrants issued against them). This left the tourism sector in great shock, including the then Minister of Tourism Hon. Maria Mutagamba (RIP)! The 832 pieces represent about 400 elephants killed for their tusks, according to Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) officials.

2. On another front, in 2014, he granted an order, at that time while at Nakawa Court, prohibiting NFA from evicting encroachers from a wetland supposed to be in the protection of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) or, since it was part of a forest reserve, NFA. This was land that was formerly part of Namanve central forest reserve.

3. The New Vision on Monday, April 1, 2019, also reported that High Court Judge Justice Wilson Masalu Musene, had ordered the National Forest Authority to vacate over 4,000 hectares of forest land claimed by World War I and II ex-servicemen in Mpigi district and ordered NFA to cut down all the trees it planted on the land within a period of four months. He also permanently barred NFA from continuing to trespass on the land.

Justice Wilson Masalu Musene attended and represented Uganda at the USAID workshop on the Best “Practices for land tenure and Natural Resource Governance in East and Central Africa”; which took place in Kigali from the 2nd to 7th December, 2007. We believe his judgments are from an informed point of view.

Most of these verdicts however on the surface look like land giveaways, but look more keenly and you will see a disguised explicit neglect of the natural resources involved therein.

The cases focus on land, but what happens if this is a natural forest, or wetland, or game reserve? Should it not be the Government of Uganda to guardedly monitor natural resources in and outside protected areas for the benefit of all people of Uganda?

Who then should be mandated with ensuring that the country’s natural resources are protected?

Despite the country’s efforts to carry out several excellent environmental policies, legal and institutional reforms aimed at promoting the conservation and sustainable use of the country’s forest resources, as is the case with many other regulations, enforcement and corruption have been a major challenge.

Uganda today has the highest forest conversion and degradation in the whole of East Africa.

According to the 2016 joint water and environment sector review report, Uganda’s forest cover had reduced from 24% in 1990 to just 11% in 2015.

A few years ago, government gave out Butamira to Madhvani family’s Kakira sugar works, and in 2007, it attempted to degazette part of Mabira forest for use by Mehta’s Lugazi sugar factory, thanks to efforts by the conservation fraternity, civil society and the general public, this move was blocked.

“The issue of government consultation and consensus building on forest related and other natural-resource-based issues is still wanting,”

“For all the forest land that has been given away, has there been consensus with the different players in the sector, and have there been thorough Environmental Social Impact Assessments which are prerequisite for any development of such magnitude almost anywhere around the world?”

At the answer to these questions lies the heart of the problem.

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