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Bugoma Forest must remain, says Uganda’s President, but conservationists not celebrating just yet

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Following a sustained campaign over a court ruling to lease Bugoma Forest to Hoima Sugar Works last month, Uganda President Museveni has pronounced that Bugoma Forest must remain.

This follows a court ruling by Masindi District High Court Judge, Wilson Masalu , that 6,000 hectares of the reserve belong to the Omukama (king of Bunyoro), giving the kingdom a free hand to lease the land to Hoima Sugar Works for sugar growing.

According to the New Vision daily newspaper, the hot topic got to the ear of the President when his Finance Minister, Matiya Kasaija, expressed concern over the giveaway at a press conference held at State Lodge Masindi on May 15, 2019. “The kingdom leased 22 square miles to Hoima Sugar, and it is being cleared; we shall be doomed, because that forest is a rain maker for Bunyoro,” said the honorable minister.

“We shall not allow such to be done, we shall make sure we bring it back,” the President responded. He ordered people who had encroached on natural wetlands and forests to vacate before they get evicted. “I have done my best to conserve river Katonga near my farm in Kisozi in Mbarara district,” he said.

Just a week prior, Nature Uganda had organized a public talk of conservationists at the behest of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) themed “The Status of Bugoma Central Forest Reserve: The Implication of the high court ruling that part of the forest be converted into a sugarcane plantation.”

The tour operators were afraid that the country’s tourist attractions and habitat to primates and birds are being depleted by self-serving corrupt individuals bent on replacing the forests with cane grass.

Each sounded alarm to the public, including the retired Don Afuna Adula; forester Gaster Kiyingi; Frank Muramuzi, Chairman, National Association of Professional Environmentalists; Achilles Byaruhanga, Executive Director, Nature Uganda; and Pauline N. Kalunda, Executive Director, EcoTrust Uganda.

Also invited was Ronald Mwesigwa, Chairman, Bunyoro Land Board, who was tasked to clear the air on the forest give away.

He alleged that the titled land centered in Kyangwali sub-county was part of ancestral land of the restituted properties of the kingdom which lies outside the forest reserve.

In their rejoinder, the contestation argued with the conservationists that the court judgement was based on the issue of the land ownership and not the forest usage.

Stephen Galima from the National Forestry Authority (NFA) struggled to make sense of why a kingdom would surrender their ancestral land for sugar cane growing .

That said, Bugoma Forest was gazetted as a forest in 1932 and cadastral maps and boundary plans are available to prove it including of the disputed 6,000 hectares referred.

According to the Land Act of 1998, forests and reserves cannot be degazetted without approval of Parliament. By leasing the forest to Hoima Sugar Ltd., Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom changes its land use which essentially is illegal.

For the last four years, the Association for the Conservation of Bugoma Forest ACBF who have organized forest patrols have already faced the wrath of mafia-styled loggers which, according to ACBF Chairman Constantino Tessarin, Florence Kyaligonza is determined to cash in on from sale of this timber at all costs.

Not all in the Bunyoro Kitara kingdom agree with the ruling, including the kingdom’s Minister of Education, Dr. Asiimwe Florence Akiiki, who blamed the kingdom’s woes on the previous cabinet. Just last year, the Omukama of Bunyoro, His Majesty Rukirabasaija Agutamba Solomon Gafabusa Iguru, fired the previous cabinet for alleged involvement of some of its members in a dubious sale of kingdom properties, incompetence, and abuse of office.

How could they have got the title on August 1 and almost immediately leased it on August 5, wondered a visibly angry Frank Muramusi, Chairman, NAPE, observing that the same company that wanted to take Mabira Forest is now after Bugoma Forest, saying “someone was not sleeping.”

In conciliatory overtures, experts have advised that the kingdom should explore other avenues of earning revenue from the forest including through the sale of carbon credits since the forest buffers oil blocks including Tilenga to the north and Kingfisher block to the south.

Other usage suggested to the kingdom was from ecotourism since the forest is habitat to chimpanzees, other primates, and birds, and is a corridor for migratory wildlife between Murchison Falls National Park and from Budongo Forest onward to the Semiliki Wildlife Reserve. The forest is also a major catchment for Lake Albert from where the river Nkusi and its tributaries flow. The kingdom can also invest in ecolodging; currently the new Bugoma Jungle Lodge is located in the forest but shall greatly be compromised if the forest is not protected argue stakeholders.

To this end, Joan Akiza Legal and Policy Officer, NAPE, called for a baseline study of the forest, ideally with an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) so that all the required information to back up their argument is available.

Since the President’s statement, which followed his pledge to the Bunyoro Kingdom that Hoima Sugar Works should be reimbursed for the said leased land, environmentalists are unimpressed, arguing that Hoima Sugar Works should instead be prosecuted for illicitly acquiring the land, and now taxpayers have to fork out hard-earned funds to pay for this; that this is mere politicking since we are heading to electioneering, remarked forester Gaster Kiyingi.

During his lecture, Don Afuna Adula termed this as “Presidentialism” with reference to all matters and disputed that end up under the patronage of the President to say the last word.

Their suspicions are not far-fetched since photos of the same bulldozer captured in the Mabira Forest giveaway in 2007 openly backed by the President, was positively identified as of the same “culprit” from identical registration plates and color recently seen clearing Bugoma. Understandably, there is a “loud silence” from MP Honorable Betty Anywar, former Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) opposition stalwart and activist who gained fame for championing the protests against the giveaway of Mabira Forest earning the nick name “Mama Mabira” but now having since crossed to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.

The current status quo is that the exercise of clearing the forest was halted on May 1 as the NFA had received no formal notice amidst heavy deployment of police. Sadly, one hectare has already been cleared.

Others want to extend the campaign to boycott Hoima Sugar, aware that the parent company, Rai International, has been cited for similar manipulation, politicking, and hostile takeover of rivals in the timber business in neighboring Kenya, already a smoking gun for their ulterior designs.

The country has lost 65% of its forest cover in the last 40 years and continues to lose 100,000 hectares annually. At this rate, there shall be no forest cover within 20 years. Effects of climate change are already being felt including by the President who is himself an ardent cattle rancher; some respite for conservationists.

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