Kampala — The dry spell, which hit in December 2004, has drastically affected Bugoma forest, one of Uganda's large forests.
Hundreds of herdsmen fled their homes in search of water and pasture and took refuge in Bugoma.
A number of hills were burnt down. The streams flowing through the forest are toxic because of the chemicals used in spraying the cattle.
These herdsmen violated the quarantine, the district imposed in Hoima district since September 2004 against the movement of cattle, after the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Most of them moved from Kiboga and entered the forest through Buhimba, Kiziranfumbi and Kabwoya sub-counties.
The National Forest Authority (NFA) officials were not aware of these intruders until a rumour spread that residents had seen rebels in the forest.
"They have been there for over two months, without our knowledge. I was surprised to be implicated by security that I was training rebels in Bugoma. When the security people carried out an operation in the forest, there was no trace of rebels, but only herdsmen," said Reuben Arinaitwe, an NFA officer, in charge of Bugoma and Budongo forests.
"There have 40,000 cattle and they have burnt down a large portion of Bugoma to get young grass for their cattle."
There may not be any rebels in this forest, although some residents insist they have seen some people clad in army uniform patrolling the forest.
"Some of the herdsmen were brought at night, escorted by armed people in army uniform. Even today, we see some of them with these cattle keepers grazing in the forest. I cannot tell if they are rebels or not," said a resident of Nsozi trading centre in Kabwoya sub-county.
Arinaitwe said some of the cattle were brought from Kiboga, Kibaale and others from Bundibugyo, especially those who were evicted from Semliki National Park. And some residents say other cattle keepers say they came from Mbarara.
Recently, a team comprising Hoima District commissioner Martha Asiimwe, the District Internal Security Officer, Robert Nyakairu and officials from NFA gave the Bahuma four days to leave the forest. however, many of them said they had nowhere to go.
"They may not leave because the issue of the intruders has become political. We tried to force them out, but because of political intervention, the exercise was halted. Some of the cattle belong to government officials," said an NFA officer.
Because these herdsmen have not left, Arinaitwe says he has contacted the NFA headquarters for a force to lead them out.