Kampala — President Yoweri Museveni has directed the Ministry of Water Lands and Environment to stop the on-going forest evictions until a report by a technical team studying forest issues has been submitted to him.
A statement from State House, Nakasero, said Museveni met a 17-man team from the ministry led by minister Kahinda Otafiire on Tuesday.
It said Museveni said some of the forests gazetted as reserves were grazing areas or enkoola (wilderness).
The technical team was assigned to categorise 560 forests and forest reserves depending on their economic, ecological and biodiversity potential.
Museveni said some areas were declared forest reserves by the colonial government without consulting the citizens.
"I don't want to hear of your officials dehumanising people. They are not ants and should be respected. Ours is not a colonial government, we derive our powers from the people and therefore they are in charge," Museveni said.
He advised them to embark on a wide tree-planting programme rather than causing strife among the people, adding that more important areas had not been attended to by the ministry.
He, however, said the forests near rivers and lakeshores would be preserved to filter water before it joins water bodies. He said people should be sensitised on planting tress in their homesteads for firewood and other medicinal benefits.
Museveni said forests reserved for timber and firewood production and had been settled on can be swapped with the least populated highlands.
He said under the arrangement, previously settled on areas would be replanted and preserved, while the government would compensate owners of private forest land. He said bonafide encroachers, who settled without prior knowledge, would be treated differently.
The statement said Otafiire refuted media reports of rape and assault in areas where people had been evicted from forests.
Meanwhile, officials of the National Forest Authority (NFA) have warned against any fresh encroachments on forest reserves.
Gaster Kiyingi, the public relations manager, said they would continue establishing the borders of the forest reserves and registering encroachers countrywide.
Olav Bjella, the executive director of the NFA, said the report was being compiled as directed by the President and that it would be sent to him early next week.
He said they were working with the Minister of Lands to clarify on the state house statement, saying it did not reflect what transpired in the meeting.
But he maintained that they would continue with the process of restoring the integrity of the forest reserves and creating awareness as required under the law.
"We inherited significant encroachment problems in the central forest reserves. It is estimated that over 100,000 people have encroached on forest reserves countrywide."
NFA, which is in charge of 506 forest reserves, was created last year after five years of reforming of the forest sector.
Samwiri Rwabogo, head of the law enforcement unit, said some encroachers, except in South Busoga forest reserve in Mayuge district, were leaving voluntarily.
He said the communities interpret boundary opening and registration as eviction yet this is for creating a database to guide further decisions.
He said the South Busoga reserve had been totally degraded, with 80% of its strict nature reserve (no-go area) cleared, yet it is vital in protecting Lake Victoria from siltation.
Godber Tumushabe, who heads the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment, said the intervention of the President puts agencies in a tricky position.
"There should be predictability when implementing government policy," Tumushabe said.
Meanwhile, people evicted from Kasa forest in Mityana threw a party yesterday to celebrate Museveni's directive, thinking that they free to return to the reserve.
Other forceful evictions and protests were in Kiboga district.