Kampala — RECENTLY, President Yoweri Museveni directed that the on-going eviction of squatters in central forest reserves be halted until a technical report is submitted to him. While the so-called "lawful occupants" are all praise for the directive, environmentalists are waning in pain.
The total surface area of Uganda under forest cover has drastically reduced from the 24% to about 10 %, and the rate of encroachment is still unabated. The most affected is the tropical high forest.
These areas are not only important as forests. They are repositories for a wide range of living matter with different natural roles.
Uganda is among the countries with the highest concentration of biological diversity, and most of these are confined to tropical forests. The only viable populations of chimpanzees, red colobus monkeys, mountain gorillas and rare birds like the fox's weaverbird, exist in forests.
The contribution of forest to the economy cannot be overstated. Recently, the president featured in a documentary promoting the tourism industry. Do we expect tourists to come and watch idle citizens devouring tracks of forests?
Actually most of the people to be evicted contribute very little to the economy in terms of taxes, compared to what each central forest reserve is worth.
Besides, the global economy is shifting to strategies that conform to standards such as good environmental governance. If Ugandan forests produce are to be accepted at the international scene, they must conform to certification standards, and this requires adherence to certain principles, of which encroachment is none.
Major catastrophes affecting the world are caused by loss of forest cover. Studies have linked outbreak of malaria, skin and eye diseases, and significant reduction in agricultural outputs to global warming. That is why most governments are losing billions of money in the health and agriculture sectors.
The president's directive could hamper efforts to conserve other natural resources in the country. For example, the campaign to evict illegal settlers and restore vital wetlands could be resisted. Park edge communities may also demand to have hunting concessions.
Therefore, the technical team has to make a balanced judgment of what is at stake. Would it be cheap to provide alternatives to the encroachers and retain forests or vice versa. What would be the cost of mitigating hazards arising out of loss of services? What about the society; what proportion will benefit and how many others will suffer the consequences of encroachment.
Natural resource scientists still recommend that a two-prong approach is vital to achieve sustainable management.
Incentive-based approaches and rigorous law enforcement. Balancing the two is difficult because people living adjacent to the reserves have selfish economic interests.
The writer is involved in environmental management