opinionBy Gerald Tenywa
Kampala — UGANDA has, for years, been wooing investors, but some of the potential top investors in the areas set aside for tree-planting are facing hostile encroachers. The government is ironically also encouraging the encroachers by insisting that they should not be evicted from the forest reserves.
The encroachers in South Busoga forest reserve in Mayuge destroyed trees that formed part of a plantation established recently.
In another incident, Nile Ply wrote to the National Forestry Authority (NFA) in February this year, complaining that part of the 450-hectare plantation in Lubanyi forest reserve in Jinja had been invaded by farmers who cleared it for farming. They put the loss at sh117m and wanted NFA to compensate them, but the forestry body declined to pay.
This comes in the wake of a directive from the Environment Minister, Kahinda Otafiire, restraining NFA from evicting encroachers from forest reserves.
NFA is one of the three institutions that were formed two years ago after massive reforms that have seen the colonial set-up forestry department being replaced. There was hope among the environmentalists that NFA, which is to be funded by donors for only four years, would contribute to the revitalisation of forestry in the country.
However, political interference is undermining the gains and the recovery of the forests from a decade of plunder by the encroachers. They had taken over the forests because the forest department suffered many years of neglect and under-funding.
In a directive issued during the recently concluded presidential campaigns, Otafiire restrained NFA from evicting encroachers from the forest reserves. He ordered NFA to back off from the encroachers, saying the eviction should be discussed after a stakeholders meeting.
Ironically, Otafiire had warned encroachers, during the first anniversary of NFA at Kyenjojo town last year, that they should leave forest reserves because they are not trees.
But in an interview with The New Vision, two weeks ago, Otafiire backtracked on the issue. "The trees can live side by side with people and that is what we trying to explore," he said. "We are in the process of rationalisation so that the people and trees could co-exist."
Prior to Otafiire's directive this year, the NFA had undertaken a survey in the protected areas under its mandate and discovered that 180,000 encroachers were living in the government run forest reserves. They went around the forest reserves in a bid to retrace the boundaries that had defied many years of degradation.
However, the local communities, weary of the aggressiveness of forestry officials, run to politicians to "immunise" themselves against what they thought was an impending eviction.
Consequently, President Yoweri Museveni last year summoned top forestry officials and asked them to show cause why some protected areas should remain protected.
He was concerned about an outcry that had been brought to his attention regarding eviction of encroachers from Central Forest Reserves. He cited examples of Mayuge (Bunya), Rakai (Kooki), Luwero (Ngoma) and Rwebitakuli in Sembabule. He asked the following questions:
"What were the technical considerations in selecting the areas to be gazetted as forest reserves? Who allowed the people to enter the forest reserves illegally? Why was government not informed back in 1990-92 when evictions in Mabira and Kibale were being effected?"
According to a report seen by The New Vision, it was explained to Museveni that gazetted forests form a permanent forest estate to provide various national economic, ecologically and social benefits. The report named the protection of ecologically fragile ecosystems and water catchment areas and conservation of the country's unique biological diversity. "Over 80% of the forests are associated with water," says a source.
The eviction of encroachers that took place between 1990 and 1992 covered most of the major Central Reserves such as Mabira, Kibale and Mt. Elgon. The last two were later converted into National Parks. Encroachers in some of the smaller and dry land reserves were never evicted at the time, as the forestry department did not have enough resources to complete all the evictions.
However, since 1992, some of the reserves such as South Busoga in Mayuge, where evictions had taken place, have been destroyed by new encroachment. As a result, NFA inherited encroachment problems in some of the reserves.
Otafiire stated that the restoration of the integrity of the forest reserves is of national importance and if encroachment is not addressed firmly, it will only escalate and lead to the complete destruction of the remaining forests.
It was explained that the encroachment problem is being addressed on a case-by-case basis. First, sensitisation of local people and local councils at various levels is being done. Second, the forest reserve boundaries are being opened and re-demarcated to establish the exact extent of the reserves. Third, a census of all encroachers is being carried out to find out the number of people in the reserves. Fourth, new encroachers are being evicted.
In the plantations, NFA established 1,200 hectares in one year. Large numbers of investors have submitted applications to rent land for setting up commercial timber plantations. "To ensure stable investment conditions and protection of the environment, it is crucial that the integrity of all the forest reserves is restored," says the report.
However, Museveni stated that there is a need to review the original reasons for gazetting the forests, given the many changes that have taken place since the colonial time. The review should clearly point out which reserves are "untouchable" and which could be considered for swapping with more suitable areas for forests.
He mentioned lakeshore reserves, like South Busoga forest reserve in Mayuge and all watershed protection areas as "untouchable".
He also supported setting aside sufficient and suitable land for establishing a viable forest resource for industrial plantation development, especially for timber.
The report says they agreed with Museveni that a technical report should be prepared. They also agreed that the exercises of boundary re-demarcation and registration of encroachers should continue and be seen as a separate exercise from eviction of encroachers.
Other proposals were that all encroachers who entered forest reserves after the major eviction of 1990-1992 should vacate the forests.
The eviction of encroachers, who have been in the reserves for a long time, should be suspended until further analysis is done. New encroachment in all forest reserves will not be tolerated.
Sources within the forestry circles say a special report was sent to Museveni six months ago, but NFA has never got a reply. "Encroachers in some areas, like Kibale, are destroying the forest massively yet it is the hand that feeds them," says a source. They want Museveni to support NFA because the local communities only want short-term gains from the reserves oblivious of the consequences and the relentless march of the desert through Karamoja region.
The government should resettle the encroachers outside the forest reserves and only allow controlled access once they gain skills for sustainable use of the forests.
Short of this, the forests will soon vanish, the water sources will dry up, the climate will become hostile, and the peasants will become poorer and, therefore, a burden to the well meaning government.