4 October 2006

Uganda: Forest Authority Members Resign Over Land Give Aways

Kampala — TWO out of seven National Forestry Authority board members have resigned after refusing to respect the Cabinet 's directive that Bidco Palm Oil takes over Kalangala forests.

The resignations have been followed by that of the forest conservation organisation's legal counsel, Ms Georgina Kugonza. Mr George Egaddu and Ms Jane Anywar Adong, have written to the Minister of Water and Environment, Ms Maria Mutagamba, confirming their resignation.

In their letter dated October 2, they said: "Following the meeting called by the Honourable Prime Minister on October 2 in the boardroom situated at 6th Floor Postal Building, wherein I declined to honour the Cabinet directive to issue a licence to Bidco Palm Oil Project in natural forests in the Bugala Sector, Kalangala District, I hereby tender my resignation from the board of directors of the National Forestry Authority (NFA) with immediate effect."

When contacted yesterday, Mutagamba said she could not comment.

"I have not heard any communication yet, it (resignation) was discussed in the meeting but I have not received it (communication) yet, so I can't comment right now," she said.

The forests implied include; Mugoye, Banga and Towa natural central forest reserves. The government has in the past battled to degazette the reserves, but was overpowered by outrage from civil society organisations. It then resorted to issuing a 90-year-old land permit to Bidco.

Daily Monitor on September 1 reported that the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Lands, Mr Bezalel Kabanda, had on August 22 written to Mutagamba, reminding her of the presidential directive to issue the permit to Bidco.

"You may recall that you and your colleague, the minister of lands, housing and urban development, jointly presented a cabinet paper, in which you proposed a procedure to be followed to avail land for the oil palm growing project urgently," Kabanda wrote. The proposal had been presented to Cabinet on August 7 this year.

Kabanda further wrote saying: "I did attend a meeting yesterday, Monday August 21, at State House in which His Excellence the President confirmed to Bidco that a permit be issued and this was after he referred to the Cabinet extract."

Kalangala reserves have been categorized as core conservation forests. They are critical sites for biodiversity conservation in Uganda because of their physical isolation.

However, minutes of an August 9 Cabinet meeting show that the government has so far given 6,519 hectares of land in Bugala to Bidco.

Mutagamba on September 22 met her permanent secretary, Eng. S. Bomukama, the Commissioner for Environmental Affairs, Mr Eliphaz Bazira, NFA board chairman, Dr Kaboggoza and other NFA officials, and directed NFA's director to start negotiating with Bidco on the terms and conditions under which a license would be issued. She also told them that the permit was supposed to let Bidco grow palm oil trees in the forest reserves.

In 2003, the government signed an agreement with Bidco for the development of palm oil in Uganda.

Under the agreement, the Government was supposed to provide land for oil palm production in areas where such production was possible.

These areas included Bugala Islands, Kalangala, Bundibugyo and others along Lake Victoria shores. The government was to provide Bidco with 10,000 hectares of land in Bugala , and 20,000 hectares more on the mainland for the nucleus estate within one year of signing the agreement and actual onset of Bidco activities.

NFA's Board of Directors collectively wrote back to her [Mutagamba] on September 25, saying that they had been "going backward and forward" on issuing Bidco the permit. The letter said: "The Board is mandated to comply with, inter alia, the Constitution, written policy and laws, the National Environmental Act (Section 19), the Land Act and the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act (Sections 13, 41 and 42)."

They said the current forestry policy and laws do not instruct NFA to issue a permit in a forest reserve to serve intentions like Bidco's. They stated that the environmental impact assessments of 2001 and 2003 do not permit the intended change ofland use in the forest reserves.

"Given the above position, the board is not in position to carry out the directives," they wrote.

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