18 November 2006

Uganda: More NFA Bosses Quit Over Forest Giveaway

Kampala — HARDLY a week after assuming office, the new board of the National Forestry Authority has been hit with resignations from three senior management officials.

The officials cite government insistence on issuing a 90-year permit giving more forestland on the Ssesse Islands in Lake Victoria to the palm oil company, Bidco.

They have instead advised that the government follows the normal process of degazetting forest reserves.

The Director Technical Services Division Isaac Kapalaga who has also been acting executive director tendered in his resignation to the Minister of Water and Environment Maria Mutagamba on Thursday.

The Executive Director Olav Bjella has been away since mid October.

Also resigning is the Director for Corporate Affairs Edward Mupada and that of Field Operations Steve Nsiita. Nsiita gave a three months notice while it is not yet what period his two colleagues gave.

Kapalaga and Mupada were non-committal when contacted for comments on Friday.

Information availed to Daily Monitor indicates that the three officials offered to resign after disagreeing with the new board led former lands minister Baguma Isoke over a directive from Mutagamba that they permit oil firm Bidco to cut down Bugala Forests on the Islands.

The new board was inaugurated on November 9. It includes former Minister Christine Amongin Aporu, former MP Maj. David Matovu, Ms Sarah Nkonge a private secretary in the office of the Vice President, Mr Buyinza Mudalazi, Mr Michael Angol and Dr Wilson Kasolo.

The give away of Bugala forests was the new board's first major task since finishing their inauguration last week.

Baguma called the special board meeting where the NFA senior management was ordered to issue Bidco, an edible oil company a 90-year permit to expand their palm oil plantations by cutting down Bugala forests.

However, the NFA senior officials explained that NFA had no mandate to issue the license. According to existing legislation degazettment of the forests is a long process and can only be done with approval of parliament.

Sources say that government is desperate to side step Parliament by granting a permit when Parliament is still on recess.

The officials also cited to the board Solicitor General, Mr. Lucien Tibaruha's advice to Minister Mutagamba giving degazettment as the only option, and not a permit.

Tibaruha's advice reads in part "I am of the considered opinion that "degazetting" the central forest reserves for allocation to the Bidco Palm Oil Project does not violate the provisions of the Constitution, the National Environment Act, the Land Act and the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act."

But his opinion contradicts that of the deputy Attorney General Mr Freddie Ruhindi who says the forest land can only be made available to Bidco if its formally degazetted.

"The option of issuing a licence to Bidco is not legally possible under the Land Act or the National Forestry and Tree planting Act 2003," Ruhindi who is also state minister for constitutional affairs wrote in an opinion to Mutagamba on September 8.

Kalangala reserves have been categorized as core conservation forests.

They are critical sites for biodiversity conservation in Uganda because of their physical isolation.

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

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

On Wednesday, all board members agreed, after getting advice from the officials that efforts would be made to advise Mutagamba that degazettment was the only possible solution for Bidco to get the forests.

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