28 November 2006

Uganda: Destroying the Trees to Save the Forest? No, We Just Want Money


Nairobi — There is a new FDC in town and it is likely to affect Uganda's future much more profoundly than the old one.

The old FDC, for those not familiar with Ugandan public affairs, is the main opposition political party, the Forum for Democratic Change. The new FDC is unregistered but seems to have more clout than the old one.

Like the old one, the new FDC also sprang from the Movement government that ruled the country for 20 years, from 1986 to 2006. The old FDC made a complete break from the Movement and formed a political party that seeks to wrest power from the NRM, which is what remained of the Movement after the dissenters shipped out.

But the new FDC did not register a new organisation; some of its members remain in the NRM, others are outside and their agenda is not political. They have a simple environmental agenda and that is why they deserve to be called the Forest Destruction Campaign.

The new FDC is not interested in political power but is basically bent on replacing the existing forest cover, natural or otherwise, with other activities. This new FDC enjoys the membership of some of the elite as well as sections of the masses called encroachers.

And unlike the old FDC whose membership is limited to Ugandans, the new FDC also has prominent players of foreign origin. These ones are given a respectable title, "investors," which is the name given to many other respectable operators who have the interests of the country and its posterity at heart.

The forest destruction campaigners are ensuring that the remaining forest cover is decimated in the shortest possible time. At the rate they are operating, it is estimated that there will be no trees worth talking about left in just a decade from today. Uganda will then become a net importer of wood for all purposes, from furniture making to firewood for cooking.

But from the way the new FDC is going about their mission, it may be sooner than a decade and their objective of denuding the land that Winston Churchill called the Pearl of Africa will have be accomplished.

However, there are some things to thank the new FDC for. Since Independence, we have not seen public servants resigning on a matter of principle. But since the new FDC swung into action, several public servants charged with protecting the forest reserves have resigned rather than cave in to FDC's demands and surrender the reserves for destruction.

But maybe the National Forestry Authority officials and staff who are resigning are not doing it on principle but out of fear for their lives. For many NFA rangers have already been assaulted, by forest encroachers incited by New FDC activists, and a couple have died as a result.

The most dangerous job in the country now is that of being a forest ranger. In many "protected" forest reserves, once you are spotted trying to assess the situation, you are at high risk of being descended upon by the illegal encroachers, who will beat you to death if you do not flee fast enough.

Of course the forest destruction crew are highly motivated because there is a lot of money to be made from their activities.

Whether they want to settle in the forest reserves or to carry out some commercial activity there, they first harvest the trees that they never planted and sell the wood for millions if not billions of shillings in the lucrative timber market.

After the New FDC have pocketed their billions from selling the timber, which is a major motive of their activities, let'shope there may still be something to salvage from the mess.

Joachim Buwembo is the editor of the Daily Monitor of Kampala

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