columnBy Karoli Ssemogerere
The Minister for Water and the Environment, Maria Mutagamba, 54, appears to be overwhelmed by two conflicting government policies; the drive towards industrialisation and the eco-necessary need to reverse destructive environmental policies whose damage to the economy may not be undone for decades.
Prior to her arrival in office, Bidco a firm with both Kenyan and Asian ties was given sheltered credits and a licence to take over government forests in Buggala Island, Kalangala district. There are many arguments that can be made for investment in the palm oil industry, a historical industry that took root in West Africa in habitats similar to those in Buggala; tropical rain forest.
However, the excitement to deliver for Bidco the amount of land they needed to gain commercially viable acreage took away all the caution that comes with exploitation of virgin forest land. Land in Kalangala has mostly been under forest because of another historically documented weakness; its perennially thin soils that distinguish it peri-soil profile from that of other areas like Kyaggwe. Both shallow feeders like matooke and perennials like coffee have trouble thriving in this environment, in spite of its very rich annual rainfall totals close to 2000 mm.
Cooking oil is a lucrative industry whose numbers are healthy because of the steady move of the Ugandan palate towards everything fried, a factor in itself attributable to the lower quality of food produced in the country; from fertilisers, genetically modified foods or laden with too much pesticides.
Bidco won because the capacity for any sustained institutional response to a bad policy is diminished in Uganda. Not even the vaunted non profits could do much or the National Environment Management Authority, NEMA that prior to annual audits by foreign donors does some light enforcement action in the country. The last stand by the National Forestry Authority that chose to resign rather than be steamrolled by the government did not even find support in Parliament. No one heard from the two MPs representing Kalangala.
In Mabira, the script was replayed: Mehta sought and received permission to extend its plantations in Mabira forest, the largest remaining tropical forest in Uganda. The press reported a trip by Trade Minister Janat Mukwaya to the forest with the Mehta Group while the area was being visited by Mutagamba's assistant Jessica Eriyo, her state Minister.
Mukwaya like William Pike who visited Buggala arrived in a private vehicle to lend "support" to the project. Once again from Mutagamba's office, no clarification, apart from a small speech in some rural community launching a boreholes that quickly fall into disuse after a couple of years of use.
Things in the environmental docket won't improve soon. The de-clustering of Energy and Natural Resources from Lands, Water and the Environment in the political spirit of sharing the national cake has not worked wonders for the taxpayer. The design flaw that was Nalubaale and its adverse impact on water levels in Lake Victoria could not have happened with better coordination, and tighter environmental audits.
The proliferation of unplanned settlements; that have distorted traditional drainage and turned places like Kampala into a free for all swimmers' paradise during heavy rains could have been better managed.
A sensitive topic of air quality that will come up in the next few years may not even have a technocrat assigned to it: Our donors like Japan continue to support dumping decades old second hand vehicles on our roads that saves them the cost of disposing of them in their countries. Who would imagine the havoc matatus cause in orderly Japanese cities?
Donors always hide behind new projects and performance benchmarks to lend more money. PAPSCA left behind a few shiny latrines and a $100 million bill; least alone the rural water schemes. The smart ones are writing proposals for new projects to sell to new Cabinet departments that our system creates after elections.
District leaders who after the last constitutional amendments are mostly advisors rather than administrators in spite of the fact that they are elected to play along. Everyone wants to be an expert at begging and receiving donor funds; either in an Aids ravaged district like Rakai or a war ravaged one like Pader.
The President continues his pitch for more industries, ignoring the more high value ones like cottage industries that are organic based: dairy processing, market gardening and coffee processing that can deliver the same dollars per capita to the lowest consumption unit the household, without the subsidies that "players" like the highly mobile textile industry a.k.a Tri-Star deliver.
There is a lot of good from having wealth more evenly distributed in the country. Not everyone aspires to live in a $1million mansion in Kololo with a $20,000 annual electricity bill. Folks need a responsive and smart government to take care of the big issues, energy, environment, water, natural resources and infrastructure.