THE Government has finally dropped plans to give away part of Mabira Forest to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Ltd, ending months of public apprehension and controversy.
The move will stand out as a sweet victory for environmental activists who have crusaded for months against the giveaway of the forest to the Mehta Industrial family which owns Scoul.
Finance Minister Ezra Suruma on Monday announced that the government was abandoning the planned giveaway at a dinner hosted by the President of the Republic of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo, in Georgetown, Guyana.
"We have committed ourselves to conserving Mabira Forest," Dr Suruma said, stressing that the government is at the forefront of conserving forests. Pressed to substantiate, Dr Suruma said: "There is other land in Uganda suitable for sugarcane growing."
Dr Suruma is in the South American country to attend the 2007 Commonwealth Finance Ministers' Meeting (CFFM) on climate change. The conference, which precedes the IMF and World Bank meeting in Washington DC and Chogm in Uganda, is organised by the Commonwealth secretariat to create a platform for member countries from both developed and developing countries sit together to agree on a common position.
Water and Environment Minister Maria Mutagamba told Daily Monitor yesterday that if Dr Suruma has spoken, then his word can not be doubted. "If the Minister of Finance is saying that Mabira won't be sold, then that is a fact. He has had the authoritative position of the government."
The new government position, she said, is contained in a report by a Cabinet subcommittee that was created to consider the proposal to allocate 7,1000 hectares of the natural rainforest to the Mehta family to expand its sugar estate. Although the report is yet to be discussed in Cabinet, she said, "It is a happy ending, isn't it?" Sporadic riots broke out in the country in April, claiming the lives of one Indian and five Ugandans, over the planned forest giveaway but more than five months later, no official government position had been reached.
Last month, Ms Mutagamba told Parliament that no decision had been taken on whether to degazzette or give out part of Mabira to Scoul "or to any other person" because the Cabinet sub-committee was yet to conclude its investigations.
Following growing outrage and public hostility over the proposal, several land owners, including the Kabaka of Buganda, offered the Mehta family alternative land on which to expand their sugar estate but the government insisted none would be as cost effective as Mabira.
But the Suruma announcement will go miles in soothing tensions over the forest.
Shadow Environment Minister Beatrice Anywar Atim, who is the chief campaigner of the Save Mabira Crusade, yesterday commended the government for backtracking on the proposal. "Wow, that is really good news for me and congratulations to the whole country. We must thank the government for listening to the voice of the people," said Ms Anywar, also Kigtum woman MP.
"It would have been a shame to violate what matters to the rest of the world."
Focusing on the special theme for the meeting - The Challenges Facing Finance Ministers, Dr Suruma said his ministry had responded vigorously to climate change by re-adjusting the budget to address the flood disaster in northern and eastern Uganda. He said Shs22 billion had been committed to the cause as a supplementary budget to be spent on roads, food, aid and re-settlement.
At least 44 finance ministers in the Commonwealth are attending the conference.
Speaking at the opening of the meeting, President Bharrat Jadgdeo warned against tropical deforestation as a major way of addressing the issue of climatic change. He noted that deforestation contributes 18 per cent of the global greenhouse gas emissions- which is about the same as the US, the equivalent of India and China combined, and more than a cumulative total of aviation since aviation began. He said in 24 hours, deforestation will release as much carbondioxide into the atmosphere as 8 million people flying from London to New York.
"That climate change demands the attention of global leaders is no longer in doubt," he said. The Commonwealth Deputy Secretary General, Mr Ransford Smith, said Climate change represents, perhaps, the single largest challenge to the world's collective future.
He warned that as the world looks for ways to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change, it is clear that Finance ministers and global economic institutions have a key contribution to make. The meeting ends today.