7 January 2008

Uganda: The Insanity of Planting 'A New' Mabira


The issue of converting close to a third of Mabira tropical rain forest to sugarcane growing has caused an uproar.

Scientific facts are likely to be replaced by arguments that will win debate. Have you ever imagined what would happen if a dose prescribed by a doctor for one patient was shared between ten patients or vice verse?

What would happen if the civil engineer's advice on ratios of materials for construction of a multi-storeyed building were ignored because cement is expensive or mud substituted cement?

The present day domesticated plants have their origin in the wild; notably tropical high forests. They still have their relatives in these forests. These forests offer the greatest opportunity of genetic materials both for domestication and improvement of the existing cultivars.

The new crops that we shall need for disease resistance, varieties to withstand extreme temperatures, saline soils due to irrigation necessitated by global warming all have answers in the wild. For instance coffee wilt is wiping out our coffee plantations; our fallback position will be the coffee in the wild.

Kibale National Park contains wild coffee that can provide a solution. Indeed, local residents are currently harvesting some of this wild coffee for sale.

A climax forest like Mabira has taken hundreds of years to evolve. It has gone through several stages of succession, rain and soils being the most influencing factors. Once such a stable climax forest is established, it begins positively influencing the micro and macroclimate of the area in terms of humidity, temperatures and possibly rainfall regimes. To state that one can plant a similar forest elsewhere is ignoring scientific facts to say the least.

Every forest ecosystem is unique in terms of biodiversity, ecological importance and location. The services offered by the forest are unique. Each plant and animal that lives there is unique. Many new drug trials have been made in apes that primarily dwell in forests.

A chimp that lives in Mabira looks the same as one that lives in Kalinju forest but they slightly differ in their genetic make-up. So they can be used for different drug trials. This diversity in the same species is evident even in human beings.

Take for instance of people who have been constantly exposed to HIV but continue to test negative, a case in point being discordant couples. This is a case of speciation within the same species, evolutionary process in progress. This makes members of a species though looking the same but slightly differing genetically. This is the reason why we must have diversity in a natural forest.

The animals that live in a given forest have a home range, territory within which they meet their basic needs. I am wondering whether it has been scientifically proven that the forest that remains after the Mabira giveaway will suffice the requirements of resident and visitor animals.

Most crops depend on pollinators to bear fruits, most of which reside in forests and depend on various plants for their needs.

It is not clear whether the forest to be planted as a replacement will cater for this need. Conversion of a tropical high forest into sugarcane entails destruction of an ecosystem, which has been home to many organisms. Some of these once harmless creatures will turn into serious crop pests and problem animals once their ecological habitat is destroyed.

One argument has been that the sections of the Mabira forest to be allocated are occupied by poor quality timber species like the paper mulberry. A colonising forest is not expected to have high quality timber. It suffices to say that the soils in these previously encroached areas are forest soils and will enable quick forest succession.

However, it is important to note that timber production is one of the peripheral uses of a natural forest.

A natural forest is conserved for other ecological reasons other than that of timber production; a lesson which proponents of Mabira giveaway need to know. Mabira located in between two big towns of Kampala and Jinja can be a major tourist destination for both local and international tourists.

Mabira is one of the islands of solace where people will be or are already spending and helping this country earn revenue and create jobs.

I am still not convinced that Uganda has a comparative advantage in agro-processing than other countries. Tourism is one of the industries where we enjoy a comparative advantage over others.

The threat of global warming as a result of too much carbondioxide in the atmosphere is not only real but also already affecting us. Temperatures are increasing as evidenced by receding snow on Mt. Rwenzori and Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Uganda is one of the least prepared countries to mitigate and adapt to the effects of this phenomenon. It would therefore be insanity to remove one of the biggest carbon sinks in this country.

There is no way the envisaged planting of sugar cane can be better than conservation of Mabira given values of direct goods and indirect services and aesthetic values of the natural forest. An alternative land should be found for the sugar project.

The writer is an environment specialist

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