There have been renewed concerns that parts of Mabira forest may be given away for sugar cane growing. MOSES TALEMWA talked to the National Forestry Authority Executive Director, DAMIAN BATUREINE AKANKWASA on the matter.
Government is calling for a balance between industrialisation and conservation of our forest cover. How is NFA achieving this?
First of all, industrialization and conservation can go hand in hand in my view. Because for instance, even when we grow trees, eventually we want to harvest and how we do this involves industries.
But generally we are looking at sustainable utilisation of forests. So we make sure that every year we plan to grow a certain number of trees, to maintain a certain percentage of forest cover for this country.
What about those who are looking at converting forested areas into industrial areas?
We don't have to convert a forest to get an industry; there is a lot of land in the country. The area covered by forest reserves is just 30%; of this 15% is in the National Parks under the Uganda Wildlife Authority, and the rest is under our care. So there is 70% of land out there. Even if it is a non agricultural activity, industrialists need to know that they can never sustain them without forests, which are the source of water.
What about the tracts of land along Jinja Road that have been lost to industry. How will you restore them?
The New Forest and Tree Planting Act of 2003 says we must maintain a certain minimum area of permanent forest. We are expected to go above it, not below it. The law also permits us to get equivalent tracts of land to be put under forest cover elsewhere. Unfortunately, that act came in 2003 when Namanve had already been de-gazetted as a forest area. Also, some of the other tracts of forests around Lake Victoria are private land. But since 2004 we have not lost any more tracts of land.
Now what is NFA doing to get compensatory forest cover if some private forests are being lost to industry, say in Kalangala?
We are only concerned about the tracts of land under the mandate of NFA. That responsibility lies with the districts under the local governments, which manage local forest reserves. We work with them, but we don't control them except to give technical advice.
Do you then have the power to maintain the level of forested cover if political authorities in government want this land for other purposes?
The NFA does not make the final decision on land use, but we give technical advice to the ministry [in charge] of forestry, which then decides what to do. And in many cases, the government has adhered to our advice.
The issue of Mabira forest comes to mind. Some of our readers are wondering whether the forest is safe under the existing legal regime?
We are still advising the government that the forest is useful, and we think that it is still safe. The call to de-gazette the forest came from a private industrialist and the minister is looking at the call as well as our advice. [There was an explanation] that there was no forest in the area he wanted to [grow sugar cane], but we took parliamentarians there and they were mesmerised because the whole forest is growing, there is no evidence of a tract of land that had been encroached on.
How much political pressure are you facing with regard to forest land use?
Our biggest problem is on encroachment rather than on de-gazettment. Several reserves have encroachers on them. But on de-gazettment, several town councils have some forested tracts in the middle of the towns. We advise them on how to use them or degazette other equivalent areas to compensate for lost forest cover. An example is Mbale where there is an area of cultural significance, which the local leaders want degazetted for the exclusive use of male circumcision ceremonies - imbalu. Methods of de-gazettment are clear in the law, and once they are adhered to, the ministry decides.
So are the NFA measures to guard against encroachment still in force?
When NFA started in 2004, we found several people had already encroached on forest areas. We started by evicting them in 2005, but the problem coincided with election time; some politicians were promising voters that they would give away the forest in exchange for votes. So we were forced to stop it, and we are now studying the problem and intend to resume very soon.
So is it necessary to evict people to protect a forest?
Well, evictions are legal. The law was not set up by NFA, but it mandates us to evict encroachers from all forests, and until that law is changed, it will have to be enforced.
What about those who say that it is cheaper to train people to manage the forests?
Some people may want forested areas to be used for food cultivation, say maize and beans. Now cutting forests to use for food cultivation is not workable. But there are other people who have approached us to manage forests for the sole purpose of protecting the forest. In these cases, we get into contracts of say 15 to 25years with them and monitor to ensure that they are [preserved]. In other cases we can avail land to manage forests and after the contract expires the land reverts to government control.
We have seen some re-afforestation activities in Mubende, Nakasongola and Mpigi. How much is this costing the NFA?
I can't give you the final numbers as they are still being worked on, but I can tell you that it is a lot of money. We are engaged in two types of re-afforestation activities; those we have leased to private hands, as well as those under certified NFA activities. And these have covered about 26,000 hectares up to the end of this financial year. We have a target to grow trees on 250,000 hectares over the next 20 years, so we are on target. In the short run this has been very expensive, but it will be cheaper in the long run because some trees have a long gestation period and at harvest time, they are very lucrative.
Several valuable trees are disappearing, like the Mutuba tree used for making bark-cloth?
I am aware that the ficus tree, also known as the mutuba tree, as well as the Shea Butter tree, are under threat. The Shea Butter trees are now being particularly harvested for charcoal rather than Gum. So we have advised the minister to declare them protected. The ficus tree grows in many areas, even outside our mandate.