Parliament — Should Parliament carry a proposal by eight urban councils through the Ministry of Water and Environment, eight forest reserves will by May 2017 be degazetted.
Appearing before Parliament's Natural Resources Committee, Environment State Minister Mary Kimono (NRM, Manafwa) said Cabinet is in the final stages of approving the move and will soon table a motion for Parliamentary approval.
"We are going to have urban councils which have no controversies (surrounding degazetting) be degazetted by May, we are not losing an inch of our forest reserves but we are shifting a forest from one area to another," she said.
The urban councils where the forests are going to be 'relocated' are Ibanda, Nebbi, Mbarara, Kalangala, Entebbe, Mbale, Arua and Gulu.
"A technical report was submitted to Board of Directors of the National Forestry Authority and subsequently to the top policy of the Ministry of Water and Environment which revealed that the eight urban councils had satisfied the provisions and procedures of degazettement..," read the Minister's statement in part.
Aswa County MP Reagan Okumu called for caution, saying care must be taken not to lose forest covers in towns.
"We should not just relocate forests outside town. We need forests and as part of urban planning of any town, environmental issues must be considered," he said.
Opposing the move, Kumi Municipality MP Silas Aogon said instead of relocating forests, the encroachers should be the ones to find an alternative place. "The whole country is looking for food. It will be unfortunate for us to discuss degazettement while people are dying of hunger caused by environmental issues," he said.
Uganda People's Defense Forces Representative Brig Gen Innocent Oula said the Ministry and National Forestry Authority should not "allow your land to be taken under your watch by encroachers and later you ask for degazetting."
Minister Kimono said titling of forest reserve land by Ministry of Land has been going on "with impunity."
"Whoever has been titling the land has been doing it with impunity and government does not condone it that is why we want to create a system where we can detect these fraudulent practices," she said.
Asked by Daily Monitor why a forest reserve should be degazetted to pave way for encroachers, Ms Kimono said "these forests are to be relocated within the towns so that is still within the ecological systems and people have built settlements. They are the ones who must secure the alternative land."
She added: "Not all forest reserves will be gazetted. Some will be left and preserved."
In a telephone interview with Daily Monitor, the Natural Resources Committee Chairperson Alex Byarugaba (NRM, Isingiro South) confirmed the plans.
"We are looking at the possibilities of degazetting these forest reserves because areas like Mbarara central forest reserve, you find nothing but houses so those urban councils find alternative land to relocate the forests because you cannot, say, demolish a Shs1 billion building," he said.
On why encroachers were allowed to partake of central forest reserves in those urban councils, Mr Byarugaba said "there is nothing to do," heaping blame on the Ministry of Lands for issuing the titles.
"These people have encroached those forest reserves but they have land titles so the ministry of Lands has issued them land titles. Government also has a problem, where was government when the encroachers came?" he asked.
Lands ministry spokesperson Dennis Obbo deflected the criticism, saying district land boards are responsible for issuing of the titles.
"The problem of issuing of titles in forest reserves is a problem that comes from the area land committees, the ministry resolved long time ago that all these titles will be revoked based on the land act. I put the blame on the area land committees and district land boards," Mr Obbo said.
He urged managers of forest reserves to get titles to avoid confusions over ownership.
Section 8 of the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act 2003 requires any degazettement to have the blessing of Parliament by way of its resolution.