Kakumiro — Last Monday at around 3pm, gun wielding police officers in the company of some district leaders raided Kemibuuro wetland which borders Katikara and Kisiita sub- counties in Bugangaizi East County, Kakumiro District.
As the police patrol vehicle approached a vast garden of rice planted in the reclaimed wetland, casual labourers including men, women and children scattered in different directions upon sensing danger.
The Kakumiro District police commander, Mr Hassan Katumba Mugerwa, led the operation, ordering law enforcement officers to shoot in the air to disperse the encroachers.
A startled woman carrying her baby on the back who identified herself as Milicenta Mukunda was one of the culprits found tending to a rice farm on the encroached Mabengere swamp, in Katikara Sub-county.
Mukunda pleaded for mercy as she defended her presence at the rice field.
"I was just brought here to work as a casual labourer. The rice field belongs to someone else. I work here to earn some income to provide for my family," she said.
According to authorities, rice growing has become an environmental threat in Kakumiro district.
Other swamps that have been encroached on include Mpongo in Mpasaana Sub-county, Masaigi that lies between Kitauhuka and Kisiita sub-counties, Karokarungi in Kisiita Sub-county and Kabale swamp, which borders Kakumiro and Hoima districts.
Rice varieties that include NERICA-10 for lowland and Supa which matures at six months in swampy areas are commonly grown in the wetlands of Kakindo, Nyalweyo, Katikara, Kisiita and Mpasana sub- counties.
Leaders also note that human activity, increasing population and urbanisation are partly to blame for the alarming disappearance of wetlands and swamps in western Uganda.
The President has previously ordered for the cancellation of all the titles in wetlands.
Mr James Mugisha is a resident of Katikara Sub-county where Kabale swamp has been depleted and replaced by rice gardens.
"I used to grow maize but it is slowly losing market. I have now resorted to growing the quick maturing low land rice which does well in wetland areas. But police and the district environmental officials are becoming a major hindrance," Mr Mugisha says.
In the last two months, police working with Kakumiro District environment officials have arrested 17 people over encroaching on wetlands.
During a Wednesday operation, the suspects were rounded up amidst gunfire by police commanded by Mr Mugerwa, the Resident District Commissioner and the district environment officer.
Some of the suspects had allegedly encroached on Kemibuuro wetland, which borders Katikara and Kisiita sub-counties in Bugangaizi East-Kakumiro District.
Mr Chris Baguma, the district natural resources officer, says four people were arrested during an operation in Kisiita, Nalweyo, Kakindo and Kikwaya sub-counties.
The four and others still at large were found cultivating in Karokarungi, Kasenyi and Kyangota wetlands.
The Kakumiro district environment officer, Ms Macklyne Namiyingo, says they have warned encroachers who have defied their directives that they will face arrest.
According to Mr Mugerwa, the suspects will be arraigned before court on Wednesday.
The Resident District Commissioner, Ms Mary Ssenkungo, says government has the mandate to protect its natural resources.
Local leaders including Mr Siliverio Bategana, the Mwitanzige parish chairman, have joined the district officials in condemning wetland encroachment. "We have always told people to vacate wetlands in peace but they cannot heed to the calls because the swamps have become their source of livelihood," Mr Bategana says.
Wetlands are environmentally fragile areas that preserve and sieve water.
They are also a habit for some birds insects, fish and varieties of aquatic life. The water is used for domestic use by local communities but it can potentially be used for industrial purposes such as irrigation.
"People invade wetlands because they think the land is fertile and it is no man's land. We need to sensitise the public about the importance of conserving these important ecological sites" says Mr Gard Benda, the executive director of World Voices Uganda, a natural resource governance advocacy non-governmental organisation.
"It is important that we sensitise the masses about the importance of our wetlands so that people sustainably conserve them for the present and future generations," he said.