Kampala — Government has directed degazetting parts of Bukaleba Forest and South Busoga reserve, a move it says is aimed at settling hundreds of "landless Ugandans," Daily Monitor has learnt.
The National Environment Management Authority [Nema], is taking the lead alongside the National Forestry Authority and the Lands ministry ----all acting on the orders of President Museveni, in fulfilment of his presidential pledge during the 2011 presidential campaigns, to give landless residents of Mayuge District land.
"Lands surveyors were here last week and we agreed that surveying and demarcation of the forests starts immediately. This is a presidential directive and we are going to hold sensitisation meetings in the 48 villages," Mr James Shilaku, the Mayuge District Resident District Commissioner, said on Wednesday.
"We have to end the conflict between communities and NFA for good," he added.
Communities and NFA have for long fought over ownership of the said forests.
Locals say the colonial government took over their land and relocated them to other parts of the country after the area was infested with tsetse flies in the 1950s.
After the government successfully killed the flies that cause sleeping sickness, some people started returning although NFA disputes this account and argues that Bukaleba was first gazetted in 1932 as a natural forest measuring about 1,000 hectares.
On Wednesday, Dr Tom Okurut, the Nema executive director, led his team and local leaders to different sites where the Authority is undertaking a physical boundary demarcation exercise of Lake Victoria, which borders South Busoga central reserve.
"The presidential pledge still stands [to degazate part of the forests] and our work is to guide the process. It is important that the buffer zone [of Lake Victoria] is protected and it is not only good for the lake but for the district [in terms of tourism and fishing activities]," Dr Okurut said while addressing residents at Mayuge District council.
Degazetting the said forests will be a big blow to conservation efforts in a country whose forest cover is dwindling rapidly according to environmentalists.
A 2017 Joint Water and Environment Sector Review Report indicates that the country's forest cover now stands at just 9 per cent. This represents a 3 per cent drop in a period of two years.
Dr Mary Goretti Kitutu, the State minister for Environment, says there is a direct correlation between forest cover and the amount of rainfall received in an area. She says 40 per cent of rainfall received in Uganda is due to forests, wetlands and other natural features.
However, Ms Zariata Namaganda, a Mayuge District councillor, says resettling citizens should be a priority and it is aimed at correcting the colonial injustices.
"There was sleeping sickness here and colonialists relocated people and planted a forest. Now the owners are claiming ownership of the land," Ms Namaganda said.
Hadambi Twalimbu, a resident said: "I have been here for15 years, it feels good that we are finally getting land. We could not plan for our families because we did not have ownership of land."
Ms Sarah Naigaga, the Nema lawyer, said they are following the law and it is Parliament that will finally degazette the forests.
Section 8 of the National Forestry and Tree Planting Act 2003 requires any degazettement to have the blessing of Parliament.
It is estimated that 30,000 people will be resettled in Bukaleba forest, which currently measures 8,000 hectares and other Ugandans will be settled in the South Busoga forest, which measures 16,382 hectares.