BUDAKA- Over 1,000 rice farmers in Budaka District have asked government to halt its plans of evicting them from Namatala wetland.
During a meeting with district leaders, Environment ministry officials and police on Wednesday, the farmers appealed to government to halt the eviction, saying their livelihoods are at risk.
In November last year, the minister of Water and Environment, Mr Sam Cheptoris, directed the farmers from the two districts of Budaka and Butaleja to vacate the wetland by June this year.
“We need to protect these wetlands because the current trend of massive destruction has caused them to dry up and animals have nowhere to drink water. But because this government is for the people, we have agreed that people be given ample time at least up to June to harvest their rice,” Mr Cheptoris said.
However, the farmers said evicting them will mean they are unable to feed their families and pay their children’s school fees.
“Most of the people depend entirely on this wetland as a source of livelihood and evicting them would mean death. We are not against government’s objectives but to humbly request to stay that decision that could see many farmers back to square-one and also increase criminality in the area,” said Umalu Haumba, who has grown rice in the wetland for the last 15 years.
“We call upon our leaders, especially MPs and the LC5 chairman, to seek audience with government over the matter but failure to address farmers’ concerns will mean that the poverty levels will skyrocket and increase criminality,” Haumba added.
“We even need to meet President Museveni but short of that, these farmers, who have their lives attached to wetland for survival, will definitely die. This is a matter of life and death and should be addressed by our leaders,” he explained.
Another farmer, Moses Mwase, said evicting farmers from the wetland will force them to turn to crime.
“The bigger mistake this government is driving is to create insecurity because many of the affected farmers will instead go back to robbery. Many of them had been firmly engaged into rice growing and with no time of engaging into criminality. We pray that government re-thinks the decision,” Mwase added.
However, the Budaka LC5 chairman, Sam Mulomi, told the farmers that government has no intention of completely throwing them out of the wetland but wants to establish new enterprises like bee keeping and fish farming.
“I understand the situation that you [farmers] are under-going to the extent that majority will be pushed down stream to allow restoration of degraded wetlands. But government is coming up with an irrigation scheme that will water some of the crops without antagonizing with the natural resources,” Mulomi said.
The police community liaison officer, David Kauta, called for calm among farmers and urged them to register with government so that they benefit from future enterprises.
Mr Cheptoris, who was accompanied by the Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, also insisted on the government position that the farmers have to vacate the wetlands.
“The ministry, following the directive from the President, is giving you a grace period of six months to allow you [farmers] harvest your riceand then vacate these wetlands. We shall not allow fresh cultivation and whoever defies this directive will definitely be forced out from the wetland without further notice,” he said.
“We need to respect each other and also speak one language. We need to have clear information that would be given to the people, but counter-accusing each will not work but instead, it will worsen the situation and yet we have the mandate to protect and develop these
wetlands to establish irrigation schemes,” he added.
Namatala wetland, which stretches from Mbale to Namutumba, serves a source of livelihood of more than 50,000 farmers from the districts of Mbale, Budaka, Butaleja, Kibuku. It is also a source of water for River Mpologoma and stretches about 35sq kilometers.
“These evictions follow President Museveni’s concerns over the worsening degradation of wetlands and is the reason the ministry hastaken the lead to ensure the farmers vacate these wetlands before turning to other wetlands across the country,” Mr Cheptoris said.
The wetland has also been the epicentre of fighting between Budaka and Butaleja residents, with both claiming ownership of the land. Several interventions from both the ministries of Lands and Local government had borne no fruit.
On his part, Gen Kayihura noted that all activities in the wetland are illegal and pledged to deploy the Environmental police to allow farmers harvest their crops. He added that a team of detectives will also camp in the two districts to investigate cases of murder as a result of fighting over the wetland.
“Unconcluded murder cases reported will have to be investigated fully and I pledge to come back here and give a full report on the progress. Both the chief Political commissar [Asan Kansigye] and the commandant Environment police protection unit [Idhwege Taire] will have to camp here,” he said.
The commissioner in-charge wetlands in the Ministry of Water and Environment, Mr Collins Oloya, said 100,000 households will be trained on various enterprises, especially bee keeping and irrigation.