KIKUUBE – Ugandans are still puzzled by how the authorities could watch the 41,142-hectare-Bugoma Forest in Kikuube district get cleared at the expense of the sugar factory and agriculture.
All this started in 2020 when the National Environmental Management Authority – NEMA issued a certificate to Hoima Sugar Company to turn 22 sq miles of the forest which was gazetted in the 1930s and came under the mandate of the National Forestry Authority (NFA) in 2003, into sugarcane plantation.
This was after Hoima Sugar Limited acquired the land from Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom on a 99-year leasehold.
There is a long-standing dispute between NFA and Bunyora-Kitara Kingdom on who passes where in the forest.
Mr. Twongyirwe Charles, Chairman Rwembaho LC1, a forest-area neighboring village narrates that in 2018, an Indian investor, heavily guarded by the Ugandan army showed up and started clearing the forest.
He says that he and other district leaders including RDC, DPC, and MPs held a crisis meeting but their efforts to stop this led to the loss of some lives and several others being arrested including journalists.
He says the forest which is only left with a small part to finish has drastically changed the climate in the district and neighboring areas.
“We often hard reliable rainfall but now it’s coming to April and not even a drop and yet by now we should have planted our crops.”
“We were also getting a lot from the forest including medicines, firewood, building poles but today, we even have to buy charcoal for cooking,” he added.
The locals are also scared of getting displaced anytime.
Mr. Ndayambagye Jackson, a resident said, “We heard from rumors that the forest was sold (leased) to Hoima sugar for 99 years. We saw people coming, cutting down trees for timber and charcoal. In the beginning, we thought they might clear a small part but later we saw them continuing.”
At this point, he noted that they (locals) could hardly be allowed to access the forest in which they grew up living friendly.
“You see that river there, it was our only source of water and you know vegetation cover filters water but now the water can’t be consumed.”
The locals want authorities to employ all possible means to restore the forest.
“We can even restore it ourselves by planting artificial trees if given a chance,” Mr. Ndayambagye noted.
On the other hand, the locals claim they have since been looted of their hard-earned money by the 5-man team who claim they were ordered by President Yoweri Museveni to clear the whole of Bugoma forest because it would harbor rebels.
According to locals, after clearing the forest, the land was demarcated into different farms owned by men only identified by single names; Kaguuna, Masiko, Akankwasa, Dickson, and Jamil, who the locals believe are working like managers to “big” government officials.
More than 20,000 people have lost their money to these so-called President’s officials.
In a lot of tears, Ms Kabanyoro Hadijah says she hired 40 acres at shs6 million by one Kaguuna. “When I had cleared 27 acres, police started chasing and arrested me and my workers.”
“We really request the government to come and settle this issue and retrieve our money because since then, I’ve lost about sh10 million.”
Another victim, Mr. Akankwasa Innocent says he has lost close to sh12 million to the scandal. “My business even died.”
He noted that unfortunate bit of it, when the police came they added an insult to an injury by arresting the locals without looking for the so-called landlords.
Ms. Diana Nabiruma – Communications Officer at Africa Institute for Energy Governance – AFIEGO regretted that the Government and President have always said that they are in for forest and environmental conservation “but when we went to Bugoma, this wasn’t evident.”
“The central government hasn’t done its job,” she said, noting that due to little engagement to stop the forest cut, the trees remaining are also bound to be destroyed.
She challenged the Government through NEMA and NFA to ensure that everyone in the forest whether licensed or not should be chased.
“Without that, the entire forest is going to be destroyed and when government shows that they are unable to protect forest like Bugoma, people and companies are going to be emboldened and they’ll go for the other forests.”
Ms. Nabiruma noted that in 2020, when NEMA issued an environmental and social impact assessment certificate approval to Hoima sugar company limited to grow sugarcane in Bugoma forest, AFIEGO joined other CSOs under the save Bugoma forest campaign and filed a case in High Court which they lost in 2021.
“We didn’t give up, we filed an appeal in 2021 which has up to date never been fixed a date for hearing.”
The hope of the forest now lies in the hands of the cabinet upon completion of carrying out clear boundary demarcations.
If the boundary opening report is presented to cabinet and if cabinet endorses it, it could trigger a final solution that could save Bugoma Central Forest Reserve and settle this matter and the ongoing disputes once and for all.
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