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Uganda’s Bugoma Forest must not be destroyed for private gain

A scrutiny of the ESIA report shows the proposed activities will cause irreversible damage to the forest ecosystem

By Nancy Ogonje, EAWLS Executive Director

Some 5,770 hectares of Bugoma Forest Reserve in western Uganda have reportedly been leased to Hoima Sugar Ltd who will clear the woodland to make way for a sugar plantation. The process of converting forestland into farmland is being carried out in blatant disregard of laws on environmental protection.

Some sources say that a Kenyan company, the Rai Group, is a shareholder in Hoima Sugar and is providing the necessary management expertise.

According to Uganda’s National Forest Authority (NFA), remote sensing surveys show that 190ha of the forest have already been degraded despite an injunction issued by the Uganda Cabinet stopping any clearing of woodland until the boundaries have been demarcated.

Bugoma Forest Reserve is a tropical natural forest that is rich in biodiversity, including endangered chimpanzees. It is also a water catchment for Lake Albert and a migratory corridor for wildlife. It was gazetted as a forest reserve in 1932 and placed under the management of NFA. The forest covers a total of 41,144ha.

The spectre of encroachment was unleashed in August 2016 when the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development issued a title deed for 5,770ha (about 22 square miles) of Bugoma Forest to Bunyoro-Kitara tribal kingdom without following the legal process of degazettement.

On August 14, 2020, Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) issued a certificate of approval to the Hoima Sugar Limited project. The permit was granted without the legally required involvement of the public in the Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) report. It is unfortunate that a state regulatory body mandated to protect the environment would endorse the destruction of a public forest to make way for a sugar plantation that benefits a private entity.

The Rai Group has a large footprint in the manufacture of wood products in East Africa, including Kenya, and has also been implicated in the destruction of the Mau Forest in Kenya through logging, according to press reports. Mau Forest is a key water tower. It is a catchment for crucial rivers such as the Ewaso Nyiro and the Mara rivers, whose volumes have been in decline, largely due to deforestation.

Allowing Hoima Sugar Limited to convert Bugoma Forest Reserve to a sugar plantation means a double gain for the shareholders of Hoima Sugar. Besides growing sugar, they will benefit from the sale of the mature timber in the cleared area. At an estimated value of $65,000 per hectare, Hoima Sugar will make a windfall gain of US $37.5 million from clearing the Bugoma Forest for sugar cultivation.

A scrutiny of the ESIA report shows that the proposed activities will cause great damage to the forest ecosystem. It does not make sense to destroy a natural forest and then seek to plant trees in the “buffer zones” as suggested in the ESIA report. Governments cannot purport to support ecosystem restoration and reverse biodiversity loss while  destroying the environment for private profit.

The NFA has severally sued the Bunyoro Kingdom for aiding and abetting the encroachment of Bugoma Forest but lost both cases. The Commissioner of land registration even cancelled the title deed issued to the Kingdom in 2016 but the High Court reinstated the document on legal technicalities.

Handing back tracts of land to tribal kingdoms in Uganda does not allow them to lay claim to natural resources which still belong to the central government, but this is what is happening in Bugoma Forest.

The NFA is seeking a fresh hearing at the Court of Appeal and the East African Court of Justice and intends to submit new evidence. In the meantime, the contested forest area is being cleared with workers and equipment guarded by armed police, soldiers and private security guards, according to environmental activists who have visited the area.

An advocacy campaign “#SaveBugomaForest” has been initiated by local civil society organisations that have the support of several European Union envoys. To complement that effort, the East African Wild Life Society has developed a petition that seeks to compel Hoima Sugar Limited to stop converting Bugoma Forest to a sugar plantation.

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