Sugar industry takes aim at Ugandan forest again
At Najjembe roadside market, in the heart of Uganda’s rainforest, Sanyu Nakato offers the bright yellow bananas in her basket to hungry passengers on the long-distance coach to neighbouring Kenya, who snap up her wares.
“I sell up to 20 baskets of bananas daily,” she says. “Although we’re selling lots of different fruits, the customers are also many.”
Traffic flows along the Kampala-Jinja highway from dawn to dusk, bringing a steady stream of customers for the fresh produce grown by villagers living inside the rainforest reserve.
“There is plenty of rain the whole year round, and farmers are able to grow fruits and vegetables to sell. They also get other products from the forest such as medicinal plants,” says Robert Kungujja at the nearby eco-tourism centre.
The Mabira Forest Reserve is the largest block of moist, semi-deciduous forest remaining in Uganda’s central region. It is also unique because it contains 27 village enclaves.
Covering about 300 square km (120 square miles), it is located in Buikwe district, between the towns of Lugazi and Jinja on the Kampala- Jinja highway, 20 km from the source of the River Nile.
As well as providing a living for local communities and nurturing plant and animal biodiversity, the reserve is becoming an increasingly important recreational area, and is already popular for picnics, walks and trail-biking.
But all that could change if the Ugandan government gets its way. President Yoweri Museveni has indicated he wants to allocate more than a quarter of the reserve’s rainforest for sugar-cane growing.
Scientists fear this could threaten Mabira’s contribution to rainfall creation and climate stabilisation in central Uganda and the Lake Victoria Crescent. It could also harm the forest’s ability to absorb the greenhouse gases scientists blame for warming the planet and causing climate change.
The Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (SCOUL), part of the multi-national Mehta Group, wants to clear more than 75 square km of Mabira forest to expand its sugar plantations in central Uganda.
President Museveni supports the plan, and has vowed to give away the forest, saying he will not be deterred by people – in other words, opponents of the scheme - who don't see where the future of Africa lies.
This is the second time Mehta has tried to gain land in the forest. The first attempt in May 2007 met with popular resistance from environmentalists, opinion leaders and local communities. At least three people were killed demonstrating against the move, and there were calls for a boycott of sugar produced by SCOUL.
In response, Uganda’s environment minister, Maria Mutagamba, announced that the deforestation plans had been suspended, and said the government was trying to find alternative land for Mehta.
This time around, the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) has warned against rushing into any allocation of forested land for sugar growing. Its executive director, Tom Okurut, told the media the government should go slow on the decision, and first carry out a comprehensive study of the likely impacts of forest depletion.
OVER 300 TYPES OF TREES
The Mabira reserve is one of East Africa’s thickest tropical forests and has been protected since 1932, according to Ibrahim Senfuma, coordinator of the Mabira Forest Integrated Community Organisation.
It consists of gently undulating countryside, dotted with flat-topped hills and wide shallow valleys, some containing papyrus swamps. The land drains to the north, even though the reserve’s southern boundary lies only 13 km from the shores of Lake Victoria.
Senfuma says the forest is rich in biodiversity, endowed with around 312 trees and shrub varieties. Nearly half of Uganda’s tree species grow in Mabira, including five rare ones.
The forest is also home to more than 287 different birds including the threatened Nahan’s francolin (francolinus nahani), 23 small mammals - velvet monkeys and baboons, as well as two arboreal primate species - 218 butterfly species and 97 large moth species.
“There was encroachment of the forest in the 1970s and part of the 1980s, leading to loss of more than a quarter,” says Senfuma. “But the government rehabilitated the forest, and it is now almost back to its original coverage.”
THREAT TO RAINFALL
The destruction also resulted in a decline in recorded annual rainfall from more than 2,000 mm to less than 1,000 mm.
After the government halted forest encroachment in 1988, the deforestation trend was reversed, leading to rapid regeneration. In the last few years, annual rainfall has increased back up to 2,000 mm, but that recovery is now under threat, says Senfuma.
“If the forest is given to sugar-cane growing, we are likely to record less rainfall again,” he warns.
Charles Basalirwa, head meteorologist at Makerere University Department of Geography, says Mabira’s rainforest plays a vital role in the micro-climate of the Lake Victoria Crescent and White Nile river basin. It also influences the climate of other countries in the region, he adds.
“The forest enhances rainfall creation in the region,” says the professor. “It is also a source of rivers that flow into Lake Victoria and other smaller rivers that feed into swamps and bigger rivers including the River Nile.”
The River Nile winds through Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Rwanda and Uganda, while the Lake Victoria basin is shared by Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.
Basalirwa emphasises that swamps, rivers, lakes and forests play an interrelated role in the climate cycle. Destroying any part of the Mabira forest would also lead to uncontrolled soil erosion due to increased rainfall runoff, he warns.
MORE GREENHOUSE GASES
Other climate and forest experts interviewed by AlertNet - who did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue - said destruction of the Mabira rainforest would contradict international agreements and statutes of which Uganda is a signatory.
It could also reduce the forest’s potential to curb climate change, they said. Forests absorb greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming by trapping sunlight and raising atmospheric temperatures, bringing about changes in weather patterns.
“It is not in dispute that Mabira forest plays an important role in carbon intake, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” explains Esegu John, head of the Uganda National Forest Research Institute. “Replacing the forest with sugar cane will not achieve the carbon sinking or carbon sequestration (function) that Mabira is able to perform.”
And if sugar-cane growers win their push for the lucrative land, large amounts of stored carbon will be released into the atmosphere from the trees that are cut down to make way for crops.
CONFLICT WITH BUSINESS
Uganda, which has the world’s third fastest-growing population, is losing 2 percent of its forest cover each year. The National Forest Authority has warned that, at the current rate of destruction, there will be no forests to speak of by 2050.
Conservationists say the row over Mabira is an expression of economic and environmental conflicts of interest, which could also have grave social consequences.
And it is not the only case. A British firm, New Forests Company (NFC), has recently been accused of bad practice in its Ugandan forestry activities.
A September report by Oxfam and the Uganda Land Alliance said that at least 22,500 people had been evicted - some violently and all without compensation - to make way for NFC plantations in Mubende and Kiboga districts, in breach of international guidelines. Many are now living in destitution, it said.
The company maintains that local people left the land voluntarily, and says it bears no responsibility for any evictions from land licensed to it by the government.
Environmentalists and other supporters of forest protection may have won the Mabira battle back in 2007. But with the sugar industry enjoying the support of Uganda’s president, there’s no guarantee that Mabira’s trees, wildlife and communities will emerge from the second round of this fight intact.
Patrick Luganda is a Kampala-based journalist, media trainer and consultant who specialises in science and environment issues. He also chairs the Network of Climate Journalists in the Greater Horn of Africa (NECJOGHA).