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Plan to sacrifice forest for sugar puts economy before ecosphere in Uganda

External Reference/Copyright
Issue date: 
22 August 2011
Publisher Name: 
Richard M Kavuma
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Plantation Management


As Uganda grapples with an acute shortage of sugar that has caused prices to more than double in a year, President Yoweri Museveni has deemed the timing perfect to resurrect his plan to convert a quarter of a major natural forest into a sugarcane plantation.

Underlying Museveni's plan is an obvious conflict of economic and environmental imperatives. Environmental authorities say that Uganda, with the world's third-fastest growing population, loses 2% of its forest cover annually; 10% of this vanishes from protected areas like Mabira, thanks to logging and human settlement. The National Forestry Authority (NFA) highlights warnings by some experts that, at the current rate, the country could have no forests by 2050.

But Museveni last week told local leaders that the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (SCOUL), owned by the Mehta family, would be given about 7,100 hectares of the 30,000-hectare Mabira forest to expand its cane plantations. The move, which has been condemned by conservation groups and the political opposition, is not new. In 2007, three people died during demonstrations against Museveni's intention to turn over the land, located 55km east of the capital Kampala, to SCOUL.

At the time, the government said SCOUL would double annual sugar production to 100,000 tonnes, create 3,500 jobs and pay an extra UShs 11.5bn ($4m) in taxes. The director and other officials of the NFA resigned in protest and, as the riots subsided, the government appeared to back down.

Museveni has now revealed it was only a retreat, not a surrender. The government needs parliamentary approval to change the forest's protected status, but Museveni's party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), has a clear majority in the house. Although some NRM MPs have promised to resist the forest giveaway, Museveni is used to getting his way.

His logic appears to be that Uganda should not have to import sugar while forest land lies idle, or hosts trees that cannot be eaten, exported or taxed. He has vowed to defeat opponents of the move, whom he describes as "unarmed terrorists", according to a report in the Daily Monitor newspaper.

The government has claimed that the targeted portion was not even forest any longer because it had been degraded by encroachers. This, however, was contested by NFA officials in 2007, and when the environment minister took journalists to show them how degraded the coveted area was, the view was blocked by growing trees. The government also promised to replace any lost forest cover by planting trees elsewhere, but this drew scorn from sceptical conservationists.

Critics point out that Uganda has a lot of unencumbered land elsewhere, where the company can grow sugarcane. Conservation groups and forestry experts have long warned that destroying even part of the forest's diversity would affect the region's microclimate, lead to a loss of fauna and flora, and affect the already falling water levels of Lake Victoria and the Nile, which would affect the country's floundering hydropower stations.

Four years ago, the statutory Forestry Authority went as far as to argue that converting the reserve into a sugar plantation would be counterproductive because it would affect the rainfall on which sugarcane depends. Another fear is that by giving forest land to a sugar company despite opposition by experts in the field, the government is sending a message that the forest is dispensable.

Ideally, there should be no need to choose between economic growth and the environment in an age abuzz with "sustainable development". Museveni can't be faulted for wanting millions more in the treasury coffers – especially if it is going to put medicines in health centres or agricultural inputs in peasant households. But it beggars belief that the president, whose spokesman describes him as "an environmentalist", should trade protected forest hectares for tax revenues.

And it doesn't stop with the forest. Wetlands and other important environmental resources are appropriated, with authorities either helpless or complicit. Sadly, it is the poor who will be hit hardest by the repercussions of environmental degradation.

The last attempt to give away the forest was reportedly abandoned after pressure from the World Bank. Announcing the government's retreat in 2007, Ezra Suruma, the finance minister at the time, said: "We have committed ourselves to conserving Mabira forest. There is other land in Uganda suitable for sugarcane growing." Clearly the government's position has changed.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut