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Ugandan activists vowed to continue fighting for the Bugoma Forest in Uganda

Hoima, Uganda Bagyenda Anatole walks briskly under the thinning canopy Bugoma Central Forest ReserveAlong the narrow path, remnants of slaughtered tree trunks prove that Uganda’s largest remaining natural tropical forest land is being cleared.

Since the mechanical grader began operating as part of a controversial sugarcane development project in August 2020, residents and civil society groups under the “Save the Bugoma Forest” campaign have been engaged in an uphill legal battle.

Not far from the parked bulldozers, police and private guards stationed near the village of Nsozi have been preventing access to parts of the forest. Anatol said that locals who rely on wood as a source of energy and livelihood for their families have no choice but to break in without permission. Since clearing the forest, angry chimpanzees and fleeing wild animals have attacked villagers in the surrounding area and attacked their crops.

“The problem started when the forest was cleared,” Anatol, a member of the movement and chairman of Kabegaramire village, told Al Jazeera.

“We want the forest to stay, we don’t want sugar cane,” said the father of eight.

Court resolution

The Bugoma Forest is located 250 kilometers (155 miles) northwest of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, covering an area of ​​more than 400 square kilometers.It is home 38 species of mammalsAmong them, 4 species are threatened globally, and 9 species are included in the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.some 600 chimpanzees, Is listed as endangered and a global protection concern, living in this tropical rainforest.

In a preliminary ruling in May, Judge Musa Ssekaana, head of the Civil Division of the Uganda High Court, rejected the lawsuits brought by three civil society groups that were part of the campaign to save the Burgoma forests. Stop cleaning up.inside Court resolutionSsekaana claimed that the lawsuit attempted to “cover up the truth” by “exaggerating that the entire forest was cleared to grow sugar cane”.

The Uganda Bar Association is an agency responsible for advising the government on jurisprudential issues. When the matter was submitted to the Constitutional Court on May 18, it was in its own hands.

“The High Court’s ruling sets a very bad precedent,” Fiona Wall, president of the Uganda Bar Association, told Al Jazeera. “We have more confidence in the Constitutional Court because it is a panel of famous judges,” rather than a single judge.

The date of the hearing has not yet been determined.

The Bugoma Forest, the largest remaining natural tropical woodland in Uganda, is being deforested [Federica Marsi/Al Jazeera]

The origin of the legal dispute over Bugoma Forest can be traced back to 2016, when Hoima Sugar, a private subsidiary of the agricultural and forestry giant Sarrai Group (PDF) Business in Uganda, Kenya, and Malawi-obtained a 99-year land lease from the ancient kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara in Uganda, which was part of the land ownership returned by the government of President Yoweri Museveni in 2011 To one of the five traditional kingdoms.

The plots returned to Bunyoro-Kitara included the Kyangwali ancestral site, which has since become the subject of a dispute between the Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara and the National Forestry Administration (NFA), which is the government agency responsible for managing forest reserves.

The NFA claimed that the Kyangwali ancestral land included part of the Bugoma Forest, a nature reserve that was gazetted in 1932, with no clear demarcation line. According to the 1998 Land Law, protected areas cannot be rented or sold.

The NFA took Bunyoro-Kitara and Hoima Sugar to court against the lease on the grounds that the Kyangwali ancestral land includes some protected land. In April 2019, the case was dismissed, and the NFA ordered its officers to be removed from the woodland.

The members of the Save the Bugoma Forest movement have claim Corruption played a role in leasing. However, in August 2020, the National Environmental Administration (NEMA), a government entity responsible for monitoring and coordinating environmental activities, approved the environmental assessment and finally approved the project.

Environmental and social impact

According to the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) drafted by Hoima Sugar, the Kyangwali mixed land use project “will involve the establishment of a sugarcane plantation and related infrastructure, including roads, work camps, a primary school, secondary school, technical school, hospital and city ​​centre”. The plan also includes an ecological cabin, walking trails, camping grounds and a nature reserve.

The designated land area of ​​the project exceeds 56.9 square kilometers, and the sugarcane plantation covers an area of ​​31 square kilometers with an area of ​​more than 5,700 football fields.

ESIA envisages that “the establishment of this mixed-use project will have some environmental and social impacts”, including deforestation, soil degradation, microclimate changes and biodiversity loss. However, it lists in its mitigation strategy that it will “avoid areas with good vegetation” and “make the humid tropical vegetation shrubs undisturbed in woodlands.”

Soon after NEMA’s approval, activists to save the Burgoma forest hired the Global Environmental Law Alliance (ELAW), a network of public interest lawyers based in the United States, to conduct a fair review of ESIA. The organization found that the mapping of the document did not provide the vague location of the site layout plan and project components, so that “stakeholders and decision makers cannot reasonably decide whether the proposed project is acceptable from the environmental and social aspects. Position.”

Three civil society groups-African Energy Governance Institute (AFIEGO), Water and Environmental Media Network (WEMNET), and National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE)-filed these investigations in a lawsuit against environmental agencies in September As a result, the High Court Judge Ssekaana rejected it in May.

Open source satellite images show that from September 2020, shortly after NEMA approval, extensive deforestation has appeared in the thick canopy of the Bugoma Forest, and it expanded rapidly in April and May 2021.

Hoima Sugar, which calls itself a “greenfield sugar factory and brewery”, is a private company registered in Uganda in December 2011. It is owned by four members of the Rai family, a billionaire East African and Southern African manufacturing company that controls multiple interconnected agriculture.

According to documents deposited in the company registry in Kampala, Hoima Sugar shares a postal address with Nile Plywoods (U) Ltd. Nile Plywoods (U) Ltd is a timber manufacturer controlled by two members of the Rai family and also the Sarrai Group Subsidiary. Kenyan national Sarbit Singh Rai has figures in the registration documents of both companies.

A local reporter asked Hoima Sugar to provide information about the ongoing cleanup and logging destinations to tell Al Jazeera that they have become the target of the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), a police force commanded by Museveni Authorization “Defend nationalism” and “support socio-economic transformation”.

Vanex Watebawa and Joshua Mutale, two members of the Uganda environmental media collective WEMNET In custody In September, they were on the way to the radio talk show to discuss the obstacles in reporting on the Bougainvillea Forest. They were released on bail after being detained for several hours.Policemen Say The arrest is a preventive measure to avoid demonstrations in the area.

In October, reporter Gad Asaba In custody UPDF officials verify the deforestation statement on-site in Bugoma. After being detained for five hours, he was acquitted. The authorities said they mistakenly believed that he was an illegal logger.

“Getting first-hand information has become very difficult,” Watbawa said. “The space for press freedom is shrinking, and political and environmental journalists are becoming targets.”

Tree cover loss

The 2020 Global Forest Resources Assessment of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that Uganda’s total forest area accounts for 9% of the country’s land area (240,000 square kilometers), while the forest coverage rate in 1990 was 24%-losses of more than 3 million Due to unsustainable or illegal trade in forest products and expansion of agricultural land, 25 hectares of forests have been reduced in 25 years.

In 2020, Nile Plywoods (U) Ltd received a financial reward of approximately US$340,000 for tree planting in Nakasongola and Jinja as part of the UN-led project to support sustainable commercial tree planters. Leonidas Hitimana, FAO’s chief technical adviser, told Al Jazeera that the company was eligible to participate in the sawmill production grant program III in 2016, which supports forest farmers to establish plantations.

“As the demand for timber increases and the supply of natural forests decreases, plantation forests are a viable intervention that can provide a sustainable timber supply and reduce the pressure on existing natural forests,” said Hitimana.

The United Nations agency found that commercial agriculture accounts for about 40% of the loss of tree cover worldwide. In Africa, FAO estimates that sugar production will increase by 40% (PDF) By the end of 2029, due to increased output in sub-Saharan countries.From a global perspective, the total global sugarcane production Quadrupled Since 1965, with population growth and increased demand for high-sugar products and beverages.

Hoima Sugar, Nile Plywoods (U) Ltd and Sarrai Group did not respond to multiple emails. Hoima Sugar’s lawyer James Nangwala did not respond to a request for comment. Sheila Nduhukire, spokesperson for Hoima Sugar, said that she no longer represents the company.

Tony Achidria, NEMA’s senior public relations officer, declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing legal proceedings.

in a Press statement In August 2020, NEMA stated that “all fragile ecosystems in the project area…should be protected” and called the project an “outstanding case of sustainable development”.

The former Prime Minister of the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom Norman Lukum, who was in office when the lease agreement was signed, told Al Jazeera that the area designated for the project is different from the Gazetted Burgoma Forest and does not include forest areas.

“This is very clear in the agreement,” he said. “If the company does not comply with its terms, then someone should stop them.”

The Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom received rent from Hoima Sugar, but Lukumu stated that he was not authorized to provide exact figures.

Aisha Alibhai, a communications and public relations officer for the Uganda Forest Management Authority of NFA, the government agency that manages Uganda’s forest reserves, told Al Jazeera that they “will not give up fighting for Bugoma.”

“We call on all international organizations to join our fight,” Alibhai said.

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