Tour operators want the government to reverse a decision by the kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara to give away part of a tropical forest for a sugarcane plantation.
Bunyoro-Kitara gave 8,000 hectares, which tourist operators and the National Forest Authority say is part of the 40,000 hectares that constitute Bugoma Central Forest Reserve, to Hoima Sugar Ltd to grow sugarcane.
Hoima Sugar Ltd, a $42 million investment launched by President Museveni in May, had started clearing the forestland in preparation for sugarcane planting when they were stopped by the National Forestry Authority (NFA).
The temporary reprieve has given the tour operators some hope that through intensified campaigns in this period, the forest can be saved.
The tour operators, who had acquired land to construct eco lodges and had created additional activities to sell to tourists who visit Murchison Falls National Park, say reclaiming part of the forestland for the sugarcane plantation will destroy key ecologies beneficial to both tourism and biodiversity.
“We had been moving the tourists from Murchison to Kibale Forest National Park near Fort Portal, but anyone who knows the terrain of this area, understands that this is quite a distance,” said Charles Nsubuga, the director of Destination Jungle Lodges.
Travelling from Murchison Falls National Park up to Fort Portal means moving mostly on murram roads for 275 kilometres, which makes Bugoma Central Forest Reserve a better alternative as it is located 135km away.
Costantino Tessarin, treasurer of Uganda Tour Operators Association (Auto), said Bugoma presents sightseeing opportunities in areas close to Murchison Falls National Park.
Bugoma is unique
Bugoma is unique because it has 222 tree species, over 200 bird species — including the Nahan’s Francolin an endangered bird and different primates, including the Uganda Mangabey Monkey, also known as Lophocebus Ugandae. This monkey is only found in Ugandan forests and parts of Tanzania that border Uganda.
Although forest reserves like Bugoma are properties of the central government, Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom officials said the 8,000 hectares that were given away to Hoima Sugar Ltd are the Kingdom’s ancestral land.
Ronald Isagara, the kingdom’s third deputy prime minister, who also doubles as minister for information, said the kingdom has evidence to show that it owns the land that was given away, and that it would provide proof once NFA completes the boundary opening process in Bugoma.
He added that NFA has no reason to hold on to the land since it’s no longer a tropical forest.
“What they call a forest has mango, jack fruit and avocado trees planted by individuals. Have you ever seen a tropical forest with such trees?” he asked.
The Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom appears to have adopted and approach the government used when President Yoweri Museveni gave away part of Mabira forest for a sugarcane plantation. The government at that time argued that the 7,100 hectares of Mabira forest it proposed to give to Sugar Corporation of Uganda Ltd (SCOUL) had already been degraded.
The government argued that giving away this part of the forest would mean providing jobs for 3,500 Ugandans and enabling SCOUL to pay Ush11.5 billion ($3.3 million) more in taxes.
NFA said 13 forest reserves that are to be degazetted are too close to urban centres and the demand for real estate space makes encroachment on protected areas inevitable. A number of East African cities like Nairobi and Arusha have managed to keep some forests in the environs. Opponents of the government say the only reason towns in Uganda cannot keep trees, is because NFA doesn’t do its duty.
Muwanga Kivumbi, Butambala Member of Parliament, said instead of protecting forests, NFA is more interested in private business players harvesting timber and charcoal.
Gilbert Kadilo, the spokesperson for NFA said that Uganda now loses 92,000 hectares of forest cover annually, adding that it is up to every Ugandan to ensure that the trend is reversed.
Mr Tessarin of the Uganda Tour Operator Association said that the trend will be only reversed if government officials and those in charge of forest cover preservation eliminate corruption and ensure that the rule of law is respected.
He said that communities living around Bugoma are not worried about the rule of law and intimidate forest rangers and tour guides. He said the communities believe that if the forest is abandoned, communities can then have access to land that is now in the hands of NFA.
The Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom also said that since Bugoma forest has been encroached on, the government should even give up some of its rights.
Norman Lukumu, the Bunyoro Kitara Prime Minister, said government had been denying the kingdom access to some of the cultural sites that are located in Bugoma forest. And giving up rights over part of the forest, that they say no longer have trees would allow the kingdom to enjoy rights that had been taken away by the central government.
Uganda’s Daily Monitor, quoted a Hoima Sugar official as distancing the company from the forest dispute and placing it squarely on the Bunyoro kingdom and the National Forestry Authority.
“The land in dispute belongs to the Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara and it borders the forest reserve. The dispute is between NFA and the kingdom, not us,” said Raja Singh, the managing director of Hoima Sugar.
Mr Lukumu, confirmed the standoff between the kingdom and NFA but insisted that they have not leased or sold out the land.