Until about the year 2000, Ugandans used to look at Kenyans as people with a psychological problem called land. Many Kenyans visiting or working in Uganda always marvelled at the ‘free’ land in Uganda then in which nobody seemed to be interested.
Ugandans knew that land was always there in the village and when one failed to prosper in town, he would take the worst option that was always available — going back to the village and claim as much land as he could till.
But things have been happening in the past two decades and now, everyone is scared about land. Even those who are not interested in land are worried because of the hard words flying around that look like they may precipitate major political confrontations in the near future.
Not just words. People are being evicted from land even as the government keeps insisting that no eviction is supposed to be effected as long as the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions are around, that no court eviction order can be enforced.
Not just evictions. People are being killed. Acholi and Madi communities of northern Uganda are fighting over a tract of land and lives are being lost. Now there is no land registered under a tribe in the Republic of Uganda, and no law stops an Acholi owning a plot in Madi areas, and vice versa. But there is such a thing as communal land and so the two communities are at each other’s throats over land, literally.
Not just killings. Land grabbers are also busy destroying the environment in unprecedented ways. Protected wetlands and forestlands are now fair game for land grabbers. Yet these had been protected since time immemorial first by cultural taboos and later by law (the exact numbers of square miles to be preserved as forests and wetlands in the central region, for example, was spelt out in writing as far back as 1900 in an agreement which in effect was the first written constitution in Uganda). Now Ugandans study environmental protection courses designed by foreign institutions. Even more bizarre, a religious leader can fraudulently acquire a dozen square miles — not acres but square miles — of protected wetland and illegally exploit it for sand mining and unauthorised farming.
Not just wetlands, but forest cover is being raped at an alarming rate. So, increasingly these days, some insincere, pompous functions are presided over by public officials launching programmes to plant a million trees.
A couple of seedlings are put in the ground for the media cameras and that is about it, till the next month when another official launches another project to plant a million trees, only for two or three seedlings to be planted and the broken record continues playing.
Now, Uganda has been placed on the list of the 12 most-vulnerable or least-resilient countries to climate change. A number of important European officials have been around and expressed the appropriate shock at the climate hazards we are playing with, which include landslides that bury people, houses and gardens when it rains in some places. They have promised to highlight our plight at the upcoming climate Conference of Parties.
But, of course, no amount of well-meaning concerns expressed in form of grants, loans and expatriate deployments will increase our resilience significantly if the majority poor are driven off their land on which they have sustainably lived for generations, and get squeezed in smaller spaces that they have to till and till without allowing any vegetation cover to take root.
And no amount of money may be enough to plan and develop physical infrastructure for resilience if the land where it should lie is grabbed by speculators who then demand astronomical amounts in compensation before the project can take off.
Land use is crucial in developing resilience for climate. If land grabbing continues unchecked, Uganda may get “promoted” from Number 12 to single-digit positions among the most-vulnerable, non-resilient countries that lose lives and assets when it rains.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]