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on april 12, three people were killed and eight injured in Uganda over protests against the government's plan to give
away part of the country's biggest rainforest land (Mabira forest) to Sugar Corporation of Uganda Ltd (scoul). Among the people killed was an Indian. The protests took a racial dimension because part of the sugar firm is owned by
Indians--the Mehta Group.
The racial angle was played up, especially in view of the history of persecution of Indians, beginning during the Idi Amin regime. But this tended to obscure the deep-rooted problem that had to do with the grant of gazetted reserve forestland for commercial use.
Ecologists have repeatedly warned that the de-gazettement of Mabira will cause immeasurable ecological disaster in Uganda. Spread over an area of 30,000 hectares, much of the reserve forest is classified as strict forest reserve area. It is the biggest watershed in the area and feeds Lake Victoria, besides being home to rare species of trees and birds. Also, Mabira is the only source ofsubsistence and livelihood to more than 2 million people living in and around it. A report by Uganda's National Forest Authority (nfa) pegs its worth at US hs 911 billion (us $529 million)--2.2 per cent of the country's gdp. The company is, however, paying UShs 8.5 billion (us $5 million) for the land.
"In Uganda, the issue is actually of poor environmental governance," says Gerald Tenywa, a local journalist. "Here, a political decision on environment is being taken by ignoring opinions of environmental groups, ngos and people," he says. nfa, an autonomous body that oversees the national forest reserves of the country, has also advised against the move. According to Uganda's constitution, forest reserves are "held in trust by the government for the people of Uganda", which means the process involves a series of consents from the community, the district council, the cabinet and parliament. "It is unfortunate that the president istrying to bypass the legislature and the judiciary," says Betty Obbo from National Association of Professional Environmentalists in Uganda.
"If Mabira is de-gazetted, it will set precedence for other investment groups to eye upon other forests and national parks," says Achilles Byaruhanga of NatureUganda, an ngo. But for the Ugandan government, it's a tough choice between ecology and economy. As president Museveni had said in his letter to parliamentarians in December 2006 "...it is more difficult for a backward country to guard against environmental degradation than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle."