A plan to replace a large swathe of protected rainforest in Uganda with sugarcane could lead to further civil unrest in a year when nine people have been killed during strikes and protests against the rising cost of living.
Politicians and activists have warned they will fight the revived plan to uproot just less than a quarter of the 30,000 hectare Mariba Forest, 50km east of Kampala, and allocate the land to the perennially unprofitable Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (SCOUL), a joint venture between India's Mehta Group and the Ugandan government.
In its defence, the government points to the prospect of new jobs and the need to alleviate the country’s chronic sugar shortages. It also claims the forest area at stake is degraded.
In August, President Yoweri Museveni warned he was ready for a fight and dismissed his detractors as "unarmed terrorists". More recently, he appears to have softened his stance, saying he is open to alternative proposals on increasing sugar production.
At least three people died during a protest in 2007 against a similar plan to allocate part of Mabira to SCOUL.
Politicians opposed to the scheme worry about a repeat of alleged abuses by security forces during protests in April and May 2011, which, according to Human Right Watch, included killings, beatings, and abusive and arbitrary arrest of protesters and uninvolved bystanders.
"Force is the only manifestation of power that the NRM [the ruling National Resistance Movement] knows. We expect all future protests to always be met with brutality... I foresee more violent clashes in future protests," said Norbert Mao, leader of the opposition Democratic Party.
"As the youth, we are not going to just look on as the most prestigious rainforest in our country is being given away under uncertain terms just for sugar," activist Brendah Nabukenya told IRIN.
"Destroying it is like erasing part of our heritage. We believe it's a conspiracy between the few who have the power who are putting self above our environment," she said.
"The forests protect micro-climates and because we have degraded our environment, we are witnessing landslides every year now," said Frank Muramuzi, executive director of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) and national convenor of the pressure group, Save Mabira Crusaders.
"Giving out Mabira will be counter-productive because it will even affect the rainfall."
At least 43 people died in August 2011 in landslides in the eastern Bulambuli District; more than 350 died and thousands were left displaced during landslides in Bududa District in March 2010.
A valuable resource
Noting that the forest had been protected since 1932, mainly because of its biodiversity, Annet Nakyeyune, an environmentalist and professor at Makerere University, said Mabira was home to several threatened animal species, provided ecosystem services to its surrounding communities and was a source of revenue from eco-tourism.
Conservationists warn that up to 312 species of trees, 287 species of bird and 199 types of butterfly were under threat.
According to Godber Tumushabe, executive director of the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment, destruction of the forest would significantly disrupt the water flows in the region and compromise hydro-power generation capacities.
"If you are building dams around the River Nile you do not want to do anything in the hinterland that will disrupt the hydrological feature," he said. "Forests are considered to be one of the major carbon sinks; if you then destroy a forest like Mabira you will have destroyed a very important sink very close to the capital city with a fast-growing industrial sector," he said.
A March 2011 report by the directorate of water resources in the Ministry of Water and Environment found evidence of water stress in many areas of the country. The report blamed the decline in surface and ground water on changes in land use, climate change, land degradation, deforestation and poor watershed management.
The debate over Mabira comes when Uganda's economy is very weak, with inflation reaching 21.4 percent in August, fuel prices continuing to rise and the shilling steadily declining against the dollar, reaching a record low of about 2,800 in August 2011.
"Transport has gone up, many of the things I use at home are out of my reach, but I have to feed my three children because I am a single mother," said Julia Nassanga, a market vendor in a Kampala suburb. "Finding sugar at our home is unthinkable now."
Kampala traders shut up shop for two days in July in protest at the weakening shilling, and in early September Uganda's teachers also downed tools for the second time this year, demanding a 100 percent increase in salary. Teachers in Uganda earn less than their counterparts in Kenya and Tanzania, and their salaries have not been adjusted in line with inflation. The government has offered a 44 percent pay increase starting next financial year, but no agreement has so far been reached.
The industrial action follows another suggestion by Museveni that worries human rights activists: a new bill would scrap the constitutional right to bail, making it possible for people suspected of crimes, including rioting and economic sabotage, to be held for up to six months.
"This is a blatant assault on Ugandans' fundamental human rights and freedoms, the cardinal principle of presumption of innocence and an attack on the criminal justice system that threatens to take away judicial discretion in granting bail," Kizito Lumu, a human rights lawyer, told IRIN.
Museveni is still meeting various stakeholders to discuss the proposed forest giveaway.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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