The ‘Save Mabira’ movement has found an unexpected ally yesterday when former Vice President Prof. Dr. Gilbert Bukenya broke ranks with President Museveni and also demanded that Mabira forest be left alone and other land be found for the growing of sugar cane. Opponents of the free give away of over a quarter of the tropical rainforest took fresh hope, as already a growing number of parliamentarians have vowed to bring down any government motion to degazetted parts of the forest. Global petition sites are gathering speed as more people sign up while it is also understood that in particular the World Bank has let government know that they will insist on contractual obligations to be fully respected, which demand that Mabira forest be left alone, as it is a key water catchment area for the River Nile and Lake Victoria.
Government’s efforts last week to show journalists ‘degraded sections’ of the forest failed when the responsible minister and her officials could not find any degraded portions of forest, since a government spokesperson had earlier claimed that only degraded parts of the forest were meant to be given away for ‘development’, an obscure phrase often used to justify the most blatant environmental infringements of cutting down forests, encroaching protected areas and draining crucial wetlands.
Unlike in neighbouring Rwanda, where forests have been made a top priority by President Kagame and where forest cover is being raised to 30 percent by 2020, here in Uganda the political leadership seems to have strayed from the erstwhile path of environmental protection. Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda, as well as the Gishwati Forest, are now crucial components in Rwanda’s drive to increase tourist numbers by providing more attractions, and a canopy walk at Nyungwe, inaugurated about a year ago, has achieved what Mabira was to accomplish already a decade ago, when this correspondent in a different capacity made proposals to construct a canopy walk and increase tourism receipts, for the forest and for the country. An award winning eco lodge, the Mabira Rain Forest Lodge, has since then been built and become a success story in its own right, but also now faces an uncertain future as the plans of government would bring sugar cane plantations almost to the lodge’s doorsteps. Said a regular tourism source from Kampala: ‘our president is either being misled or he is misguided on Mabira. How can anyone of his capacity want to cut down over 7.000 hectares of intact rainforest and justify it by saying it is degraded, and yet his minister fails to find the degraded parts of the forest when pressed by the media to show. We have enough economic problems as it is, even if the president belittles the woes of ordinary Ugandans. He would be wise to let go of the Mabira issue once and for all and accept honest offers from landowners to lease land to Mehta. Or is Mehta now dictating policy in this country? We did not elect Mehta, we elected Museveni, I voted for Museveni, but this is not acceptable’.