President Museveni’s recent erratic form in dealing with the economic fallout of the Euro zone crisis and the sharp rise in global crude oil prices, over inflationary trends and the ongoing devaluation of the Uganda Shilling but also with the business community at large over renewed power rationing and other issues, has in the eyes of conservationists and the global green lobby just been topped when he announced that he would revive the ‘Mabira Forest give away’.
Sugar prices have more than doubled in recent weeks, and while the East African Community has sanctioned the waiver of import duties, currently up to 25 percent of the value of a sugar shipment, relief for hard hit wananchi across the country and the region will take a while to percolate down to lower sugar prices.
Notably, the beneficiary company, Mehta in Lugazi, has the worst track record of productivity of the major sugar producers, with the market being led by Kakira Sugar owned by the Madhvani Group and followed by Kinayara Sugar, leaving the Mehta’s trailing by far.
Conservationists have immediately vowed to pursue all available options, from mobilizing international resistance to peaceful protests to court action, in Uganda and at the East African Court of Justice in Arusha, to prevent a quarter of the forest to be given for free and turning an intact tropical rainforest into sugar cane fields. Some also took great exception to be equated with terrorists and rioters, phrases reportedly used in the president’s speech a few days ago when making his stand known on the forest. Said a regular source from the conservation fraternity in Kampala to this correspondent: ‘We are defenders of our environment, not terrorists. We do not riot in the streets but calmly explain the downside of cutting 8 or 9 thousand hectares of forest in favour of sugar cane. Our carbon footprint as a country will be greatly affected to the worse and carbon trading for Mabira will be limited to a smaller area, denying the country foreign exchange. Tourism to Mabira will be affected too, especially an award winning eco lodge (Mabira Forest Lodge) as the planned sugar fields will almost come to their doorstep. Our government should take a leaf from Rwanda where they are restoring forests at a fast rate to reach 30 percent forest cover by 2020 again. There they are turning forests to national assets, tourism assets and here our big man wants to give forests away for free. We should remind him [the president] that he should help Kakira Sugar to get land for sugar plantations in the North where land wrangles and land grabbing has halted a big sugar project for Kakira over the past years. If our government could have resolved this issue the country would produce a lot more sugar already, so that is one of the solutions we shall push for. And then there is the whole issue of our government reacting too late to lower the taxes and duties for imported sugar. That was proposed weeks ago already, so what were they waiting for. To use this failure now, their own failure, as a reason to cut Mabira by over a quarter of its size is preposterous and you should put that in your news articles’.
The Mabira issue made headlines four years ago when demonstrations in Kampala turned violent following questionable police deployment and tactics, resulting in deaths, injuries and destruction of property but sustained pressure from abroad and within Uganda made government abandon the plans for a free gift to what is principally one of the worst run sugar companies in the country. Global petition sites were swiftly attracting tens of thousands of signatures and this too is expected to be revived quickly now, giving Uganda once again negative publicity the country, and in particular our tourism sector do not need. The World Bank too will be watching these latest declarations with keen interest as Mabira Forest is part of a greater ‘deal’ struck with the Ugandan government as mitigative measures, and being a key water tower in these days of climate change and extreme weather patterns government may well have to review the situation along those lines and eventually opt for alternatives, leaving the Mabira Forest alone.