By Ariinda Twaikya
It is estimated that over 2,000 families are living in fear of a looming threat that their ancestral land could be grabbed by power wildering individuals. Most of these reside in communities neighbouring the Bugoma Central Forest Reserve especially across the sub-counties of Kyangwali and Kabwoya located in the Kikuube district.
They decry an increase in land-related disputes; encroachment on theBugoma Central Forest Reserve for timber logging and charcoal burning; as well as large scale agricultural projects which have escalated after the giveaway of parts of the forest reserve.
The communities whose families are most affected are reported to be those living in the villages of Nyairongo, Rwembaho, Buhangaizima, Nyambogo, Karokajengwa, Mukarehe, Katengeto, Burungi, Muyenga, Karokarungi, Kimaramu Sayinebe, Karodi, Buzibwera, Kitoma, Mukayembe, Nyakabale, Ndongo, Kasene, Nyaigugu, Nsozi, Kyarushesha, Kikonda, Kitooke, Kisosomya, Nyakabale, Kyabasanja, Bujongoro, Kyabayanja, Kisindi, and Rwenkobe.
In one of the interviews with Mr. Desire Nkurunziza, the LC1 chairperson of Nyairongo village in Kabwoya Sub County, he noted that the communities are facing a lot of intimidation from private companies that operate concealed activities in the forest reserve.
A number of security operatives have been deployed in the forest denying access to the local residents except those who are willing to pay a ransom.
This means that many families now have difficulty in collecting firewood, accessing the innermost water sources, and picking fruits, tubers, or herbs.
So far, the tree cover has been greatly reduced by deforestation activities alleged to be conducted in part by individuals transported from other parts of the country. On the other hand, the construction of new roads by prospective investors in several areas has caused erosion into some homesteads even destroying crops in their gardens.
Mr. Nkurunziza revealed that he presides over a coalition of elected LC1 chairpersons from at least twenty three villages who report similar incidents in their different areas of jurisdiction.
In general, he proposed that there is a need to conduct a mapping and demarcation of the boundaries for the forest reserve with support from civil society organisations or the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development.
There are some civil society organisations known to be working in the district with a focus on promoting more responsible management of the environment and natural resources.
Their project activities include sensitisation of communities, raising awareness, mediating disputes, providing climate-smart technologies, restoration of degraded ecosystems, among others.
Mr. Richard Muganzi, the Executive Director of the Land code Initiative, explained that they have faced a number of drawbacks in their project activities initially planned to involve participatory mapping and demarcation of boundaries for the forest reserve.
The major challenges faced relate to the COVID-19 measures which require a restriction of people who can participate in field-based activities, and passenger limitations affect the number of people carried in a vehicle, while the regulation of time within which to travel also affects the duration of conducting fieldwork.
He further intimated that project staff in the field also received threats on the telephone purportedly from officers in security agencies and representatives of private companies warning them against undertaking work or any form of campaign relating to Bugoma Central Forest Reserve.
There is now growing evidence from the open-source satellite imagery which shows extensive signs of deforestation within the thick canopy of Bugoma Central Forest Reserve beginning in September 2020, following NEMA’s approval of the Kyangwali Mixed Land Use Project for establishing a sugar cane plantation with the associated infrastructure including roads, work camps, schools, hospital and an urban centre.
This level of deforestation has been rapidly expanding since April 2021 in a manner that corroborates reports from residents.
Amidst all these incidents, Emmanuel Bisemeza, the LC3 chairperson of Kyangwali Sub County also reiterated the need for the Ministry of Lands to facilitate participatory processes of boundary demarcation.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation recently estimated that Uganda lost close to 30,000 square kilometres between the years 1990 and 2020 due to unsustainable or illegal trade in forest products and the expansion of agricultural land, among other factors.
Some of the local leaders like Mr Charles Twongyerwe, the LC1 chairperson of Rwembaho, have requested that maybe the government should consider making a refund to major contenders like Hoima Sugar Works in order to cancel the lease agreement they entered into.
All these proposals are yet to be considered by the government although during a site visit by the Minister of State for Environment, Hon. Beatrice Anywar promised that boundary opening will be given due consideration.
In the meantime, the residents in the neighbourhood still face incomparable spillover effects.